Friday, May 13, 2016
Modesto event challenges farmers to get political through Ag Unite
By John Holland
About 800 farmers and allies heard a rallying cry Thursday about water supplies, regulation and other strains on agriculture.
They came for lunch at Modesto Junior College and to hear about Ag Unite, a political arm of the California Farm Bureau Federation.
“We have Ag Unite because at the end of the day, we have to pull together and we have to be active politically,” said Paul Wenger, who grows walnuts and almonds just west of Modesto and is president of the federation.
The Farm Bureau already is involved in county, state and national affairs, but leaders said even more is needed to deal with the demands of government agencies and environmental groups. The event, in the big Ag Pavilion on the west campus, was for supporters in Stanislaus, Merced, Tuolumne, San Joaquin and Sacramento counties.
Wenger said Ag Unite can counter the misconception that farmers use too much of California’s water while contributing little to its economy. The reality is that agriculture gets 40 percent of the supply while 50 percent is for the environment and 10 percent goes to cities, he said. And while it’s true that goods sold by farmers account for only 2 percent of the state output, he said, that multiplies when processing, farm suppliers and other related businesses are added.
Wenger noted that most lawmakers do not have much farming in their districts, and they are influenced by groups trying to restrict pesticides and water use.
He told of dealing with hail that ruined his walnuts and of sharp drops in nut prices, experiences that help when taking on political issues.
“We use our stubbornness to be able to persevere,” Wenger said.
Rich McGowan, who helped launch the campaign in Butte County, said donations for its advocacy work are as important as what farmers spend on water, chemicals and other needs. “Ag Unite – a budget line item to preserve farming life,” he said.
Tony Toso, a Mariposa County cattle rancher and second vice president of the state Farm Bureau, said afterward that he agreed with the cause.
“We’re bringing the ag community from all over California together to tell our story,” he said.
John Holland: 209-578-2385, firstname.lastname@example.org
McClatchy News Service
California irrigation-drainage disputes targeted in new bill
By Michael Doyle
WASHINGTON – California’s tireless water warriors have something fresh to fight over, with the introduction of a bill to resolve an irrigation drainage dispute that affects three modest-sized San Joaquin Valley water districts, as well as the much bigger Westlands Water District.
The bill by Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, would relieve the federal government of its duty to provide irrigation drainage, and relieve the water districts of their debt.
“We’re trying to solve some water problems here,” Costa said Thursday.
His bill covers the San Luis, Panoche and Pacheco water districts, which are north of Westlands. Together, the three districts serve about 102,000 acres in western Merced and Fresno counties.
The measure also incorporates a separate bill that would settle the federal government’s similar dispute with Westlands.
The districts have struggled with problems due to the lack of a drain to carry away spent, salty water. The federal government had committed to building the drain but never completed the job, for a host of political and environmental reasons.
Litigation ensued; lots of it. The irrigation drainage legislation is needed to implement the legal settlement.
The new legislation introduced Thursday includes $70 million for anti-salinity efforts undertaken by the San Luis, Panoche and Pacheco districts. It also relieves them of their $52.7 million debt owed for the construction of irrigation facilities and hands over title to the facilities to the districts.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation, in turn, is let off the hook from its expensive obligation to build a drainage system.
The bill incorporates an earlier legislative proposal by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, under which the 600,000-acre Westlands district would assume responsibility for providing drainage. In turn, Westlands would be forgiven the rest of its capital cost debt owed for the construction of Central Valley Project irrigation facilities, estimated at upward of $375 million.
Westlands also agreed to retire at least 100,000 acres of farmland. Westlands would gain ownership of the federal pipes, canals and pumping plants serving the district.
Congress must pass the necessary legislation by January, according to the settlement. If it doesn’t, the government or Westlands can nullify the deal unless they agree to an extension.
Political conflict has accompanied the drainage issue every step of the way, and the new bill is likely to trigger fresh tensions between Valley legislators and those from other parts of California.
“There are going to be a lot of people with serious, substantive problems with this, I will predict,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.
Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Dan DuBray said Thursday that “we look forward to reviewing” the new legislation. The terms are being scrutinized by the Obama administration’s Office of Management and Budget, though Costa said “we believe” the administration will ultimately support the bill.
Lon M. Martin, general manager of the San Luis Water District, praised the bill as providing “a comprehensive drainage solution at the local level for the entire San Luis Unit of the Central Valley Project.”
Companion legislation has not yet been introduced in the Senate, where Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has said her first priority is passing a broader California water bill that will be the subject of a Senate hearing next week.
Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10, email@example.com
Yuba County Water Agency seeks state probe of Cordua Irrigation District
By Andrew Creasey
The Yuba County Water Agency is calling for a state investigation of a Yuba County water district, claiming it is seeking diversions from the lower Yuba River that significantly exceed its water rights.
The agency filed a complaint with the State Water Resources Control Board against the Cordua Irrigation District on Wednesday, saying the district’s alleged illegal diversion of water could potentially harm the water supplies of other irrigation districts in the county and impact water availability for endangered fish.
Cordua is the only one of the agency’s eight-member irrigation districts that has not signed a new water supply contract with YCWA. Therefore, it must rely upon its water rights for diversions from the Lower Yuba River, according to a YCWA news release.
The district is asserting a right to divert a significant amount of water from the river, including stored water released from YCWA’s New Bullards Bar reservoir. Cordua’s claims exceed the district’s water rights, as summarized in a 2003 water rights decision for the Lower Yuba River issued by the state water board, according to YCWA.
The water board concluded that Cordua’s water rights allow a maximum diversion of 75 cubic feet per second (cfs) from the river, according to YCWA’s compliant.
Cordua is disputing this, contending its pre-1914 water rights allow diversions of at least 175 cfs during peak periods, according to a February letter from Cordua’s attorneys – Minasian, Meith, Soares, Sexton and Cooper, LLP, based in Oroville.
The letter contended that no riparian or pre-1914 user would be harmed by Cordua’s diversion of 175 cfs.
“YCWA is not a riparian or pre-1914 user and is subject to statutory and permit requirements, preventing it from asserting priority over other users in Yuba County,” the letter stated.
The complaint is the second legal action YCWA has taken against Cordua this year. In April, the agency filed a lawsuit challenging Cordua’s alleged illegal steps to transfer up to 108,000 acre-feet of Yuba River water over the next nine years.
Separately, Cordua filed a $4.5 million lawsuit against the YCWA, alleging it was frozen out of a lucrative groundwater substitution program in 2015.
Cordua covers almost 10,000 acres in northern Yuba County. It is primarily a rice-growing area. It is one of three YCWA member units that has its own water right.
CONTACT reporter Andrew Creasey at 749-4780 and on Twitter @AD_Creasey, firstname.lastname@example.org
Palm Springs Desert Sun
Plan to pump water from Mojave survives court challenges
By Ian James
A company’s proposal to pump billions of gallons of water from a Mojave Desert aquifer has survived a legal fight as an appeals court rejected several challenges by opponents of the plan.
In six rulings, California’s 4th District Court of Appeal upheld earlier decisions backing a state environmental review. Cadiz Inc. praised the rulings, which were issued on Tuesday, as a step toward a project that would pump enough groundwater to supply about 400,000 people.
“This project has met every test,” said Scott Slater, the Los Angeles-based company’s president and CEO. He said the court decision “validates that we’ve done it the right way.”
The company owns 34,000 acres in the desert along Route 66 in the Cadiz and Fenner valleys, about 75 miles northeast of Palm Springs. It has proposed to pump as much as 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater – or 16.3 billion gallons – each year for the next 50 years, and sell the water to districts in Southern California.
The company’s claim that its pumping wouldn’t harm the environment is hotly disputed by conservation groups and other opponents.
The court ruled against appeals by several groups, among them the Center for Biological Diversity and the National Parks Conservation Association, and by the company Tetra Technologies, which mines sodium and calcium salts at dry lakes next to Cadiz’s property.
“We’re disappointed with how the ruling turned out, and we remain very much concerned about the project and its impact on groundwater and desert ecosystems,” said Aruna Prabhala, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Cadiz has proposed to build a pipeline next to a railroad line to carry the water to the Colorado River Aqueduct. But in October, the federal Bureau of Land Management determined that authorizing the pipeline would go beyond the rights originally granted to the railroad and would require a separate review.
Opponents of the project say they expect a thorough environmental review to be carried out under the National Environmental Policy Act. They say if the company is allowed to draw down the aquifer, it would threaten springs and wildlife in surrounding areas.
“The reality is they haven’t even started the appropriate process,” said David Lamfrom, director of the California desert program of the National Parks Conservation Association. “For them to use that railroad right-of-way, they would need to go through a federal process.”
While pursuing its plan to sell water, the company has been running its wells to irrigate nearly 2,000 acres of farmland, growing lemons, grapes, raisins and other crops.
The company’s property is close to the Mojave National Preserve and surrounded by the newly created Mojave Trails National Monument.
Both sides in the dispute have enlisted researchers to study the environmental impacts and the natural rate of groundwater recharge, and they’ve come to very different conclusions.
“There needs to be a fair reckoning of the science,” Lamfrom said. He hopes to see an independent study carried out by U.S. Geological Survey scientists, who could help settle the question of how much water naturally replenishes the aquifer system.
Slater says the company’s studies have found that pumping on the valley floor wouldn’t affect springs that are located at least 11 miles away and at higher elevation. He says those studies show that if the company doesn’t pump the groundwater, it would otherwise gradually flow downhill and evaporate from two dry lakes.
Cadiz has proposed a second phase later on that would involve “banking” imported water. The water would flow in from the Colorado River or the State Water Project, and would seep underground to be stored for later use.
Cadiz’s plans to build a business on water in the desert have generated heated debate for years.
The company was founded in 1983 and in the following years gradually expanded its landholdings around the tiny community of Cadiz, a former train stop south of the Marble Mountains where freight trains continue to rumble past.
In 1997, Cadiz and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California together proposed storing water from the Colorado River in the groundwater basin. Metropolitan eventually decided not to go forward with it, and the company later made revisions to the project and relaunched it in 2009.
Cadiz has since partnered with the Santa Margarita Water District in Orange County, which has a signed contract to buy a portion of the water. The same water district was also the lead agency in the environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act – the process that the appeals court upheld in this week’s rulings.
San Bernardino County has also been involved. In 2012, county supervisors approved a plan that allows the company to extract more water than the natural rate of recharge while requiring monitoring and specifying pumping limits.
The company’s plan for a 43-mile pipeline alongside the railroad tracks hit a snag in October. James Kenna, the outgoing state director of the federal Bureau of Land Management, notified the company in a letter that the pipeline plan wasn’t within the rights originally granted to the Arizona and California Railroad under an 1875 law.
Slater objected to that decision, which he argued was the product of “political manipulation.”
In March, Slater said he and representatives of the Santa Margarita Water District and Arizona and California Railroad met with Jerome Perez, the bureau’s new state director, to discuss the matter.
“I think we need to turn our attention to demonstrating that our chosen pathway… is within the scope of that right-of-way,” Slater said. “In the end, what is within the scope of that right-of-way is a question for Congress.”
The company has been taking its case to lawmakers. It lists 15 members of California’s congressional delegation as supporters of the Cadiz Water Project, among them Reps. Paul Cook, R-Apple Valley; Jim Costa, D-Fresno; Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach; and Loretta Sanchez, the Santa Ana Democrat who is running for U.S. Senate.
Nine members of Congress, including Cook, Rohrabacher and others, wrote to Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze in December urging him to reconsider Kenna’s decision. They called the decision flawed and said the Cadiz pipeline would “supply desperately needed water to the public.”
A larger group of 23 members of Congress from western states raised related concerns in a March 22 letter to Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.
They objected to a legal opinion, issued in 2011 by the Interior Department’s solicitor, that a railroad’s authority to authorize activities along its tracks is limited to activities that relate to “a railroad purpose.” They said the bureau’s decision on the water pipeline in California “departed even further” from the original railroad law.
The members of Congress said the agency’s interpretation “will have far-reaching consequences throughout the West,” where railroad lines are used for infrastructure ranging from power lines to fiber-optic cables. They proposed to undo what they called the agency’s “overreach” through language in an appropriations bill. The group who signed the letter included Reps. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon; Linda Sanchez, D-Cerritos; and Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert, among others.
Cadiz also faces opponents such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has fought the project for years.
“Cadiz has already tried once to bypass the federal environmental review process, an effort shot down by the Bureau of Land Management,” the Democrat said in an emailed statement. “This week’s court rulings change nothing — the project still poses a grave threat to the desert ecosystem within the Mojave National Preserve.”
She noted that Cadiz’s property now lies in the heart of the newly created Mojave Trails National Monument. “That means federal agencies would need to take an even closer look at this proposal, which would drain a vital desert aquifer at rate far higher than its natural replenishment rate.”
For years, the senator has been attaching riders to Interior Department appropriations bills blocking the government from spending funds on work related to the Cadiz project.
“Even if one could ignore the potentially devastating environmental effects of this project —which I refuse to do — there’s no denying the company is trying to bypass federal law. That’s not going to happen on my watch,” Feinstein said.
Slater, who is a water lawyer, denied the company is evading a review and said the project has been planned in a proper and legal way. He said he’s confident the company will be able to proceed.
“In the end, we’ll either get cooperation with BLM, Congress will tell us what it thinks about the scope of the right-of-way, or somewhere a judge will make the decision for us all,” he said. “If there’s not a resolution, we have the courts.”
Ian James writes about water and the environment for The Desert Sun. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @TDSIanJames
KOVR TV, Sacramento
California Rice Farmers Optimistic After Wet Winter, Spring
By Ron Jones
SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — A major money maker in California is making a comeback after recent rains.
When it comes to California rice, 97 percent of it is grown in the Sacramento region. But California’s drought left a lot of rice fields barren.
Now, Central Valley rice farmers are looking up as they reap the benefits of recent storms. Even though much of the state is still reeling from a historic drought, this year’s wet weather is making the rice harvest season more promising.
That wasn’t the case during the Fall of 2014 for second-generation rice farmer Mike Dewit who was forced to let 30 percent of his rice fields in the Yolo basin go to waste.
The California Rice Commission says almost a quarter of the state’s $5 billion crop was ruined.
“It is better,” said spokesman Jim Morris. “We’re thankful we had a wet fall and winter.”
With the recent rains comes a new sense of optimism.
“This is really good news for all of our region for the fact that we’re going to have more rice grown this year,” he said.
The rain-soaked fields could lead to more than just rice crops.
“We have about 2,000 family farmers in the state. And this field will be planted in the near future,” he said.
If the industry’s fall projections are correct, there should be a bountiful rice harvest. But it won’t know for sure until September’s harvest.
Imperial Valley Press
FSA Administrator visits Imperial
By Edwin Delgado
Farm Service Agency Administrator Val Dolcini spent Thursday morning in the Valley to learn more about the local efforts and challenges for growers as part of a week long journey throughout the West Coast of the country.
Among the things that Dolcini was hoping to get from his visit was to explore the current state of the industry in the Valley and also learn about the impact his agency programs have had locally and also learn about some of the challenges that Imperial Valley growers might need a helping hand in overcoming.
“Every time I come out to the field is a fact-finding opportunity for me,” Dolcini said. “I want to make sure that our programs are really working, the great thing about a tour like this is that I get to see directly how important and powerful our programs are.”
He first arrived at Benson Farms in Brawley, where Stephen and Rick Benson gave Dolcini a tour of their sweet onion packing shed. Also, Dolcini got a tour of the various types of crops Benson Farms is growing, such as sweet onions, melons, sunflowers and olive trees.
Stephen Benson, who is also part of the Imperial Irrigation District Board of Directors said that it’s positive to have Dolcini in the Valley to see what is happening on the fields and for him to better-understand the challenges and needs they have.
“It’s good to have Val (Dolcini) come down here and see what we do here as a business,” Stephen Benson said. “He got the opportunity to see the variety of things that we grow and talked about some of our needs as growers.”
Stephen Benson also talked to Dolcini about hoping to see the FSA work more closely together with the Natural Resources Conservation Service moving forward. Dolcini said that he also had the opportunity to discuss the importance of water in the Valley and Stephen Benson gave him a brief overview of the job he does as part of the IID board.
During the tour Rick Benson also had the opportunity to show Dolcini how he has managed to grow them in the Valley and later explained some of the challenges he has experienced trying to secure loans to continue to invest in the olive trees.
The final stop of the visit was with Sanchez Bees Honey and Pollination in Westmorland. There Victor Sanchez and his wife Mercy where they spoke on some of the issues they’ve faced in recent years with the bee colony collapse and also said that the drought has dramatically changed the way they do their business practices.
“It’s important because I know someone in Washington that gets to hear about the problems we’re facing in our industry,” Sanchez said. “For us beekeepers it is important for him to be able to visualize what we do with the funds that we get.”
He said that the local FSA office has been instrumental in coping with the constant challenges that have arisen.
“Agriculture is a big part of the local economy and the state economy, I’m glad to hear that we’ve been here to help,” Dolcini said. “The USDA plays an important role in making sure that there is a safety net for farmers, growers and beekeepers such as Victor and Mercy Sanchez.”
He said that some of the concerns the industry has at a national level moving forward is the current budget the USDA has, along with ensuring that the 19 agencies that make up the USDA work collaboratively to best serve the farming community.
Although there are many challenges that the agricultural industry will continue to face, Dolcini said that one of the most important tasks they have to do is to make all the farmers and growers aware of the different programs that the agency has.
“The real challenge is to let the farmers know about the programs that we have so that we can get out here and provide assistance for them not just to survive but to thrive,” Dolcini said.
Staff Writer Edwin Delgado can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 760-337-3440.