Ag Today Thursday, February 11, 2016

Ag Today

Thursday, February 11, 2016

 

San Francisco Chronicle

Feinstein water plan could permit more pumping for farmers

By Carolyn Lochhead

WASHINGTON — Amid record-high farm revenue and record-low salmon counts in California’s historic drought, Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation Wednesday that would make it easier to move more water from rivers to farms in the San Joaquin Valley.

The long-awaited 184-page bill follows the California Democrat’s failed negotiations last year with the powerful House Republicans who represent valley farming interests, and several years of failure by the state’s congressional delegation to shape a federal response to the four-year drought.

In a nine-page press release, Feinstein said the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project, a complex maze of giant plumbing that moves water from northern rivers through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to cities and farms in the arid south, was completed by the 1970s when California had just 16 million residents, compared with the 40 million who live there now.

Her bill would update this system by providing $1.3 billion in federal funds for new reservoirs, water recycling, desalination and other investments, which, though expensive, are the least controversial aspects of her plan.

‘Drought relief’ provisions

The flash point is what she calls short-term provisions to offer “drought relief.”

Farmers widely blame water cutbacks on what are called biological opinions issued in 2008 and 2009 to enforce the Endangered Species Act. The rules limit water deliveries to farmers in an effort to save the delta smelt, a tiny minnow, and native salmon. The rules already allow some flexibility in drought conditions, and this year and last, miscalculations by water officials left too little water in rivers, pushing several salmon species and a host of other native California fish to the edge of extinction.

But in explaining her new drought-relief plan, Feinstein said better monitoring of fish and water conditions in the delta could permit higher pumping to farmers. The current biological opinions are several years old, she said, and “don’t reflect the most recent science.”

She said federal environmental agencies have assured her that her legislation does not violate the Endangered Species Act.

Jon Rosenfield, a fish biologist with the Bay Institute, an environmental group, said Feinstein is “completely incorrect” to say the biological opinions fail to reflect newer science.

“Quite the contrary,” Rosenfield said. “New science continues to demonstrate that fish, wildlife and water quality benefit when more water moves through the delta,” and if anything, current protections are too weak. This year, only 3 percent of native salmon survived, an even lower count than the 5 percent that survived last year, because water managers diverted too much water to human uses, leaving rivers too hot and shallow for fish to survive.

The new bill no longer lists Feinstein’s Democratic colleague from California, Sen. Barbara Boxer, as a co-sponsor. The bill has also picked up a new supporter, Rep. John Garamendi of Walnut Grove (Sacramento County), who served as an emissary from Northern California Democrats to Feinstein’s water negotiations with House Republicans last year.

Boxer is noncommittal

Boxer, whose support would be a key signal of Democratic backing, issued a noncommittal statement through her spokesman, thanking Feinstein for her effort and saying she looked forward “to getting feedback from all the major stakeholders.”

Garamendi said the legislation would not lead to any more pumping than the current environmental restrictions allow. The bill “basically confirms and follows what fish and wildlife agencies have been doing for the last two years,” Garamendi said.

Garamendi said it would be wrong to pin all the blame on water managers for the salmon’s plight. “It’s the drought. It is the demand on water both south and north of the delta and the fact that there’s very little water,” he said. “It’s a bad time for California, period, all of California. Certainly for the fish, certainly for water users up and down the state.”

Farm groups welcomed the legislation. Johnny Amaral, a spokesman for the Westlands Water District, a San Joaquin farming powerhouse, said the pumping provisions would for the first time require water managers “to operate the system in a way that maximizes water supply. That doesn’t exist in current law.”

Amaral said he hoped the Feinstein bill could clear the Senate quickly so that negotiations could start with House Republicans. He said that the two sides agree now that something has to be done and that both sides understand they have to compromise. “The question is how you thread the needle to get there,” Amaral said. “That’s what everybody will be watching.”

Rep. Jared Huffman, a San Rafael Democrat who has battled Feinstein over water, dismissed as “absolute nonsense” the idea that Congress needs to micromanage how the biological opinions are implemented, but welcomed the new investments proposed by Feinstein.

‘Simple modernization’

Huffman said modernizing the protocol for operating dams so managers can use weather satellite data and climate models to tell them if big storms are coming is a better approach than following rigid 60-year-old rules that require water to be released on a certain date to protect against potential floods.

“There’s a lot more water to be saved in that simple modernization, which is non-controversial, than there is in trying to compromise protections for species that are teetering on the brink of extinction in the delta,” Huffman said.

Carolyn Lochhead is The San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington correspondent. E-mail: clochhead@sfchronicle.com

 

San Jose Mercury News

Point Reyes: Lawsuit challenges historic ranching operations at iconic park

By Paul Rogers

SAN FRANCISCO — A year after an oyster farm was forced to shut down at Point Reyes National Seashore, sparking a bitter controversy over the role of farming in national parks, a coalition of environmentalists on Wednesday filed a lawsuit over a bigger and more explosive target: thousands of dairy and beef cattle in the park.

Many of the cattle ranches in the iconic park have been operated by the same families since the 1860s. And park service officials say they have no plans to remove them.

But the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco against the National Park Service by three groups, claims that the cattle are causing erosion, polluting waterways with manure, harming endangered salmon and other species, and blocking public access.

The groups say that park service officials are violating federal law because they are moving forward with a plan to renew 20-year leases to the ranchers without conducting adequate environmental studies on how the thousands of cows are affecting the seashore’s scenic resources, including its tule elk. Nor have officials updated their 36-year-old park management plan to consider other options, like reducing the number of ranches in the park or the size of the cattle herds, the lawsuit contends.

“There are pastures out there that don’t have any green thing on them, just mud and manure,” said Huey Johnson, who served as state resources secretary under Gov. Jerry Brown from 1978 to 1982. “The cows have eaten up a lot of the wildflowers. We the public bought those lands.”

Johnson is president of the Resource Renewal Institute, a Mill Valley group that filed the lawsuit with the Center for Biological Diversity and the Western Watersheds Project, based in Idaho.

Johnson said the number of cattle in Point Reyes National Seashore, now about 6,000, should be reduced by at least half. If the lawsuit is successful, he added, the coalition plans to try to reduce or remove livestock from some of the roughly 30 other national parks that allow grazing, a list that includes Death Valley, Pinnacles in San Benito County and Mojave National Preserve.

“You’ve got welfare ranching going on public lands all over the West,” he said.

Ranchers at the national seashore say their operations are a beloved part of Northern California’s coastal history. They note that when developers were threatening to build subdivisions on the Point Reyes Peninsula in the 1950s, ranchers formed an alliance with the Sierra Club and other environmental groups to convince Congress and President John F. Kennedy to establish the park in 1962.

“When Congress made a deal to buy the park, the ranchers said we will commit to going into the park as long as you guys write into law that we can stay here,” said Ted McIsaac, who grazes black Angus cattle on 2,800 acres inside the national seashore. “It’s 50 years later, and the generation today has no idea how this all got started. That’s been lost over time.”

There are currently 15 families grazing on about 18,000 acres in the 71,000-acre national seashore, an area famous for its towering cliffs, windswept coastal prairies and rich history dating back to Sir Francis Drake’s visit in 1579.

“Ranching is here to stay at Point Reyes National Seashore,” said Melanie Gunn, a spokeswoman for the park. “It’s an important part of our history and an active part of the seashore. The seashore wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the ranchers.”

The suit comes at a time that many local residents are still recovering from the recent battle over Drakes Bay Oyster Company. And in some ways, that debate, which gained national attention, is linked to the new showdown.

In 2012, then-U.S Interior Secretary Ken Salazar refused to renew a 40-year lease that the park service had with the oyster company at Drakes Estero in the park. Salazar noted that Congress in 1976 intended for that section of Point Reyes to become wilderness.

The oyster farm’s owner, Kevin Lunny, launched an unsuccessful two-year legal battle. His critics said that Lunny, who also owns a ranching operation in the park, had purchased the oyster farm in 2004 knowing that its lease was expiring. They also argued that if he were allowed to stay it would set a precedent for other national parks, making it easier for commercial interests to operate in wilderness areas.

But some environmental groups, local leaders, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and famous chefs like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley came to his defense. The heated debate pitted friends against friends in West Marin and other liberal Bay Area communities. The oyster farm closed Dec. 31, 2014, and park service crews have since removed the buildings.

Salazar, himself a former Colorado cattle rancher, met with Lunny in 2012 and, after hearing ranchers’ concerns, ordered the park service as part of the oyster decision to begin a process to grant 20-year leases to the ranching families at Point Reyes, giving them more security.

The park service spent $50 million from 1962 to 1972 buying out all of the ranchers’ property. It allowed them to stay until the death of the original owner and their spouse. But now nearly all those agreements have lapsed, and park officials have continued to renew leases with family heirs for 5- and 10-year periods.

Lunny says the oyster farm battle alarmed many of the ranchers.

“After what we went through, we’re really worried about what could come out of this,” he said of the latest debate. “There is a lot of sadness and disbelief. People have said since that happened we realize we have no voice. And what chance do the ranchers have?”

Ranchers also are upset that tule elk, a native species that was killed off in the 1800s and which the park service re-introduced in 1978, have spread to some of their farms, knocking down fences, wrecking irrigation equipment and putting cows at risk of disease. They want fences built. And they want park officials to remove problem animals.

Ranchers also want to be allowed to grow row crops, bring in chickens, sheep, goats and other animals, and set up bed and breakfasts on the park property.

But environmentalists supporting the lawsuit say ranching was never mandated forever under the 1962 law, and that ranchers drive ATVs, spread manure on pastures, and have brought in no-tresspassing signs, trailers and waste disposal pits.

“A lot of people love the idea of ranching. It’s John Wayne. It’s the old West. Ranchers are hard workers. It’s a tough life,” said Ken Brower, son of the late David Brower, the former Sierra Club national executive director who lobbied for the park’s creation. “But they really shouldn’t be in a national park.”

Some local residents say they are wary of more conflict.

“The battle with the oyster farm left a lot of bruised feelings and everybody reeling,” said Peggy Day, a retired nurse in Point Reyes Station who sympathizes with the ranchers. “I think they are still in the corners licking their wounds. Nobody’s ready for another battle.”

Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. progers@mercurynews.com, Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN

 

Fresno Bee

Judge to hear Kings County’s challenges against high-speed rail

By Tim Sheehan

Thursday could be another day of reckoning for California’s high-speed rail plans, as a judge in Sacramento will hear arguments in a long-running lawsuit over whether the proposed bullet-train system can comply with requirements of Proposition 1A.

Kings County farmer John Tos, Hanford resident Aaron Fukuda and the Kings County Board of Supervisors originally filed suit against the California High-Speed Rail Authority in late 2011.

The hearing before Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny represents a second stage of the battle by the Kings County interests to stop the rail project in its tracks by focusing on the state’s compliance with Proposition 1A, the $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond act approved by California voters in 2008.

This portion of the lawsuit focuses on assertions that the rail authority’s plans violate the proposition in several key areas:

▪ That the proposal for a “blended” system in which high-speed trains would share upgraded tracks with the Caltrain commuter rail line between San Jose and San Francisco is inconsistent with what voters approved in the ballot measure.

▪ That the proposed route will be unable to meet Prop. 1A’s requirement to provide a nonstop 2-hour, 40-minute ride between San Francisco and Los Angeles under “real world” travel conditions.

▪ That the system cannot be expected to meet the law’s mandate to cover its operating costs without any public subsidy.

The suit also argues that Kenny should issue an injunction barring the state and the rail authority from spending any Prop. 1A money, federal stimulus and transportation grant funds, or cap-and-trade money from California’s greenhouse gas-reduction program on the rail system.

The Obama administration has put up about $3 billion in federal grants, to be matched by about $3 billion from Prop. 1A, for high-speed rail construction that is now underway in the San Joaquin Valley

The state also has pledged 25 percent of money generated by the auction of pollution credits in the greenhouse gas program, estimated to be up to $500 million per year through at least 2020.

The rail agency has said it plans to use Prop. 1A money to match that cap-and-trade money, amounting to a grand total of about $11 billion between all of the state and federal funds.

“A finding that Prop. 1A’s requirements have been violated need not kill the HSR project, which the voters intended to move forward if properly planned and executed,” wrote attorneys Michael Brady and Stuart Flashman, representing Tos, Fukuda and Kings County, in court documents. “It is not too late for the (rail authority and the state) to do a course correction to align the project with the voters’ intent.”

“The first step, however, is for the court to clearly indicate that the current path is improper, illegal and wasteful of public funds,” Brady and Flashman added.

In its opposition brief, the rail authority – represented by the state Attorney General’s Office – contends that a “blended” system on the San Francisco Peninsula is consistent with environmental planning and legislative requirements as well as with Prop. 1A. It also states that because the rail authority’s designs and plans for the statewide system continue to evolve, a challenge of the design requirements is premature.

The agency’s attorneys state that the lawsuit’s assertions over travel time and operational finances are speculative and “amount to a disagreement with the authority’s experts, and do not show that the authority acted unreasonably or arbitrarily.”

“This court should reject petitioners’ invitation to second-guess the myriad of highly technical judgments and analysis, by both the authority and its outside experts, that went into the preparation and review of the authority’s financial analysis,” the state’s attorneys added.

It is almost certain that whatever decision Kenny renders after Thursday’s hearing – and a decision may not be forthcoming for weeks – will be appealed by the losing side to a state appeals court.

In November 2013, Kenny ruled in favor of the Kings County plaintiffs in the first portion of the case, agreeing that the state’s preliminary 2011 funding plan for the rail system violated Prop. 1A because it did not realistically identify all of the money needed to build an “initial operating segment” from the Valley to the San Fernando Valley, and because the authority could not certify that it would have all of the environmental clearances for an operational segment before starting construction anywhere on the route.

Kenny ordered the rail authority to rewrite its financing plan to comply with Prop. 1A. In a separate but related case, Kenny also refused to validate the sale of bonds from Prop. 1A.

Kenny’s decision was overturned in August 2014 by a three-judge panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal. The justices also ordered Kenny to validate the bond sale. The California Supreme Court declined to review the appellate decisions.

Tim Sheehan: 559-441-6319, @TimSheehanNews, tsheehan@fresnobee.com

 

 

Visalia Times-Delta

Lawsuit challenges union rights

By David Castellon

Lawyers for a Central California packing house and a northern California nursery said Wednesday that they’re challenging a 40-year-old state law that essentially allows unions to trespass on agricultural businesses to recruit members.

Pacific Legal Foundation, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that handles property-rights issues, filed a lawsuit that morning in U.S. District Court in Fresno against the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board, challenging a provision of the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act.

That provision allows union organizers access to agricultural businesses to recruit members and organize workers.

Joshua Thompson, principal attorney for the plaintiffs, told reporters during a press conference at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, that the law “aggressively and systemically tramples on the proven rights of the state’s agricultural property owners by sanctioning organized trespassing by union activists.”

He said the lawsuit was filed on behalf of Fowler Packing Co. and Cedar Point Nursery, the latter a grower and vendor of strawberry starter plants just south of the Oregon border.

Thompson said both have had run-ins with member of the United Farm Workers union.

The union has filed a complaint with the ALRB, accusing Fresno-based Fowler Packing of interfering with the union’s right to access its employees at a work site for three days in July of last year, according to the lawsuit.

It goes on to say a large number of union representatives arrived at Cedar Point Nursery near Dorris on Oct. 29 and tried to get workers there to unionize.

Thompson said that about 100 union representatives were there, some with bullhorns.

Mike Fahner, owner and chief executive officer of the nursery — the only plaintiff at the press conference — told reporters that the UFW members arrived unannounced, and some tried to get workers to stop working and protest.

He said he called police “to bring order,” and remove the union representatives from his property, which claims he was entitled to do because he hadn’t been given notice they were coming.

But they returned later that day with notice, and the law prohibited him from interfering with them, even though the union’s earlier actions had disrupted work for the day.

“I’m here to stand up for everybody’s property rights. The right to own property without being invaded by trespassers is essential for all Americans – including agricultural families and businesses,” Fahner said.

“But the ALRB is attacking our rights by promoting union trespassing on agricultural lands,” said Fahner, who also disputed claims of poor working conditions at his nursery.

Calls to the UFW weren’t immediately returned on Wednesday.

Pacific Legal Foundation is mostly supported by donations and specializes in pro-business causes. Thompson said the plaintiffs in this case are being represented free of charge.

He noted that the law being challenged only applies to agricultural businesses, and it essentially gives unions the right to recruit new dues-paying members at worksites.

But this flies in the face of the most basic tenet of property right — the ability to deny trespassers access, Thompson noted.

“By saying yes to trespassing, ALRB is saying no to constitutional rights, and it’s those fundamental rights that we’ll be defending in court.

“It also violates property owners’ Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable, government-sanctioned intrusions, searches and seizures,” Thompson said.

He also noted that the right for union representatives to trespass on properties is unique to California. While the 1975 law has been upheld by the California Supreme Court, Thompson said he believes a challenge on the constitutionality of the law would win out in federal court.

 

 

Sacramento Bee

California grape harvest shrank in 2015

By Dale Kasler

California’s wine grape crop shrank to its lowest level in four years last fall, a 5 percent decline from 2014’s harvest, according to results released Wednesday.

In its preliminary “crush report” for 2015, the California Department of Food and Agriculture said the crop for all varieties of grapes came in at just under 3.9 million tons. That was a drop of 7 percent from the year before.

Wine grape harvests came up 5 percent short of what they were in 2014, the department said. Turrentine Brokerage, a Bay Area wine and grape marketer, said the wine grape crop was the lowest it’s been since 2011, and the shortfalls were most pronounced in the coastal regions.

Prices for wine grapes grown on the coast increased: 6 percent for Napa County, 5 percent for Sonoma and Marin counties. But they decreased for the state as a whole, down 12 percent for red wine grapes and 10 percent for white.

Despite the decline in volume, the industry remains strong, said Robert Smiley, a wine industry expert and management professor emeritus at UC Davis.

“The two previous (harvests) were the biggest on record,” Smiley said. “It is still a healthy, significant crop.” He said demand from consumers remains in good shape as well.

California’s epic drought caused significant fallowing of crops last year and, in many cases, smaller yields. But that wasn’t the case with the wine grape industry.

Steve Fredricks, president of Turrentine, said a spell of “cool weather in the springtime” was the main culprit for the lighter coastal wine grape crop.

The grape industry remains one of California’s leading farm commodities and exports. Fredericks said the smaller harvest followed several strong years that left vintners and marketers with ample inventories.

Although the overall decline in volume wasn’t enormous, Fredricks said the cool weather was particularly punishing in selected pockets of the coastal region, which reduced yields considerably for individual growers.

“It’s pretty tough if you’ve got half the revenue you thought you would,” he said.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler, dkasler@sacbee.com

 

 

Opinion

Sacramento Bee

Too much rain is going to waste

By Kevin Mccarthy

After months of hopeful predictions, El Niño is delivering our state much-needed snow and rain. But with Mother Nature doing her small part to ease the drought, the big question remains:

What will we do to capture excess rain and snow now for use in future times of drought?

We know it makes no sense to waste water, especially as Valley residents endure this terrible drought. Sadly, federal and state regulators are letting this precious moment slip by, letting water flow out to the Pacific Ocean.

For example, a couple of weeks ago, almost 330,000 gallons of water per second flowed through the Delta and out into the Pacific Ocean. At the same time, less than a tenth of that was sent to the Central Valley and Southern California.

We must ask ourselves what exactly is preventing us from capturing all of this water. The blame lies squarely on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service regulations that put the well-being of fish over people. Specifically, these agencies are requiring pumping to cease or be severely restricted if it impacts fish. More inexplicably, these agencies are curtailing operations simply because of a perceived risk to fish – something that is certainly beyond the original intent of the law and outside the criteria of their own regulations.

For the millions of Californians who are making sacrifices to reduce their water use every day, these contemptuous actions have resulted in the loss of enough water during late January storms to meet the daily water needs of 10 million families.

With predictions since last summer of an El Niño weather pattern, my House Republican colleagues from California and I knew the wet season was coming, so we have sought to get the agencies to allow more pumping. But the law places absolute authority in the hands of these bureaucracies to set pumping levels and interpret the law as they see fit. That is why we decided to try to change the law, passing legislation last year (and three times prior) to reform these regulations to ensure our communities can get this water.

Unfortunately, each time, the Obama administration and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have opposed us and refused to agree to bipartisan proposals.

When I talk to folks who are not from California about the drought, I often recount the famous fable by Aesop, “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” The grasshopper uses times of plenty to live carefree while mocking the ant that is storing food to prepare for hard times.

It’s not too late for the president, our senators and federal agencies to heed the fable’s moral. There may still be storms this winter whose rain and snow we can capture, but that requires policy decisions to be more practical, putting the needs of Californians over fish.

Fixing California’s drought challenge remains my top priority in Congress, and I will continue to work with my House colleagues, the president and Sens. Feinstein and Boxer to find a solution that gets water flowing to the communities in our state that so desperately need it.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy represents California’s 23rd Congressional District. He can be contacted at kevinmccarthy.house.gov.