Thursday, April 28, 2016
Santa Rosa Press Democrat
Mendocino County suspends predator control program to settle lawsuit
By Glenda Anderson
Mendocino County is suspending its longstanding contract with federal wildlife trappers while it reviews its program to combat predators, which includes trapping and killing wild animals and dogs that kill livestock, cause property damage or pose a public safety threat, such as rabies.
The decision was made last week to settle a 2015 lawsuit filed by animal rights groups over the county’s $144,000 annual contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s trapping program, which has operated in the county for nearly three decades.
The wildlife groups called the latest decision a victory in the fight against animal cruelty.
“This agreement is an important first step toward ending the needless slaughter of millions of native animals every year. Cities and counties across the United States must move beyond cruel, outdated, ineffective wildlife-control methods and adopt the proven nonlethal methods that protect the ecosystems we all depend on for our long-term environmental and economic health,” said Cynthia Elkins, a spokeswoman for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of six groups that sued the county.
In 2014, the federal Wildlife Services killed approximately 47,000 animals in California and nearly 3 million nationwide, according to the Center. Wildlife Services trappers nationwide also inadvertently killed more than 50,000 animals that were not their targets, including eagles and pets, according to the organization.
Current data for Mendocino County was not available Wednesday, but trappers in 2012 killed 459 animals, 126 of them coyotes, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
The county had previously agreed to do an environmental study to settle a 2014 lawsuit, but then determined it was exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act and renewed its trapper contract, triggering a new lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleged the county should have studied how the ecosystem is impacted by killing predators. In addition, it said the county did not adequately consider nonlethal methods of controlling predators.
To settle the suit, the county agreed to suspend the contract with federal trappers until it completes an environmental impact study on the program, including an assessment of nonlethal methods of controlling predators.
County and ranching officials say suspension of the program is likely to be temporary because nonlethal methods of protecting livestock — including fencing and guard dogs — are not sufficient to ensure the viability of ranching in a county with 700,000 acres of pasture land spread out over rugged and remote terrain. Mendocino County ranchers raised 17,400 head of cattle and 10,100 sheep in the county in 2013, according to the latest available crop report.
“I am an animal lover,” said Supervisor Dan Hamburg. “I still think we need a (trapping) program in Mendocino County.”
The trapping program, Hamburg said, is a critical tool that will help protect ranching in Mendocino County, including its organic meat industry, and support efforts to create a local wool processing mill.
Animal rights advocates say it’s not necessary to trap or kill wild animals to keep them from eating livestock and causing damage. They point to Marin County, which ended its federal trapping program in 2000 and instead helps ranchers pay for better ways to keep wildlife away from livestock, like fencing and guard dogs.
The University of California’s Hopland Research and Extension Center also has been exploring a variety of nonlethal ways to keep predators away from livestock, especially sheep, which are vulnerable to coyotes, lions and even bobcats, with some success. It now has five guard dogs watching over some 1,000 sheep and lambs, said Kimberly Rodrigues, the center’s director.
But those methods are not enough, she said.
“There are times when you have to use lethal control. That’s an unfortunate reality,” Rodrigues said.
The field station has several staffers with the ability to shoot predators when they’re attacking animals. It also utilizes federal trappers, she said. So far this year, the center has killed four coyotes, Rodrigues said.
Wild animals also continue to be killed in Marin County, despite its ban on federal trappers, according to Rodrigues.
Ranchers “just shoot them (predators) themselves” or hire people to do it for them, she said.
Several Marin County ranchers last year told The Press Democrat they now simply take care of the problem themselves. In Sonoma County, the federal trapper program was replaced with a county program following threatened litigation.
Rodrigues prefers that professional trappers take on predators because they are trained both in how to perform the task and how to determine which predator is responsible for a kill.
“Losing that expertise is a real loss,” Rodrigues said.
But she believes the community conversation that will be generated by an environmental impact report will be a good thing.
A timeline for the environmental impact study has yet to be established, but Hamburg expects it could take from nine months to a year and cost between $50,000 and $100,000.
Wildlife groups said they expect all counties with federal trapping programs to follow suit.
“Any county can and should expect the same challenge we brought here if it employs Wildlife Services without examining and mitigating the impacts of such a heavy death toll,” Elkins said.
You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or email@example.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter
KSBY-TV, San Luis Obispo
Growers prepare for another year of drought after disappointing El Nino season
By Charlie Misra
Despite some promising initial forecasts, we didn’t get as much rain as we’d hoped for here on the Central Coast.
Now local growers are preparing for another year of drought.
Claire Wineman, the president of the Grower-Shipper Association, says weather conditions can change planting and harvest schedules and the quality of the product that’s available.
Growers are always looking to get the most efficient use out of whatever water they have.
“A lot of times it’s a cumulative effect of additional laws and regulations as well as changing market conditions,” Wineman said. “And the changing production factors that vary on a day-to-day basis depending on what the weather is and what the different circumstances are.”
Wineman says California is still experiencing a labor shortage, which can impact a farmer’s ability to grow and harvest produce.
Ryan Sharer is a third generation Santa Maria grower of vegetables, strawberries and raspberries.
“Six months ago with El Nino, the Godzilla of El Nino,” Sharer said. “I mean, it got the hype.”
Sharer started planting at that point, making changes to planting and draining practices in anticipation of a wet year. Those heavy rain totals didn’t come.
Sharer has already moved on and shifted gears to spring time farming.
He says he hasn’t noticed other growers making any major changes to their production and planting schedules, just minor tweaks here and there.
“We can prepare for almost anything and try to anticipate almost everything,” Sharer said. “But we’re reactive to all of nature. It’s what we do when we work outside.”
He says he and other Central Coast farmers are ready in case anything changes.
“Agriculture remains the number one industry in Santa Barbara County and will continue to be,” Sharer said. “Farmers are very good stewards of the land but also the water resources. We continue to manage those resources at our very best efficiencies.”
Sharer is also a member of the Twitchell Management Authority. He says Santa Maria is still in decent shape with its groundwater levels.
Second class-action lawsuit challenges MID subsidy
By Garth Stapley
The Modesto Irrigation District faces two separate class-action lawsuits, both accusing the utility of overcharging electricity customers to subsidize farmers’ water prices.
Both ask that a judge grant class status enabling tens of thousands of electricity customers to join the lawsuit and ask for refunds.
Although filed for similar reasons within two weeks of each other, the lawsuits were prepared independently.
“We feel it’s important to get this case out there so people can get a little more transparency with what the elected folks are doing,” said Beverly Hills attorney Jeffrey Koncius.
MID spokeswoman Melissa Williams said, “Our legal team is confident that MID’s rates practices are appropriate and comply with the law.”
Koncius’ firm, Kiesel Law, represents Modesto resident Andrew Hobbs, whose class-action lawsuit against MID was filed March 15. Previous Modesto Bee reporting has focused on the other lawsuit, brought two weeks later by Dave Thomas of Modesto.
“As best I can tell, they didn’t know about our case when they filed theirs, and we didn’t know about theirs when we filed ours,” Koncius said.
Both say overcharging power customers amounts to an illegal tax prohibited by state law unless MID asks for voter approval, which it has not. The Hobbs complaint goes a step further, accusing MID of overcharging homes to subsidize businesses that pay lower rates for power, in addition to farmers getting sweet deals on water.
The nonprofit utility serves nearly 118,000 power accounts: 96,583 residential, 12,596 commercial and 156 industrial, plus another 8,524 spread among farm pumps, government buildings and railroads.
MID “has illegally inflated the electricity bills of its residential customers through unapproved taxes,” the Hobbs complaint says. Compared to families, MID’s industrial customers pay 75 percent less, and its commercial customers pay 22 percent less, the lawsuit says.
Bee analyses have shown that MID reaped an average yearly electricity profit of $93 million from 2010 to 2014, for a five-year total of $466 million. MID has used that money to repay debt and build reserves, currently $196 million.
$93 million Average annual MID electricity profit, 2010-2014
“MID’s profits are excessive,” says the Hobbs complaint, citing a similar reserve figure of about $200 million. “The excess profit constitutes an illegal tax under the state Constitution.”
$17 million 2016 MID farm water subsidy
Electricity profits also subsidize irrigation prices, both lawsuits note. This year, the subsidy comes to more than $17 million: it costs MID $21.2 million to deliver water, while customers pay only $3.82 million – even after the MID board last week raised water rates 20 percent. The utility serves about 600 farms, critics estimate.
The district has refused to separate its water and power bookkeeping. The board has raised water rates several times in recent years while leaving power rates alone since 2011, about the time an attorney privately advised that an increase without a vote of the people might violate state law.
MID’s water side deserves but gets no credit for services benefiting its power side, farm advocates say, such as canals supporting power poles and carrying stormwater from Modesto streets, and irrigation replenishing groundwater aquifers.
Thomas’ complaint, brought by Krause, Kalfayan, Benink & Slavens of San Diego, seeks refunds since February 2015, while Hobbs’ asks for refunds since March 2013.
Attorneys representing both have experience in litigation alleging that utilities have overcharged customers.
“We tend to take on big cases with big causes, ones we feel strongly about,” Koncius said.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390, firstname.lastname@example.org
McClatchy News Service
Hydroelectric power officials bemoan federal regulations
By Michael Doyle
WASHINGTON – Federal burdens dampen California’s hydroelectric power potential, PG&E and Turlock Irrigation District officials told lawmakers Tuesday.
They were preaching to the Capitol Hill choir.
Summoned by House Republicans who hope to unleash more of what they called a “clean, renewable and domestic energy resource,” the two California utilities’ representatives described a regulatory thicket that can take many years and millions of dollars to navigate.
“It’s proving to be lengthy, and a bit frustrating, and expensive,” said Steve Boyd, the Turlock Irrigation District’s director of water resources and regulatory affairs.
Debbie Powell, senior director of power generation operations for Pacific Gas and Electric, added that “the processes are overly complex” and “needlessly expensive.”
Boyd cited the Don Pedro Project on the Tuolumne River, which is jointly operated with the Modesto Irrigation District. The project’s current license issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 1966 expires this Saturday.
Though the districts began the renewal process in 2009, and have since spent more than $20 million on assorted studies, Boyd explained that several temporary, year-long extensions of the original license will be required before a full renewal is obtained.
“We’ve been at this seven years,” Boyd said.
In a similar vein, Powell reported that PG&E’s last 10 hydroelectric license renewals took between seven and 28 years and racked up associated costs from $2 million to over $20 million.
“Something’s got to be wrong with that part of the process,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.
The roughly 90-minute hearing before the House water, power and oceans subcommittee was largely a one-sided affair, with three of the four witnesses representing utilities and with no government agencies represented. Traditional environmental perspectives were vastly outnumbered, though not absent altogether.
“When hydropower is improperly sited or operated, it can have major impacts,” cautioned Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. “It can cause major harm to fish and wildlife, water quality, recreational opportunities and tribal lands.”
California is currently home to some 287 hydroelectric projects, operated by the state or federal governments or by utilities like PG&E or the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. In 2014, hydropower accounted for 6 percent of in-state electricity production, down from 12 percent in 2013.
Relicensing is a hassle, witnesses agreed. A study of 16 hydropower licenses issued in 2011 by FERC found that the average time from filing to licensing was 3.6 years, with the longest wait lasting eight 8 years.
“What does this licensing process get us?” Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, asked, rhetorically.
It’s unclear, though, what Congress might do about it.
In 2013, President Barack Obama signed into law two bills intended to streamline the approval process for small hydroelectric projects.
While a number of hydropower-related bills have been introduced since 2015, many deal with extending construction deadlines for specific projects in states including Virginia, Montana and North Carolina.
With a broader brush, California water bills offered by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, in the House and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein in the Senate could affect some hydropower operations, though the bills’ long-term prospects remain in question.
The most sweeping revisions could come as part of a broader energy bill, a version of which the Republican-controlled House passed on largely a party line vote last December. Costa was one of only nine Democrats to vote for it.
The White House’s Office of Management and Budget has threatened a presidential veto, contending that the revisions “would undermine” FERC’s ability to protect “safety, fish and wildlife, water quality and conservation, and a range of additional natural resources and cultural values.”
Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10, email@example.com
Wall Street Journal
Scientists Claim Breakthrough in Battle Against GMO Crop Pests
By Jacob Bunge
Monsanto Co. and Harvard University scientists have claimed a breakthrough in a yearslong battle against pests that can resist genetically modified crops designed to kill them.
A new technology allowing for rapid changes to bug-killing proteins could provide a new way to tweak biotech crops like corn and cotton to boost resistance to pests, according to a study published by the scientists Wednesday.
It is years away from being deployed in farm fields and it’s unclear if such pest-resistant crops would require new regulatory reviews. But if successfully deployed, the technology could restore the value of genetically modified crops that have become less effective in recent years as insect resistance has spread in major crop-growing areas like the U.S. south and India’s cotton fields.
Pest-resistant GMO crops were planted on 81% of all U.S. corn acres last year, and 84% of cotton acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But destructive insects like the corn rootworm and the pink bollworm cost farmers each year hundreds of millions of dollars in damages and spending to kill the bugs.
U.S. regulators have become increasingly concerned about pest resistance, worrying that farmers may respond with more synthetic chemical insecticides that can be harsher on the environment.
Some farmers have boosted insecticide purchases and regulators have sought tougher rules on the GMO crops.
Monsanto, which began the research collaboration with Harvard in 2013 and struck a licensing deal for the technique in 2014, aims to use it to develop new genetically-modified crops that can produce multiple toxins and curb even the hardiest crop pests.
Though some bugs could evolve to withstand the new forms of the toxins, the ability to quickly develop a wide range of bug-stopping proteins would expand farmers’ arsenal beyond the current handful embedded in GMO crops, researchers said.
The new technology, called phage-assisted continuous evolution and co-developed by Harvard chemistry professor David Liu, lets researchers continually mutate, select and replicate the pest-killing toxins produced by genetically engineered plants, according to Tom Malvar, head of insect control discovery at Monsanto.
This allows researchers to identify toxins that attach to insects’ digestive systems in new ways, killing bugs even if they have evolved to resist previous versions, and hastens a process that Harvard researchers said otherwise could take years.
Incorporating the technology into seeds would represent the first commercial application of the technology, Mr. Malvar said, and Monsanto sees a range of potential uses beyond boosting defenses against pests. The company could use it to help plants resist weed-killing sprays, better endure droughts and yield larger crops, he said.
Write to Jacob Bunge at firstname.lastname@example.org