Ag Today Thursday, February 18, 2016

Ag Today

Thursday, February 18, 2016

 

Opinion

Los Angeles Times

Treat wildfires like other natural disasters

By Dianne Feinstein and Ken Pimlott

More than 10 million acres of forest burned in 2015, the worst year for U.S. wildfires ever recorded. With incredibly dry conditions across the American West, fire lines were intensely hot and flames spread faster, producing some of the most dangerous conditions firefighters have ever seen.

In the face of climate change and drought, longer and more severe fire seasons are to be expected. But last year the United States also suffered more catastrophic fires. These fires are natural disasters, as destructive as many hurricanes, tornadoes or floods. But that’s not how the federal government treats them, or pays for them.

California’s 2015 fire season, for instance, included blazes that ranked among the most destructive in state history. The Valley fire in Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties burned 50,000 acres in just one day and 76,000 acres total. It killed four people and destroyed 1,958 homes and other buildings. The Butte fire burned more than 70,000 acres in Amador and Calaveras counties, killed two people and destroyed 1,293 structures. The Rough fire, the year’s largest, burned 150,000 acres in Fresno County. Nearly 4,000 firefighters were deployed to contain that blaze.

If it had been massive storms that caused such extraordinary devastation, and their costs outstripped the budget for disaster response, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies could access additional federal funding to pay for cleanup and recovery. In contrast, wildfire response remains subject to strict spending limits, regardless of a fire’s severity. Worse, outdated budget rules require the U.S. Forest Service to fight these fires by diverting funds from other parts of its budget — including fire prevention programs that remove dead trees and brush from forests.

This shortsighted practice means that as the Forest Service spends more on combating huge fires, it has less to spend on preventing them. States get hamstrung as a result too. California, for instance, shares responsibility with the Forest Service for maintaining public lands, but state, federal and private acreage are intertwined throughout the state. California’s efforts to clear brush in its sections of forest are less effective if the federal government doesn’t also clear its sections. Wildfires, after all, don’t stop at jurisdictional boundaries.

And California’s forests need urgent attention. About 888 million acres have suffered substantial water loss. More than 29 million trees have died as a result of the drought and pests. Removing dead trees from national forests and parks is a formidable task, and the Forest Service cannot be an effective partner unless it has the budget to invest in long-term wildfire prevention efforts.

The agency must be allowed to pay for fighting extraordinary wildfires similarly to how FEMA and other agencies pay for disaster responses. The response to Hurricane Sandy did not come at the expense of routine maintenance on levees to prevent future floods. Likewise, the Forest Service’s firefighting costs should not come at the expense of routine brush clearance and maintenance that help prevent future wildfires.

Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress agree that this problem needs fixing. Last year’s Senate version of the appropriations bill to fund the Forest Service provided a simple solution: It would have allowed the agency to access a separate stream of federal funds, unconstrained by government-wide spending limits, to combat wildfires during an above-average fire season.

This concept has broad, bipartisan support. It has been included in other proposals from members of Congress who represent Western states and is supported by the Obama administration.

Despite that consensus, the fix was not included in the spending bill passed last December because some lawmakers requested additional reforms related the Forest Service’s long-term budget outlook, while others requested contentious changes to how the agency manages national forests and conducts environmental reviews.

Congress should pursue comprehensive reforms to make it easier to care for the nation’s forests — but there simply is no bipartisan agreement on those latter issues. This unnecessary gridlock is preventing the budget fix from passing.

Robbing fire prevention accounts to fight fires makes no sense and needs to end as soon as possible. A straightforward, narrow fix to the federal wildfire budgeting process is uncontroversial and needed urgently. Congress should pass the budget fix on its own now and buy time to find consensus on broad reforms.

California can’t wait until the height of fire season this summer to clear dry brush and dead trees from our forestland. Wildfires are deadly disasters, and Congress needs to treat them as such.

Dianne Feinstein is the senior senator from California. Ken Pimlott is the director of Cal Fire and California’s state forester.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion and Facebook

 

 

Sacramento Bee

Sacramento agencies ask: Why release water from Folsom Lake during drought?

By Ryan Sabalow, Phillip Reese and Dale Kasler

Northern California’s El Niño winter has been on pause lately, with this week’s storm representing the only significant rainfall so far in February. Yet federal dam operators recently increased the flows out of Folsom Lake by thousands of acre-feet a day as a precaution against flooding. They did so even as the reservoir sat 40 percent empty.

The dam operators weren’t acting on their own initiative. They were adhering to a nearly 30-year-old manual, drawn up by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, that requires them to release water when Folsom Lake rises to a specified height. The requirement holds even if no major storms are forecast and the state is trying to conserve water during the fifth year of an epic drought.

Similar operating manuals, all created by the Corps, govern flood-control releases at 54 dams in California. The majority haven’t been updated since at least the 1980s; Folsom’s manual was last updated in 1987.

Now, a small but growing chorus of Sacramento-area water managers and hydrology experts says it’s time to rework the guidelines at Folsom and other reservoirs to permit more flexibility on water storage, particularly given a warming climate expected to bring more frequent and longer dry spells.

“When April rolls around, it’s … likely we’ll look back and say, ‘Gosh, I wish we hadn’t made those releases,’” said Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.

The ramped-up releases didn’t occur in a vacuum; they followed a remarkable surge in which the lake’s water level tripled in less than two months. Officials with the Corps said flood safety remains a paramount concern, particularly with hundreds of thousands of Californians living on floodplains below dams.

Christy Jones, chief of water management in the Corps’ Sacramento district, said every dam’s flood-control manual provides some wiggle room to account for recent weather patterns, forecasts and hydrological conditions, but reservoirs must have ample space during the wet season to ward against unforeseen floods.

“If they say that (a storm) is going to be really small, and it ends up being much bigger than what they forecast, then we don’t we keep enough space in the reservoir, then we’ve not done our duty to help reduce that flood risk downstream,” she said.

The increase in water releases from Folsom, which began Feb. 5, spilled enough water to supply the Sacramento region for weeks, much to the chagrin of water managers who remain under orders from the state to meet stiff conservation targets. They say it’s difficult to get people to take shorter showers and rip out their lawns when extra water is flowing out of Folsom even amid prolonged forecasts of sunny skies.

“If we can’t trust people to make forecast-based decisions, then you need new staff,” said Shauna Lorance, general manager of the San Juan Water District, which relies on Folsom Lake to supply its 160,000 retail and wholesale customers.

Some environmentalists take issue with the idea that water flowing down the American River is wasted, saying the flows help with fish populations and other needs. But at the Fair Oaks Water District, the heavy releases from Folsom represent an opportunity lost.

“Customers see water being dumped down the river,” said General Manager Tom Gray. “If we’re in the dire straits of a drought, shouldn’t you be looking at actual (weather) projections? Shouldn’t you maybe not use the regular playbook?”

Jones’ response: “Well, the difference between a water district and the Corps of Engineers is the district is looking at how much water can we save. The Corps of Engineers is looking at how much can we protect the downstream communities.”

Local water officials don’t take issue with flood control in concept. The last major Northern California flood, in January 1997, killed eight people and caused $1.8 billion in damage. And even ringed with levees, Sacramento remains among the nation’s most flood-vulnerable regions. Worries over flood risks were so pervasive that in the mid 1990s, the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency worked out an agreement with Folsom’s dam managers to add more flood-storage space in the lake, on an as-needed basis.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has primary responsibility for Folsom Dam operations. Water is released year round, in varying amounts, to meet downstream water quality standards and other needs. Reclamation officials must abide by Corps manuals once the water levels in Folsom rise to a certain point.

The flood-control threshold is a moving target and will gradually rise through the rest of winter and into spring, enabling more water to be stored, as the rainy season winds down.

The Corps’ original flood-control guidelines, created when Folsom Lake opened in 1956, called for keeping the reservoir no more than 60 to 80 percent full through March, depending on recent precipitation. Flood-control operators made two major updates over the next three decades: once after a prolonged drought, once after a horrific flood, according to Corps documents.

The manual was first updated in 1977, following a massive drought. That update dictated the lake not rise above 60 percent capacity in early winter, but it allowed operators to start increasing water levels past that amount beginning each January, hedging against the possibility of a dry winter.

Then, after a huge flood in 1986, the guidelines were updated again, but with later-season flood risks in mind. Mid-February became the point when the lake level could rise past 60 percent.

The flood-control manual hasn’t been updated since, Jones said, but will get its first update in 30 years next year as part of the construction of a $900 million auxiliary spillway. The new gates will be 50 feet lower than the main gates. That would allow for earlier and safer water releases from Folsom Lake during periods of high water, federal officials say.

Jones said officials are discussing the possibility of revising the manual to allow for more forecast-based decisions at Folsom. But, so far, nothing has been decided.

Joe Countryman, a retired Corps engineer in Sacramento, said Folsom is an ideal candidate for incorporating short-term weather forecasts into operational guidelines. The reason? The river channel below the dam is wide enough to accommodate sudden gushes of flood-control releases when storms are spotted developing over the Pacific Ocean.

“We have the great advantage here where we can see out in the Pacific and we can tell when a large storm is coming in,” said Countryman, who sits on the Central Valley Flood Protection Board. “It’s not a secret. It can’t sneak up on us.”

Corps documents discussing the spillway project show officials are torn on the issue of using weather forecasts to keep more water in storage.

A report in 2013 by a Corps consultant on the spillway project said Sacramento area water agencies have been pressing the Corps to store more water during winter, but the consultant said: “The balancing act of neither releasing water ‘too late’ nor ‘too early’ from Folsom Reservoir is not an easy one. Even when more is learned about accurately predicting such parameters as precipitation and basin wetness, there will always be uncertainties. … Exactly how to balance these uncertainties in the manual update could be an area of tension among stakeholders.”

Some critics say the federal dam managers have been slow to use improved science, engineering and weather data.

Ann Willis, a researcher at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, said the flood-control manuals at many of California’s dams are too rigidly tied to outdated weather models. For instance, the flood-control manual at Folsom cites weather patterns prior to the 1990s. The manuals, Willis said, say reservoirs need to stay comparatively empty in winter to make way for heavy snowmelt in the spring – a philosophy that gradually could be rendered obsolete by climate change.

“When the spring season comes along,” the UC Davis scientist said, “there’s no snowmelt to capture.”

Changes to Folsom’s operating manual could lead to significant water savings. Under current guidelines, federal officials aim to keep Folsom at or below 575,000 acre-feet, or 60 percent of capacity during much of winter. As an example, allowing the lake to hit 65 percent of capacity before making flood-control releases would permit an extra 50,000 acre-feet to remain in storage.

That 50,000 acre-feet would be equivalent to all water used in 2015 by the roughly 220,000 retail customers in Roseville, Folsom and the San Juan Water District, the three agencies most reliant on Folsom Lake for drinking water.

This month’s ramped-up releases weren’t the first time that extra water poured out of Folsom during the current drought to guard against a flood that never came.

During the week of Christmas 2012, Folsom Lake was well below capacity. Nonetheless, the Bureau of Reclamation opened up the Folsom Dam gates, based on the Corps’ guidelines, and let tens of billions of additional gallons flow out.

It was the highest sustained flow recorded between 2012 and 2015, according to records kept by the California Department of Water Resources. While it did rain 2.4 inches in Sacramento over the next two weeks, that was the last of the significant rain until the following October.

Lund, the UC Davis watershed sciences director, said there’s strong institutional reluctance to a sweeping reworking of the agency’s dam guidelines.

“Nationally, the Army Corps of Engineers takes a look at this and says, ‘Wait a minute, if we open this little can of worms in California, there’s another 600 reservoirs across the country, each of which have their stakeholder groups who are just itching to fight to see if they can … get something else out of the system,’ ” Lund said.

“Bureaucracies are risk-averse anyway, so this puts them all in a bad situation. We should be making these changes, but there are real human reasons why there’s reticence to do it.”

Jones, the agency’s flood manager in Sacramento, said changing any flood-control manual requires complex and costly engineering and environmental studies. Each time a dam’s flood-control manual is updated, the reviews “can easily cost several million dollars per project” and funds require congressional approval, she said.

“We do things as we are authorized and funded to do,” she said.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow, rsabalow@sacbee.com

 

 

Fresno Bee

Valley farmers, others come out against rail-water initiative

By Tim Sheehan

A group of central San Joaquin Valley agriculture, government and Latino leaders is raising an alarm about a proposed ballot initiative to take money away from high-speed rail and use it instead for water-storage projects in California.

Their opposition to the initiative – which is now being circulated for signatures to qualify for the November ballot – is rooted not in support for the controversial bullet-train project, but because the measure would also divert $2.7 billion in water-storage money from Proposition 1, a water bond act approved by more than two-thirds of California voters in 2014.

Doing so, they said in a meeting Wednesday with The Bee’s editorial board, would disrupt the California Water Commission’s current process to begin allocating the bond funds early next year and jeopardize prospects for major new reservoirs at Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin River above Millerton Lake northeast of Fresno and Sites Reservoir in Colusa County.

“We’re fully engaged in the process that’s been created by Prop. 1,” said Tulare County Supervisor Steve Worthley, the chairman of a new joint-powers water authority that includes representatives from Fresno, Kings, Madera, Merced and Tulare counties. “This constitutional amendment would basically change the whole dynamic, pull the money out from under the commission and give it to another authority that doesn’t even exist today.” The five-county authority has not yet taken a position on the initiative, Worthley added.

Backers of the new initiative have until July 25 to collect the 585,407 signatures needed to qualify for the November ballot. It was put together by the Hanford-based California Water Alliance and is supported by State Sen. Robert Huff, R-Diamond Bar, and state Board of Equalization Member George Runner, R-Lancaster.

The measure would reverse Proposition 1A, the $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond measure approved by voters in 2008, by shifting about $8 billion in unsold rail bonds to water storage projects. It would also shift the $2.7 billion in water-storage money away from California Water Commission’s decision-making structure set up by Proposition 1. Both pots of money would be diverted to a new State Water and Groundwater Storage Facilities Authority to choose projects that would receive the bond money.

Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, likened the new California Water Alliance/Huff/Runner initiative to a Trojan horse, appealing to widespread antipathy toward the high-speed train project “to take away the millions of dollars and hours that were spent crafting the Prop. 1 water bond to build both Temperance and Sites.”

“If this Trojan horse gets onto the ballot and wins, it will destroy everything we’ve worked for and put us back maybe a whole decade,” he added.

Worthley was more tempered but still criticized the initiative as “disingenuous.”

“It’s being sold very simplistically on a populist notion that many people are opposed to high-speed rail, so the idea that we would take high-speed rail dollars to put toward water holds tremendous appeal in our area,” Worthley said. “But when you drill down, it does more than that. It takes money away from Prop. 1, and folds it in with the high-speed rail funds, and that’s what jeopardizes the entire process.”

While Prop. 1 money will start flowing from the California Water Commission in March 2017, Mario Santoyo of the Sacramento-based Latino Water Coalition predicted that the new initiative, if ultimately approved by voters, would spur widespread litigation that could delay any money for any project for many more years.

“From the first discussions with Gov. Schwarzenegger in 1999, we knew there had to be something (in Prop. 1) for every Californian who was going to vote on this proposal,” he said. In addition to the $2.7 million for water storage projects, the measure included almost $5 billion for other efforts such as desalination, water recycling and groundwater cleanup. “It was a comprehensive package, and that’s the only reason why in 2009 we were successful in getting it through the Legislature.”

Santoyo said he has high hopes that the Temperance Flat project, with the backing of the five-county joint powers agency, could land as much as $1 billion to $1.5 billion from the California Water Commission’s allocation of Proposition 1 money. That funding, he said, could then be used to leverage participation from the federal government to make up the balance of the estimated $3 billion needed to build the new dam.

The prospect of extended legal challenges to the new initiative “puts this money into a place where you can’t do anything with it for who knows how long,” Santoyo said. “We’re much better off going to the finish line with what we’ve started.”

Joining Santoyo, Worthley and Cunha Wednesday in opposing the new initiative were Mendota Mayor Robert Silva of the Latino Water Coalition and the Northern California Water Association. The California Water Commission tasked with doling out the Prop. 1 money is a nine-member panel appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. Under the initiative, the Water and Groundwater Storage Facilities Authority would be a nine-member board, with two members elected by water districts in each of the state’s four regions and one elected at large.

Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director of the California Water Alliance, said she believes such concerns are misplaced. The initiative being circulated for signatures includes a “grandfather” clause that would allow – but not require – the new water authority to adopt and approve the projects under consideration under the California Water Commission’s process. That provision was added to the initiative in December in response to concerns voiced by other water interest groups. Bettencourt added that her organization sought input from numerous farm groups, including the Nisei Farmers League, on the language of the initiative. She said Cunha never responded on behalf of the Nisei group.

The $2.7 million in Prop. 1 money “is not guaranteed” to either the Temperance Flat or Sites reservoir projects, Bettencourt added. “We line-item money specifically toward Sites and Temperance, to be fully funded using funds from high-speed rail, and allowing for the existing process to carry on. … We worked vary hard to make sure progress wasn’t lost.”

She discounted the notion that the initiative is a high-speed-rail killer disguised as a water measure following earlier failed efforts to reverse the 2008 high-speed rail bond. “As our organization was putting this together, it was not a matter of how can we kill high-speed rail,” Bettencourt said. “It came to a question of what are our priorities in our state. For us and, we believe, a majority of Californians, that is water. … High-speed rail has been a bottom priority of voters for the last two years.”

Worthley said he opposes the high-speed rail program, but still has doubts about the initiative. “I think it’s overreaching,” he said. “It’s an effort to do something without recognizing that it could actually undo all the hard work that got us to the point where we are now.”

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

 

 

Stockton Record

Groundwater running on a deficit in S.J. County

Our water “savings account” hasn’t exactly gone broke, but it’s sure getting harder to make a withdrawal.

To the surprise of no one, groundwater levels in the fall of 2015 plummeted to new historic lows in portions of San Joaquin County, worse even than the previous “low-water” year of 1992.

There are still untold volumes of water beneath our feet. But the lower the water level drops, the more expensive it is pump it to the surface and use it.

The county’s problem is nowhere near as severe as the south Valley, where so much groundwater has been pumped that the ground itself is sinking. Still, with a $3 billion agricultural industry in San Joaquin County and hundreds of thousands of residents who rely to some extent on groundwater, experts don’t like seeing local wells dropping by 5, 10 or even 20 feet in a single year, as happened last fall in one extreme case.

The groundwater situation is “worse than it was in the ’90s and way worse than it was in the ’70s,” said Tom McGurk, an east county farmer who is chair of the county’s Advisory Water Commission.

Droughts during those decades were bad, but farmers feel the pinch even more today, McGurk said. The prices they fetch for their crops go up and down, but the cost of the power required to pump water from farther and farther below ground has only gone up over time.

“(Farming) is more risky now than it was then,” McGurk said.

For decades, the county has kept close tabs on its invisible underground water supply by sampling private wells twice a year.

What they find is predictable: During droughts, less rain percolates into the soil and the rivers shrivel up. Cities and farmers pump more groundwater, and the underground supply shrinks.

During wet times, the opposite occurs. Indeed, as bad as recent groundwater reports have been, a turn for the wetter would likely help the groundwater bounce back, officials say.

Glimmers of hope can be found even in the latest depressing report. Not all wells have sunk below 1992 levels, the report shows. Some remain well above that threshold, thanks to efforts to secure more water from rivers and streams.

The city of Stockton’s new Delta drinking water plant is one example. Some wells within the city are actually 20 feet higher than they were in 1992, thanks to the additional river water, officials say.

It’s a similar story in Tracy, which because of a new supply from the Stanislaus River now pumps very little groundwater, even during droughts.

The fact that some areas are doing better suggests that the county’s groundwater as a whole may be more stable than it seems, said Brandon Nakagawa, the county’s water resources coordinator.

“That sounds like pretty good sustainability to me,” he said.

But Stockton’s and Tracy’s successes won’t help a farmer who happens to live in an area where the groundwater has been depleted. One area east of Stockton saw groundwater sink to 70 feet below sea level last year across an area of 20 square miles, an increase from 12 square miles the year before.

Paul Sanguinetti, a farmer and board member at the Stockton East Water District, said he is safe because his wells plunge 200 feet below ground. “My father was always thinking ahead,” Sanguinetti said Wednesday.

Those whose wells aren’t as deep may be struggling, he said. In some cases they must lower their pumps to draw water from lower down the well; in other cases they might have to drill an entirely new well.

In a county with tens of thousands of wells, a total of 255 permits to drill new ones were issued last year by the county Environmental Health Department. For comparison, hard-hit Tulare County approved more than 4,700 permits over the past two years.

Almost half of San Joaquin County’s new well permits were for homeowners, and in many cases those had nothing to do with the drought.

And many of the agricultural wells were not necessarily the result of poor water conditions, but rather fear of stricter regulation, said Rodney Estrada, a program coordinator with county Environmental Health.

The state is starting to regulate groundwater for the first time, which years from now could lead to pumping limits in over-drafted areas. Separately, the state last summer attempted to stop even senior water rights holders from diverting from local rivers, a move that frightened some growers and might have motivated them to drill new wells as a kind of insurance policy.

“It got hot and heavy this past year because of the water rights issue,” Estrada said.

The key to reversing the scary trend in the county’s groundwater reports is to build the infrastructure to harness more river water when it is available, McGurk said.

As one example, county officials are working with the East Bay Municipal Utility District on a project to store water underground during wet years and then share it — a cooperative effort that historically has been the exception, not the norm.

For its part, Stockton East would like to be able to build canals to spread river water to growers who right now must rely only on wells, McGurk said. But the money to do so, he said, is hard to come by despite the state’s edict to ease up on groundwater.

“We’re getting by,” McGurk said, “but we should be in a much better position.”

— Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or abreitler@recordnet.com. Follow him at recordnet.com/breitlerblog and on Twitter @alexbreitler.

Santa Rosa Press Democrat

Sonoma County fights vexing rural crime with numbers

By Julie Johnson

Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Jose Acevedo fired up an engraver Wednesday morning and began etching a unique number on the metal casing of a cannon used to shoo birds away from the Denner family’s grapevines.

Brian Denner had brought a load of equipment, from weed wackers to ATVs, to the side of a one-way dirt road on his family’s property. There, he met with deputies from the rural crimes task force who etched, branded and punched a unique number given to his family onto the items as a way to prevent their theft or help track them if they do get stolen.

“We keep it locked up, but you never know,” said Denner, 28, who manages the 42-acre vineyard on the sprawling ranch near the Laguna de Santa Rosa.

More than $3 million in farm equipment has been reported stolen in unincorporated Sonoma County over the past four years, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

The numbers illustrate the financial toll on the county’s rural residents when thieves haul away tons of valuable equipment and even live animals, veteran Community Service Officer Pat Moffitt said.

Moffitt stood on a dirt track between the vines and a field of golden mustard Wednesday and watched as Acevedo stepped up onto an ATV with the engraver and began etching a solar- powered weather station and soil moisture reader. Cattle grazed on a nearby hillside.

“Look at this land. These people work hard. This is a family business. This is their lives,” Moffitt said.

Moffitt ticked off examples from her records from 2015: Copper wire valued at $120,000 taken from a north county vineyard; saddles worth about $47,000 missing from an equestrian center; a $35,000 tractor that was later recovered; and even 10 live goats worth about $5,000 that were hauled away.

The stolen tractor had been repainted, which a prospective buyer noticed and then contacted authorities. Deputies found the unique number — called an Owner Applied Number — once the paint was scraped off.

“If you see a John Deere painted black, that’s going to raise suspicion,” Moffitt said of the iconic yellow-and-green brand.

The Owner Applied Number given to the Denner family is one of about 1,000 unique numerical-and-letter sequences assigned to property owners in Sonoma County.

It’s part of a program now used across California and in areas of Nevada. The numbers are entered into a database that also assigns new numbers to indicate the county and owner.

The numbers helped deputies return a tractor to Monterey County and an ATV to San Luis Obispo over the past several months, according to Moffitt.

A form of the identification program dates back prior to Moffitt’s time with the Sheriff’s Office — she was hired in 1986 — and was started by the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. The system includes a number indicating the county of origin and a unique sequence for each property owner.

Moffitt said that one vineyard asked that the deputies also mark their office equipment, including televisions, cameras, computers, “even the refrigerator.”

Acevedo said that the manufacturer’s serial numbers aren’t always helpful to investigators for several reasons.Equipment can be so old that the numbers have disappeared or no longer are on record. Some serial numbers are repeated by different companies or not unique to a specific piece of equipment.

Anita Hawkins, a program coordinator with the Farm Bureau who also met with the deputies at the property Wednesday, said that about five years ago the bureau started a concerted effort to publicize the program and get more ranchers involved.

As Acevedo finished up engraving the weather station, Hawkins mentioned that the batteries in the device also have been stolen.

“They must be really desperate; what are they going to do, recycle it for $5?” Brian Denner said.

Moffitt said that they also are trying to educate ranchers about theft-prevention practices, like bringing equipment in from the fields to locked barns, installing lights and feeding animals away from the road.

“That makes them easy to steal,” Moffitt said. “Two people can lift a sheep over a fence.”

For more information abut the program, contact Moffitt at 565-3940 or pat.moffitt@sonoma-county.org.

Estimated dollar value of stolen equipment reported to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, per fiscal year running July 1 through June 30:

$964,970 = 2011-2012

$713,118 = 2012-2013

$575,471 = 2013-2014

$846,725 = 2014-2015

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

 

 

Visalia Times-Delta

Progress in stopping high-tech nut thieves

By David Castellon

Local law enforcement is focusing efforts to derail sophisticated thieves who have stolen millions of dollars worth of pistachios and almonds — often by the truckload — in central and northern California.

Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux told a group of walnut farmers during a client appreciation lunch Wednesday at Moody Walnut Dryer that his Ag Crimes Unit is working around the clock to educate farmers and stop thieves.

In December, Boudreaux, along with law enforcement officials and security experts from other parts of the state, participated with Fresno-based Western Agricultural Processors Association and the American Pistachio Association to put on the Tree Nut Theft Emergency Summit in Visalia to warn the industry about a series of high-value nut thefts.

Boudreaux and others detailed how the thieves hacked computers to generate fake documentation to obtain truckloads of nuts from processing plants or change delivery destinations while pistachio and almond loads were on the road. Drivers unknowingly delivered nuts directly to thieves.

That meeting was called in response to the Nov. 13 theft of $500,000 worth of pistachios from Horizon Nut Company, north of Tulare, and an attempted theft of hundreds of thousands worth of pistachios 10 days earlier from Setton Farms in Terra Bella.

“These guys are good at what they do,” Boudreaux told the growers Wednesday. “They understand what you do and the computer world.”

After his brief speech, Boudreaux declined to discuss any pending cases.

He urged growers to be cautious and to check and double check the legitimacy of drivers.

“Get a thumb print, if you can get it,” he said. “If they don’t give a thumb print, that load doesn’t go anywhere.”

Boudreaux said that besides trying to get the word out to nut growers and processors, his department is working to get the word out to truck drivers who haul nuts so they realize that unexpected changes in delivery destinations sent via computer could be red flags that thieves might be after their loads.

Sam Sciacca, owner of Moody Walnut Dryer and host of the growers luncheon, said walnuts haven’t been the target of these high-tech nut thieves, as pistachio and almond prices are about seven times higher per pound than walnuts.

“Not that it couldn’t happen someday,” but the theft problems walnut growers usually have involve people going into groves and stealing their nuts.

Still, he told the growers after Boudreaux’s speech that, “We can’t catch these guys, but we certainly can keep them from coming here.”

Boudreaux urged the walnut growers to call the Sheriff’s Department when thefts occur or when people are in their groves, even if they’re riding quads through them for recreation.