Ag Today Monday, March 21, 2016

Ag Today

Monday, March 21, 2016


Fresno Bee

Feds loosen up, offer 30 percent water allocation to Valley contractors

By Marc Benjamin

The drought is certainly not over, but the federal Bureau of Reclamation was optimistic enough to offer water suppliers in the Valley 30 percent of their contract allocations this year.

And several water agency officials believe more could be coming as well.

For the past two years, the allocation has been zero, which affects the amount of water for farming and urban interests on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley.

The city of Fresno, which would get 60,000 acre-feet with a 100 percent allocation, stands to be a significant beneficiary of the 30 percent allocation – about 18,000 acre-feet. The cities of Orange Cove and Lindsay, along with Madera County, are the other communities that will benefit.

Thomas Esqueda, Fresno’s director of public utilities, said the city will use the supply in its two surface-water treatment plants and to add to recharge basins.

“While we are pleased to have received this important allocation of water, we believe it is important to remind citizens that the governor’s emergency drought restrictions will remain in effect through October 2016, so we must continue to reduce our water consumption even with this water-supply allocation,” he said.

The Friant Division’s largest agricultural users in the Valley are Arvin-Edison Water Storage District, Madera Irrigation District, Chowchilla Water District, Delano-Earlimart Irrigation District, Tulare Irrigation District and Lower Tule River Irrigation District.

In 2013, the Bureau of Reclamation allocated 65 percent of Class 1 water to its contractors, said Steve Ottemoeller, water resources manager for the Friant Water Authority, which represents about a dozen Friant water contractors.

The news from the federal Bureau of Reclamation is encouraging, and Ottemoeller said he expects greater allocations in the coming months, possibly deliveries of 75 to 80 percent or more this year.

The amount of water available for Class 1 users is 240,000 acre-feet. An additional 100,000 acre-feet will be available from Class 2 supplies.

(Class 1 water is a supply that can be delivered to the contractor when needed. Class 2 water is sent to contractors when water is coming into reservoirs at above-average rates and has to be be released to avoid a dam’s overflow.)

“It’s encouraging that we have gotten something and we believe there is more in the system in the snowpack and upstream reservoirs,” he said.

The 30 percent allocation is water that will be delivered this year even if the rest of the season is dry, Ottemoeller said.

“The Bureau of Reclamation’s announcement is essentially a floor,” he said. “We expect there will be more because that’s a number that works even if things go dry from here on.”

Fresno Irrigation District will benefit from Class 2 supplies. In a 100 percent allocation, the district gets 75,000 acre-feet.

The district will get a portion of that Class 2 water and more is expected, said Gary Serrato. He expects about 5,200 acre-feet of water for his district.

Shane Hunt, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Reclamation, said forecasts of water runoff from the upper San Joaquin River, combined with the current storage in Millerton Lake, allowed the district to offer an allocation to Friant contractors.

Based on projected inflows into Millerton Lake from snowmelt between April and July, Friant contractors also can begin scheduling delivery of an additional 100,000 acre-feet of water under what is called an “uncontrolled season” scenario, or Class 2 supplies, Hunt said.

The uncontrolled season water must be removed from the reservoir in the near future to avert flood concerns. Availability of the uncontrolled season supplies will be reassessed weekly and could be discontinued.

Also, the bureau made an allocation of 261,400 acre-feet to the San Joaquin River Restoration Program for the rest of 2016 based on the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement, Hunt said.

In a statement, the reclamation bureau said it “anticipates making the initial allocation announcement for the entire Central Valley Project later this month after the full effect of storm systems that moved through Northern California earlier in March are taken into account.”

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin




Stockton Record

Key questions in water rights hearing

By Alex Breitler

On the surface, hearings in Sacramento starting this week will determine whether a Delta water district with century-old water rights pumped illegally for 12 days last summer — and whether the district should be penalized $1.4 million as a result.

But the proceeding before the State Water Resources Control Board may also be a move toward answering broad, weighty questions about water rights and the future of Delta agriculture, some participants say.

“We are a test case,” said Rick Gilmore, general manager of the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District near Tracy. “I think this has become a larger issue. I think the water board wants to use this as a precedent so they can start to gain more control over senior water right users.”

On June 12, the state told Byron-Bethany and others with longstanding water rights that there was no longer enough water for them to divert. It was the first time since 1977 that some so-called “senior” water users had been cut off.

Byron-Bethany pumped until June 25. That’s not disputed.

The key question is whether the state was correct in determining there wasn’t enough water for Byron-Bethany and the smaller West Side Irrigation District, which is also a target of the hearings next week and may be slapped with a cease and desist order.

Whether there was water available in the Delta last summer may sound simple, but it’s not.

The channels below sea level are tidally influenced and always have water — therefore, there is always water available to pump, even if it is salty, many Delta growers claim. But water users elsewhere in the state argue that at times Delta farmers are illegally taking water that was stored in upstream reservoirs and was on its way to large state and federal pumps for shipment to the Bay Area or Southern California.

Indeed, the Westlands Water District — composed of farmers in the San Joaquin Valley who rely heavily on exported Delta water — has weighed in on the upcoming hearings, asking the state to protect water to which Westlands believes it is entitled.

Attorneys for central and south Delta farmers counter that higher-ranking Delta water rights “do not disappear” if the water gets salty. They filed papers urging the water board to “consider the ramifications of using this circus to resolve one of the most critically important water issues of our time.”

If a resolution is coming, it may not be soon. A lawsuit is pending, and whatever action the water board ultimately takes against the Delta water districts may be pushed into the courts.

Still, the hearings will be closely watched.

Andrew Tauriainen, an attorney who will prosecute the case for the state, said the decision to cut off Byron-Bethany last summer was a matter of “simple math.” Water board staff compared the amount of water available throughout the watershed with the amount that diverters like Byron-Bethany used in the past.

“I would compare it to the same type of math one would use in preparing a budget,” Tauriainen said. “When your supply is outstripped by demand, you have to adjust your spending.”

The state’s method was conservative and actually favored growers, he said. But ultimately, he said, the state had to act to ensure that water users with even higher-ranking rights than Byron-Bethany’s were protected — though none appear to have suffered, the water district argues in response.

It will be up to the state water board members themselves, appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, to determine whether the state’s cuts were justified and whether a fine should be assessed. The maximum possible fine against Byron-Bethany has been reduced to $4.7 million, Tauriainen said; his recommendation of $1.4 million is intended to be a deterrent for other water users during future droughts.

“If you don’t show that you’re going to enforce against folks who break the law and divert water without authorization in worst drought in history, you won’t necessarily be able to enforce against people like that in the future,” Tauriainen said.

Both water districts have fiercely contested the allegations against them. Byron-Bethany says the state’s method for determining the shortage was too geographically broad, and protests that it had no way to challenge the decision at the time.

Earlier this year, Byron-Bethany accused the state of launching a criminal background check on the chair of the water district’s board of directors, but the state Attorney General this week found there was “no credible information” to support that claim.

Whether the upcoming hearings bring any resolution to the deep controversies over water rights in the Delta depends on how the water board frames its decision, said Richard Frank, a professor with the University of California, Davis, Environmental Law and Policy Center.

“It could be a very narrow decision that wouldn’t have much public policy or precedential impact,” he said.

Or, Frank said, it might address “some major fundamental policy and legal issues lurking just below the surface.” Either way, he said he does believe the board does have the basic authority to regulate senior water rights — another point which Delta interests dispute.

The hearings are scheduled to last 11 days.

Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or Follow him at and on Twitter @alexbreitler.




Half-truths disguise true drought impacts

By Paul Wenger

The commentary “Thirsty farmers must wise up over water use” (Viewpoints, March 13) was rife with half-truths that distort the real situation facing California farmers.

Half-truth: California farms earned record revenue in 2014. You don’t have to be an economist to know that revenue is only half the story. Farm production costs rose faster than revenues did. The California Department of Food and Agriculture report on agricultural revenues also showed that net farm income in the state dropped by 11 percent in 2014.

So, the full truth is that the farm economy has suffered during the drought – but that doesn’t fit a polemicist’s narrative of wealthy farmers prospering while urban Californians have to let their lawns go brown.

Half-truth: California farmers use water to grow “low-value” crops. Again, you don’t need to be an economist to know that different products operate on different markets. Professional athletes and entertainers earn considerably more than kindergarten teachers. Would we classify kindergarten teachers as a “low-value occupation” and urge the state to direct valuable resources toward training more actors? Of course not. Teachers have value beyond their salary level.

The full truth is that every crop grown in California has high value to the customers who buy it and the farmers who grow it.

Half-truth: Via exports of hay and other crops, California is essentially exporting water to other nations.

The full truth is that California imports significant amounts of water in the form of products of all sorts from other states and nations. As Jay Lund of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences wrote a couple of years ago, “Those concerned should take comfort with California’s major imports of virtual water.”

Half-truth: The typical California household pays far more for water than farmers do. Again, we’re talking about different products entirely. Water for household use must be treated, pressurized and made available 24 hours a day, every day of the year, and often has to be moved farther from the source to the customer.

Of course it’s more expensive than agricultural water, which often moves less distance via gravity flow, is not treated and is the first supply to be interrupted in times of shortage.

There’s plenty of room for discussion about water use in California, but readers deserve an honest discussion.

Paul Wenger is president of the California Farm Bureau Federation. He grows almonds and walnuts near Modesto. Contact him at


Sacramento Bee

Shasta County pot farm owner fined $100,000 for fouling watershed

By Peter Hecht

A Virginia man who leased out property for a marijuana farm in Shasta County has agreed to pay a $100,000 penalty and complete an extensive environmental cleanup for fouling tributaries with sediment from illegal grading.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Board last year recommended a $201,400 fine against Brent Vanderkam of Virginia, who was accused of rerouting tributaries of Shasta’s Clover Creek for a large pot plantation.

Authorities say the farming operation, with expansive rows of marijuana plants growing between earthen berms, resulted in a discharge of 427 cubic yards of soil and 700,000 gallons of sediment-laden storm water into sensitive watershed near Millville in Shasta County.

The operation was targeted as part of stepped-up state efforts to bring civil actions against marijuana growers who divert water or foul the environment. The civil actions are being accompanied by new efforts to regulate and inspect growers who are willing to work with authorities to monitor water use and other impacts from marijuana cultivation.

The water board said unpermitted dredging work for the Shasta County farm also disturbed 200 linear feet of stream bed. In addition to the $100,000 fine, the settlement agreement requires Vanderkam pay for a cleanup and restoration plan. A consultant for the property owner said that work will cost $95,000 on top of the fine, authorities said.

“The failure of Mr. Vanderkam or his lessee to obtain the necessary permits prior to developing the property for marijuana cultivation resulted in significant impacts to water quality,” said Clint Snyder, assistant executive director for the Central Valley Water Board.

In a statement, Snyder said the settlement terms in the case “reflect the egregious nature of these violations and the importance of holding landowners responsible.”

The water board said Vanderkam refused to identify his cultivating tenant. Officials said he bore responsibility as the property owner for the financial penalty and environmental remediation.

The Shasta County investigation was directed by the water board along with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Shasta County Department of Resource Management as part of a multiagency pilot project to address environmental impacts of marijuana cultivation.

Peter Hecht: 916-326-5539, @phecht_sacbee




Wall Street Journal

GMO Labeling Law Roils Food Companies

First law in the U.S. requiring mandatory labels is set to go into effect on July 1 in Vermont

By Annie Gasparro and Jacob Bunge

The U.S. food industry is fighting one of its fiercest regulatory battles in years over labels for ingredients made with genetically modified organisms. And it is losing—to Vermont.

The country’s first law requiring mandatory GMO labels is slated to go into effect in Vermont on July 1 after an industry-backed federal law that would block states’ authority stalled in the U.S. Senate last week. Facing fines up to $1,000 a day per product, food makers from giants like General Mills Inc. to regional businesses like Vermont Fresh Pasta are making big adjustments, many of which extend beyond the state’s borders.

Vermont is a tiny market for most companies, but the integrated nature of supply chains gives it an outsize effect. On Friday, General Mills said it is slapping GMO labels on its packaged food nationwide, saying it would be too complex and expensive to create a separate distribution network for the 626,000-person state of Vermont.

The maker of Cheerios and Lucky Charms remains firm in its stance against mandatory labeling, but “having one system for Vermont and one for everywhere else is untenable,” said Jeff Harmening, General Mills’ chief operating officer of U.S. retail.

Some companies, fearing such labels will be a sort of scarlet letter and scare off consumers, are replacing ingredients altogether. Vermont Fresh Pasta, which touts its fresh, local fare, said it has swapped out canola oil, which typically contains GMOs, for olive oil, which has no genetically modified version.

“It’s sort of a better-safe-than-sorry idea,” said co-owner Ken Jarecki. He said his company’s costs increased by 10%, and using olive oil so far hasn’t boosted sales.

Freedom Foods LLC, a maker of organic and gluten-free products based in Randolph, Vt., has stripped GMOs from the granolas and cookies it makes for Vermont grocery stores, said owner Cathy Bacon. An out-of-state food company, whose products are made locally by Freedom Foods, has postponed selling in Vermont over concerns about complying with the law, she said.

Other businesses appear confused about whether they need to use special labels.

Food is exempt from labeling in Vermont if it is a direct animal product like meat and eggs, is certified as non-GMO, if none of the ingredients have a genetically modified version, or if the GMO ingredients make up less than 0.9% of the product’s weight.

Blue Valley Gourmet founder Christine Sawyer said she’s still unsure if she’ll have to label her fruit spreads. Some contain soy lecithin, typically a GMO ingredient, but it may be in a small enough quantity that they’re exempt.

Others aren’t sure whether the Vermont law applies to all of their products containing GMOs.

That is because any foods regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture—including processed foods containing meat that makes up at least 2% of their weight—are also exempt from Vermont’s state law. So Campbell Soup Co.’s canned SpaghettiOs would need special labels in Vermont but the SpaghettiOs with meatball won’t. That is confusing, says the soup maker, which has also decided to voluntarily label its GMOs nationwide.

The office of Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, which is responsible for enforcing the state law, has been deluged with questions. Its website now warns that the office won’t reply to email inquiries about GMO labeling and asks companies to stop calling.

“We’re just simply not in a position to answer every single hypothetical question that comes in,” said Mr. Sorrell.

GMOs include crops whose genes have been engineered to make them resistant to pests, able to withstand herbicides, and otherwise hardier. Federal regulators have approved the GMO seeds on the market. Critics say they can hurt the environment and rely on herbicides that could harm consumers.

The federal bill stalled amid lawmakers’ disagreements over disclosure requirements, but negotiations are expected to continue, in hopes of bringing the legislation back to the Senate floor later.

Meanwhile, companies are preparing for the Vermont law—which can be a lengthy, complicated, and expensive process.

Grocery chain Price Chopper, owned by Golub Corp., has decided to keep the GMO ingredients in its store-brand products and said it would use special labels for foods like cornflakes and ice cream. But it is also busy making sure its suppliers are compliant and calculating how much product it will have to restock come July in its 15 Vermont stores, compared with its 120 other locations.

“There’s cost at every level,” a spokeswoman said, adding that price increases are inevitable.

In many cases GMO ingredients are difficult to substitute. Only a handful of crops grown in the U.S. are genetically modified, but of the prominent ones—corn, soybeans, canola and sugar beets—more than 90% are a GMO variety. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, an industry trade group, estimates that 70% to 80% of packaged food in the U.S. contain GMOs through ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup or soy lecithin.

Vermont institution Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc., which is part of Unilever PLC, decided to remove GMOs from its ice cream in response to consumer pressure before the state law passed.

It took about three years just to remove GMOs from ingredients like cookie dough and caramel, and the new products averaged 11% higher in price.

Blue Valley’s Ms. Sawyer said that in addition to cost, “sourcing new ingredients is so time-consuming.” Rather than add GMO labels or search for alternative ingredients, “I will probably just discontinue those flavors.”

—Kristina Peterson contributed to this article.

Write to Annie Gasparro at and Jacob Bunge at



Fresno Bee

Fresno State names new dean of Jordan College of Agriculture Sciences and Technology

By Mackenzie Mays

Sandra Witte, a Fresno State professor for nearly 25 years, will now oversee the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology.

The university called Witte’s journey to her position as dean unconventional: She started out as a registered dietician and has served as chair of the Department of Food Science and Nutrition.

“In the Jordan College, we often talk about offering programs from farm to fork and all the business in between. While most people think of agriculture from the farm end, my connection is clearly on the fork end,” Witte said.

“I have always had an appreciation for traditional agriculture, and in my time at Fresno State, that has bloomed into a passion. After all, where is the food without the farmer?”

Witte has served as interim dean of the Jordan College since 2014. The college enrolls 2,500 students, offering majors like animal and consumer sciences, agricultural education and industrial technology.

She received a bachelor’s degree in foods and nutrition at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona; a master’s degree in home economics, nutrition and diatetics at Fresno State; and a doctorate in food systems management at Oregon State University.

The university said Witte joins a growing number of women in agricultural leadership – a career traditionally dominated by men.

“This is a critical time for the Jordan College as we prepare for the opening of the Jordan Agricultural Research Center this spring and continue our laser-focus on crucial issues related to water and sustainability,” Fresno State Provost Lynnette Zelezny said in a statement. “I am confident Dr. Witte will lead the college to increasing national prominence.”

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays