Monday, February 29, 2016
Dry February drops snowpack below normal, drought pushing toward fifth year
By Rory Appleton
An extremely dry February has lowered the Sierra Nevada snowpack to below average levels, dashing hopes for an end to a drought that has gripped California for the last four years.
The Kings River Water Association reported Friday that unless “significant storm events resume soon and occur into the spring,” the drought will continue into its fifth year.
An El Niño-fueled wet December and January gave many hope that the drought had ended, but February has only brought 0.33 inches in precipitation to the Fresno area. The average for the month is 2.03 inches.
It has rained only two days this month in Fresno – Feb. 17, when 0.04 inches was measured at Fresno Yosemite International Airport, and the next day, when 0.29 inches was recorded.
George Goshgarian, who farms almonds near the Kings River, said he doesn’t expect to receive any runoff water from Pine Flat Lake for the second year in a row.
“It means we completely depend on our pumps for water,” Goshgarian said. “The more pumping you do, the more the water table drops. That’s concerning. When that happens, you’ll have to build a whole new well.”
Goshgarian said that a dry February likely spells doom for the rainy season, as March is normally the much drier month.
Although the drought probably will continue, this winter has been a marked improvement.
State data indicates the current snowpack in the central Sierra Nevada is 90 percent of its normal size as of Feb. 26. The actual snow or water equivalent is 22.3 inches. This number represents about 77 percent of the April 1 average, which is typically when the final snowpack numbers are tallied.
Last year, the central San Joaquin Valley was in far worse shape. On Feb. 26, 2015, the snowpack was at just 19 percent of normal, or around 5 inches of water equivalent.
This February was the driest since 1997, but meteorologist Scott Rowe from the National Weather Service office in Hanford said it is nowhere near the record-setting arid Februarys near the end of the 19th century.
In 1885, Fresno recorded no rain at all in February. It collected only 0.02 inches in 1889 and 0.06 inches in 1896.
Looking forward, there is a 20 percent chance of rain forecast for the Fresno area Thursday. Several storm systems will pass over Northern California in the next few days; Rowe said rain in the central San Joaquin Valley is contingent on those systems dipping over the region.
March typically is the last good month for rain in Fresno. The average for that month is also 2.03 inches. Once April 1 arrives, the skies start drying up. April’s average is 0.95 inches, and May on average records just 0.43 inches.
One hope forecasters have for more precipitation is the El Niño condition that has brought warmer-than-normal ocean water offshore of California. Strong El Niño years like this one have resulted in big rain years in the past.
Rory Appleton: 559-441-6015, @RoryDoesPhonics, firstname.lastname@example.org
After a tough year of drought, almonds still celebrated in Capay Valley
By Stephen Magagnini
California almonds were maligned over this past year as prime water guzzlers during a devastating drought, but that didn’t take the bloom off several thousand fragrant acres of white and pink almond blossoms highlighting the 101st annual Capay Valley Almond Festival on Sunday.
On Highway 16 from Woodland to Rumsey, a thick stream of cars and motorcycles poured into the towns of Esparto, Capay, Brooks and Guinda for a flurry of festival-related activities, only some of them having to do with the magical properties of almonds.
Aside from stands selling almond butter (crunchy and smooth), almond latte, almond blossom ice cream and almond candy, there were fruits, jams, jewelry, leather jackets and olive oils for sale, along with live bands playing “Folsom Prison Blues” and other favorites.
“We will easily pass our projected turnout of 15,000,” said Pat Harrison, president of the Esparto Chamber of Commerce, which helped sponsor the long-running celebration.
More than a century ago, the tough little seed first transformed the Capay Valley into a beautifully sculpted agricultural paradise now known for its fruits, nuts and wines.
The origin of Capay Valley almonds traces back to the Southern Pacific Railroad, which built train depots from Elmira to Rumsey in 1888 to stimulate business in the valley, said local historian Elizabeth “Betsy” Monroe. The railroad had stops in several towns, and farmers planted almonds throughout the valley, Monroe said.
But as California’s most recent drought worsens, the almond has become a source of controversy.
Driven in part by dipping international demand, almonds plummeted in price from $5 a pound over the summer to as little as $3.10 a pound Jan. 26, even though 6,000 California farmers grow 890,000 acres worth. Mother Jones magazine famously asserted that it takes 1.1 gallons of water to produce a single almond.
Katherine Pope, regional orchard adviser for UC Davis, said almonds were getting a bad rap.
“All trees use water, and if you grow food you use water,” Pope said. “Almonds use roughly the same amount of water as most of the trees we get food from.” And many almond growers have cut back their watering systems, and some even water by hand.
The Almond Board seems to sidestep the controversy, advertising the “crunch” as a gluten-free, energy-packed, nutrition-filled miracle food good for the heart, weight management and diabetes prevention.
Many at this past weekend’s festival also did their best to avoid the almond debate.
“Almonds got beat up a lot this past year,” conceded Hallie Muller, a former Almond Queen who squired this year’s queen and her court up the valley Sunday. Muller works at Full Belly Farm and grew up on a farm that has raised almonds for 32 years.
“Originally the festival was centered around the almond harvest in later August or September, but then folks realized the blossom’s the most beautiful part to see,” Muller said.
Over the weekend, the tiny bursts of pink inside beds of white petals had cars parking along Highway 16 to catch a glimpse. Families, couples and other groups of onlookers ventured into the orchards to sniff the subtle, sweet fragrance and play with the petals floating off the trees like snowflakes.
“We never get snow here, so it’s nice to see it blanketed with petals,” said Khonnie Lattasima, 33, of Sacramento, as she and two friends nosed right up to the blossoms. “We came with a group but ditched them because it’s so beautiful here.”
Laura Osburn, who recently moved to Davis from Austin, Texas, with her husband, Cory, agreed. “It looks like there’s snow on the ground – it’s incredible,” she said. “I’ve been telling Cory for weeks we have to go out and see the almond blossoms!”
Still, few people were having more fun than 4-year-old Sofiya Sanghvi as her parents sprinkled petals on her head. “I’m pretending they’re snow petals,” she declared, picking up a handful.
Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @StephenMagagnini, email@example.com
Weak El Niño fails to fix California’s drought
Water, water everywhere. Unfortunately, it’s not enough.
The El Niño everyone was counting on to bail California out of the drought that has lingered for four years appears to have wimped out after a January just wet enough to get our hopes up.
Remember that great snowpack in the Sierra? Remember how so much rain fell that Folsom Dam actually had to release water?
Forget that. Now, with a bone-dry February almost behind us, the state finds itself once again facing below-average precipitation and badly lagging its conservation targets.
As The Sacramento Bee’s Phillip Reese, Dale Kasler and Ryan Sabalow reported last week, this El Niño winter has so far delivered only half the precipitation that had fallen by now during the last two big El Niño years.
Meanwhile, the state’s urban water districts have blown their conservation mandates for four straight months, dragging the state below the 25 percent cut Gov. Jerry Brown ordered last summer.
Hello, low-flow toilet. Welcome back, short shower. Oh, so you haven’t decided to leave town this summer after all, then, crispy brown lawn.
It’s dispiriting, no doubt about it. Doubly so, because winter has masked the visual cues that served as a daily reminder of the drought’s urgency.
The lake beds aren’t dry; the Central Valley isn’t brown. Ski resorts actually have snow and even Death Valley is alive with wildflowers.
But long term, those images of abundance are a dangerous illusion. Unless California gets “a miracle March and an awesome April,” as the State Water Resources Control Board’s Felicia Marcus put it, California will continue to be yoked to this dry spell.
We’d say there has to be a better way, but the truth is, we all already know what the better way is: Double down. Stay the course. Pay no attention to how full Folsom Lake is, and get back to the realization that water is scarce here.
Turn off the sprinklers and fix the leaks in the plumbing. Install drought-tolerant plants and drip irrigation. Muster the money and political will to price the water at its full value, and work as a community to find ways to stop dousing yards with drinking water.
Look to the example of places like San Diego County, where a host of initiatives, large and small, mitigated dry spells for water users there. Finish outfitting Sacramento with water meters.
We hate to be nags, but we all know what has to happen. If there were a shortcut, by now California would have found it.
There isn’t. We prayed for rain, and this little slacker El Niño gave us our answer. Now we just all have to dig deep and get back into the conservation mindset that sustained us last summer.
Here’s hoping it turns out to be enough.
Lost water is wasted water
By Johnny Amaral
Last June, at the height of California’s drought, the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that a homeowner in Bel-Air was using 1,300 gallons of water per hour. Annually, that works out to about 11.8 million gallons – enough water supply for 90 average households.
Reaction was immediate. Water agencies, other homeowners, and the public denounced the waste of water by the unidentified homeowner as careless and irresponsible.
However, the enormous waste of water resulting from state and federal policies dwarf that of this particular homeowner, but receive no scrutiny.
Despite the much-needed rainfall and the snowpack – enough precipitation that some regions experienced flooding and property damage – since Jan. 5, 2016, more than 500,000 acre-feet of water has been allowed to escape capture and “waste” to the ocean. This water was unused, and is now gone forever. To put that into perspective, in approximately six weeks, enough water to supply nearly 1 million Southern California households for one year was simply flushed to the ocean. Some call that lost water. But “lost water” suggests a simple miscalculation, as if the water was accidentally misplaced and possibly could be found. This is wasted water – water intentionally directed out to sea rather than stored for use by families, businesses, and farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and other regions.
As crippling as the lack of rainfall has been over the past four years, constraints on operations of water pumping plants in the south Delta imposed by federal agencies – known as the Biological Opinions – have been worse. Federal agencies are using these opinions as the basis for decisions that deprive cities and farms of water in the name of protecting the Delta smelt, salmon and other native fish. However, despite making the water crisis worse, the regulatory actions have proved to be of no apparent benefit to the fish species. Rather than rebounding or stabilizing, the populations of fish have continued to decline, some to the point where university researchers have concluded the species are, for all practical purposes, extinct.
Pumping restrictions in the south Delta are not new developments – certain restrictions related to the Endangered Species Act have been in place since 1993 and the impacts of a 2008 Biological Opinion and a 2009 Biological Opinion have exacerbated the impact of those earlier restrictions. In 2009, as a result of the combined effects of the first year of the drought and regulatory restrictions, the final allocation for south-of-Delta agricultural water service contractors was 10 percent. Hundreds of thousands of acres of productive farmland had to be fallowed; thousands of people who live and work in agriculture lost their jobs; unemployment rates skyrocketed; and communities faced issues of increased poverty and homelessness.
The good news from our rainy January is that water storage in our reservoirs is increasing compared to last year. But that is far from ideal. Data from the California Department of Water Resources shows that the state’s average capture is only at 66 percent.
Is history repeating itself? For two years, thousands of farmers that rely on the Central Valley Project received a zero water allocation. That’s zero – as in none. Now it appears that they will receive a zero allocation for a third straight year, while 500,000 acre-feet of water was flushed to the ocean with no apparent benefit to the fish.
Most people in the state think that because of the rainy days and increasing snowpack, the water crisis will be over this year. They think that because it seems logical. But thanks to the actions of the federal fish agencies, the people of California are going to get a hell of an education this summer.
Californians cannot afford to waste water. And last April, Governor Brown proposed fines for residents and businesses that wasted the water as California cities tried to meet mandatory conservation targets. But the prohibition against waste must apply to all uses of water, regardless of the purpose for which the water is used. The governor doesn’t have to look very far for one of the worst offenders: regulatory agencies. It’s not only that nameless resident of Bel Air who should be shamed for wasting water.
Johnny Amaral is deputy general manager of external affairs, Westlands Water District
Farm Beat: Wine exports – much of them from Modesto area – hit new high
By John Holland
American wine flowed to foreign consumers at a record rate last year, an industry group reported this week. Meanwhile, that big winery based in Modesto has added another Italian product.
Exports rose to $1.61 billion in 2015, up 7.6 percent from the previous year, the Wine Institute in San Francisco said. About 90 percent of that came from California, and producers in and near Stanislaus County were a big part of it.
“California wines appeal to consumers across the globe who recognize the unique quality and excellent value of our wines,” said Bobby Koch, president and chief executive officer of the Wine Institute, in a news release.
The growth rate for export volume, 4.1 percent, was lower than the dollar growth, meaning that the average price per bottle continues to rise. That reflects the recovery of Napa and other premium regions after the economic downturn of recent years and the improving quality of mass-market wines from the San Joaquin Valley.
The export volume last year was 51.2 million cases. Each is equal to 12 standard bottles, but much of the product is shipped in bulk by truck, rail and cargo ship. (At the rate we’re growing, we might as well start piping it.)
The European Union drank up $622 million worth of the exports, followed by Canada at $461 million, Hong Kong at $97 million, Japan at $96 million and China at $56 million. Nigeria, Mexico, South Korea, Switzerland and Singapore also were notable customers.
Other news from the grapevine:
E.&J. Gallo Winery of Modesto is now the exclusive U.S. distributor of Renato Ratti, a luxury brand from northwest Italy.
The Ratti portfolio includes several wines made from barbera and nebbolio grapes grown in the Piedmont region.
“The respectful, yet innovative, winemaking philosophy of Renato Ratti lives on today thanks to the passion and commitment of his son Pietro,” the company’s website says.
It sounds even better if you click for the Italian translation: “La sofisticata ed innovativa filosofia di vinificazione di Renato Ratti prosegue oggi grazie alla passione e all’impegno del figlio Pietro.”
Gallo already distributes Allegrini Estates wines from the Valpolicella region, Poggio al Tesoro from Tuscany and Pieropan from Veneto. They are part of the Luxury Wine Group at Gallo, which also produces wine in the San Joaquin Valley, coastal California, Washington state and several foreign countries.
Finally, a note about a wine-related item that costs all of 5 cents. The U.S. Postal Service has issued a stamp featuring the pinot noir variety of grape, a popular source for California wineries.
The stamps come in handy for adding postage to the basic 49-cent stamp. Collectors can order a first-day-of-issue postmark by visiting usps.com/shop or calling 800-782-6724.
A news release from the Postal Service notes that “pinot” is a variant of the French word for “pine” and refers to the tight grape clusters shaped like pine cones. “Noir” refers to the dark purple color.
John Holland: 209-578-2385, firstname.lastname@example.org
National Public Radio
Eat Less Meat, We’re Told. But Americans’ Habits Are Slow To Change
By Allison Aubrey
These days, it can be hard to ignore all the messages to eat less meat and more vegetables.
Last year, the World Health Organization used its megaphone to publicize the link between cancer and excessive red meat consumption.
Environmentalists push the message, too, by pointing to all the energy, water and land required for meat production. Some animal welfare advocates, like the Humane Society of the United States, are all for a plant-based diet.
We also get cues from pop culture. Did you see this Vegans Gone Glam spread in The New York Times? Both Bittman and Beyonce are backing vegan meal-delivery services. And today, rock legend Peter Frampton — who stopped by NPR for a Tiny Desk concert — told us that he gave up red meat years ago.
Famous chefs are in on it, too. Mario Batali has embraced the concept of Meatless Monday. Jose Andres has gone veggie-centric with his new chain Beefsteak. And one of the best burgers in New York has no meat.
But does any of this really signal a nationwide rejection of meat?
After all, Americans are among the very highest per capita consumers of meat on the planet, eating on average 71 pounds of red meat (beef, pork and lamb) a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (An alternate estimate derived from a federal nutrition survey puts that number closer to 50 pounds per person, per year, on average.)
Back in 2012, as part of our Meat Week series, we teamed up with Truven Health Analytics to survey Americans about their changing habits.
In that 2012 poll, 8.6 percent of the 3,000 Americans surveyed said that during a typical week, they ate no meat (defined as all meat products except poultry and fish). Some 56 percent ate meat one to four times a week, and 31 percent ate it five or more time a week.
Interestingly, 39 percent of the respondents back then told us that they were eating less meat than they had three years before. Their reasons for cutting back? Concern about the health effects was the top reason, followed by the cost of meat.
In December 2015, we wanted to find out what, if anything, had changed. So we asked Truven to poll another random selection of 3,000 Americans (via phone, cellphone and the Internet) and ask them the same questions.
This time around, we tossed in one new question: Has the recent publicity linking processed meats to an increased risk of cancer caused you to change your eating habits? It turns out, about 30 percent of respondents said yes.
But as we dug into the data, it seems the changes in habits are very subtle.
This time around, 7.4 percent of respondents told us they eat no meat during a typical week — a slight decrease from 2012. Fifty-one percent said they eat meat one to four times a week, and 38 percent said they eat it five or more times a week.
Notably, there was a slight drop in the number of people who said they were eating less meat than they had three years ago (from 39 percent, down to 32 percent.)
In a nutshell, Americans’ meat-eating habits haven’t shifted much. “There’s no significant change in the number of times per week people eat meat in the last few years,” Mike Taylor, chief medical officer for Truven, tells us.
So, should we conclude that all the eat-less-meat messages are not influencing Americans’ habits?
Not so fast, says Roni Neff, director of the Food System Sustainability and Public Health program at the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins.
As she looks at the polling data, she says the changes between 2012 and 2015 may be subtle, but there’s a notable shift underway.
“We are still seeing a lot of people saying they are eating less meat, and a lot who want to eat less meat,” says Neff.
Neff has her own study underway to measure meat consumption patterns and trends. She’s also trying to gauge whether people are substituting vegetables for meat.
Taylor of Truven agrees that Americans may be trying to swap veggies for meat. “Nearly half [in the 2015 poll] are eating more vegetables, and age, income and education didn’t make a difference,” Taylor says.