Friday, January 15, 2016
Authorities in California plan to temporarily reduce water deliveries for up to 25 million in Central and Southern California
By Ellen Knickmeyer
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Saying current water conditions pose particular peril for the state’s tiny, disappearing Delta smelt, federal officials moved to temporarily reduce water deliveries for farmers and millions of other Californians.
Especially muddy water from winter storms is among the factors that risk sweeping some of the world’s few remaining Delta smelt off course and into giant water pumps that draw water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin river deltas, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials said.
The pumps are part of federal and state water projects that provide water for up to 25 million Californians. Wildlife experts believe the pumps are one of the main threats to native fish, including the once-plentiful Delta smelt, now nearly extinct, and endangered runs of native salmon.
The federal wildlife service’s determination on Thursday means federal authorities will reduce water flows temporarily starting Friday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said.
Water deliveries to farms, water agencies and other customers from the Delta are an intensely political topic in California, with water users often at odds with environmental groups.
Farming representatives said the move is troubling, coming after a series of storms that have brought a surge in both rains and optimism about the drought.
“It’s obviously very, very concerning at a time when we’re supposed to be capturing water,” said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.
The throttling back of water deliveries is coming during California’s winter rains, when water managers and users hope to capture as much water as possible to fill reservoirs in the state, which is in its fourth year of drought.
Asked earlier Thursday if he was concerned about Delta smelt being chewed up by the giant pumps in the push to fill reservoirs, California Gov. Jerry Brown said, “That’s why they will have to be managed very carefully, and there won’t be as much water.”
Jerry Brown calls Delta water project ‘fundamental necessity’
By David Siders and Dale Kasler
Facing uncertain financing and a ballot measure threatening his $15.5 billion Delta water plan, Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday called the project a “fundamental necessity” and said he is confident “we’ll get it done.”
Brown’s remarks, following a speech to water officials in Sacramento, came as the fourth-term governor tries to secure federal approvals and funding from water users for his plan to build two tunnels to divert water under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the south.
“Although there are a small group of people that absolutely hate it,” Brown told reporters, “I know they’re not right, and we will keep going forward, and I think we’ll get it done.”
Several downstream water agencies have raised concerns about the project’s cost and reliability of water deliveries. In addition, Brown will confront a ballot initiative by a wealthy Stockton-area farmer and food processor, Dean Cortopassi, that could complicate or stop the project.
The tunnels plan is a priority of Brown, who argues it is needed to stabilize water deliveries to millions of Californians and to restore the Delta’s ecosystem.
“If we don’t have the project, the Delta will fail, the water will not be available and California will suffer devastating economic consequences,” Brown said. “This is not a ‘nice.’ It’s a fundamental necessity of California’s current and future prosperity.”
Opponents, including many Northern Californians and environmentalists, say the project will damage the environment. And state Natural Resources Secretary John Laird acknowledged the difficulties of persuading south-of-Delta water agencies to pay for the project.
“That’s the hard sell,” Laird said.
Mark Cowin, director of the Department of Water Resources, said the state could have shipped more water to Southern California this weekend if the tunnels were in place. As it is, concerns over the nearly extinct Delta smelt being sucked into the pumps forced the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project operators to back off pumping, Cowin said.
“Today, as we speak, we are ramping down the pumps,” Cowin said. “We’re going to miss an opportunity to export water to Southern California during this weekend’s storm because of this concern (over the smelt).”
The governor’s tunnels plan calls for diverting a portion of the Sacramento River’s flow farther upstream, near Clarksburg, and routing it through tunnels to a point near the big pumping stations at Tracy. Because the smelt aren’t swimming near Clarksburg this time of year, the water could be safely diverted without harming the fish, said Nancy Vogel, a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Agency.
Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, a group opposed to the plan, said viewing the recent rains as a missed opportunity to ship water south is misguided.
“How will the Delta ever recover if fresh waters are never allowed to flow through it, even in rainy seasons?” she said.
David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders, email@example.com
California farmers shore up for El Nino
“The water issues are far from over,” said one Central Valley farmer
By Heesun Wee
In the San Joaquin Valley in California — where more than a third of America’s vegetables, and two-thirds of the nation’s fruits and nuts are produced — temperatures are roughly in the 40s. The monthslong citrus harvest continues, and farmers are tucking young almond tree plantings into the ground. And during these tasks that make up farming, there are moments to look to the horizon and hope. There’s snow topping the Sierra Nevadas.
After four consecutive drought years, farmers are hoping and betting their livelihoods that the snowpack along the 400-mile-long Sierras, from north to south, will accumulate. Then in the spring, the snowpack will melt and trickle down to fill surface water reservoirs and hopefully bring down soaring water prices.
But there’s also worry a naturally occurring weather pattern known as El Nino will bring fast and furious precipitation. Acres of land have been left idle in the drought, making that barren land susceptible to flooding, mudslides and erosion. “A strong El Nino is expected to gradually weaken through spring 2016,” according to an update released Thursday from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center.
“We haven’t really experienced the full effect of El Nino just yet, but so far it’s not near as dry as it was a year ago,” said Jesus Ramos, a farmer who owns 140 acres of mostly citrus trees in Terra Bella in Tulare County. “And there’s snow on the mountains,” he said. “It’s nice and bright.”
Further north in Madera County, third-generation farmer Tom Rogers has planted some new almond trees on his 175-acre almond farm. Almond tree blooms should be popping in about four weeks. “You can see the buds move,” he said.
Both Rogers and Ramos are taking reasonable precautions. They’re doing things like making sure drains and creeks are cleaned and open. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” Rogers said.
But in other agricultural pockets of the U.S., El Nino has already created damage, including bloated waterways that are impeding transportation of food. “Swelled major waterways across the nation have slowed the movement of barges, which are an important channel for the distribution of agricultural goods,” according to an El Nino economic report from IHS Global Insight, released this week.
The net effect of El Nino typically is small but positive. The economic benefits of the 1997–98 El Nino event — the most severe to date — were about 0.2 to 0.5 percent of GDP. IHS Global Insight expects impacts on the same order of magnitude during the 2015–16 El Nino.
The current El Nino is expected to affect temperature and precipitation patterns across the U.S. during the upcoming months. There’s an “increased likelihood of above-median precipitation across the southern tier of the United States, and below-median precipitation over the northern tier of the United States,” according to the National Weather Service.
One of the reasons heavy rainfall can actually damage crops, the land and infrastructure is absorption rates. “The land has been so dry for so long, it’s almost impermeable,” said Mary Simms, a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Excessive, dry land can “act like concrete” despite precipitation, she explained.
“So far the rain has been coming slowly and absorbing,” said almond farmer Rogers.
Given this El Nino is expected to be among the biggest, according to forecasters, FEMA established a new El Nino-specific task force last August to encourage preparedness among industries, business owners and residents.
About 28,000 new flood insurance policies were purchased by California residents from the end of August to the end of November last year, according to FEMA, a 12 percent increase.
As El Nino rolls out, the effects could be widespread and touch many sectors. Unseasonably warm or wet weather can influence consumer spending such as higher retail sales as families go outside to shop. New home construction could be volatile in 2016 as builders place bets on which U.S. regions will have a milder winter, according to IHS research.
But El Nino’s major devastation could be related to crop production and global food security.
“The strength of the current El Nino has put our world into uncharted territory,” said Stephen O’Brien, U.N. under-secretary-general for the coordination of humanitarian affairs. “The impacts, especially on food security, may last as long as two years,” said O’Brien in prepared remarks on Jan. 7.
California, meanwhile, as the nation’s largest agricultural producer and exporter, is bracing for El Nino. The 2015 drought alone was forecast to cost about $900 million in gross crop revenue losses, and 10,100 direct seasonal job losses, according to an August 2015 report on the drought and California agriculture from the University of California at Davis.
“We cannot live with it being dry all the time,” said citrus farmer Ramos. Amid the prolonged drought, his total water bill for his ranches has soared to more than $200,000, compared to roughly $17,000 just a few years ago. Added Ramos, “The water issues are far from over.”
Los Angeles Times
A land-use case that’s enough to furrow a farmer’s brow
By Robin Abcarian
John Duarte is a fourth-generation California farmer. Just outside Modesto, his family owns one of the biggest agricultural nurseries in the country.
Duarte Nursery is famous for its grapevines, and its almond, walnut and pistachio root stock. The family also cultivates vineyards and orchards. In all, it’s a $50-million-a-year concern.
Which is why Duarte is able to finance his million-dollar legal fight with the federal government, a fight where the government will almost certainly find itself on the losing side.
The trouble started in 2012. That’s when Duarte, 49, hired a guy to plow 450 acres that he’d purchased here in Tehama County, about two hours north of Sacramento.
The idea was to plant a crop of winter wheat, which would later be replaced by a walnut orchard. The land is typical of farms in the area, rolling grassland on top of gravelly clay loam soil. When it rains, water gathers in puddles called vernal pools. The pools evaporate instead of drain, thus offering habitat to creatures like the fairy shrimp, a creature you may remember from your list of greatest childhood disappointments as sea monkeys.
Duarte was aware of the smattering of vernal pools and swales on his property, and asked his contractor to plow around them. Some he did, some he didn’t, but none was destroyed. After all, the plow was going only 4 to 7 inches deep, maybe a foot in a few places, but not far enough down to disturb the impermeable clay-like layer beneath the pools.
As a farming matter, you don’t really want to plant in puddles that don’t drain. As a legal matter, the government takes a dim view of wetlands destruction. Vernal pools are considered wetlands.
Years ago, in the course of refining the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency adopted a rule that plowing is not regulated by the act, so long as plowing does not turn a wetland into dryland. This allows farmers to plow their land without the onerous permitting process required when wetlands are otherwise put to human use.
In the winter of 2012, a project manager from the local office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer, which is responsible for enforcing the Clean Water Act, happened to drive by Duarte’s field as it was being plowed. He decided that the land was being tilled too deeply. What he observed did not count as plowing, he concluded. It was “deep ripping,” which is not allowed, as it can destroy wetlands. The Corps sent Duarte a cease-and-desist letter.
Duarte contends that the project manager was simply mistaken. He and his attorneys say that rather than admit the mistake, the government has doubled down, leading to multiple lawsuits (by Duarte against the feds; by the feds against Duarte), millions of dollars in legal costs and, of course, lost wheat revenue.
The case has resulted in some spectacularly absurd contortions on the part of the Corps:
The agency claimed that the cease-and-desist order, which raised the specter of fines and even imprisonment, was merely a suggestion, not a command. No one forced Duarte to stop working his wheat field, government lawyers said. That was simply his own choice.
The federal judge hearing the case found the claim mind-boggling — like holding a gun to Duarte’s head, he wrote, then claiming Duarte should have known the weapon wasn’t loaded.
In another instance, when Duarte gave Corps staffers access to his land to examine the vernal pools and furrows, they brought a steam shovel. “They’ve dug 20 or more pits right in the middle of the wetlands they claim I have destroyed,” he said.
Finally, and perhaps most deliciously, the Corps maintains that the raised parts of the plowed furrows, which are maybe 3 to 4 inches tall, created “small mountain ranges,” which discharged pollutants (i.e., tilled dirt) into the wetlands.
On Wednesday, under drizzly skies, Duarte stood on one of those teensy mountain ranges and smiled. “We call these ‘Sierra de minimis.'”
Duarte and his attorney, Anthony Francois of the Pacific Legal Foundation, had picked me up in Sacramento and driven me to the field. I had to see it for myself.
Along the way, we passed some of the northern Central Valley’s most glorious landscape — sun-dappled hills, 100-year-old olive groves, and many, many orchards planted with walnuts and almond trees that began life at Duarte Nursery. Thanks to recent rains, the medians were a nearly fluorescent green.
We talked about the Lodi cherry harvest, the battle against GMOs and Duarte Nursery’s pioneering work on in-vitro micropropagation of avocados.
The Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative outfit, fights government infringement on private property rights. It works free of charge and is supported by foundations and individuals, and has won a string of Supreme Court victories. Though I often find myself in vehement disagreement with its positions, I can’t say it’s wrong on this one. (Duarte’s high legal bills are being incurred as he pays a second set of lawyers to defend him against the government’s countersuit.)
Duarte’s specific claim against the Corps of Engineers is that he was deprived of his constitutional right to due process. “Our lawsuit says they were required to give Duarte a hearing before forbidding them to use their property,” Francois said.
Court documents show that when Duarte’s first attorney contacted the Corps to ask for details about his alleged violations, the senior project manager who flagged the plowing told his bosses in an email that the attorney was on a “ranting fishing expedition” and ignored the request.
(I reached out to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Justice Department, which represents the Corps. Neither would comment on pending litigation.)
Duarte, to his surprise, has become a symbol for government overreach.
Earlier this week, he was in Orlando, discussing his plight at a meeting of the American Farm Bureau. On the day I met him, an op-ed piece by Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan appeared in the Omaha World Herald, citing Duarte’s situation as “another example of Washington bureaucrats sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong.”
Francois thinks this case could go on for years, and perhaps reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
On Wednesday, Duarte, Francois and I walked across the gravelly dirt of Duarte’s fallowed field. A few wisps of the winter wheat he planted in 2012 remained. A flock of geese honked over us as they flew south in a wobbly formation. The only thing that marred the stark view was a red couch marooned in a shallow stream on the northern end of the property.
Whether that was a form of pollution worthy of government attention, I really couldn’t say.
firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @AbcarianLAT
Farmers call transmission line ‘lose-lose’
By Andrew Creasey
Landowners and farmers in the path of a proposed transmission line in Sutter and Colusa counties expressed near-unanimous opposition to the project at a public scoping meeting Wednesday evening.
The meeting was one of several conducted by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and the Western Area Power Administration, the entities spearheading the proposal to construct a 500-kilovolt electric transmission line that, depending on the final project design, would cross either 27 or 44 miles in both counties.
The most commonly cited concern was potential negative impacts to agricultural operations. Farmers said the new power lines over their fields would create havoc for crop dusters and take swaths of land out of production.
“The whole operation is affected by this,” said Buster Brugmann, a Sutter County rice farmer. “Anything they do will be a problem. I just as soon they did something else.”
Charles Marsh, a Colusa County farmer, said the transmission lines could cause growers to re-route irrigation lines and cut large holes in orchards and fields to leave room for tractors to maneuver around the power poles.
“It’s a terrible idea,” Marsh said. “Your operation changes, and you lose that income stream forever.”
Moe LeBlanc, a crop duster who owns Onstott Dusters, said power lines can cause issues when seeding rice fields.
Pilots have to fly over the power lines, which makes it difficult to properly seed a field, particularly when it’s windy, LeBlanc said.
“I don’t feel like we could do a good enough job (seeding over the proposed power lines),” LeBlanc said. “When you’re up that high, it’s just a guess if you’re getting the seed in there or not.”
Marsh was also concerned about the impacts of transmission lines to wildlife, including Swainson’s hawks, sandhill cranes and bald eagles.
“It would be a crime to cut this path here,” Marsh said. “There are very few areas not impacted by infrastructure like this. To string another line through an open area is a travesty.”
Marsh was referring to the southern corridor study area, which would run through the lower parts of Sutter and Colusa counties — connecting an existing power line to the east near Arbuckle to O’Banion Substation just south of the Sutter National Wildlife Refuge.
A different study area would construct new lines next to existing transmission lines.
Maureen Tarke, who lives and farms on the west side of the Sutter Buttes, said the proposed line would either cut through her orchards or run on the lower slopes of the Buttes, ruining the scenery her family enjoys.
“It’s a lose-lose situation,” Tarke said.
The Yuba-Sutter Chamber of Commerce sent a letter opposing the project, citing concerns to agricultural production.
“We felt immediate opposition to the project when we found out what’s going on,” said board member Dale Eyeler.
The Yuba-Sutter Farm Bureau is also considering sending a letter of opposition, said board President Jon Munger.
Others, such as Pete and Margit Sands, were still gathering information before forming an opinion on the proposed project.
“It’s hard to get a feel for it right now,” Pete Sands said. “This meeting is important to get information.”
Representatives from SMUD and WAPA said they were encouraging input, pointing out no options were completely off the table.
“We want input,” said Lowell Rogers, SMUD project manager. “We can’t handle it if we don’t know about it.”
Wednesday’s public meeting and the current public comment period is just the beginning of a long process to study the impacts of the power lines.
A draft environmental impact statement and report will likely not be ready until December 2017, said Jennifer Neville, a WAPA spokeswoman.
There will be another round of public comment on that document. A final environmental report and a subsequent final project decision could come by September 2018.
CONTACT reporter Andrew Creasey at 749-4780 and on Twitter @AD_Creasey. email@example.com
Research identifies protein behind costly grape leaf disease
By Edward Ortiz
Scientists at UC Davis have identified a key protein at the root of a disease likely ravaging California’s grapevines and costing the state’s wine and grape industry more than $100 million yearly.
Pierce’s disease is caused by a bacteria known to hurt crops including almonds and grapes. It’s transmitted from vine to vine by a small winged insect called the sharpshooter, which lives near rivers and streams. The disease causes the yellowing or browning of grape leaves and results in leaves dropping from vines.
The disease has been a problem for grape growers since the late 1880s and decimated vineyards in the Los Angeles Basin in the 1930s and 1940s. Recently, the disease forced the replanting of 775 acres of vines in California’s North Coast and affected 25 percent of the Temecula Valley’s 3,000 vineyard acres. In the latter event, the result was an estimated $13 million in damage, according to The Wine Institute, an industry group.
It’s not well understood why the bacteria is so persistent in grape leaves, said Abhaya Dandekar, a plant geneticist at UC Davis and a co-author of the research. But the research represents a small step forward in understanding the problem.
“We stumbled on this by looking at what the bacteria is secreting,” he said. The work was published in the online journal Scientific Reports and was funded by the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the wine industry.
The research suggests that a protein secreted by the bacteria spread by the sharpshooter – and not the bacteria itself – is at the root of the spread of the disease and its persistence.
The only way to currently control the disease is by killing the sharpshooter. The research findings are expected to lead to new diagnostics and potential treatments for the disease without targeting the insect – and may help diminish the use of pesticides on grapevines, Dandekar said.
More research is needed to learn how the protein affects grape leaves, he said.
“We have no way of controlling the bacteria itself,” he said. “If you can control the bacteria, then it does not matter whether you have the insect.”
Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz, firstname.lastname@example.org