Ag Today Monday, December 21, 2015

Ag Today

Monday, December 21, 2015


New York Times

California Wants to Store Water for Farmers, but Struggles Over How to Do It

By Justin Gillis

FRIANT, Calif. — Californians suffering through the fourth year of a punishing drought have a new worry. With fierce storms predicted for the winter, they are bracing for floods by stockpiling sandbags and rushing to buy insurance.

Yet those who need water the most, farmers, are in a poor position to take advantage of any deluge. If El Niño floods pour into the Central Valley, the farmers will inevitably watch millions of gallons of water flow to the sea.

This state, forward-looking on other environmental issues, has been stymied for decades over how to upgrade its plumbing system, an immense but aging network of reservoirs and canals that move water from the mountainous north to the drier south.

But the prolonged drought of recent years has prodded California into action, with new laws and a willingness to spend public money to better prepare for a future that is likely to be more difficult because of global warming. The state must decide how best to save the water that arrives between the drought years, weighing the value of billion-dollar construction projects against smaller and less expensive measures.

“We’re seeing a level of attention and commitment that we haven’t seen in decades, a desire to move forward,” said Lester A. Snow, a former head of water resources for California and veteran of the state’s water battles.

Big decisions loom. What parts of California’s water system, the most elaborate in the world, need fixing the most? And how can it be done in a way that helps the state’s enormous farm economy, which uses huge amounts of water, without sacrificing the needs of its cities or the environment?

The path California chooses will affect people across the United States and even around the world.

In the 20th century, cheap and plentiful water for irrigation, coupled with rich soils and a special climate, turned the state into a cornucopia that has stocked the nation’s refrigerators and cupboards for generations. These days, farmers are also helping to supply developing countries like China with fruit and nuts.

But keeping California’s agricultural land in production depends on fixing its growing water problems.

As the state considers its options, many farmers want to revive the approach that worked for them in the last century: building dams. Not far from this tiny hamlet northeast of Fresno, Calif., for instance, the government is thinking of building a new artificial lake just above an existing one.

“We’re in a critical condition right now,” said Mario Santoyo, a board member and technical adviser for the California Latino Water Coalition, as he stood on the deck of a motorboat in the middle of Millerton Lake, built in 1942. He pointed to a spot called Temperance Flat, where the new dam — it would be the latest of many on the San Joaquin River — would be built.

Yet, as agricultural interests prepare a major push to get water projects built, doubts are growing about whether spending huge sums to pour high walls of concrete are the best way to solve California’s water problems.

Many independent experts, and almost all environmental groups, argue that dams would supply relatively little water for the money. They contend that Californians need to move aggressively to more modern methods of water management, reducing waste to a minimum and learning to live within the limits imposed by an arid environment.

“We are living with a legacy of decades of overallocating our water, and refusing to say ‘no’ when people want more,” said Doug Obegi, a staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. “When people think they are entitled to more water than exists in the system, that’s a recipe for failure.”

Pumping Problems

California is able to supply a third of America’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts because it is one of only five major growing regions of the world with what is known as a Mediterranean climate. That means it is cold and wet in the winter, then dry and sunny in the summer. The bright, clear days create ideal growing conditions.

The hitch is water. Precipitation is erratic, and when it comes, it tends to fall in the mountainous northern and eastern parts of the state, while much of the population and farming are in the south and west. Winter snows in the Sierra Nevada are crucial, sending billions of gallons of water racing down the state’s rivers with the spring snowmelt.

In the mid-20th century, two enormous government projects — the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project — were built to capture those flows. They move water over hills and through deserts, delivering it as far south as the San Diego neighborhoods bordering Mexico.

Much of the water is pumped from the great delta where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers converge on their way to the ocean through the Golden Gate, and that pumping has become a focus of intractable conflict.

In recent decades, the ecology of the delta deteriorated to the verge of collapse, with many of California’s native fishes believed to be in danger of extinction. Scientists said that excessive pumping was a contributing factor. Congress imposed restrictions that reduced water for farmers, and environmental groups sued under the nation’s landmark conservation laws to further tighten the rules.

The extended drought has compounded the problems. Across large parts of the Central Valley, farmers have survived by pumping groundwater at a furious rate, causing water tables to drop precipitously and thousands of shallow wells to run dry.

Public awareness of the overpumping allowed Gov. Jerry Brown and other state leaders to overcome decades of resistance from the farm lobby and pass a law last year to regulate groundwater, though the law does not require the pumping to be reduced to sustainable levels until the 2040s.

“You’ve got a free-for-all for the next 25 years,” said John D. Bredehoeft, a retired federal hydrologist in Sausalito who spent decades studying water in California. “I don’t think the water’s going to last for 25 years.”

As water problems have worsened in the Central Valley, many farmers have blamed the environmentalists who, the farmers argue, are choosing to waste water on fish at the expense of people.

Speaking in Congress in July, Tom McClintock, a Republican House member who represents a large section of the Central Valley, decried “the nihilistic vision of the environmental left: increasingly severe government-induced shortages, forced rationing, astronomical water prices and a permanently declining quality of life for our children, who will be required to stretch and ration every drop of water in their parched homes.”

For people who share this view, one proposed solution is to overcome the political power of the environmentalists and build more dams. When California voters, frightened by the drought, approved $7.12 billion in new bonds last year to improve the water infrastructure, agricultural interests pushed to include $2.7 billion for new water storage.

Many proposals for new storage are on the table. Two that have drawn considerable interest are damming the San Joaquin River again at Temperance Flat, costing more than $2 billion, and a project north of the delta called Sites Reservoir that would store water pumped from the Sacramento River, at a cost nearing $4 billion.

Yet, in part because California already has so many dams and the best sites were used up long ago, all that money would buy relatively little extra water, according to experts who have studied the proposals.

Ellen Hanak, head of the water program at a think tank called the Public Policy Institute of California, calculated that if both projects had been in place in time for the current drought, water supply to the state’s farmers might have been increased by about 5 percent. “I think people in agriculture imagine that it would do more than it would,” Dr. Hanak said.

Just as controversial is a huge plan pushed by Governor Brown to build two immense tunnels, at a cost of $15 billion, to move water from the upper reaches of the delta to the lower delta, bypassing some of the environmental problems. The goal is to create a more reliable system, but delta farm groups see the plan as an old-fashioned water grab by the southern part of the state.

On a boat ride in July through one of the delta’s channels, Anna Swenson, co-director of a community group called North Delta Cares, spoke of William Mulholland, the famed Los Angeles water boss who, in the early 20th century, purloined the water of the distant Owens Valley on behalf of his city.

“William Mulholland is in the grave, and so should his ideas be,” Ms. Swenson said. “The days when you could come up here and stick your straw in to satisfy your insatiable demands — those days are over.”

Elsewhere in the state, many farm groups support the tunnel plan, but others are wary, fearing they will be stuck with a large bill in exchange for minimal benefits. Mr. Brown has pledged to make water users, not taxpayers, pay for the tunnels, but it is not clear whether he will be able to pull together the financing.

The economics of the proposed dams are just as difficult. Farmers are not willing to pay the full costs, and a huge battle is expected over how to spend the $2.7 billion approved by California voters for water-storage projects.

“We should just be ruthless about this,” said Jay R. Lund, head of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis. “It’s a straight-up calculation: What’s the benefit to the people of California compared to the costs? If you think your project is such a good project, prove it.”

For Don Cameron, a farmer south of Fresno, a wet winter 33 years ago led to an idea about how to take advantage of the vast natural water storage system underground.

He noticed that some grapevines along the San Joaquin River were flooded for months in the winter, but that those same vines produced a lush crop of grapes in the summer.

He had to wait until 2011, the last wet year before the current drought, to act on his idea. With a small government grant and help from scientists and an environmental group, Mr. Cameron diverted water to a thousand acres of the farm he manages, Terranova Ranch, deliberately flooding fields of grapes, pistachio trees and hay.

Conventional wisdom among farmers held that the roots of the crops, standing in floodwater for weeks on end, were likely to rot. “I think our neighbors thought we were crazy, to be honest with you,” Mr. Cameron recalled.

But Mr. Cameron’s fields suffered little damage. And the water soaked deep into the ground, helping to recharge the underground supply. Nowadays, Mr. Cameron is a man in demand, fielding telephone calls and interviews from around the state.

It turns out that California already has a place to store immense amounts of water, without necessarily building new dams.

Decades of overpumping have left the state’s water-bearing formations, known as aquifers, with enormous spare capacity. By some estimates, California could pump 10 times as much water into the aquifers as could be held by the new dams on the drawing board.

Such groundwater storage is already occurring in parts of the state, mainly in urban areas. It is not a perfect solution for agriculture: Water pumped into the ground and then pulled back out can pick up salts and other pollutants.

But no option confronting California farmers is perfect. Experts say this one has the potential to be far cheaper than dams. And if a new dam is built — at Temperance Flat, say — it could potentially help supply water for the aquifer-recharging projects.

The new groundwater law that the Legislature passed last year would give farmers stronger incentive to cooperate in such plans. In wet years, they might allow their fields to be flooded in the winter or early spring to recharge the groundwater, and they would then be entitled to pump a certain amount out in dry years.

Now, urgent research is underway to figure out what soils and crops can tolerate deliberate flooding. To move floodwater around in the winter, new canals and other infrastructure may be needed in some areas, one potential use of some of the $2.7 billion in public money.

If floods come this winter, Mr. Cameron will wish he were in a position to go beyond his 2011 experiment, capturing more water. But, like many farmers, he does not yet have the canals and gear in place to make that work, a big reason the farmers could be forced to watch millions of gallons of floodwater escape to the sea this winter.

Over the long term, Dr. Hanak believes, the state should not only encourage farmers to store water in the ground, but also consider creating a market to allow them to buy and sell their allotments.

Megan Konar, an engineer at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is among the experts eager to see California lead the world toward more sustainable methods.

Recent research she did with a graduate student, Landon Marston, found that 18.5 percent of the American grain supply, an essential link in the food chain, is coming from parts of the country where the aquifers are being depleted. Other research suggests that overpumping of water is even more severe in parts of India and Africa, a major long-term risk to the global food supply.

As global warming forces farmers to grow crops in hotter conditions, water demand is only going to rise.

“These aquifers need to be seen as strategic national reserves that can help us weather more climate variability in the future,” Dr. Konar said. “Right now, we have pretty much the opposite situation — we’re just seeing rapid overexploitation.”



San Jose Mercury News

Northern California salmon runs stronger than expected on many rivers despite drought

By Denis Cuff

EAST OF LODI — Long droughts like the one California is experiencing can be cruel to wild chinook salmon — smothering, starving, overheating, disorienting and drying out the fish.

But up and down Central Valley rivers, the story is surprisingly different this fall

On the Mokelumne River — a central Sierra drinking water source to 1.4 million East Bay residents — more than 12,000 adult chinook have returned for the fall run so far this year, exceeding a 17-year average of 8,000 fish.

They have come home to breed after a three-year struggle to survive migrations, predators, water-diversion pumps — and drought.

The abundance is in sharp contrast to the meager returns for the coho salmon on many coastal creeks, and for the endangered winter-run chinook on the upper Sacramento River, where overheated water killed many young fish earlier this year.

Officials say the fall run on the Mokelumne and other Central Valley rivers — the biggest such run in the state — is doing better because of abundant food sources in the ocean the past three years and because of effective human intervention: operating hatcheries, trucking young hatchery fish out of shallow, drought-starved rivers, and delicately balancing the flow of water between people and fish.

The fall run is the main producer of salmon caught off the California coast and a foundation for the state’s $1.4 billion annual commercial salmon industry.

“We are relieved to have these returns in a very challenging year,” said Michelle Workman, supervising fisheries and wildlife biologist for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which relies on the Mokelumne River as its main water source.

As Workman walked by the river recently, 2- and 3-foot-long salmon shot through the green, tree-lined waters below EBMUD’s Camanche Reservoir some 35 miles east of Lodi.

Some salmon slapped the water with their tails and dug out gravel burrows to lay eggs. Others leapt out of the water in a flurry of spray before swimming into a channel leading to the hatchery, where they will be killed — adult salmon die shortly after spawning in any case — and their eggs harvested to rear baby fish.

The scene of plentiful salmon returning is playing out on several other rivers, including the American near Sacramento, where nearly 8,000 salmon — more than average — have swum into the federal Nimbus Hatchery.

More than 16,000 salmon, also above average, have traveled up the Feather River to a hatchery below Oroville Reservoir north of Sacramento.

“Our hatchery managers are pleasantly surprised by the returns,” said Andrew Hughan, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which operates nine salmon hatcheries. “We are going to get as many fish as we need this year.”

Dam and hatchery operators in California have taken unusual measures in the drought to protect salmon competing with 38 million state residents for limited water supplies.

Officials have installed water-chilling equipment at hatcheries, released pulses of cold water behind dams, and reared baby fish longer in hatcheries than before.

They also have stepped up efforts to truck young hatchery-reared salmon for release in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta or San Francisco Bay. The giant taxi service moves salmon past meager drought-stricken rivers and streams, where fish can be overheated to death or picked off by predators.

East Bay water officials, in particular, took trucking to new heights this year, garnering praise from commercial salmon fishermen.

“We want to boost salmons’ natural production in the river,” said Workman. “There is no doubt the drought has provided a learning experience for those of us trying to protect fish.”

John McManus, the Golden Gate Salmon Association’s executive director, praised EBMUD for giving a lift to the naturally spawned fish, even though he says it’s too early to say what the long-term effect will be.

“They are regarded as the most progressive and most willing to experiment,” McManus said.

EBMUD, as well as other California water suppliers, have practical reasons for acting to protect fish: Their water supplies can be slashed if salmon or other fish do poorly.

State and federal environmental regulators have broad authority to limit pumping water from rivers and the Delta, and have faced criticism from environmentalists who say too much water has been diverted to people and farms at the expense of fish.

“When you have many fall-run salmon returning, it masks the extent of the problem because most of the fish coming back are hatchery fish,” said Jon Rosenfield, a scientist with the Bay Institute.

He contends drought is not the real problem but rather too much water being taken for farms and cities. “Salmon are amazingly resilient fish that can bounce back from extremes like drought, but the problem is our response to the drought.”

Inadequate flows of cold enough water hurt survival of young winter-run salmon this spring on the Upper Sacramento River, with many of the endangered juveniles dying out, the National Marine Fisheries Service reported in October.

For their part, East Bay water officials said they made two big sacrifices this year to protect salmon.

The district dedicated some of its emergency purchase of Sacramento River water to river flows for fish.

Then, to save cold water in the lower depths of its Pardee Reservoir for salmon, the district this summer pumped poorer-tasting water with algae from the upper reservoir to people in the East Bay. Many customers complained about the taste, but district officials said they needed to save the cool water to be released in fall to attract the salmon.

Some customers say the East Bay district is aggravating water shortages for people by giving away so much to the fish.

EBMUD officials said their water supplies for homes and businesses could be slashed by state and federal environmental regulators unless adequate measures are taken to help the fish.

This year as before, the water district used a motion-activated camera to count and inspect every salmon on the run to gauge whether measures to help them are working.

“We have to protect the fish,” said district spokeswoman Nelsey Rodriguez. “If the salmon on the Mokelumne River are not healthy, it jeopardizes our entire water supply.”

Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at



Sacramento Bee

Klamath Basin water accords crumble as Congress fails to act

By Ryan Sabalow and Michael Doyle

Ronnie Reed was born 53 years ago into the Karuk Tribe, whose ancestral lands stretch through the forested Klamath River canyon in Humboldt and Siskiyou counties. For years, he has held a sacred role as tribal fisherman, netting the salmon used in the tribe’s ancient ceremonies. And for much of that time, he saw the potato farmers and cattle ranchers who live almost 200 miles upstream in the Klamath Basin as villains.

He saw their relentless demands for Klamath River water and the hydroelectric dams that stymied the river’s flow as part of the subjugation of native people in the West. And he blamed the farmers – and their water diversions – for the 2002 fish kill that left tens of thousands of salmon floating lifeless in the Klamath.

So, it’s no understatement to say Reed was distrustful of the farmers at the other end of the table when he began formal negotiations with them two years later over how to manage the watershed.

But after years of tedious – and sometimes heated – negotiations, his outlook began to change.

“When I first started going out to these meetings, we were archenemies,” Reed said this month outside the tribe’s office in Humboldt County. “By the time we got done with that process, we’re drinking a beer, we’re eating salmon, we’re eating a potato, we’re eating some beef, and we’re having civil conversations about, ‘How are we going to fix this world?’ ”

That spirit of compromise and collaboration that reshaped an entire river system’s water use – from its source in the high desert of southern Oregon to where it washes into the Pacific in Northern California – didn’t transfer to Washington, D.C.

Fueled by partisan acrimony over the proposed removal of four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River – a crucial component in a trio of settlements that became known as the Klamath Agreements – Congress has once again adjourned for the year without passing a bill to authorize and fund the accords.

Without congressional approval, critical portions of the agreements will expire on Jan. 1.

More than 40 groups, including the Karuk, signed the first of the agreements in 2010, striking a broad compromise among divergent factions that had been at odds for decades.


The accords promised a more secure future for Klamath Basin farmers by guaranteeing them a more reliable supply of water to irrigate their crops. The agreements also promised restored habitat for several species of threatened or endangered fish, and they granted water to wildlife refuges plagued by drought. The settlements hinged on removal of the four privately owned dams – three in California and one in Oregon – that were long seen by tribes, environmental groups and fishing associations as harmful to migratory fish.

But dam removal was the major sticking point for opponents in the north state and Republicans in Washington, D.C. Western Republicans in both the House and Senate for five years have blocked efforts to advance legislation that included dam removal.

“Tearing down four perfectly good hydroelectric dams when we can’t guarantee enough electricity to keep your refrigerator running this summer is lunacy,” Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, a leading opponent of dam removal, said last week in a written statement. McClintock described the dam-removal agreements as a “greens-gone-wild episode.”

Though at least one Republican congressman said he’s hopeful the legislation will be resurrected next year, many of those who signed the Klamath Agreements said that, with dam removal off the table, extending the deals would require a new round of negotiations among the original parties. And they say that’s unlikely.

Already, the Yurok Tribe has pulled out of the process in frustration at congressional inaction. The Karuk and other tribes have signaled they’ll likely follow suit. At this point, many farmers in the community also are unlikely to return to the bargaining table, said Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, representing the interests of 1,200 family farms and ranches in the Klamath Basin.

“We have districts in the Klamath Project basically saying, ‘This approach didn’t work,’ so what you’re seeing is more hard-liners surfacing and taking leadership roles,” Addington said.

The failure to amicably reshape water use on the rural Klamath River doesn’t bode well for other disputes on more complex watersheds in California, whose overstretched water supplies are a source of tension among fisheries advocates, cities and powerful farming interests. The divide among a few thousand family farmers, tribal members and anglers on the Klamath seems simple by comparison.

Plus, unlike the large water projects in California whose dams store millions of acre-feet for flood control, drinking water and irrigation downstream, these four Klamath dams are used primarily for hydroelectric power. They provide little storage for drinking water or agriculture. The farmers in the Klamath Basin receive their water from sources upstream of the disputed dams.

“My thought is if they can’t get it done here, what hope is there down the road for California and the other places?” farmer and cattle rancher Jim Carleton said outside a bustling potato packing plant in Merrill, Ore. “If they’re not going to get it done here on this scale, it seems like a pretty tall task to get it done on a larger scale, maybe impossible.”

Those who signed the agreements say it’s all the more galling that Congress failed to enact them, given it was federal lawmakers who set the settlements in motion.

“In the tough times of 2001 and 2002, when it was just bitter, bitter conflict, Congress actually told us to get a solution,” Addington said. “They said, ‘Quit banging on our desks. We can’t solve this for you. We need you to do it.’ So we did it.”

Years of tensions over water use on the Klamath boiled over in the drought of 2001, when federal regulators shut off the water to Klamath Basin farms in spring, amid concerns further irrigation would kill off coho salmon and two other endangered fish species. In response, nearly 10,000 farmers and their allies rallied in “bucket brigade” protests. At one point, a small group of activists took a blowtorch and saw to a closed irrigation-canal head gate.

The next year, the administration of President George W. Bush reversed course and let farmers irrigate. Tribes, environmental groups and fishing associations were outraged, in turn, when tens of thousands of migrating salmon died in the low flows that followed the water diversions.

Though lawsuits were pending, the various factions in 2004 agreed to begin talks that eventually changed how the watershed was managed.

Under the agreements, Klamath Basin farmers agreed to take less water in exchange for more reliability, with guaranteed amounts set each year. The idea was to reduce the possibility of unexpected cutbacks in the middle of the growing season when conditions threaten fish.

A related settlement signed in 2014 reshaped water allotments in the watershed’s upstream reaches. The Klamath Tribes, the federally recognized nation made up of Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin Indians, have senior water rights, but they agreed to share water with upper basin farmers in exchange for habitat restoration and the retirement of thousand of acres of agricultural land.

The drought-plagued Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, an annual stopover for millions of migrating birds, also was a winner. The agreements ensured refuges would receive a share of water nearly on par with local irrigators.

For environmentalists, anglers and the salmon-dependent tribes living in impoverished rural communities along the Klamath, dam removal was seen as the biggest victory. They’ve long complained the dams block salmon and other migratory fish from critical spawning habitat, reduce water quality and contribute to the low flows that kill fish.

They had an ally in the power company that owns the dams, Portland, Ore.-based PacifiCorp.

The dams in question range from 50 to 100 years old and provide power to 70,000 homes. Spokesman Bob Gravely said that amounts to less than 2 percent of the power in PacifiCorp’s system, and removing them would have little impact on the power grid.

“Our energy load in the Klamath Basin can be served from a gas plant in Salt Lake or a wind farm on the Columbia Gorge, so we don’t anticipate any issue with replacing the power,” he said.

Still, dam removal and the associated habitat restoration efforts outlined in the settlements are expensive, estimated to cost at least $1 billion. The power company, which is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, insisted on a provision that capped its share of dam removal costs at $200 million. The settlement also has a provision that helps shield PacifiCorp from legal bills should demolition of the dams cause problems.

If the dams are to stand, Gravely said, they’ll need serious upgrades such as fish ladders for state and federal officials to relicense them. This costly prospect has some who signed the agreements wondering whether the dams’ days are numbered, regardless of the settlements.

“I think PacifiCorp would like to be rid of this asset,” said S. Craig Tucker, who advocates for dam removal on behalf of the Karuk Tribe. “I don’t think we need to have an act of Congress to solve that problem. … What we have is an arrangement where we could remove dams, restore fisheries and give ag a soft landing. The alternative is to remove dams and not have a soft landing.”

Siskiyou voters say dams should stay

So why didn’t Congress sign off?

Expense was part of it. Under the settlements, the federal government would agree to appropriate up to $800 million to fund the projects outlined in the accords, and California would pay up to $250 million for dam removal. Republican opponents said it amounted to a gift from taxpayers to farmers and to Buffett.

The accords also met with loud opposition in Siskiyou County, home of three of the four dams. Though the Klamath River snakes through the county, only a small group of Siskiyou County farmers in the Tulelake area near Oregon were part of the settlement agreements. Most of the Klamath Basin’s farmers and ranchers are in Oregon.

In 2010, nearly 80 percent of Siskiyou County voters passed a symbolic referendum condemning dam removal. Some of the most vocal opponents were the conservative activists behind the movement to carve an independent State of Jefferson out of rural Northern California and southern Oregon. Along the curvy Highway 96 which follows the Klamath River’s path through Siskiyou County, the movement’s green and yellow double-X insignia pops up every few miles, sometimes beside signs protesting dam removal.

The activists contend that removing the dams is yet another example of out-of-area regulators imposing their will on locals who will have to live with the consequences. They say the reservoirs behind the dams are vital for recreation and property values, and they cite concerns about environmental risks caused by dam removal and the loss of a local source of electricity.

“I just don’t think … people have the confidence that the right motives are being exercised here,” said Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey, an opponent of dam removal. “And we feel that there are bureaucrats that work for the Department of the Interior and other regulatory agencies who are promulgating this policy without regards for the people of Siskiyou County.”

U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, whose district includes Siskiyou County, has heard these sentiments from constituents, and he shares them.

“No one has shown me that taking down the dams is beneficial to fish or people,” he said in a recent interview off the floor of the House of Representatives.

Now that the deals appear dead, dam-removal advocates say they’ll renew efforts to have the dams torn down through other means, including the pending relicensing process. And some of those involved say they’ll try to salvage other pieces of the accords. But there’s a looming dread that a new round of lawsuits will be filed soon and tensions again will escalate.

Klamath Basin rancher Luther Horsley said it’s disappointing. He saw the accords as securing an agricultural future for his family.

On a brisk fall morning in Midland, Ore., near the California border, Horsley stood on the back of a pickup tossing hay out to a herd of cattle. His 3-year-old grandson, Wes, sat in the driver’s seat. His feet, clad in miniature, scuffed cowboy boots, couldn’t touch the pedals, so the truck in its lowest gear crept along as Wes steered.

“If we can’t irrigate our crops, then our farming operation’s not viable, then we won’t be here for my grandson,” Horsley said. “That’s why I was so behind these agreements, and why it was so easy to throw in with the other parties.

“Everybody, the other negotiators, the other stakeholders in the process … had the same goal as I do: They wanted stability for their communities. They wanted something there for their future generations.”

Four hours west at the Karuk tribe’s office in Orleans, the future of the Klamath River also is very much on Reed’s mind.

Every fall, he heads down the canyon to a set of rapids called Ishi Pishi Falls. There, he balances on slippery rocks and scoops salmon out of the river using a small net strung between a pair of long poles, the same method used by his ancestors. The hundreds of fish he catches feed the tribe. These salmon also play an integral part in the Karuk’s annual World Renewal Ceremony.

Reed says that his days as a negotiator may be over. He said he’s ready to become an activist again to ensure the dams come down so that his people can continue to have the fish they’ve relied on for centuries.

“It’s a way of life,” he said. “It’s not something the Karuk Tribe is willing to back off of.”

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow




Wall Street Journal

Spending Bill Eliminates Rule for Labels Specifying Meat’s Country of Origin

Lawmakers were concerned Canada and Mexico soon would tariff U.S. goods in retaliation

By Kelsey Gee

The spending bill passed by Congress on Friday eliminates a meat-labeling regulation that for years has divided the U.S. livestock industry and angered two of the nation’s biggest trading partners.

A provision in the $1.15 trillion spending measure, which is expected to be signed by President Barack Obama, repeals a rule that since 2009 has required meat packers to list animals’ country of origin on packages of beef and pork.

The provision drew bipartisan support in Congress because lawmakers were concerned Canada and Mexico soon would slap tariffs on U.S. goods in retaliation for the rule, which they deemed as protectionist. The World Trade Organization last week gave Canada and Mexico the authority to impose $1.01 billion in tariffs after ruling earlier this year that the rule discriminated against Canadian and Mexican livestock

Industries from wine to furniture makers lobbied Congress to repeal the rule to avoid tariffs on their exports. Canadian trade officials in recent years said the country could target U.S. food items such as frozen orange juice, ketchup and beef. Also on the list were stainless-steel pipes and tubes, swivel chairs and mattresses. That upset the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers, which jointly led a coalition of industry associations pushing for a repeal.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) said it was “critical that we come together to resolve this issue so that our businesses do not face the cost of retaliation. I’m pleased we’ve done that on a bipartisan basis.”

Last week’s decision by the world trade body marked a major setback to the country-of-origin labeling rule, also known as COOL, after years of unsuccessful efforts by meat packers and members of Congress to repeal the law. An attempt to dismantle the labeling rule in the U.S. Farm Bill in 2013 was thwarted, as were multiple attempts to halt its rollout in federal courts.

“Our attitude was we were going to use every available mechanism to get a bad idea, and a bad law, repealed,” said Mark Dopp, general counsel for the North American Meat Institute, a group that represents livestock producers and meat packers such as Tyson Foods Inc. “While we couldn’t initiate WTO litigation, we were glad that the Mexican and Canadian governments did.”

Some groups representing smaller U.S. ranchers and farmers, many of whom supported the labeling rule, decried the repeal provision.

“This is a rotten way to do legislation, by attaching these barnacles on the omnibus bills in the dark of the night,” said Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, a Washington, D.C.-based organization.

Industry groups have sparred over the meat-labeling rule for more than a decade, even as mandatory country-of-origin labels now appear on many foods, including peanuts, fish and apples.

The meat-labeling effort gained traction in Congress in the early 2000s amid concerns over mad-cow disease, prompting consumer groups to argue such labels could help shoppers avoid food from countries with lax safety regulations. But meat packers said the regulations imposed unnecessary burdens and costs by requiring them to track and sort animals throughout their lifetimes.

Ruth Laughery, a rancher in Wyola, Mont., said she is angry the labeling rule is on the chopping block.

“The repeal…is going to affect our markets as more cattle come into the country,” said Ms. Laughery. “My husband and I are just trying to make a living off of the American dream of having our own business.”

Write to Kelsey Gee at



Associated Press

Showdown Looms Between Vilsack, Congress Over Wildfire Costs

By Mead Gruver

CHEYENNE, Wyo. – Federal budget brinkmanship could flare while wildfires are bearing down on U.S. communities after Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack vowed to end the practice of raiding other programs’ funding to cover firefighting costs.

The U.S. Forest Service depleted its firefighting budget in August as the costliest fire season in U.S. history destroyed hundreds of homes in California and the Pacific Northwest. If money budgeted for firefighting runs out again next year, Congress will need to step in with emergency funding instead of expecting the Forest Service to fill the gap, Vilsack wrote congressional budget leaders Thursday.

“The American public can no longer afford delays to forest restoration and other critical Forest Service activities caused by annual fire transfers,” he told the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate appropriations committees.

Next fire season would need to be a bad one, indeed, for firefighting funds to run out. The Forest Service is getting $1.6 billion for firefighting, up from $1 billion this past year, in the federal budget that cleared Congress on Friday.

Total money for wildland fire management will top the 10-year average by $593 million, said Chris Gallegos, spokesman for Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss.

Still, the Forest Service budget for firefighting will be less than the record $1.7 billion spent this past year as wildfires burned a near-record 15,000 square miles nationwide. The Forest Service spent more than half of its total budget on firefighting for the first time.

To keep firefighters fighting and air tankers flying, the Forest Service had to dip into other accounts, a routine that has become common as fire season has grown longer and more intense year after year. The agency has exceeded its firefighting budget six of the past 10 years.

Anticipating that it would run out of firefighting funds, the Forest Service has held back on programs not directly related to firefighting. It will stop doing that in the year ahead, USDA spokesman Matthew Herrick said.

Officials won’t allow homes to burn while waiting on Congress to act, however.

“We will continue to protect lives, property and our natural resources, but it is the responsibility of Congress to ensure those resources are sufficient each year,” Herrick said.

While glad to have a bigger firefighting budget, the Obama administration had sought a long-term fix by funding its response to wildfires like that of tornadoes, hurricanes and other natural disasters.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee decided against that approach, saying more review is needed to make sure it would work as intended.




Sacramento Bee

Farmer’s measure hits bonds

By Dan Walters

Initiative would require votes on big revenue bond issues

Its chief target is Gov. Brown’s twin tunnels project

Dean Cortopassi, a wealthy San Joaquin County farmer, is rattling California’s political establishment by spending millions on a 2016 ballot measure.

Dubbed the “No Blank Checks Initiative,” the constitutional amendment would require a public vote whenever the state borrows more than $2 billion for a public works project via “revenue bonds.”

Typically such bonds are serviced via streams of non-tax revenue, such as charges for water or sewer services, unlike “general obligation” bonds, which are backed by taxes.

While GO bonds require voter approval, revenue bonds do not, and critics say Cortopassi’s proposal could cripple much-needed infrastructure work.

His chief target is the twin tunnels project that Gov. Jerry Brown and major water interests propose to divert Sacramento River water beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the California Aqueduct.

He assumes that the tunnels would be financed via bonds secured by payments from large water districts that depend on the aqueduct. But the measure could affect other major public works projects.

Theoretically, there are good reasons why GO bonds need voter approval, while revenue bonds don’t. But the once-clear separation between the two has been blurred by politicians who don’t want to risk rejection by voters.

Most notably, after voters rejected a bond issue to build more prisons in the 1980s, the Legislature and successive governors plowed ahead anyway by creating a phony revenue bond financing system.

They created a special agency to issue revenue bonds, build the prisons and then “lease” them to the state prisons department. Thus, the “revenue” to repay the bonds came straight out of the state general fund, just as it would have done with general obligation bonds. In fact, the financial community treats them like general obligation bonds.

Had the state not used this subterfuge, and continued to ask voters for approval, it’s doubtful whether the massive prison construction program, and its attendant multibillion-dollar costs, would have occurred. And the state would not now be trying to reduce prison overcrowding under pressure from federal judges.

The same blurring has occurred at the local level as officials sought ways around the voter approval requirements of GO bonds.

Recently, a state appellate court approved a rather sneaky deal involving the city of San Diego and the Public Facilities Financing Authority, which the city created and controls.

They forged a “joint powers” agreement under which the city leases property to the authority, which then leases it back, with new city facilities, to the city – financed by $130 million in bonds issued without voter approval.

The deal is a clone of the prison subterfuge and clearly aimed at avoiding voters, but the court ruled that while questionable, it’s legal. And local school districts also have been using similar “lease-leaseback” schemes to bypass voters.

As long as these smarmy voter-avoidance schemes exist, perhaps subjecting big revenue bond issues to voter approval isn’t such a bad idea. And if the twin tunnels are the big benefit that Brown and others claim, they shouldn’t fear facing voters either.

Brown, however, may spend some of his multimillion-dollar campaign fund to oppose the Cortopassi measure.

Dan Walters: 916-321-1195,, @WaltersBee