Friday, April 8, 2016
Los Angeles Times
Rainfall, snowpack — and a paltry allocation to a powerful water district
By Robin Abcarian
In the weeks leading up to the Bureau of Reclamation’s announcement about how much water would be available to Californians next year, some users waited with anticipation, others with dread.
Heavy rains in March and a plentiful snowpack had raised hopes for farmers denied their usual allotments of inexpensive federal water by the four-year drought. Bureau officials had just dumped thousands of cubic feet of water from the Shasta Reservoir, the state’s biggest, because it was in danger of overflowing from early snowmelt.
When the announcement came last Friday, many were relieved. Many of the water districts served by the Central Valley Project would receive allocations of 100%.
For one small but powerful group, however, the bureau’s allocation was infuriating. The Westlands Water District, known for its affluent Republican farmers, its political clout and its bedeviling lack of water, would receive a paltry 5% of its federal water allocation.
Its 1,000 square miles of once-arid range land lie along the east side of Interstate 5, southwest of Fresno. Next year, growers will have to rely on water they have banked in the San Luis Reservoir, buy it at market rates from other users, or fallow more fields.
“Despicable,” said Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner Les Wright.
“We are furious,” said Jason Peltier, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which includes Westlands.
“A complete joke,” said Fresno County Supervisor Buddy Mendes.
Maybe. But it wasn’t a surprise.
For weeks, Westlands officials had prepared growers for bad news. They expected a zero allocation for the third year in a row. In the complicated, legally fraught hierarchy of federal and state water allocation, Westlands has little priority.
It is also at the mercy of environmental rules that determine when Northern California water can be pumped across the environmentally fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta into the pipes, aqueducts and canals that bring water south. Those rules tightened up considerably after much litigation a decade or so ago. Westlands growers are now finely tuned to the biological vagaries of the endangered delta smelt.
Did farmers overplay their anger to make a point? Maybe.
“The outrage is because we see all this water, we see that we’ve had decent rainfall and a snowpack,” said Sarah Woolf, whose family are major Westside growers. “But if you went in and asked the Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation how they make their decisions, you can’t get an answer. There’s no accountability.”
She is correct. It’s not possible to get a straight answer about how, exactly, the allocation was determined. There is no published formula, no magic algorithm. State and federal agencies knock heads to divvy up an uncertain water supply. Some farmers, and fish, come before other farmers.
“A lot of it has been timing and their location,” said reclamation bureau spokesman Shane Hunt. “Unofficially, I call it the hangover effect of the drought. We’re hopeful that next year will be much better for them.”
Like many Californians who have observed this complicated, emotional conflict over the years, I support efforts to preserve endangered species and to promote a healthy delta. I cringe when I hear Republican political candidates describe the environmental rules as “putting fish before families,” or see the signs along Highway 99 fields proclaiming a “Congress-made drought.”
But vilifying growers — even big, powerful, whiny ones who do unethical things to keep water rates low, as the Securities and Exchange Commission has charged — does not cut it for me. These folks are not making bombs; they are feeding the world.
The other day, I stopped in to see Bill Diedrich, a thoughtful, fourth-generation California grower in Fresno, who told me that Westlands’ bad rap is partly self-inflicted.
The water issues are severe, but growers appear to be managing fine: “We have been crying wolf since 2009, and people look around and say, ‘I don’t see anything the matter here. There are a few empty fields, but look at your county production! You guys just set another record, but everyone is screaming ‘No water!'”
Well, certainly no cheap water.
On Tuesday, I met with Johnny Amaral, Westlands’ deputy general manager for external affairs. A former chief of staff to San Joaquin Valley Republican U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, he is one of Westlands’ many deeply experienced political hands.
We chatted in the water district’s well-worn conference room under a map showing the 29 water agencies, including Westlands, served by the San Luis Reservoir. About a third of Westlands’ 600,000 acres are fallow, partly because of long-standing drainage problems, partly because of water scarcity. Still, its growers produce a billion dollars’ worth of food each year.
“This is the most productive land on the planet,” Amaral said. “We have the perfect soil, the perfect climate. All it takes is water, and it’s a growing machine. People who don’t like what we do use phrases like, ‘They are irrigating a desert.’ Well, the whole damn state of California is a desert.”
I take his point.
So much of the California we inhabit is a dream realized by human ingenuity yoked to a vast disregard for the laws of nature — including, say, the survival needs of tiny fish.
On my way out of the Valley, I stopped at the San Luis Reservoir visitors center, where I spotted a yellowed 1971 newspaper clipping. Just east of the Grapevine, California Gov. Ronald Reagan presided over a groundbreaking for State Water Project pumps that would lift water over the Tehachapis, helping quench the thirst of a booming Southern California.
“There are members of the Eastern press who are always sharpening their pencils to write about all the oddball things we do in California,” Reagan said. “Well, I hope they’ve got their pencils sharpened to write about what we’re doing here today. We’re moving more water in a man-made project than anyone has ever done, farther, and moving all of it uphill.”
We’ve been trying to finesse the fallout from these kinds of ambitions ever since.
Santa Cruz Sentinel
West Coast scientists urge immediate action to combat ocean acidification
By Samantha Clark
SANTA CRUZ >> A group of scientists is warning that waters off the West Coast are quickly becoming more acidic. In a new report out this week from the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel, they urge swift and coordinated action in the region, which is among the hardest hit by the global problem.
The ocean is absorbing increasing amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to such a degree that it’s throwing the chemical balance of seawater out of whack and in turn threatening marine ecosystems and posing severe economic consequences.
While ocean acidification and the related problem of hypoxia — when there’s a depleted amount of oxygen in the water — are worldwide problems, the panel of 20 scientists says it’s important to fight them on the home front as well.
“The goal of this document is to provide a road map for managers on things that they can do now to address the issue of ocean acidification,” said Alexandria, Boehm, panel co-chair and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University.
Because of how the Pacific Ocean circulates, the West Coast is exposed disproportionately to water with higher acidity levels.
Already shellfish, corals and other organisms are having a harder time reproducing and growing their skeletons and outer protective shells. As a result, the West Coast shellfish industry is seeing high mortality rates during the early life stages when shell formation is important.
And increased acidity has shown to give rise to harmful algae blooms in the lab. The toxins can cause sickness and even death up the food chain as contaminated fish and shellfish are consumed by larger fish, marine mammals and even people.
“Ocean acidification is very alarming if you look at what’s going to happen to the ocean’s pH if we don’t reduce carbon emissions,” Boehm said.
In the report, the panel makes calls for action that are coordinated and collaborative between ocean management and natural resource agencies. Its recommendations include exploring the use of sea grass to remove carbon dioxide from seawater, reducing land-based pollution from entering coastal waters and revising water-quality criteria.
In addition, the panel suggests policymakers create a West Coast monitoring program for gathering more data and create a scientific task force to help management stay effective.
“They make some really tangible recommendations that science suggests could have an impact,” said Kristy Kroeker, an expert on ocean acidification and assistant professor at UC Santa Cruz who is not part of the panel. “The West Coast and the Monterey Bay are really sitting in a hot spot for acidification. It’s happening here twice as fast as it’s happening in the rest of the world. Understanding the problem and things we can do is really critical for our community.” To read the report, go to westcoastoah.org/executivesummary.
Reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow Samantha on Twitter: @samanthabclark.
Napa Valley Register
Wine industry opposes proposed watershed initiative
By Barry Eberling
Key wine industry groups say they will oppose the Napa County Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative targeted for the November ballot.
Napa Valley Vintners, Winegrowers of Napa County, Napa Valley Grapegrowers and the Napa County Farm Bureau delivered that message in a joint letter. They said the proposed law would add complications to a system that already works.
“There is no question that Napa County has already taken a forward-looking approach to environmental protection,” the letter said.
Napa Valley Vintners spokesman Rex Stults said Wednesday that the groups would be “very actively” opposing the initiative with an organized campaign. He called the initiative “backward-looking and anti-farming.”
Angwin resident Mike Hackett, co-author of the initiative, said the initiative can survive a well-funded opposition campaign.
“I believe the atmosphere in Napa County mirrors what’s happening at the national scene, and you are seeing a real uprising of a populace movement and you’re going to see that right here,” Hackett said.
Hillside vineyard development in Napa County agricultural watershed zoning areas has become controversial. The county has long viewed farming as the highest and best use for local land. But some say oak removal and hillside vineyard runoff threatens water sources.
Existing Napa County law for “sensitive domestic water supply drainages” requires maintaining a tree canopy of at least 60 percent of what exists. It requires replacing oaks at a 2-1 ratio. It requires stream setbacks of 35 feet to 150 feet, depending on slope.
The proposed initiative requires owners wanting to clear oaks on properties of 5 acres or larger to, in most cases, submit oak removal plans to the county. They would have to retain at least 90 percent of the oak canopy on a parcel. They would replaced trees that are removed at a 3-1 ratio.
Stream buffer zones would be increased. For the first time, a 35-foot buffer would be required for Class III streams that are impressions serving as the headwaters for larger streams feeding rivers and bays.
Napa County’s existing conservation laws have strong agricultural community support, the wine industry joint letter said. They are effective at maintaining a healthy watershed and protecting Napa County’s water sources, a healthy ecosystem, agriculture and the economy.
“We encourage a collaborative and educational approach to unite our community on issues related to watershed and oak woodland protections,” the letter stated.
Hackett responded that the people who believe enough watershed protections exist are wine industry members and politicians. But he also said the wine industry is not monolithic and there are members of the industry who support the initiative.
For now, Hackett and initiative supporters are focused on collecting the 3,900 signatures from registered voters needed to qualify the measure for the ballot. Hackett said he’s been working on the effort every day for five weeks.
“We’re going to get the signatures,” he said. “We’re going to be qualified, that’s for sure.”
San Luis Obispo Tribune
Arson suspected in fire that destroys Nipomo farmworker housing
By Lindsey Holden and Kaytlyn Leslie
The future of a controversial Nipomo housing development for farmworkers remains unclear after a potential arson fire late Wednesday destroyed one partially constructed home and damaged another.
Firefighters responded to the blaze on the 100 block of Oakglen Avenue at 11:24 p.m. and found a two-story structure “fully involved” in a blaze they were able to quickly contain, according to a Cal Fire news release. Damage estimates are unknown.
Neighbors said smoke and debris from the flames damaged their vehicles and forced them to flee for safety.
Cal Fire prevention Battalion Chief Zach Nichols said Thursday that authorities believe the fire may have been arson.
“All the indicators point to an intentionally set fire,” he said. “But we’ve got samples being sent off to be analyzed to confirm.”
Nichols said the absence of any utilities, such as gas and electricity, that could have caused such a fire is one of the primary reasons authorities believe the fire may have been intentionally set. The pattern of how the fire spread also supports this theory.
Greg and Donna France of Mar Vista Berry in Santa Maria are in the process of purchasing the Mads Place lots that will be occupied by farmworker housing.
Each of the seven three-bedroom, two-story homes was expected to house as many as 16 people, for a total of about 112 people, through the federal H-2A temporary agricultural program, which brings in foreign workers to perform agricultural services where there is a shortage of domestic laborers. Under the federal program, employers are required to provide housing for the seasonal workers free of charge and must provide transportation to and from the workplace, among other requirements.
However, the plans for Mads Place have angered some of the development’s neighbors, who say they worry about traffic, safety, property values and population density in the neighborhood. A group of about 50 concerned residents addressed the South County Advisory Council on March 28, asking for help in stopping the owners.
On Thursday, Greg France’s voice was choked with emotion as he told members of the media that he and his wife were “saddened and stunned” by the fire. He said he and his family had been part of the Nipomo community for eight years and had spent 25 years in the Santa Maria area.
“We are family farmers trying to do the right thing by providing quality housing for our workers, who are visitors to this country,” France said.
The Frances had hoped to address residents’ concerns one-on-one Saturday during a community walk-through, Greg France said, and remain committed to maintaining a peaceful environment for neighbors and workers. The family needs to take some time to figure out how to proceed with the development and will allow law enforcement to handle the situation, France said.
The Frances said the Mads Place properties are in escrow. Pinetree Development LLC has been the owner of the lots, according to the San Luis Obispo Assessor’s Office. A Pinetree Development official was not available Thursday.
The Western Growers Assocation issued a statement Thursday condemning the suspected arson, saying the Frances were following federal regulations in trying to provide proper housing for its workers.
“It is unconscionable that the principled and lawful actions of this company have been met by an act of criminal violence,” association President Tom Nassif said in the statement. “The actions of those responsible should be condemned by all and must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Jennie Rodriguez lives in a Mads Place home next to the burned housing with her son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. She said her brother, who lives across the street from Mads Place, saw the blaze and called her late Wednesday night.
Rodriguez and her family evacuated their home until the fire was out. The wind blew debris and smoke onto her property, damaging vehicles and a trailer, she said. Given the neighborhood’s response to the housing, Rodriguez said she thought extra precautions should have been taken.
“Why didn’t they bring security to protect us?” Rodriguez asked. “They jeopardized our families.”
Shannon Riddering and Eleonora Haber both live with their husbands and children in homes on Wild Holly Lane, directly behind the destroyed and damaged units. Haber said she was awakened by the glow from the fire and looked out her window to see the structure in flames. Riddering said she took her family outside for safety, and both women said they sprayed their trees and fences with water to keep them from catching on fire.
Haber and Riddering said they are opposed to the development and are concerned about the potential impact it might have on their neighborhood. Both had read angry comments online about the housing but said they were surprised anyone might have gone so far as to set the structures on fire.
“It really endangered our properties and our safety,” Haber said.
Fourth District Supervisor Lynn Compton expressed sadness over the fire Thursday and thankfulness that no one was injured, and she said that she has been working to mediate a resolution between the owners and the neighbors. In her statement, she commended firefighters and sheriff’s officials and asked anyone with information about the fire to call 459-7867.
USDA proposes stricter animal welfare rules for organic meat
By Mary Clare Jalonick
WASHINGTON – The Agriculture Department on Thursday proposed stricter animal welfare standards for organic chicken and meat in a multibillion-dollar market that is rapidly expanding each year.
The rules would ensure that all livestock, including poultry, have enough space to lie down, turn around, stand up and fully stretch their limbs. Beaks couldn’t be removed and tails couldn’t be cut. Poultry houses would have to have fresh air and ventilation.
“This will support the continued growth in the organic livestock and poultry sectors, and ensure consumer confidence in the organic label,” said Miles McEvoy, the head of USDA’s organic program.
The retail market for organic products is valued at almost $40 billion in the United States. USDA said this week that the number of certified organic operations in the United States increased by almost 12 percent between 2014 and 2015, the highest growth rate since 2008 and an increase of nearly 300 percent since the department began counting operations in 2002.
The broadest changes proposed by USDA would cover outdoor access for poultry, suggesting standards for how densely poultry can be stocked as well as minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements. The rules would require poultry have access to areas that are at least 50 percent covered in soil. Hen houses would not be allowed to only have a porch; producers would have to provide additional outdoor space.
In addition to clean water and direct access to sun and shade, the rules would require producers to design facilities to encourage all birds to go outside on a daily basis. The outdoor areas would have to have “suitable enrichment” to entice birds to go outside, McEvoy said.
The amount of outside access for poultry has been a subject of debate, as some food safety advocates have expressed concerns that more outdoor access may increase the chances of salmonella contamination. The Food and Drug Administration issued guidance in 2013 to try to help organic egg producers better prevent salmonella, a bacteria that can cause diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps and can be deadly without prompt antibiotic treatment.
The Organic Trade Association, which represents many of the nation’s largest companies that sell organic products, did not comment on specifics of the proposal. But the group’s president, Laura Batcha, said she was pleased USDA is moving forward with the rule.
“Ensuring that the high expectations consumers have for organic foods are met preserves the organic seal’s reputation as the gold standard for agricultural production practices,” Batcha said.
Other producers expressed concerns.
Jim Byrum, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association, said the rules could slow business for egg producers, which could in turn reduce the demand for organic corn and soybeans that the chickens eat.
“Eliminating porches that already allow organic hens to be outside would render tens of millions of dollars of investment by many organic egg producers obsolete,” Bynum said. “The proposal also makes deeply unrealistic assumptions about food safety, requiring direct exposure of hens to the outdoors.”
McEvoy said USDA understands the rules would mean additional investment for some businesses. But he said the rules would “assure consumers that organically produced products meet a consistent standard.”
Palm Springs Desert Sun
US Farm Sector Girds for Major Downturn
By Morris Beschloss
As previously indicated, and now confirmed, the multi-year flourishing U.S. agricultural sector is bracing for a severe downturn after a lengthy span of prosperity.
The American farm boom, which has supplied both the U.S. and the rest of the world for decades, has run headlong into a fast-rising dollar, and a global glut in commodities that has encompassed a large percentage of U.S. wheat, corn, soybeans, and fruit, etc. U.S. agriculture has become victimized by current surplus agricultural world production, which has created a double negative in the value of farmlands throughout the U.S., and higher interest expanded debt.
Even the politically friendly imposition of ethanol from corn a decade ago, has been deflated by the cheapening price of gasoline, and decreased derivatives’ percentage from Congressionally-mandated initiatives, now in the process of being rewritten.
After a near decade of good news in exports, limited inventories, and the constant upward reduction of farmlands, all these have turned topsy-turvy. Adding to the plight of the large corporate farm owners, as well as the independents, have been a slow, but steady increase in borrowing costs for land utilized in agricultural land expansion. Even the cost of farm equipment has jumped higher, adding to farmers’ cost production, while purchase prices have dropped. This downturn has put an end to rich farmland prices that had doubled in the past decade.
What used to be good news— record production of wheat, corn, soybeans, etc.— is now bedeviling farm owners, private and corporate, that had built inventories in the expectation that farm goods’ prices would continue their upward climb; as the world population indicated solid growth both in the U.S. and abroad.
But as emerging global nations have become surprisingly over-productive, world prices for nearly all farm products have tumbled. Add to this plight a six-year export low, combined with cheaper imports rising, the nation’s trade surplus in agricultural goods has slumped. A forthcoming multi-year experience is now anticipating a downturn of less than $10 billion in 2016, and a long-term 80% reduction from a record $45 billion in 2014, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.
While the percentage of the U.S. population, totally dependent on the agricultural sector has been reduced to less than 3% of the nation’s population of 330 million, America’s agricultural underpinning has always been disproportionately influential in the values basic to the “traditional American way of life.” A major multi-year setback in this arena would ring alarm bells in most of the Midwest, as well as major sectors of California, the Southwest, Southeast, and even parts of New England and upstate New York.