Friday, March 25, 2016
San Francisco Chronicle
Feinstein, GOP press Obama administration on delta water
By Carolyn Lochhead
WASHINGTON — As lingering El Niño rains swell the state’s rivers, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein joined California House Republicans on Thursday to demand that President Obama order more water to be pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to farms in the San Joaquin Valley.
Feinstein and the Republicans sent separate, similar letters to Obama timed to apply maximum political pressure on his administration. They arrived just a few hours before the federal Bureau of Reclamation was set to reduce pumping to help preserve what’s left of the delta smelt, a minnow once numbering in the millions that at last count was down to 10 fish.
The demands also came just two days after the White House convened a highly touted “water summit” that sought to steer water policy away from further straining overdrafted Western rivers. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Feinstein and the Republicans argued that massive volumes of water are flowing out to sea from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and should be captured.
California’s senior senator has a long history of siding with farmers in the state’s water wars, frequently angering Bay Area Democrats. Her letter to Obama on Thursday was part of her effort to find ways to send more water to farmers starved for deliveries during the drought.
Rep. Jerry McNerney, a Stockton Democrat who represents the delta, said Feinstein and the Republicans, and the San Joaquin Valley farmers with whom they are allied, are unnecessarily “taking advantage of the optics of the El Niño rainfall.”
“In fact,” McNerney said, the farmers are “going to get the water because it’s being stored to ship to them later, or it’s already been diverted.” He said the lawmakers are “proposing to weaken the Endangered Species Act.”
For their part, Republicans, led by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, demanded Thursday that the president order agencies to increase pumping now “over and above” the maximum allowed under the Endangered Species Act.
“We more urgently need specific leadership from the chief executive,” McCarthy said, at the same time acknowledging the long-term goals discussed at the White House water summit.
Feinstein has been careful to maintain that moving more water to farmers would not violate the Endangered Species Act. She has called for better fish monitoring to allow higher pumping when fish are not near the pumps.
El Niño “has highlighted a fundamental problem with our water system: a dogmatic adherence to a rigid set of operating criteria that continues to handcuff our ability to rebuild our reserves,” Feinstein said in her letter to Obama. She called for “maximum pumping” of the delta, adding that pumping decisions should be based on “better science.”
But Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said some of the improved fish monitoring Feinstein has called for is in place, and is dictating that pumping should be reduced.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is using the real-time monitoring protocols that everyone has been asking for,” Huffman said. “The answer to managing drought for some folks is to let any inconvenient fish species go extinct and claim that water for themselves.”
The argument boils down to how fast the estuary’s rivers should flow — not out to sea, but backward — through the force of the pumps drawing the water out of the delta to the state and federal water projects.
Fish biologist Jon Rosenfield at the Bay Institute, an environmental group, said the argument by Feinstein and the GOP lawmakers “flies in the face of science.”
On the San Joaquin, he said, 86 percent of the water is already being stored or diverted, leaving 14 percent for fish. Including the Sacramento River, two-thirds of all the water flowing through the delta is already being stored or diverted, he said.
That water is mainly going to fill severely depleted upstream reservoirs, where it is being stored for later delivery to the farms and cities of the south.
Feinstein and the GOP lawmakers said pumping should exceed the negative 5,000 cubic feet per second maximum backward flow of the San Joaquin River tributaries, a limit set by federal wildlife agencies to protect the smelt. Feinstein acknowledged the limit but said agencies “have the discretion to exercise at least some flexibility to pump above that level.”
David Murillo, director of the Bureau of Reclamation Mid-Pacific Region, told environmental groups in an email Tuesday that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called for much lower backward flows, no more than negative 2,500 cubic feet per second.
Wildlife officials, he said, told the bureau that the larval and juvenile smelt that have been found “are highly vulnerable” when the rivers run backward. Agency models showed that even negative 1,250 cubic feet per second would do significant harm to the fish and violate the biological opinions that enforce the Endangered Species Act.
Nonetheless, Murillo said the bureau decided for now to reduce pumping only to 3,500 cubic feet per second.
Making case for fish
Rosenfield accused the bureau of “playing fast and loose” with the wildlife agency’s recommendations as it is, and said the lawmakers’ demands would make things worse.
With legal limits already pushed to get more water to southern farms and cities during the drought, the delta smelt, its cousin the longfin smelt, chinook salmon and several other fish are on the brink of extinction, he said. The El Niño rains could save them, but the latest January and February surveys showed the lowest number ever recorded.
“It’s as close to extinction as you can get,” Rosenfield said. “They are as far gone as they can be without actually being gone.”
Carolyn Lochhead is The San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington correspondent. Email: email@example.com
Oroville Dam spillway gates open for first time in years
By Ryan Olson
Oroville – Dozens of people made their way toward Oroville Dam to see water surge down the dam’s controlled spillway Thursday.
It’s the first time the spillway has been in opened in five years to maintain storage space in Lake Oroville for flood control. Over the past 10 years, the spillway has been open for flood control just twice.
Many people parked their vehicles just off of Oro Dam Boulevard East and got out to see the turbulent water cascade down the long concrete chute away from the earthen dam. The water crashed into large blocks at the bottom of the spillway before spilling into the Feather River.
Tamara Wells and David Rapp were among those that stopped by Thursday. Wells said she’s been keeping an eye on the lake level.
“It’s refreshing to see we can finally let some water out,” Wells said.
Rapp said he follows water condition forecasts as a surfer. It’s the most water he’s seen in Lake Oroville, but he knew what the El Niño climate pattern could generate after living in Southern California.
“I was hoping for more, but it’s still pretty rad,” Rapp said.
Jeri Finch brought her 10-year-old granddaughter, Lily Wilson, to watch the water on the spillway. Lily said she didn’t think she’s seen the water spill so much before.
“It’s looks like an ocean in there,” she said.
Finch said Lake Oroville is beautiful when the water level reaches the trees. They get tired of looking at the dirt, she said.
“It’s nice to have our lake back again,” Finch said.
Kalin Patel, of Paradise, stopped by with her mother before going to check out the lake. She said the flowing water was more than she expected.
“I’m surprised we have this much water to let down,” Patel said.
RELEASES TO CONTINUE
Beginning at 10 a.m., the rate of the water being released increased throughout the day, reaching 6,000 cubic feet per second by 5 p.m., according to information from the state Department of Water Resources. About 5,000 cubic feet per second were sent down the spillway, with the rest going through the Edward Hyatt Powerplant underneath the dam.
The concrete spillway is located on the northwest end of the dam and can reach down to 813 feet. There is an emergency spillway immediately northwest of the concrete spillway, but it has never been used in the dam’s 48 years of operation, according to DWR senior engineer Kevin Dossey.
The 5,000 cfs being released down the concrete spillway is about 37,400 gallons per second, Dossey said.
The water release is the equivalent of flushing 23,375 1.6-gallon toilets every second.
Dossey said earlier this week that the lake hit the flood control reservation limit Saturday when the water level reached 850.12 feet above sea level, less than 50 feet from the crest of 900 feet. The reservation limit may vary between 848.5 feet to 875.5 feet, depending on how wet conditions are in the Feather River basin.
“Because we’re encroached into this space, we’re mandated to release it,” Dossey said Thursday.
The lake stood at 862.42 feet, as of 6 p.m. Thursday. The last time the lake was this high was May 10, 2013, when it was at 862.05 feet.
After discussions with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, DWR crews opened the spillway gates Thursday and will keep releasing water through at least Wednesday.
The water release will raise Feather River 2 to 4 feet below the Thermalito Afterbay outlet. The change in the river’s elevation varies on the river’s width at any given point, Dossey said.
The Feather River through downtown Oroville, between the Fish Barrier Dam and the afterbay outlet, will remain stable at 800 cfs.
The flood reservation limits are reduced after April 1. Dam operators will be able to slowly fill the reservoir, but it may be until June 15 before crews will be allowed to potentially fill the lake to the crest.
The latest state projections estimate the lake may reach between 864 to 892 feet, depending on how much precipitation hits the region.
LAKE LEVEL RISES
The opening of the spillgates will clear at least 60,000 acre-feet of water from the reservoir. An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons.
Despite that, Dossey said Lake Oroville will continue to rise because water flowing into the lake still exceeds the outflow.
“The lake will not decrease in elevation, but the rate of rise will decrease,” Dossey said.
On Thursday, officials were releasing up to 6,000 cfs, but the lake was taking in more than 15,000 cfs.
Prior to Thursday, the lake level was increasing about 2 feet per day. Now, the lake will rise about a foot a day.
Overall, the lake has seen a tremendous increase this month — 93 feet. Dossey said marina crews have worked particularly hard as the lake has risen 4 to 5 feet on some days.
The lake has risen 212.91 feet since reaching its seasonal low of 649.51 feet on Dec. 9.
On Thursday evening, the lake was at 84.2 percent of its capacity of 3.5 million acre-feet. It was at 112.7 percent of its historical average for March 24.
HOPES FOR DROUGHT
Many of the people that stopped to watch the water flow down the spillway Thursday were optimistic about Lake Oroville’s recovery amid nearly five years of drought.
Peggie Adamson, of Oroville, said it was a major year thanks to El Niño. She believes the lake will reach the top.
“My main concern is that the state uses it wisely instead of wasting it,” Adamson said.
She said Californians have learned a lot from the drought, including how to conserve home water use and to never predict what Mother Nature will do.
Dossey guessed the state couldn’t declare the drought over yet. While north state reservoirs are doing well, including Shasta Lake and Bullards Bar Reservoir in Yuba County, groundwater levels are still down and reservoirs in Central California are still depleted.
“It’s going to take more than one year of good precipitation to bring us out of drought conditions,” Dossey said.
Reach reporter Ryan Olson at 896-7763 and facebook.com/NorCalJustice.
Monterey County Herald
Salinas Ag Research Station in political limbo
By D. Lee Taylor
Salinas >> With the Obama administration and congressional Republicans at loggerheads over budget priorities, a line item that would fund a $100 million replacement of the U.S. Agriculture Research Station in Salinas remains in limbo.
The budget submitted by President Barack Obama to the House earmarks $30 million for the first phase of a new research station in 2017, which includes building a new main lab, said James McCreight, the research leader at the Salinas station. Subsequent phases would build additional lab space along with greenhouses and other supportive buildings.
The additional buildings, mostly modular units, would allow room for 25 scientists, up from the 16 currently employed at the research station, McCreight said. New greenhouses containing state-of-the-art heating and air conditioning controls would also be constructed.
Originally built during World War II to research rubber alternatives, the aging station is no longer capable of supporting modern research techniques. A 2006 USDA study determined that the structure was obsolete due to inadequate lab and office space. The study also concluded that it would be too costly and insufficient to renovate the facility and that a new one should be built.
In a written statement, Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, said he has steadily pushed for a modern facility to support Monterey County’s $4 billion agricultural economy.
“The existing station is unable to support the type of cutting-edge research necessary in specialty and organic crops for Central Coast growers to compete in a global market,” Farr said. “I’m glad the President has made a new research station a priority in his budget and I will keep working with the White House to get this through Congress.”
That’s easier said than done. In 2010 Farr secured enough funding for the project, but the following year, when Republicans took control of both houses of Congress, all funding for USDA construction projects was tabled. At the time, a new research facility in Salinas was at the top of the USDA’s project list.
Adam Russell, Farr’s press secretary, said there are no ideological conflicts over the funding of the research station, rather broader fights over the entire budget.
“The research station is not part of the debate,” Russell said. “It’s just getting caught up in larger disagreements over priorities in spending. The House Republicans are refusing to even look at the president’s budget.”
Meanwhile, scientists at the Salinas station off East Alisal street are struggling to make due with what they have. Their work is critical to the regional agricultural economy, said Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau. Most of the produce grown in the Salinas Valley comes under the category of “specialty crops,” and comes with its own unique set of challenges.
For example, work at a research station in Ames, Iowa, that is focused on preventing pests from attacking soybeans won’t help the lettuce grower in Chualar or the strawberry farmer in Salinas.
“Here we are focused on leafy greens and berries,” Groot said. “We need research conducted where scientists can go out to the fields where these are grown.”
McCreight, the research leader at the Salinas station, said the kinds of research being conducted is specific to crops grown in Monterey County. The station is researching alternatives to the fumigant methyl bromide, used to sterilize the soil prior to transplanting strawberry plants.
While the use of the compound was outlawed because of evidence it was eating holes in the earth’s ozone layer, growers have successfully lobbied for exemptions until a suitable replacement can be developed. A lot is at stake. Strawberries have an annual value in excess of $1 billion in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, according to each county’s most recent crop reports.
Other research McCreight noted is the fight against a fungi called Fusarium wilt that was first confirmed on California strawberries in 2006. Initially found in Ventura County, Fusarium wilt is now present on strawberries in Santa Barbara and Monterey counties.
An outbreak of Fusarium can decimate a field of strawberries in short order.
On the leafy greens side, the Salinas station is researching downy mildew, a disease threatening the valley’s $157.8 million spinach crop. Initial symptoms of the disease are yellow spots on leaves which can become tan in color with a dry texture — not exactly an appetizing display in the supermarket.
The research is focused on breeding plants resistant to these diseases.
“Our local universities want to collaborate with our agriculture community to develop new farming techniques,” Farr said. “This new facility would make that collaboration possible. The Salad Bowl of the World would also be the Science Lab of the World when it comes to agriculture research.”
firstname.lastname@example.org,, @MontereyHerald on Twitter
Plea deal in Stanislaus animal-cruelty case
By Rosalio Ahumada
A plea deal has been reached in an animal-cruelty case involving a Stanislaus County egg farm where authorities found an estimated 50,000 hens without feed four years ago. More than 40,000 hens died.
Defendants Andy Yi Keunh Cheung and Lien Tuong Diep initially were charged with one felony count of animal cruelty each.
Cheung was the owner of A&L Poultry on South Carpenter Road, about a half-mile south of Fulkerth Road, west of Turlock. Diep operated Lucky Transportation Inc., a Ceres-based hauling company for wholesale poultry products.
On Tuesday, Cheung pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of animal cruelty, according to the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office. In exchange for his plea, prosecutors dropped the felony charge. Cheung was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to pay restitution.
Superior Court Judge Thomas Zeff also ordered Cheung not to engage in any commercial activities involving chickens. The judge scheduled Cheung to return to court Aug. 9 to determine how much restitution he owes.
Prosecutors dropped the felony charge against Diep, and she no longer faces any criminal charges in connection with the deaths of the hens.
Animal-rights groups said they rescued 4,460 hens that survived, but about 460 of them died afterward because they were too weak or sick.
Of the 40,000-plus hens that died, about a third starved; the rest were euthanized because of their poor condition, according to the Stanislaus Animal Services Agency.
At the time, authorities estimated the birds had not been fed for two weeks. The Animal Services Agency discovered the unfed hens in February 2012 after it received a complaint about the farm.
Timothy Wester, who investigated the farm on behalf of the agency, testified in a May 2015 preliminary hearing that he saw dead and emaciated hens, as well as a large amount of manure, inside the two barns housing the hen cages.
Martha Carlton-Magaña, Cheung’s defense attorney, has said her client did nothing criminal and was within the standards and practices set by the industry. An animal-rights activist had made arrangements with A&L Poultry to pick up hens that were intended to be euthanized, according to the defense attorney. But she says the activist didn’t pick up the hens.
In August 2014, three animal-rights groups settled their civil lawsuit against Cheung and Diep. The defendants agreed to pay $5,000 to the plaintiffs, which helped rescue survivors.
Cheung also agreed not to work with animals in the future and Diep agreed to limit her work to briefly transporting laying hens for slaughter.
The civil lawsuit was filed on behalf of Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary in Stockton; Animal Place, based in Grass Valley; and Farm Sanctuary, which is based in New York state and has a farm in Glenn County, north of Sacramento.
Rosalio Ahumada: 209-578-2394, @ModBeeCourts, email@example.com
California EPA says chemical warning may scare poor from canned food
By Ellen Knickmeyer
SAN FRANCISCO – California plans to delay state-required warnings on metal cans lined with the chemical BPA, arguing too-specific warnings could scare stores and shoppers in poor neighborhoods away from some of the only fruits and vegetables available — canned ones, officials said Thursday.
Instead, the state on May 11 will require stores to post general warnings at checkout counters about the dangers of BPA and note that some canned and bottled products being sold have liners with the toxic chemical.
The decision and rationale of the California Environmental Protection Agency are angering some community and public-health groups.
It’s “ridiculous. It’s paternalistic,” said Martha Dina Arguello, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles. “I just can’t imagine that it’s a better idea not to let us know what’s in our food.”
The warnings are coming on line in California under the state’s Proposition 65, a measure approved by voters in 1986 that requires businesses to notify the public about high levels of chemicals in products or places.
California officials decided last year to add BPA, or bisphenol A, to the list of about 800 other chemicals requiring Proposition 65 notices. Manufacturers use BPA in epoxy liners of some cans, bottles and jars.
Some studies have determined the chemical was an estrogen-like substance that at high levels could harm the female reproductive system.
That 2015 decision by California is controversial. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration bannedBPA from baby bottles and sippy cups in 2012, but it says the level of BPA that leeches into food is safe otherwise. The federal agency also is awaiting the results of more studies.
Ordinarily, the state would either require manufacturers to put those warnings on the cans, or make grocers post signs on canned-goods shelves specifically warning that “Brand X tomato sauce, Brand Y green beans” have the targeted chemical in the can, said Allan Hirsch, chief deputy director of the state EPA’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.
For BPA, though, “we think that would be kind of chaotic,” the state official said. “Retailers might react … by just pulling canned and bottled foods off their shelves entirely,” which would be bad news in neighborhoods without good grocery stores.
“We would want to make sure that people, especially in low-income communities, still have access to canned fruits and vegetables. That’s certainly better than not having access to them,” the state official said.
Hirsch also acknowledged hearing “some concern from retailers” about how the warning is going to work.
Kathleen Roberts, executive director of the can industry’s North American Metal Packaging Alliance, said Thursday that confusion “from these warning signs could further limit healthy choices, particularly for low-income families in inner-city neighborhoods and rural communities.”
Rather than require warnings for specific cans and other goods when the warning-requirement kicks in in May, the state plans to make merchants place general notices saying some cans for sale in the store have BPA.
State officials foresee requiring more specific notices after perhaps a year. That would give can manufacturers more time to label their cans and to see what ongoing medical studies find regarding safe and unsafe levels of the chemicals, Hirsch said.
It’s the state’s arguments about BPA and canned vegetables in so-called food deserts — neighborhoods too poor to attract top grocery chains — that offend the community groups.
“California is willingly putting out the language … excluding a whole sub-population of people from protection,” said Jose T. Bravo, executive director of Just Transition Alliance, an environmental health and labor coalition in San Diego.
The community representatives say they plan to file protests before a final decision by another state agency that approves such regulatory changes.
Minimum wage hike lands in Jerry Brown’s lap
Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators should work to avert a battle over a union-backed initiative that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
United Healthcare Workers West, part of the Service Employees International Union, focused the Capitol’s attention by spending roughly $2.4 million to qualify the Fair Wage Act of 2016 for this year’s November general-election ballot. Like all initiatives, the measure is a blunderbuss. It would require all employers, regardless of size or location, to raise the $10 minimum by $1 an hour each year until 2021, when it would hit $15. Increases would track the cost of living after that.
In this presidential election year, it likely will pass. Turnout will be high, and a Field Poll last August found that 68 percent of voters favored raising the minimum wage to $15. Earlier this week, a Public Policy Institute of California poll found that 81 percent of likely California voters think the gap between the rich and poor is widening, and 58 percent of likely voters think government should do more to bridge the gap.
So the wage will rise. The question just comes down to details. Republicans, weakened as they are in Sacramento, likely won’t be part of any compromise. That leaves it to Brown and Democrats to fashion a deal that would avoid a costly initiative fight.
Unlike some politicians, such as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who were quick to endorse the initiative, Brown held back, clearly worried about the impact on government spending. Hiking the minimum would cost millions in higher state wages. In January, Brown warned that any minimum-wage increase “has to be done very carefully and it has to be done over time.”
“It has to take into account recessions, and it has to take into account what other programs can be cut to finance it. Or what taxes are going to be generated to pay for it. So it’s not a free good,” Brown said then.
But while the cost of living varies widely by region, organized labor likely would oppose any compromise that follows an Oregon model, setting different wages for different parts of the state.
One alternative could involve timing, as happened in New York. Small businesses generally and businesses and local governments in more rural parts of California ought to be given more time to reach a $15 minimum than national chains operating in high-cost urban areas.
No deal would please every business, or totally satisfy labor. But newly implemented legislation gives Brown and legislators the power to avert initiative battles by finding compromises. They should use it.