Monday, February 22, 2016
New limits on California well-drilling sought
By Jeremy B. White
Warning that a drought-driven surge in well drilling is causing the earth to sag and imperiling long-term water supplies, a California senator wants to place more stringent limits on new wells.
In an effort sure to inflame ever-sensitive disputes over water rights, Senate Bill 1317, by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, would have people hoping to sink new wells in strained basins obtain conditional use permits and furnish proof that a new well would not have “undesirable impacts” like causing the earth to sink or dropping water levels too low. It would halt new wells in critically overdrafted basins, of which there are currently 21 across the state.
Local governments could avoid those requirements by passing their own limits – no easy matter, given the intensity of fights over access to water and property rights.
“We have to recognize that there are serious problems now in some groundwater basins,” Wolk said in an interview. Local governments “need to take responsibility for their critically overdrafted basins.” She added, “and if they don’t, we will.”
Those new requirements could mean a longer process to get approval. It would almost certainly lead to some applications for new wells being denied, slowing a well-drilling scramble underway in response to the drought. The bill risks igniting a backlash from agricultural interests and rural lawmakers who have battled limits on tapping groundwater.
“If you’ve got a problem,” Wolk said, “you stop digging.”
Years of drought have thrown a spotlight on California’s disappearing groundwater. Farmers facing sharp curtailments in water deliveries have responded by drilling more and deeper wells, turning to underground water as surface sources like rivers and reservoirs have shriveled up. Groundwater typically accounts for a majority of California’s water use during dry years, according to state studies.
The growing reliance on groundwater has alarmed scientists, who say aquifers are shrinking at an unsustainable rate, causing large portions of the Central Valley to sink.
A scramble for scarce water has also pitted neighbor against neighbor, with those who can afford it sinking deeper wells that tap into aquifers spanning multiple properties.
“It affects more than just the individual landowner who’s digging the well,” Wolk said. “We have to recognize that these wells are not separate and individual. In fact, they affect everyone.”
Lawmakers responded in 2014 by passing California’s first state-level groundwater management requirements. The landmark package, which Wolk helped champion, overcame fierce opposition from agricultural interests and removed California’s holdout status as the only Western state not to regulate underground pumping.
But even as the requirements spur threats of lawsuits and complaints of government overreach, enforceable limits will not grow teeth for years. Basin managers will not need to balance their water withdrawal sheets for more than 20 years.
In the meantime, Wolk said, the consequences of over-drilling continue to play out.
“I don’t believe we dealt with the short-term emergency that we have in many parts of the state,” Wolk said.
Local governments have stepped into the fray by pursuing limits on new wells. Those efforts have yielded mixed results, demonstrating the issue’s political potency.
The defeat of a proposed well-drilling moratorium in Madera County spotlighted the political peril of such proposals in areas heavily dependent on agriculture. County Supervisor David Rogers said elected officials rebuffed the 2014 proposal “simply out of deference to personal property rights.”
“We realized that would be a problem for people whose wells went dry and people who already own property,” Rogers said. “It would limit their ability to even use their property or sell it.”
Vocal opposition from farmers helped to doom the measure, said Madera County Supervisor Tom Wheeler, who proposed the idea. He cast the effort as an attempt to protect residential water supplies from thirsty farms, particularly those that had invested in lucrative but water-intensive crops like nut trees.
“They’re all being drained by these farmers using ag grazing land for almonds and pistachios,” Wheeler said. “They’re sucking our land down.”
A halt on new well drilling in overdrafted parts of Ventura County fared better. Supervisor Steve Bennett intentionally kept the proposal quiet to forestall a rush of new well-drilling applications and then prevailed over what he called “a full-court press” led by large agricultural groups.
“These people whose wells are going dry because people are putting in wells around them – they were the ones who helped me,” Bennett said.
While proponents lauded the state groundwater laws as a breakthrough, Bennett said he believed elected officials “really punted” by deferring to locals and giving them ample time to set up groundwater management plans.
“It only sounds good to say let the locals figure it out,” Bennett said. “We’re in better shape than other places, but we’re still a long ways from where it should be. In other places it’s a free-for-all.”
Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert, email@example.com
Flow of frustration
By Alex Breitler
Only in the wettest times is there enough water from the Delta to satisfy most everyone — farmers, fish, southland cities.
In a drought, there is never enough.
Delta water shipments to much of California have been reduced over the past two months to protect fish that are on the verge of extinction. And yet, the cutbacks aren’t as strong as scientists have recommended to save at least one species.
At the same time, water managers have become increasingly vocal in recent weeks about the water they have “lost” so far as a result of those pumping restrictions — 445,000 acre-feet of water, state officials said Friday, a year’s supply of water for roughly 3 million people.
The tradeoff is a familiar narrative for anyone who has followed water policy in the Delta over the past decade. But these days, with fish disappearing and the state attempting to climb out of deep drought, the stakes are higher.
“There’s a huge amount of frustration, I think,” said Terry Erlewine, general manager of the State Water Contractors, which represents Delta water exporters from the Bay Area to Southern California.
“For the agricultural water districts (especially), it just really hurts them to see water flow by that they need, and to just let it go,” Erlewine said.
Each year giant pumps near Tracy send Delta water to cities from San Jose to San Diego, and to millions of acres of farmland. But when the pumps are churning, they cause south Delta channels to flow backward, pulling in threatened fish like the little Delta smelt and baby salmon.
Rules to protect the fish under the Endangered Species Act were triggered in January and February. Pumping was reduced. The channels still flow backward, but not as rapidly.
An interagency team of scientists that closely monitors Delta smelt recently recommended even more stringent pumping limits, concluding that the smelt are still at “high risk” from current pumping levels as they begin their critical spawning season.
While only a single smelt is known to have turned up at the pumps since mid-January, the species is in such dire straits that counting fish at the pumps is no longer a good way to determine the risk, the scientists say.
That’s why the current restrictions on pumping aren’t enough, says Stockton’s Bill Jennings, head of the environmental group California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. “With the numbers we’ve got they ought to be taking extra precautions,” he said.
Context is important, said Jon Rosenfield, a biologist with The Bay Institute, another environmental group.
While much has been made about pumping restrictions in the Delta, and water that has been “lost” as a result, about 60 percent of the runoff in the Central Valley has been captured this season — whether diverted from the Delta, stored in upstream reservoirs or taken by other water users, Rosenfield said. The other 40 percent was allowed to flow through the Delta without being diverted.
In other words, the Bay-Delta ecosystem is benefiting from well under half of the water, he said.
Pumping cuts under the Endangered Species Act might not be necessary if state officials put adequate longer-term Delta flow standards in place in the first place, Rosenfield said. Scientists have found that the current standards are inadequate, and efforts to update them are years overdue.
“If you look at the big picture, it really shows a lack of political will to protect public resources,” Rosenfield said.
The unfortunate irony is that big storms — the kind water managers want to take advantage of — occur when Delta pumping cutbacks are most likely.
The storms wash sediment into rivers, clouding them with mud. The smelt follow the muddy water because it helps them hide from predators. The muddy water draws the fish right toward the pumps, which triggers the cuts in pumping.
At that point, all bets are off whether more storms later in the season will allow for more pumping.
“You just never know if it’s going to be another week or another six months. It’s feast or famine,” said Erlewine, who believes the pumping rules are sometimes not as flexible as they should be to allow officials to take advantage of those storms.
One of the state’s rationales for building Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin tunnels — which would divert some water directly from the Sacramento River rather than the south Delta — is that the tunnels will reduce the “reverse flows” that harm the fish, though opponents say the tunnels would cause other problems by siphoning off a share of the estuary’s freshwater supply.
In a statement published Friday on the state Department of Water Resources’ tunnels website, officials called the pumping cutbacks related to the recent storms simply a “missed opportunity.”
— Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at recordnet.com/breitlerblog and on Twitter @alexbreitler.
Orange County Register
Feinstein’s water bill could be good news for thirsty state
The rainfall across Southern California last week only slightly alleviated the record drought, but was welcome nonetheless. The same can be said of a new federal drought-relief bill, S.2533, introduced this month by the state’s senior U.S. senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein.
“This bill won’t be everything for everyone,” she explained in a statement. “But I believe the bill strikes the right balance. It invests $1.3 billion in defined long-term projects while making targeted, temporary changes to water operations that only last for the length of the drought or two years, whichever is longer, and which do not violate environmental laws.”
A key player on federal water policy is Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, whose district covers farm areas east and southeast of Fresno. “After killing the effort to pass a compromise water bill in December, Sen. Feinstein has introduced her own water bill,” he told us.
“While her bill would not bring much additional water to the Central Valley, I hope she succeeds in getting it approved in the Senate. Once that occurs, the House and Senate can enter formal negotiations that could finally bring some relief to Central Valley families, farms and communities,” he said
It seems to us there’s room for compromise, if not this year, then in 2017. Variables include the retirement of Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., a close Feinstein ally on water policy. Both women hail from Marin County. Of the Democratic candidates to replace Sen. Boxer, state Attorney General Kamala Harris comes from San Francisco, but Rep. Loretta Sanchez hails from Orange County and would bring a different regional perspective.
Then, of course, there’s the presidential election, which could produce a Republican administration with less-restrictive environmental policies than President Obama’s.
Some farmers praised the Feinstein bill. “She’s introduced a bill that’s positive,” California Citrus Mutual President Joel Nelsen told the Capital Press. “We appreciate her work to create a California water bill for the Senate’s consideration,” said California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger.
Along with voter passage of the $7.5 billion state water bond in 2014, the Feinstein bill is a start to alleviating a water crisis far from over in California.
Marin Independent Journal
Report urges Marin and region to be vigilant in protecting farms from development
By Mark Prado
Marin and the Bay Area should do more to protect local ranches and farms that produce local food that ends up on breakfast, lunch and dinner plates across the region, according to a new report.
The Greenbelt Alliance, a San Francisco-based open space advocacy group, issued “Homegrown,” a report highlighting some of the issues ranches and farms face in the urbanized Bay Area as they produce food.
Greenbelt is a supporter of farms because they speak to its mission — protecting open space. Of the 3.6 million acres of open space in the Bay Area, 2.3 million acres are farms and ranches. Specifically, the region has 600,000 acres of farms and 1.7 million acres of ranchland.
Farmers and ranchers have capitalized on Bay Area food interests with annual gross production value of almost $2.7 billion. That figure jumps to $6.1 billion when jobs and other labor-related income are added, according to the report.
But the report found that there continues to be threats of converting working lands to urban development, risking the future of the region’s food industry and the social, economic and natural values the industry provides.
“People in the Bay Area who love to eat local, homegrown food don’t realize all the challenges ranchers and farmers face,” said Teri Shore, North Bay representative for the Greenbelt Alliance.
Marin has led the way on promoting local ag through protective zoning, regulatory relief, support from organizations like the Resource Conservation District, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and the University of California Agricultural Extension.
The report notes Marin’s Local Agency Formation Commission — which has the power to annex land into cities — incorporates agriculture-specific policies in its general “Policy and Procedures Guidelines.” These policies prohibit the annexation of actively farmed land and encourage developing non-prime agricultural lands before prime agricultural lands.
The Marin Agricultural Land Trust recently added a mandatory agricultural use provision to all new easements it purchases. The provision requires that the land remain in productive agriculture in perpetuity, regardless of the landowner. The trust pays an additional cost to include this provision, since the ag requirement reduces the land’s value.
The county has also been able to work with state and federal agencies to address regulations. The Resource Conservation District last year helped facilitate a deal with a group of farmers to develop the Pine Gulch Creek Watershed Enhancement Project. This project maintains important habitats for endangered species, while providing water to a small agricultural community. The plan allowed farmers to build storage ponds to divert creek flow in wet months and then leave the creek fuller in dry months when water volume is needed for fish spawning, the report noted.
Marin also has a Farmland Preservation Program, which spends $2 million annually to protect Marin’s agricultural land by purchasing conservation easements. The revenue was generated through a 2012 voter-approved sales tax.
The work has paid off for ag in Marin. Livestock and farm production in the county was valued at a record $101 million in 2014 as agricultural goods generated $16 million, or 19 percent more than the year before, thanks in large part to organic milk.
With 25 of Marin’s 29 dairies being organic, the value of organic milk production is soaring, rocketing 61 percent last year to $33.6 million for the milk product equivalent of about 12.6 million gallons.
But there are still threats. Earlier this month, a coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the National Park Service in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, alleging cattle on leased ranches in the Point Reyes National Seashore are causing erosion, polluting waterways with manure, harming endangered salmon and other species and blocking public access.
“Farmers markets are popular year round and you didn’t see that 10 years ago,” said Stacy Carlsen, Marin’s agricultural commissioner, underscoring the boom in locally grown food. “People look to Marin to learn how to farm in an urban area. We have been emulated and protecting farms and ranchlands is part of that.”
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OUTLOOK: Digital tech transforms farming
By Reed Fujii
In a processing plant east of Stockton, a cascade of cherries is funneled into a series of cups that zip individual fruit though a photographic barrage, capturing 24 shots of each fruit in color, infrared and other aspects.
With that information, a computer directs air jets that sort the cherries into various categories of color, size and defect and, in the process, replacing dozen of people who might do the work by hand.
Outside Lodi, more than 80 people tramp through a cool and muddy springtime vineyard to visit a mysterious machine — shrouded in blue tarps — that promises to accurately and expertly prune the row of grapevines it straddles without human intervention.
Over the San Joaquin Delta west of Stockton, a “flying wing” aerial drone soars over a tomato field, making a series of surveys to gauge varying development of the plants and fruit, moisture and nutrient soil conditions, and more.
“It’s a very interesting time for high technology agriculture,” said Stavros Vougioukas, a professor of biological and agricultural engineering at the University of California, Davis. He recently received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of the National Robotics Initiative.
Ever more powerful and less costly computer and graphics chips, better and cheaper digital cameras, steady advances in artificial intelligence and machine vision are helping bring more high technology into orchards and croplands, he said.
“We are seeing a lot of progress and we will see more and more applications related to robotics in agriculture and specialty crops.
For Vougioukas, in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University, that means using technology to improve mechanical orchard harvesters, essentially motorized platforms that carry four or more pickers down the rows of trees.
Such machines clearly are not more cost effective than the traditional approach of pickers toting and climbing to reach the fruit.
Vougioukas hopes to improve them by adding a Carnegie Mellon vision system to gauge the amount of fruit to be picked and the speed of individual pickers, and incorporate automated lifts that would position workers so they could gather the fruit most efficiently.
The robotic grape pruner largely would replace vineyard workers, said Claude Brown, co-founder of Ag Industrial Manufacturing Inc. (AIM) in Lodi. His company is contributing to the design of the machine being developed by Vision Robotics Corp. of San Diego.
“The pruning machine that’s being worked with has artificial intelligence,” he said. “It’s visually looking and scanning and making the decisions.”
The machine and its software can identify and count individual branch spurs and buds on grapevines and, while still a project in development, promises to prune more uniformly and consistently than hand labor.
Even more successful, Brown said, is a lettuce thinner used on long rows of small spouts. It is another Vision Robotics project with contributions from AIM.
“It looks at all the plants in the row and weeds out those that are malformed, undersized or is a weed, and does this at 7 mph,” he said. “It replaces 150 hand hoers.”
What such automation does create, Brown suggested, is a more highly paid job for a skilled operator, who also might run a harvester, fertilizer rig and is a year-round employee, while replacing a number of temporary, migrant farm workers.
“The more and more we mechanize, the cheaper your food product is going to be,” he said. “By the advance of technology, we are ensuring our posterity will be able to have safe quality food for generations.”
Paul Verdegaal, viticulture adviser with University of California Cooperative Extension in Stockton, said the scarcity of labor and its increasing cost are pushing the adoption of new digital technology.
“It’s definitely part of the future of most any industry that’s using a fair amount of labor,” he said. “There’s going to be a rise in the use of artificial intelligence to do a lot of the dirty work that takes a lot of time and is costly now.”
Scott Brown, production manager at Morada Produce Co., said the cherry packer’s large optical sorter not only cuts labor costs, but also does a better job in detecting and culling out soft fruit than human sorters. It also improves sorting by size, doing in one pass what used to take several.
And for the first time, it allows cherries to be sorted by fine color distinctions, say cherry red vs. deep maroon.
As a result, he said, “We’re producing a better quality product for the end consumer.”
In addition, Brown said, “Yes, we do see some labor savings. Yes, we do use it as an aid in the way we pack fruit in general.”
Results are so good, Morada Produce is installing a new optical sorter, having put in one large machine in 2013.
Looking forward, Brown said, the company’s cherry growing operation is planting trees to be trained to a trellis to form tall “fruiting walls” to allow harvest mechanization.
Said Brown: “It’s this brave new world when it comes to feeding the masses.”
— Contact reporter Reed Fujii at (209) 546-8253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ReedBiznews.
Lodi’s Tyler Blagg looks to nurture the next generation of farmers
By Joe Benapfl
Tyler Blagg has a vision for young farmers. This plan involves encouraging agricultural workers ages 18 to 35 to become more aware, involved and connected in the local agricultural community.
This devotion to all things agriculture has led him to be named chair of the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers and Ranchers committee last December. Blagg hopes this position will give him a springboard to share key agricultural information and issues with younger generations.
“Ultimately, consumers need to be informed about agricultural issues,” Blagg said at his Lodi home.
Blagg has been in the Lodi area since 2008. Before that, he was raised in Grass Valley, where his parents and grandparents managed a cattle ranch. After attending Fresno State to study dairy science, Blagg moved to Lodi to work as a corporate dairy sales manager at two international dairy companies.
Two years ago, Blagg became a Realtor for Petersen and Company agricultural-based real estate.
Throughout his life, Blagg felt a calling for a deeper involvement in agriculture, starting with winning a Farm Bureau scholarship that helped him pursue his college education.
“I took that as an investment in myself,” Blagg said.
After heavy involvement as a Young Farmers and Ranchers volunteer since 2007, Blagg was elected as a district representative for the San Joaquin and Calaveras chapter in 2012. A fortuitous vice president position opening started Blagg’s upward trajectory within the bureau, and he soon found himself on the Young Farmers and Ranchers executive committee.
Now, Blagg hopes to lead a group of young agriculture experts as interested and eager as he.
“We have a whole gamut of young professionals that are part of that group,” Blagg said.
But the road to agricultural success for young people is often a rocky one. That’s where the committee comes in to assist with the intensive planning process, Blagg said.
Lately, more young people have been turning away from farming, according to Blagg. And ag employee modest wages make it hard to keep those with the specific skills needed — a strong work ethic, a scientific background and heaps of creativity — in the industry.
“It has to be not only something you enjoy doing, but also profitable enough to make a life out of it,” Blagg said.
To support workers, the committee collaborates with young farmers on a transition plan, suggesting partnerships or mentorships, laying out financial strategies and resolving common farming issues.
To its credit, the younger generation seems more conscientious about food sourcing and sustainability, according to Blagg.
“It’s a testament to younger generations that they want to know where food comes from,” Blagg said.
However, in order to become more aware about agricultural issues, more young people need to get involved, Blagg said. The two goals he has for the committee is to increase membership and to promote supporting ag-friendly political candidates.
“We are constantly looking at getting new members involved in agriculture,” Blagg said.
In addition to real estate and Farm Bureau work, Blagg also raises dairy heifers, grows hay, and tends a vineyard with his wife, Amy, who also comes from an agricultural background and is the executive director of the Lodi District Grape Growers Association. They also have three young sons. Blagg is proud of the agricultural foundation he has laid in Lodi.
“It’s hopefully something we can build that my kids will want to take over some day,” Blagg said.
For Blagg, one of the best parts about being involved with the committee is being able to work with people in the community — an aspect of agriculture that Blagg cherishes.
“We are fortunate to be able to live in Lodi. It’s a nice place to raise a family,” Blagg said.
Contact reporter Joe Benapfl at email@example.com