Ag Today Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Ag Today

Tuesday, April 5, 2016


KFSN TV, Fresno

Ag leaders critical of minimum wage hike

By Dale Yurong

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) — Governor Jerry Brown has signed a bill into law which will raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022.

The more than two million people in California who work for minimum wage were thrilled to hear about the salary hike. But ag leaders worried the increase could have a severe impact on the farming industry.

SEIU members cheered as they watched Governor Brown sign the bill. The Service Employees International Union and United Healthcare Workers spearheaded the push to increase the state minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022.

Eva Bruce of Tulare said, “We’ve all been fighting so hard for the ‘Fight for 15.’ I cried, a lot of people cried. We were all so excited the moment we saw him sign.”

Some believed the minimum wage increase made more sense in big cities like Los Angeles or san Francisco where the cost of living is much higher. But Richard Deturi of Tulare didn’t see it that way.

Deturi said, “Help the workers get a decent wage to live on to buy their clothes, to buy food and they can go out to eat.”

Ag leaders worried the wage increase may jeopardize the future of valley farms because so many run on small margins.

Fresno County Ag Commissioner Les Wright called it, “A kick to the face and a kick to the butt today. I mean what else we gonna do to the farmers?”

Others worried farmers may ultimately move some production out of California and into other countries because of rising labor costs.

Fresno County Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Jacobsen explained, “Obviously our farmers can’t get up and move their land and this sunshine and water to other places but the fact of the matter remains is that we’re likely going to continue to offshore production of agricultural goods for this nation and I think that’s something Americans that need to make a conscious decision of. Is that what they want to do?”

A clause in the minimum wage bill would allow Governor Brown to halt the wage increases in the event of a recession.

On the opposite coast, the governor of New York also signed a bill to ultimately raise the minimum wage there to $15 an hour.



San Jose Mercury News

California’s new minimum wage expected to boost Bay Area automation firms

By Ethan Baron

The state’s new minimum wage law, signed into law Monday by Gov. Jerry Brown, is expected to give a boost to Silicon Valley’s burgeoning robot and automation industry as businesses seek to replace increasingly expensive workers.

With wages rising and technology advancing and becoming cheaper, agriculture, restaurants and hotels are expected to turn more to automation. It’s an unintended consequence of a law designed to improve the lives of lower-paid workers struggling in pricey California.

“The higher the compensation, the greater the incentive to replace labor with capital. The other thing to figure in here is the declining cost of automation,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “Likely there will be some greater demand for automation, but meanwhile, others will likely find other solutions using the people they have.”

The law raises the minimum wage incrementally to $15 an hour through 2022.

“Clearly, a large enough minimum wage is good for our business,” said Steve Cousins, CEO of Savioke, a Santa Clara company whose Relay service robots deliver items to guests in six Bay Area hotels, including the Holiday Inn Express in Redwood City and the Grand Hotel in Sunnyvale. “Delivery’s the obvious low-hanging fruit, but there’s a lot of possibilities — staging things, or observing things or even just answering questions, as in a mobile kiosk.”

At E la Carte, a Redwood City company started by Lyft ride-booking co-founder Rajat Suri, calls from potential customers of E la Carte’s automated restaurant ordering and payment system began increasing after last week’s wage-hike announcement. “There was demand before but now it’s gone up even higher,” said Suri, an MIT dropout who spent time as a waiter. “Back in the day, restaurants would just have to absorb higher minimum wages. Now they actually have the tools, like ours, to find ways around it.”

News of the wage increase also generated calls to Blue River Technology of Sunnyvale. The firm makes the Lettuce Bot, an automated lettuce-thinning machine that’s operating in the Salinas, Central, and Imperial valleys, as well as in Yuma, Arizona. “Rising wages make automation more palatable, make more sense,” said Blue River vice president of business development Ben Chostner.

The state’s farmers already face a labor shortage, Chostner said. “They see a solution like Blue River as something that can help them address both of those problems, both the shrinking labor pool and the increased labor costs.”

Bryan Little, employment policy director at the California Farm Bureau Federation, said rising wages will probably push some farmers to automation. Producers confronted with competition from other states and countries won’t be able merely to jack up their prices to make up for higher labor costs, Little said.

Increased automation in agriculture could change the types of crops grown in California, Little said. “What you may see would be people electing to grow more of the kinds of commodities that lend themselves to machine harvesting,” Little said. “It might mean more almonds and walnuts, more non-fresh-market tomatoes.”

Those products, and lower-grade wine grapes produced in California’s Central Valley, are so far the most amenable to automated harvesting, Little said.

For the restaurant industry, effects of mandated wage increases are likely to play out in dining areas more than kitchens, suggested Erik Thoresen, principal at Technomic, a food-service industry analysis company. “A lot of the processes that happen back-of-house aren’t that easy to automate,” Thoresen said.

However, restaurants with a focus on efficiency over culinary wizardry are likely to have greater opportunities to automate, Thoresen said. The robotic burger maker by San Francisco’s Momentum Machines, for example, can produce 360 burgers per hour, according to the company. Thoresen pointed to barista jobs as vulnerable to replacement by machines requiring only a push of a button, but he noted that “sometimes there’s a big difference in quality and that’s a big concern for operators.”

The ordering process in restaurants will probably see the most automation as labor costs go up, Thoresen said. Already there are automated front-of-house services in restaurants, such as E la Carte’s tablet-based system that can be found in about 20 Bay Area establishments.

To what extent California’s new minimum wage will spur automation is hard to predict because most research has addressed smaller mandated pay hikes, Muro said. “It’s not clear whether $15 is a threshold that would motivate different decision-making,” Muro said.

To be sure, machines have been taking human jobs since the Industrial Revolution. And automation’s net effect on jobs isn’t guaranteed to be negative, said Andra Keay, managing director of Silicon Valley Robotics, a Bay Area industry association. “One of the things I’ve noticed looking into technology rollout over the last couple of centuries is how surprisingly same the unemployment rate remains,” Keay said.

Contact Ethan Baron at 408-920-5011; follow him at, ,



Associated Press

States, federal agencies will seek removal of Klamath dams

By Jonathan J. Cooper

Oregon, California, the federal government and others have agreed to go forward with a plan to remove four hydroelectric dams in the Pacific Northwest without approval from a reluctant Congress, a spokesman for dam owner PacifiCorp said Monday.

The dam removal is part of an announcement planned Wednesday in Klamath, California, by the governors of both states and U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

Tearing down the dams would be a major victory for tribes that have fought for years to restore the river for salmon they rely on for subsistence and ceremony.

The move also could breathe new life into a struggling effort to allocate more water for farmers and ranchers in the drought-stricken Klamath basin.

Under the deal, a nonprofit corporation recently formed in California would take ownership of the hydroelectric dams and assume liability for any damage that stems from their removal, said Bob Gravely, a spokesman for Portland-based PacifiCorp.

The plan, which aims to remove the dams in 2020, still needs approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Going through FERC avoids the need for congressional approval for dam removal, which was required in earlier Klamath plans but met opposition from Republican lawmakers concerned about setting a precedent.

A water settlement agreement expired at the end of 2015 when Congress failed to approve the dam removal. Going around Congress on dams could make it more politically palatable for lawmakers to back other elements of the water agreements.

Dams thwart salmon migration, degrade water quality, alter water flows, and contribute to fish diseases and algae bloom problems. Three tribes depend on the fish for subsistence and ceremonial needs, and a fourth hopes fish will return once the dams are removed.

One of the tribes already has obtained water rights through the courts, limiting water available for farmers and ranchers, and the others could pursue that process. Klamath Basin agriculture is valued at about $670 million annually.

Thomas O’Rourke Sr., chairman of the Yurok Tribe in Northern California, said the Klamath River can begin to heal if the dams come down.

“That’s our livelihood,” O’Rourke said. “If the river’s sick, our fish are sick, the animals that live around it become sick, and the people become sick.”

PacifiCorp has supported a dam-removal agreement because it offers the utility liability protections and caps the costs to its customers. Several studies have shown that dam upgrades likely to be required would significantly reduce electricity generation and would cost millions more than dam removal and replacement of hydropower with other sources.

Funding for the $450 million project would come from PacifiCorp customers in California and Oregon, along with a water bond approved by California voters in 2014.


Sacramento Bee

Drought still grips Southern California, keeping pressure on state water supplies

By Dale Kasler and Ryan Sabalow

LOS ANGELES – El Niño has been little more than a cruel joke in Southern California this winter.

The torrential rains haven’t materialized. Groundwater aquifers have been pumped to near-historic lows. A sizable reservoir two hours east of Los Angeles, built for $2 billion as drought insurance, is two-thirds empty, its boat launch closed.

“It’s actually been a shockingly bad year,” said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the umbrella agency that delivers water to much of the region.

Northern Californians who believe the drought is over should think again. While north state reservoirs are brimming, the meager rainfall in cities such as Los Angeles and San Diego means continued strain on California’s man-made water system. Southern California, short of water but with economic and political clout to spare, will press the state to deliver plentiful water from Northern California for the near future.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Sacramento water expert Lester Snow, former secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, said much of the state’s water infrastructure – including Sacramento Valley’s second-largest reservoir – was paid for by Southern California agencies to store north state water and ship it south.

In addition, many Southern Californians resent the north for treating their water needs as somehow inferior, given the south state’s enormous economic contributions.

“It’s not as if you (in Northern California) have a claim on that water that is morally superior to Southern California,” said Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at UC San Diego. “So let’s all share.”

Sharing doesn’t come naturally in the contentious world of California water, and the mandatory water cuts that have hit communities such as Sacramento particularly hard have sharpened the traditional geographical schisms. The north-south tensions have put state water officials on the spot, as they wrestle with the consequences of a glass-half-empty winter that did little to alleviate drought conditions south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Some Northern California water agencies, which enjoy among the strongest legal water rights in the state, are calling for an end to the drought emergency and the stringent conservation orders that remain in place despite healthy precipitation in the Sacramento Valley and northern Sierra Nevada.

Meanwhile, some Southern California agencies, along with farm organizations in the San Joaquin Valley, complain that a portion of El Niño’s bounty is flowing to the ocean instead of being pumped south, the result of environmental concerns over endangered fish species in the Delta. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has taken up the cry of the south-of-Delta water users, urging President Barack Obama to ramp up the pumps.

Metropolitan officials couldn’t agree more. With so much water cascading through Northern California’s rivers, “you should have been able to move another half-million acre-feet of water (south) in the last 60 days alone,” Kightlinger said last week.

In an hourlong interview in his 12th-floor office at Metropolitan’s headquarters, with its panoramic view of downtown Los Angeles, Kightlinger argued that it’s in Northern California’s “enlightened self-interest” to keep his region, its massive population and its powerful economic engine well-hydrated.

“If Southern California starts to falter economically, it has a ripple effect throughout the entire state,” said Kightlinger, a genial lawyer who is also one of the most powerful figures in California water.

Metropolitan is a $1.8 billion-a-year behemoth. It supplies water wholesale to 19 million residents and consumes about half of the water delivered by the State Water Project, the giant delivery system built in the early 1960s by Gov. Pat Brown, father of current Gov. Jerry Brown. Kightlinger is one of the leading proponents of Jerry Brown’s controversial plan to re-engineer the system by building a pair of tunnels beneath the Delta. The idea is to improve the reliability of a delivery network that has become increasingly fragile as fish numbers in the estuary continue to plummet.

“What we don’t want to do is bring more water south,” Kightlinger said. “What we want to do is stabilize the system.”

A land with comparatively little rainfall even in the best of times, Southern California has dealt with water shortages for much of its history – sometimes making enemies along the way. It was more than a century ago that the city of Los Angeles bought up much of the land and water rights in the Owens Valley, about 200 miles north, effectively drying up a once-prosperous farming community. The episode still reverberates in rural communities, where suspicions persist about Southern California’s seemingly insatiable demands.

In the 1930s, Metropolitan built the 300-mile aqueduct to import water from the Colorado River, and Metropolitan’s somewhat grudging financial support was crucial to getting the State Water Project off the ground.

In recent years, Metropolitan has taken a more diversified approach, stepping up imports when possible but also working to curb consumption. After the U.S. government took almost half of Metropolitan’s Colorado River water away in 2003, giving it to Nevada and Arizona to resolve years of squabbling, Kightlinger’s agency reached out to farmers of the Palo Verde Valley for help. The result was a multiyear deal in which Metropolitan pays farmers to fallow some of their land and part with their Colorado River water.

At the same time, Metropolitan has invested heavily in recycling, low-flow toilets, cash-for-grass and other measures to tamp down demand, while one of its member agencies, in San Diego, built a $1 billion ocean-desalination plant.

And Southern California does not live on imported water alone. Roughly 35 percent to 40 percent of the region’s supply typically comes from local rainfall, much of it stored in vast underground basins regulated by obscure government agencies such as the Water Replenishment District of Southern California.

Founded in 1959, the district monitors groundwater levels to ensure they are not overpumped. It also finds sources of water to replenish what’s taken out by the 4 million people living in the district’s 420-square-mile service area. That puts Southern California decades ahead of much of the Central Valley, where unregulated groundwater extraction has depleted aquifers to the point where portions of the valley floor are sinking.

The drought, not surprisingly, has put the Southern California groundwater agency in a bind. A rainy winter generates about 54,000 acre-feet of new water for the Water Replenishment District. Not so this year.

“We had two years in a row where we got negligible, almost zero,” said district general manager Robb Whitaker. “This year … we’re at 10,000 acre-feet, and we’re a month away from the end of the rainy season or less.”

Since the drought started in 2011, water levels in the district’s basin have dropped nearly 50 feet, a loss of 70 billion gallons. Normally the district would buy water from Metropolitan to replenish its underground reserves, but for four years Metropolitan has had little to spare. The agency is spending $100 million on a water-recycling plant to try to ween itself from Metropolitan.

“There was so much hype about El Niño, and there was so much hope, but we didn’t really see it,” Whitaker said. “It makes these efforts (to recycle water) all the more relevant.”

El Niño’s uneven performance is one of the great ironies of the drought. Original forecasts called for heavy downpours in Southern California and so-so precipitation north of the Delta.

Instead, the reverse happened, leaving Southern California gasping.

Downtown Los Angeles has received 6.59 inches since the “water year” began in October, according to the National Weather Service. While that’s almost an inch more than last year, it’s less than half the historical average. Sacramento has received twice as much rain as Los Angeles.

But if it had to be one end of California or the other, it’s been better for the state as a whole that the heavy precipitation has fallen on the north. Even as 75 percent of the demand for drinking water and irrigation lie in the south state, three-quarters of the state’s reservoir capacity sits north of Fresno. The state relies on those reserves and Sierra snowmelt to buoy it through summer and fall.

The heavy rains that have fallen on Northern California have resulted in increased deliveries to Southern California through the State Water Project, which accounts for 30 percent of Metropolitan’s supply. The state project is expected to deliver 45 percent of what Metropolitan and other customers have requested this year.

While that’s twice as much as last year, it’s well short of a full allocation.

“Like it or not, the entire state is plumbed together,” said Shane Chapman, general manager of the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District in eastern Los Angeles County. “To a degree we don’t get precipitation locally, we’re more dependent on imported water.”

The drought’s continuing impact is perhaps best viewed at one of the gems of the Metropolitan system: Diamond Valley Lake, a man-made reservoir built on a cluster of former chicken and onion farms in the Riverside County community of Hemet.

Spanning 4 1/2 miles from west to east, capable of storing 810,000 acre-feet of water, Diamond Valley doubled the region’s reservoir capacity when it opened in 2000. In the past year it’s become a vivid symbol of the drought.

Diamond Valley is fed entirely by the State Water Project, and multiple years of meager deliveries reduced lake levels to their lowest point ever over the winter. The reservoir’s public boat launch, a massive ramp longer than two football fields, has been closed since April 2015.

Even with the recent uptick in state water deliveries, Diamond Valley has a desolate look. The water level sits 20 yards below the bottom edge of the concrete ramp.

Touring the lake on an agency pontoon boat last week, Metropolitan regional manager Glen Boyd pointed to water marks on the reservoir’s inner stone walls, showing lake levels roughly 100 feet below where they’d been a few years ago.

Boyd said there’s a chance the boat launch could reopen later this spring. But Metropolitan’s press officer, Bob Muir, who regularly gets phone calls from fishermen eager to bring their boats to the lake, said he’s unable to provide a firm answer.

“Diamond Valley Lake shows the drought is alive and well,” Muir said as the boat skipped along the choppy waters. “At least in Southern California.”

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler,




Los Angeles Times

No, California’s drought isn’t over. Here’s why easing the drought rules would be a big mistake

By Michael Hiltzik

On March 23, the San Juan Water District, which serves upper-crust residential estates in the Sacramento area, declared that the drought is over.

After months of El Niño rainfall, Folsom Lake, the district’s chief water source, had become so full that excess water was being released over Folsom Dam. “That was a very visible signal,” says Lisa Brown, customer service manager for the district. Customers, some of whom own spreads as large as 10 acres, “wanted to know why they were still being held to drought restrictions.” So the district board lifted them, replacing a 33% mandatory conservation cutback with a 10% voluntary cut and eliminating a 10% drought surcharge on water rates, effective April 1.

The abundance of water, says Assistant General Manager Keith Durkin, made it “very difficult to defend a continued 33% reduction in use.”

Across Northern and Central California, brimming reservoirs and a recovering mountain snowpack are prompting water users to pressure Gov. Jerry Brown and the State Water Resources Control Board to ratchet back restrictions that have made California a national leader in conservation.

The Placer County Water Agency on March 18 asked state authorities to rescind emergency drought regulations on the grounds that its supply is “robust enough to meet demand” from its customers through 2017. The Nevada Irrigation District, east of Marysville, cited “well above average precipitation, full reservoirs and a mountain snowpack” in rescinding its own drought declaration and calling on the state to ease its restrictions.

Districts such as San Juan have taken matters into their own hands by unilaterally removing the most stringent regulations on their own customers. San Juan says its customers met their conservation obligation by reducing usage by 34% from June through February. Not all the protesting districts managed that; the Georgetown Divide Public Utility District in El Dorado County, which last month lifted a drought-inspired moratorium on new water connections, acknowledges that it was upbraided by the state board in January for failing to meet its goal.

The Water Resources Board is looking for ways to ease pressure on water-rich districts without giving them a free hand. It has scheduled to consider relaxing some restrictions at a meeting in May, following a workshop at which those districts will be asked to make the case for more flexibility. “In the eyes of Placer County and San Juan the job is over,” says George Kostyrko, a spokesman for the board. But water conservation “isn’t a regional or a siloed issue,” he says. “It’s a statewide issue.”

Policymakers are getting the uneasy feeling that public impressions of newfound abundance could undo much of the progress of the last few years. “Droughts are really a matter of signals,” Jeanine Jones, deputy drought manager for the California Department of Water Resources, told me. “When it has rained a lot, people get comfortable.”

That would be a mistake. Experts reckon that even if 2016 represents a break from the record dry conditions of the last four years, the damage done by the drought to the state’s water supply will be lasting. Long-term reserves in groundwater have been drained to the point that years, even decades, of wet weather would be required to replenish them. “We’ve depleted our savings account in reserves and groundwater storage,” Jones says.

A more likely scenario for the future is a change in climatic conditions requiring a permanent change in water usage habits. “In the water community, people talk about a new normal, with dry conditions becoming more frequent and more lasting,” says Matt Heberger, senior research associate at the Pacific Institute, an environmental think tank in Oakland.

These conditions create a quandary for policymakers, who must tread a fine line between enforcing restrictions that people may feel are no longer necessary while guiding residents, growers and businesses toward enduring changes in usage patterns. “Messaging is important,” says Ellen Hanak, a water expert at the Public Policy Institute of California. “It doesn’t make sense to tell people conditions are terrible when they’re not, but it makes sense to tell them that the precipitation we’ve gotten hasn’t put us in a safe spot.”

The habits born in the last few years, if they take root, could produce lasting gains in water sufficiency for the future. The emergency atmosphere of the last couple of years has a lot to do with that: In the same sense that $3-a-gallon gas starts turning people off gas-guzzling SUVs, the best weapon against water shortages in the future is a sensation of crisis today.

Since January 2014, when Gov. Brown declared a drought emergency, Californians have met the challenge. They’ve replaced tens of millions of square feet of turf with drought-tolerant landscaping (coaxed by hundreds of millions of dollars in utility rebates) and installed water-thrifty indoor fixtures. The results are remarkable: Statewide average residential consumption of 61 gallons a day in January was nearly 15% below the same month a year earlier. Last summer’s usage was more than 23% lower than a year earlier.

Indications abound that the regional drought is far from over. The water level of Lake Mead, the reservoir behind Hoover Dam that stores Southern California’s Colorado River supply, stood last week at 1,081.32 feet above sea level — a recovery of about 6 feet since it reached a recent low point in June. But that’s still the lake’s lowest level in any March since 1937, when it was still filling for the first time. Mead is currently at about 39% of capacity.

Although three major Northern California reservoirs — Shasta, Lake Oroville and Folsom Lake — are currently above their average historical levels, they’re the exceptions, according to the Department of Water Resources.

Reservoirs in Central and Southern California remain well below their averages, with Don Pedro Reservoir in the Sierra foothills at 82% of its average and 60% of capacity, and Perris Lake in Riverside County at 43% of its average and 36% of capacity. While the snowpack is calculated at 87% of normal overall, its depth varies widely across the state — rising over recent months to roughly 100% of the average in the far north of the state, but reaching only about 75% of the average toward the south. The U.S. Drought Monitor still shows much of Southern and Central California to be facing long-term “exceptional drought.”

The problem with giving some parts of the state a pass on water rules while maintaining them elsewhere is that California’s water supply system binds north and south together. The long-term water crisis can only be solved as a statewide effort.

The state has begun to make changes that may well be lasting. “There will be a different-looking outdoor space 10 or 20 years from now than there was 10 or 20 years ago,” Hanak says. But the mind-set producing those changes could be fragile. The message needs to be that “the fact that we’re easing up doesn’t mean we’re out of drought mode.”

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email




Sacramento Bee

Cesar Chavez Day should be a day, not a week

Few deserve a state holiday more than Cesar Chavez, a man who spent his life fighting for the rights of migrant workers, demanding for them the same respect and rights as everyone else working in America.

But given all the families juggling child care and work last week, not to mention the annual confusion over which day is the actual day off, exactly, we suspect even he would quibble with the way California has implemented the holiday that bears his name.

Cesar Chavez Day is supposed to fall on March 31, the late labor leader’s birthday. But in the 16 years since former Gov. Gray Davis signed the holiday into existence, it has become more like Cesar Chavez Week.

Government agencies observe it by closing their doors on seemingly random days, causing headaches for families trying to schedule their lives around it. That’s no way to run a holiday.

Take the city of Sacramento. This year, for whatever reason, it observed Cesar Chavez Day on March 28. That was last Monday. The official holiday was Thursday. Government offices were closed, as were city-run, after-school programs, such as 4th R and START.

However, Sacramento City Unified School District didn’t get March 28 off for Cesar Chavez Day. That meant hundreds of parents, many with jobs at agencies that observed the holiday later, had to pick up kids from school early and scramble for day care.

Many school districts in California don’t observe Cesar Chavez with a day off anymore. But some do – sort of. San Francisco Unified School District had off Friday, April 1.

Sacramento County’s offices were closed March 31, while El Dorado and Placer counties and most offices in Yolo County remained open. The courts in most counties, including Sacramento, were closed that day. So were state government offices. The Legislature was hard at work, though, and was off on Friday instead.

And what of the farmworkers? The migrants Chavez worked so hard to organize into what became the United Farm Workers union, with the power to demand better wages and working conditions? They didn’t get a single day off last week.

Surely, California can do better. Even in this large and diverse state, there must be room for agreement on a single day to close government offices to honor Chavez’s worthy cause. As working families plead for consistency next year, there should be only one answer.

Sí, se puede.