Monday, April 4, 2016
Many Central Valley farmers face severe water shortages despite easing drought
By Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler
In another sign that California’s drought has eased but the state’s water system is far from fully recovered, federal regulators announced Friday that Sacramento Valley farmers would get full water deliveries for the upcoming growing season, but many San Joaquin Valley growers would face another year of severe shortages.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, in an eagerly anticipated announcement, outlined the initial 2016 water allocations from the Central Valley Project, the federal government’s massive network of reservoirs, pumps and canals.
The results after a relatively wet winter and early spring: Rice growers and others north of the Delta can expect 100 percent of their contracted water deliveries. That represents a significant improvement over last year, when even those farmers with some of the state’s most senior water rights lost more than 25 percent of the water they would receive in a non-drought year.
The picture is far less rosy below the federal pumping station near Tracy that supplies farmers south of the Delta. The sprawling agricultural districts on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley were told they’re getting only 5 percent of their contract supply.
“We are basically, in our view, still in the middle of a drought,” said Pablo Arroyave, deputy regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation, in a conference call with reporters.
While a 5 percent supply is better than the zero allocation they received in each of the past two years, those farmers will again have to scramble to buy water from growers with stronger water rights – assuming the officials who monitor endangered fish in the Delta even allow for the extra water to be pumped south. The limited water shipments will put continued pressure on the valley’s groundwater basins, which in many areas have been pumped to record low levels in the drought.
The huge disparities in water allocations reflect California’s hodgepodge water rights system, which generally favors farmers north of the Delta. They also reflect the uneven performance of El Niño, which delivered a lot of rain and snow in the Sacramento Valley and northern Sierra but relatively little south of the Delta. On top of that, concerns over critically endangered fish have prompted federal and state officials to limit pumping to the south state even though Delta flows surged dramatically after March storms. The pumping restrictions drew complaints from south-of-Delta advocates who argue that stormwater flowing out to sea is being “wasted.”
Arroyave said that, in total, the federally operated reservoirs hold 86 percent of their average water for this time of year, but the south-of-Delta facilities are comparatively empty. New Melones Reservoir, which dams the Stanislaus River and is the state’s fourth-largest reservoir, is just 26 percent full – a figure so low that the Central San Joaquin Water Conservation District and Stockton East Water District will receive no water from the CVP this year.
Lester Snow, former secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, urged caution about releasing too much stored water, saying the south state remains in “extreme, exceptional” drought.
“Those reservoirs could be drained in a heartbeat,” Snow said. “It’s like we’re living paycheck to paycheck, meaning from rainy season to rainy season.”
By contrast, the state’s farming lobby lamented the 5 percent allocation to agricultural districts on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. More than 500,000 acres of farmland were fallowed last year because of water shortages, particularly south of the Delta.
“It’s ridiculous but unfortunately entirely predictable,” said Johnny Amaral, deputy general manager of Westlands Water District, which delivers CVP water to a vast area on the west side of the valley. “Life in the Central Valley can’t continue to operate this way.”
The California Farm Bureau Federation’s president, Paul Wenger, added: “We’ll never know how much water might have been available this summer if we had captured more of the water that flowed to sea at the height of the El Niño storm surges.”
Federal and state officials have throttled back their water pumping from the Delta in recent weeks out of concern it could harm Delta smelt and other endangered fish species whose numbers have plummeted to unprecedented levels in the drought. Congressional Republicans and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, have urged the White House to pump more.
Reclamation officials said Friday that if federal fishery agencies give the OK, pumping could be increased to Westlands and others beyond 5 percent later in the season.
Friday’s announcement didn’t bring completely bleak news for San Joaquin Valley farmers. The “exchange” contractors on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley were told they can expect 100 percent deliveries this year. Those farmers have special historical water rights.
Plus, in an earlier announcement, the State Water Project, which also delivers Sacramento Valley water through the Delta to farmers and the cities of Southern California, projected a 45 percent allocation this year, more than twice as much as last year.
Meanwhile, urban water districts in Northern California continue to push for relaxation of statewide water-conservation mandates as the region’s reservoirs fill up. The San Juan Water District in Granite Bay, in a direct challenge to the state, recently said it will switch to voluntary conservation this year.
On Friday, the city of Roseville said it will allow residents to water their lawns twice a week beginning Monday instead of once. “The move is about a month earlier than anticipated, acknowledging improved local watershed conditions and a healthier snowpack,” the city announced. The city urged residents, however, to continue to use water efficiently.
Los Angeles Times
A delta tunnel project’s lofty ambitions have been scaled back
By Bettina Boxall
A dog trotted down the middle of a levee road as red-winged blackbirds darted in and out of the reeds. A few fishermen dangled their baited lines into the muddy brown water.
Only a close look at the Middle River revealed anything amiss in this part of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Instead of flowing north toward San Francisco Bay, as nature intended, the Middle was headed south. On the other side of Bacon Island, the Old River was doing the same thing.
The backward flow of these two obscure channels is at the core of a proposal to build California’s biggest water project in decades: a $15-billion diversion and tunnel system in the delta, the ecologically failing hub of the state’s waterworks.
The long-planned project would draw directly from the Sacramento River as it enters the north delta and send water to enormous pumping plants that now pull supplies entirely from the south delta. The intensive pumping that now takes place causes the environmentally harmful reverse flows that have triggered increasingly tight limits on water deliveries to San Joaquin Valley growers and Southern California cities.
In news releases and tweets, tunnel backers have lamented the “lost” and “wasted” water from the Sacramento River that could have been pumped south during this year’s winter storms if only the delta had a “modern delivery system.” About 486,000 acre-feet — or enough water to serve 3.6 million people for a year — could have been captured, the project website proclaims in big, bold numbers.
But scroll down on the website, below those impressive figures, and you now find a cautionary note: “The project on average over time is not expected to provide a significant increase in water deliveries from the Delta.”
The language reflects a major scaling back of the project’s once lofty ambitions.
The San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts and Southland water agencies that would pay for the project originally envisioned it as a grand delta fix that would push water exports back to — or even above — their peak in the early 2000s of an average 5.3 million acre-feet a year.
But as the project has gone through a protracted environmental review by skeptical federal fishery agencies, reality has set in. Instead of cranking open the pumps, the tunnels will, at best, do little more than maintain the status quo.
“This idea that it’s all going to be resolved is fiction,” said state Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin, whose agency is overseeing the proposal along with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
The tunnels would lessen the damaging reverse flows. But they would not cure the delta’s other ecological ailments, many of which stem from the exports and upstream diversions that have profoundly altered delta hydrology and robbed the ecosystem of about half its natural flow to the bay.
Nor would the project escape the regulations concerning endangered species and water quality that will probably grow tougher in response to the delta’s cascading environmental woes.
If the tunnels are built, state modeling indicates future delta exports to the valley’s thirsty fields and Southern California’s faucets would average 4.9 million acre-feet a year — only a small improvement over recent averages.
Without the project, however, Cowin warns that number could fall by 1 million acre-feet — to roughly 1970s levels.
Officially named the California WaterFix, the project has become less a fix than a multibillion-dollar tourniquet.
The Old and Middle rivers are in the south end of the delta. There, the state and federal pumping plants draw water to fill the highway-size California Aqueduct and the Delta-Mendota Canal that carry supplies south.
The harder the enormous pumps work, the stronger their wrong-way pull on south delta channels and native fish. Migrating chinook salmon and steelhead wander off course into the mouths of predators or to the dead-end of the pumps.
The finger-size delta smelt — declared a threatened species by the federal government — follow the unnatural flows away from good spawning habitat, edging ever closer to extinction.
Two in three fish drawn into the south delta by the pumping perish, according to government biologists.
Under WaterFix, the new water diversion point on the Sacramento River in the north delta would feed two massive 35-mile tunnels supplying the pumps. Thus, less water would be drawn directly from the south delta, reducing the problematic reverse flows.
It is a variation of an old idea. Decades before the Endangered Species Act was enacted, when delta smelt were so plentiful they were used as bait, water managers foresaw problems with using the delta as a water pipeline for the south.
By the 1960s, government planners were pushing plans for a peripheral canal to carry supplies from California’s biggest river, the Sacramento, around the delta to existing federal pumps and the soon-to-be built State Water Project pumping plant.
Among the benefits cited in a 1966 state document: Improvements in the quality of exported water and a halt to “damage to the delta fishery.”
But it was cheaper to use the delta. The canal wasn’t built. The proposal resurfaced again years later, only to be killed by voters in a 1982 statewide referendum that played on California’s perennial north-south water tensions.
This time, opposition is centered in the delta, where the landscape of levee-ringed farm islands and curling water channels hasn’t changed much in a century.
“Save the delta. Stop the tunnels,” signs are staked next to delta roads. Local growers don’t want a mammoth, years-long construction project mucking up islands in the eastern delta. And most of all, they don’t want the tunnels sucking up good-quality Sacramento River water before it gets to their irrigation ditches.
Environmentalists worry about salmon losses at the three big river intakes that would be built near Hood, Calif. And state assurances to the contrary, they are convinced the tunnels will inevitably be used to suck more water from the delta watershed.
The nerve center of the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project is housed in a nameless building in a Sacramento suburb, where managers in the Joint Operations Center monitor data around the clock and relay orders to the field offices that move water supplies around California.
Crucial to that movement are delta conditions, which are religiously measured, recorded and scrutinized.
How much water is being released from upstream reservoirs in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river watersheds? How much fresh water is flowing into the delta? How much is going out to San Francisco Bay? What are the salinity levels? How muddy is the water? How many protected fish have been collected at the pumps? How strong are the reverse flows in the Old and Middle rivers?
The reverse flow is measured in negative numbers on either side of Bacon Island and plays such a dominant role in exports that Cowin said he can recite it any minute of the day.
It is by no means, however, the only limit on delta pumping.
In the final months of last year and the early days of January the pumps were turned down to meet water quality and other state standards. If not enough fresh water flows out of the delta to the bay, salty water can intrude, tainting delta supplies.
Then it started raining and “we were meeting the outflow, no problem,” recalled state water operations chief John Leahigh. Exports bumped up, though they were still capped to protect out-migrating salmon.
By mid-January, storm runoff had driven up the turbidity levels that trigger delta smelt movement. Daily sampling surveys found some of the translucent little fish near the mouths of the Old and Middle.
To avoid drawing smelt to the pumps, the pumping rate limit was tightened and exports dipped. When smelt were caught at the pumps Jan. 21, the exports were further restricted, only to rise again when turbidity levels dropped during February’s dry spell.
On a late February afternoon, the drone of 100,000 horsepower of pumping muscle filled the federal C.W. “Bill” Jones Pumping Plant not far from the walled subdivisions of Tracy, Calif.
Four of the plant’s six pumps were discharging delta water into the head of the 117-mile-long Delta-Mendota Canal for a trip to the San Joaquin Valley.
At the nearby diversion point on the Old River, a network of screens guided fish into pipes that carried them to large collection tanks. There they were held until tank trucks transported them to the western delta for release.
As part of a routine check for protected species, a worker hoisted a cone-shaped bucket out of one of the holding tanks and emptied it into a rectangular sorting tray.
Biologist Rene Reyes dipped a net into the water, scooping up a baby catfish. Next came a couple of bluegills and six silversides. “All introduced species, very hardy,” he said.
No smelt. No salmon. It was a good day for water exports.
email@example.com, Twitter: @boxall
San Francisco Chronicle
California’s drought: Get used to it, scientists say
By Kevin Schultz
The Bay Area and the rest of the state may as well get comfortable with drought.
Stanford scientists, along with researchers from Northwestern University and Columbia University, say the atmospheric conditions that have paved the way for California’s record drought have occurred at increasing intervals in recent decades, signaling that the current conditions may be the new norm.
In other words, the scientists said, moderate California weather may be a thing of the past, with weather trending toward extremely warm and dry years, with intermittent extremes of warm and wet weather.
“We are now in a new climate where the atmospheric configurations that lead to drought are much more common,” said Noah Diffenbaugh, a Stanford professor of earth science and an author of a study published Friday in Science Advances.
While the years with warm and wet weather extremes have also become more common in the state, increased temperatures accompanying the precipitation tend to lead to quicker evaporation, Diffenbaugh said. That, along with inadequately adjusted water management, would reduce any benefit of the wetter weather, he said.
For the study, researchers tracked the atmospheric conditions for the wettest and driest and coolest and warmest years of the state’s typical winter seasons from 1948 to 2015.
From those records, they produced a composite for what the atmosphere looks like during each of the years with the most extreme weather conditions by California standards. They determined that the atmospheric conditions responsible for those years have become increasingly more common.
The conditions for both the warmest and driest years is generally created, the scientists said, when increased coastal temperatures warm air in the lower atmosphere, creating a ridge of high pressure that ramps up temperatures even further and blocks rain-bearing storms from reaching the state.
“When these ridges persist for most or all of our rainy season we lose our opportunity for rain that season,” said Daniel Swain, a doctoral student at Stanford and lead author of the study. “If one sticks around for the winter, that’s pretty much it for the year.”
Swain compared the high-pressure ridge to a boulder blocking water in a stream: It sits in the atmosphere and essentially blocks weather systems that would otherwise bring rain to the area.
More research is needed to explain the exact causes of the increase in temperatures along the coast that triggers the ridge, Swain said. One explanation, he said, could be man-made causes.
The scientists were sure that ongoing, gradual climate change adds to the overall rise in temperatures and drought.
“We are superimposing this on top of the warming trend that is already occurring here,” Swain said. “It’s a combined effect.”
Overall, the scientists said, the study adds to a substantial body of evidence that California’s weather is changing.
“California is now in a new climate,” Diffenbaugh said, “a different climate than we had when our legal water rates were designed more than a century ago and when our water infrastructure and management systems were built half a century ago.
“Our climate is on a trajectory to continue to change, and managing our water resources will require some catching up.”
Kevin Schultz is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @KevinEdSchultz
Climate change to affect reservoir operations
By Andrew Creasey
Climate change in the Sacramento River basin is expected to increase temperatures throughout the century, causing earlier runoff that will refill reservoirs earlier in the year and potentially affect reservoir operations and water storage, according to a new federal study.
The amount of precipitation is not projected to greatly change, according to the report by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. What will change is the timing of when the precipitation occurs and what form — rain or snow — it will take, leaving local farmers grappling to understand climate change’s impact on their water supply.
“If climate change makes our contract less reliable, how do we understand how to put that into our long-term water availability?” said Lewis Bair, general manager of Reclamation District 108. “We’re very much on the front end of that. Folks don’t really have a great understanding of those impacts.”
The Sacramento River is the largest river in California, with an historic mean annual flow of about 18 million acre-feet. It drains an area of about 27,000 square miles in the northern Sacramento Valley portion of the Central Valley.
More rain, less snow
Climate projections used for the report indicate warming is projected to reduce snowpack in the basin and result in moisture falling as rain instead of snow at lower elevations, which will increase wintertime runoff and decrease summertime runoff.
This could cause reservoirs to fill earlier, which may force reservoirs to release water into the river, due to flood storage rules, rather than save it behind the dams to use for the benefit of endangered species, agricultural and urban areas. In the Central Valley, the temperature is projected to increase steadily during the century, rising by almost 5 degrees Fahrenheit by the late 21st century. This increase has caused concern for water managers already struggling to maintain cold water in the Sacramento River to allow the spawning of the endangered winter-run Chinook salmon.
“(Climate change) could definitely make it more challenging to meet some of those environmental needs,” said Jeff Sutton, general manager of the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority. “The fear is it could lead to more regulation that further constrains our ability to manage the water system to meet all needs — agriculture, urban and the environment.”
Snowpack is projected to decrease continually throughout the 21st century. By 2025, the Sacramento Valley watershed is projected to experience decreases in the April 1 snow water equivalent in the range of 10 percent in the higher portions of the watershed to 70 percent in the lower elevations, according to the report.
This, again, plays into concerns about the temperature of the river.
“It will make managing for salmon and for cold water much harder,” said Maria Rea, assistant regional administrator for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. “Much of the system depends on cold water. Without snowpack, managing for temperature will get harder over time.”
Decreases in snowpack are part of the reason Rea is pursuing options to transport salmon to their native spawning habitat above Lake Shasta and the Keswick Dam — to separate fish management from water management and the need for cold water storage in the reservoir.
The study also found climate change could increase or decrease the amount of water running into the Sacramento system.
Changes in the amount of water that will flow in the Sacramento River vary depending on the climate change scenarios. Projections range from an increase in stream flow by 25 percent to a decrease of 16 percent.
Evapotranspiration, which is the accumulated loss of water through evaporation and plant transpiration, is projected to increase by up to 4 percent by 2025 in the Sacramento Valley. By the end of the century, it could increase by up to 8 percent.
In the northern and central Sierra Nevada Mountains, runoff is projected to decrease continuously, reaching a decrease of 5-10 percent by the end of the century.
Floods and droughts
The study examined the possibility of increased floods and droughts.
The five climate projections used in the report present a wide range of increases in the occurrence of drought and floods. A comparison of the scenario with the most moisture against the scenario without climate change shows a 20 percent increase in the risk of flooding.
A comparison of the projection with the least moisture against a scenario without climate changes shows a 364 percent greater potential for drought.
CONTACT reporter Andrew Creasey at 749-4780 and on Twitter @AD_Creasey. email@example.com
San Jose Mercury News
East Bay water distrct’s Delta deal raises eyebrows among environmentalists
By Denis Cuff
CONCORD — In a deal stirring up new waves about the governor’s twin water tunnels plan through the Delta, a water supplier for 500,000 Contra Costa County residents has dropped its protest against the project in exchange for a new source of higher-quality water from the Sacramento River.
Some environmentalist say the legal deal between the state and the Contra Costa Water District helps the district at the expense of water quality for the Delta environment, farms and fish.
“Sadly, CCWD has sacrificed other Delta communities and Bay-Delta fisheries by agreeing to this settlement, as everyone else in the Delta would be left with degraded water quality,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, executive director of Restore the Delta.
In defense of the deal, Contra Costa Water officials said they got insurance that the $15.6 billion tunnel plan won’t degrade their Delta drinking water for people and industries in an area stretching from Concord and Walnut Creek to Antioch and Oakley.
“We are not abandoning the Delta,” said district spokeswoman Jennifer Allen. “The agreement is only about protecting water quality for our customers from harm if the California WaterFix is built.”
The state proposed the tunnels to change how water is moved to south Delta water export pumps, reducing harm to wild fish that has led to restrictions on water pumping to 25 million Californians and nearly a million acres of farmland.
But a team of five hydrology modelers for Contra Costa Water calculated that the governor’s plan would lead to higher salinity and more algae and minerals in district water pumped from the western Delta.
Worried about a prolonged lawsuit, the state Department of Water Resources announced earlier this week it had reached an agreement with Contra Costa Water to address the concerns.
Under the 40-page deal, the state pledged to provide CCWD a big slug of higher-quality Sacramento River water to make up for fears about degradation of Delta water.
And CCWD would get this water at no extra cost, with the bills to be paid by state contractors who would benefit from the twin tunnels, otherwise known as the California WaterFix.
The state agreed to provide between 2,000 and 50,000 acre feet of Sacramento River water each year. The annual amount would be tied to how much water moves through the tunnels.
The amount adds up to about 1to 25 percent of Contra Costa Water’s maximum annual federal supply of 195,000 acre feet of water, which is taken from four spots in the western Delta.
The water district wouldn’t be getting any more water than before but taking some of it through the higher-quality river source before it flows through the Delta and picks up salt, algae and other impurities.
“We take our role to protect our customers seriously and cannot gamble with the future of our water quality,” said Jerry Brown, the CCWD general manager. “We are confident this is an ironclad insurance policy for our customers.”
For its part, the district agreed to withdraw its protests against the twin tunnels as the state prepares this fall to rule on a project environmental impact report.
The district also pledged to keep a neutral stand on the project itself.
Environmentalists, however, asserted that the water district and the state are selling other Delta water users — including farmers and fish — down the river.
Having Contra Costa Water take up to 50,000 acre feet of water a year from above the Delta will weaken water flows out of the estuary, said Jonas Minton, a water policy adviser for the Planning and Conservation League.
“I understand why (CCWD) wanted insurance,” Minton said, “but I think this will leave a stain on Contra Costa Water for years to come.”
CCWD officials replied that the deal will not alter existing standards for Delta water flows one bit.
Minton said the compensation agreement changes the scope and cost of the California WaterFix plan enough that the state is required to revamp its upcoming environmental report on the project despite the significant delay that will cause.
It’s too early to know which of several options for delivering the Sacramento River water to CCWD would be used, but one of them could cost $75 million to $150 million, state water officials said.
Environmentalists also criticized the state and Contra Costa Water for negotiating and signing the deal behind closed doors without consulting the public or other Delta stakeholders.
Contra Costa Water officials said state law allowed the deal to be negotiated behind closed doors because there was a threat that the district could have sued the state.
“Our goal was to get the best deal for our customers,” Allen said.
While the deal is already done, the water district will hold a public presentation and discussion on the agreement at the district board’s next meeting 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. Allen said the public is encouraged to ask questions and make comments about the agreement.
To find out more about Contra Costa Water District deal with the state, visit http://bit.ly/21XIutj and click on settlement and 10 other related documents. The water district board will discuss the mitigation agreement at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at 1331 Concord Ave. Concord
Valley businesses prepare for $15-an-hour minimum wage
By David Castellon
After working the past nine years in minimum-wage jobs, Rebecca Schiveley might be excited that Sacramento lawmakers have voted to increase the California’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.
That increase will not be immediate. Instead, the minimum wage will increase from its current $10-an-hour rate to $10.50 an hour next year for businesses with 26 or more employees and increase in $1 annual increments to $15 by Jan. 1, 2022.
For businesses with fewer employees, the increases will start on Jan. 1, 2018 and continue to the $15-an-hour mark at the start of 2023.
Schiveley, a married mother of two who tends bar at Gino’s Fine Italian Foods on South Main Street in Salinas, said money sometimes is tight in her household. Her husband’s job as a forklift operator doesn’t pay a lot, she said, so she’s not sure if the minimum wage increase will do her much good in the long run.
That’s because many in the business community across California have speculated that raising the minimum wage so much and so fast could force industries from fast food to clothing stores to raise prices or lay off workers, or both, to make up for the added payroll costs.
“To me, I just feel like everything will go up in price, with the minimum wage,” and those added costs will eat up her added pay, Schiveley said as she prepared Friday for the lunch crowd to arrive.
Schiveley said she thinks the state’s minimum wage should be increased some, “but I don’t know about $15.”
Her boss, Gino’s co-owner Ralph Bozzo, shares those concerns.
“My quick thoughts on it is I don’t think that’s the answer,” he said. “It will raise the cost of living for everyone, and it definitively will have an effect on small, family-run businesses.
“We’re the medium-sized family business,” with about 75 employees working at the three Gino’s restaurants in Salinas and the one in Gonzales, most earning minimum wage.
“We’re not big enough to absorb it, and we’re not small enough to ignore it,” he said of the added labor costs that will come from the legislation approved Thursday — with a 48-26 vote in the Assembly and a 26-12 vote in the Senate.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s office brokered the deal and his office has announced that he’ll sign the legislation, Senate Bill 3, Monday in Los Angeles.
Once the minimum wage reaches $15 per hour for all businesses, wages could then be increased each year up to 3.5 percent — rounded to the nearest 10 cents — for inflation, as measured by the national Consumer Price Index, Brown’s office announced in a news release.
“The purpose of the plan is to increase the minimum wage over time, consistent with economic expansion, while providing safety valves — known as “off-ramps” — to pause wage hikes if negative economic or budgetary conditions emerge,” the announcement continues. It goes on to explain that the governor can act by Sept. 1 of each year to pause the next year’s wage increase for one year if a budget deficit of more than 1 percent of the state’s annual revenues or poor economic conditions are forecast.
This legislation would have put California’s minimum wage at the highest in the country, had New York lawmakers not passed this week their own measure to increase the rate in their state to $15 an hour rate by 2018 and 2019.
Gov. Brown’s office reports that 2.2 million Californians make minimum wage, which currently adds up to $20,800 for a full-time worker.
Under the new, $15-an-hour scale, the governor’s office estimates that will go up to $31,200 an hour.
Calls to Service Employees International Union Local 521 and the United Farm Workers Union for comment weren’t returned, nor were repeated calls to Assembly Member Luis A. Alejo (D-Salinas) and state Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres).
Alejo’s legislation in 2013 resulted in the state raising the minimum wage from $8 to $9 in July 2104, and then to $10 at the start of 2015.
Before that, California’s minimum wage hadn’t changed in six-and-a-half years, and many in the Monterey County’s business community have expressed shock at how quickly SB 3 was passed — with the governor announcing the compromise deal on Monday and state legislators voting just three days later — and by how much minimum pay rates will rise in less than six years.
“This has come up really quickly and moved lighting fast, so we don’t have an official position from the chamber,” said Paul J. Farmer, president and chief executive officer of the Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce.
The scheduled pay increases seem “staggeringly quick,” noted Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau.
“Our position is we are concerned about raising the minimum wage 50 percent from where it is in a short space of years,” he said, adding that state officials should have spaced out the increases over a longer period, perhaps 10 or 12 years.
“It’s not just the minimum wage that increases. It’s other costs, including workers compensation, paid time off and other benefits related to wage, salary levels.”
“This is a significant piece of legislation,” added Andrew Myrick, economic development manager for the city of Salinas. “Forty percent of the state makes $15 or less. And when you give them a raise, the people above them are going to expect raises of some caliber.”
“Different industries are going to respond differently than this,” Myrick said, noting that the tech sector doesn’t have a lot of minimum-wage jobs, so the effect there likely will be minimal.
That’s not likely to be the case for restaurants and other service industries, which tend to have a lot of minimum-wage workers and likely will raise prices as their labor costs go up, Bozzo said.
“I think that they’re just putting a Band-Aid on the issue,” said Bozzo, who added making housing and healthcare more affordable would more effectively help the finances of minimum-wage workers.
He said it should be up to employers to set pay rates, noting that in his experience, those who don’t pay fair wages and treat their workers well don’t tend to stay in business long.
But the effects of the minimum-wage jump may not be all that severe here on the Central Coast compared to other parts of the state, some experts say.
“I don’t think it’s going to have a substantial impact on agriculture,” as farm laborers in this area are generally paid at higher rates than the state’s current state minimum wage and the planned increase to $15-an-hour rate, said Jim Bogart, president and general council for the Salinas-based Grower-Shippers Association of Central California.
“Many harvesting crews make $20 to $25 an hour right now” while tractor drivers make about $15 an hour in the Salinas area and entry-level jobs on weeding crews pay about $11 to $12 an hour, he said.
“Historically, agricultural employers here on the Central Coast have paid the highest wages” in the state, Bogart said, though Groot added that part of the reason in recent years has been to draw and keep agriculture laborers here because of shortages of such laborers across the state.
“I don’t know if it will hurt the economy in Monterey [County], but it will hurt the economy in California because, by and large, we pay close to that already,” said David Spaur, the county’s economic development director.
He added that businesses on the Central Coast generally have enough breathing room between profitability and their break-even points to absorb some of these added labor costs, moreso than in some other parts of the state — particularly the Central Valley — where the margins are tighter.
For now, Spaur said, business operators are absorbing dealing with the “sticker shock” of how much they’ll have to pay minimum-wage employees.