Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Melting snow, water releases and La Niña complicate California’s drought picture
By Ryan Sabalow and Phillip Reese
First, the good news: This winter, much of the Sierra had a near-average snowpack. Now, the bad news: It has melted early.
Word of the vanishing Sierra snowpack, which usually helps replenish reservoir levels later in the summer, arrives amid uncertainty over how California’s dams will be managed in coming months to protect endangered fish. It also comes at a critical juncture for urban water officials across the state. Wednesday is their deadline to submit updated drought conservation plans that lay out projections of how much water will be available to customers over the next three years.
Federal officials late last week signed off on a plan that would release more water from Shasta Dam through June. The decision came after nearly two weeks of pressure from California’s powerful farming lobby and members of Congress who argued that too much water was being held back to protect endangered fish.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and federal fisheries officials on Friday adopted a temporary plan that would increase the amount of water rushing down the Sacramento River below Shasta Dam from 8,000 cubic feet per second to 9,000 for the rest of June, bureau spokesman Shane Hunt said Monday.
“We need to start increasing releases to meet our commitments to our contractors,” Hunt said.
News of the temporary plan led to sighs of relief throughout the state’s agricultural industry, as it means more water for crops in the short term, particularly for rice farmers in the Sacramento Valley.
However, federal officials still haven’t formalized a plan to protect endangered salmon and smelt later this summer by managing water behind Shasta and other Sacramento Valley dams. The lack of a formal plan has left growers anxious they won’t get enough water as they head into the hottest months. Meanwhile, environmentalists worry that fish won’t get the water they need to stave off extinction.
Hunt said he hopes an agreement that strikes a balance between those interests will be finalized sometime this week.
After two years of fallowing fields, rice farmers in the Sacramento Valley significantly ramped up planting this spring. A series of heavy storms this winter and early spring fueled expectations that water deliveries were returning to normal. But some farmers have said Sacramento River flows are lower than expected, leaving them worried they won’t have enough water to sustain their crops. More water from Shasta could help.
The additional June flows also could help San Joaquin Valley farmers reliant on water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
“It’s not just good for us,” said Johnny Amaral, deputy general manager for the sprawling Westlands Water District in the San Joaquin Valley. “It’s good news for the people who drink water or use water. … I would say level heads have prevailed.”
Environmentalists countered that increased releases from Shasta could threaten endangered fish that need cool water in the Sacramento River to survive. Maintaining a deeper pool of water behind Shasta makes for colder water. The idea is to release that colder water later in the summer and early fall, when critically endangered winter-run salmon make their annual return to their spawning grounds below the dam. Releasing water now could mean less cool water is available later.
The past two summers, excessively warm water in the Sacramento River killed off nearly all of the juvenile Chinook. Scientists say a third year of die-offs could mean the extinction of the winter-run as a wild species.
Jon Rosenfield, a conservation biologist at the nonprofit Bay Institute of San Francisco, said not maintaining cool temperatures in the Sacramento River “would push the winter run Chinook salmon very close to extinction.”
He noted that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has confidently increased water releases from Shasta in prior years, only to later fail to hold temperatures down.
“I’m dubious that they actually know they have enough water,” Rosenfield said. “It’s an irreversible thing – once the water is released, it can’t be put back. The damage done to the fish is irreversible, particularly if they go extinct.”
The increase in Shasta releases follows a June 9 letter from 15 members of Congress from California urging the Obama administration to reject two dam-management proposals they said could hurt the state’s water supply.
The first proposal involves keeping a substantial amount of water in Shasta Lake until summer to protect juvenile winter-run Chinook. The second plan aims to rescue the Delta smelt, which also teeter on the brink of extinction, by letting more water flow to the Pacific Ocean through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The plan could have implications for Folsom Lake, since it may mean a second year in which regulators draw more heavily on the Sacramento region’s primary drinking water reservoir to help control salinity levels in the Delta. Local water officials say they anticipate being able to serve all their customers’ needs, even if the lake dips.
State and federal dam operators are required to maintain flows that ensure the survival of downstream fish. They are also required to ensure that enough freshwater flows through the Delta to keep seawater from rushing into the estuary and compromising salinity levels. The freshwater pumped from the Delta provides irrigation for millions of acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley and drinking water for 25 million residents.
Last week’s decision to release more water from Shasta comes amid fairly bleak news from state officials about the snowpack that officials had hoped would help sustain reservoir levels later in the year.
The Sierra snowpack has all but disappeared, state officials say. The vast majority of the Sierra has no measurable snow. The snowline in Yosemite National Park sits at roughly 10,000 feet, mostly covering a portion of the eastern side of the park.
Normally at this time of year, the Sierra has an average of about 3.3 inches of snow-water content. As of Monday, it averaged 0.1 inches.
It has not been abnormally warm in the Sierra. At the South Lake Tahoe airport, the average high temperature in May was 61 degrees. So far in June, it has been 72 degrees. In both months, temperatures were essentially even with the historical average, federal data show.
At the Yosemite National Park ranger station, the average high temperature was 72 in May and 81 so far in June, also on par with historical averages.
But the mountains did not get much snow after the start of April. The Central Sierra received the equivalent of about 5 inches of precipitation between April 1 and Monday, a couple of inches below average, state data show.
Other signs don’t bode well for the state’s drought situation. Forecasters announced earlier this month that California faces a 75 percent chance of a potentially dry La Niña weather pattern during the fall and winter.
California continues to be abnormally dry, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. Almost 43 percent of the state is either in extreme or exceptional drought. One year ago, about 71 percent of the state was in extreme or exceptional drought.
Kelly Redmond, regional climatologist with the Western Regional Climate Center at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, said the recent conditions might be considered the new normal amid climate change.
“As a harbinger of what we might be seeing in the future,” he said, “this year as well as last year are not bad examples to be looking at.”
Still, Hunt, the Bureau of Reclamation spokesman, said that the state is in far better shape this year than it was last year, and there’s hope that the water in the Sacramento Valley reservoirs could last into 2017.
Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville, the state’s two largest reservoirs, remain above average levels for this time of year, state figures show. Folsom Lake and Don Pedro Reservoir are near average levels. All told, eight of the state’s 12 major reservoirs are above 75 percent of average for this time of year.
“We’re hoping we can work through everything and keep some water in Folsom,” Hunt said. “I’m optimistic right now.”
Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow, firstname.lastname@example.org
How growing global trade is carrying pests all over the world
By Chelsea Harvey
Swimming through the seas, taking over forests, creeping into your garden — invasive species are everywhere, and they’re becoming one of the world’s major environmental concerns. And research suggests that they may be costing big money in terms of agricultural damage as well — with damage totals set to grow because species invasions are closely linked to the beating heart of the global economy, namely international trade.
“As trade volumes continue to increase and more trade connections are made between countries, the pressures from invasive species will only intensify,” Dean Paini, a senior research scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia, and a group of colleagues write in a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A big part of the worry surrounding invasives — which are nonnative species that establish themselves in a new location, often at the expense of the organisms already living there — has to do with their effect on the native flora and fauna, especially if the locals are threatened already. Burmese pythons in the Everglades, for instance, are a prime example of how an invasive species can take over an entire ecosystem in just a short amount of time. These giant snakes — which were probably first released into the wild by pet owners in Florida — are eating their way through the small mammal population in the Everglades, and they’ve even been known to turn up with bigger prey, such as deer or alligators, in their stomachs.
But while looking out for the local wildlife is a high priority for many scientists and conservationists, there’s an economic angle to the problem of invasive species: They can pose a terrible threat to agriculture by damaging crops. The new study seeks to illuminate which countries are potentially most vulnerable to their presence — and which countries, at a time of burgeoning international trade, are most likely to send them out into the rest of the world.
The research finds that sub-Saharan Africa is the global region with the potential to be hit hardest, agriculturally speaking, by invasive species. On the other hand, the research suggests that China and the United States, both of which have huge trade volumes with other countries (and large numbers of pest species within their borders to begin with), are the biggest potential sources of invasives to the rest of the world.
When considering the potential effect of any pest species in a country, there are “two halves of a question” to consider, said Paini, the study’s lead author: First, how likely is it to arrive in that country and, second, how likely is it to establish itself once it has arrived?
Paini and a group of colleagues from institutes in Australia, New Zealand and the United States, investigated those questions for 1,300 invasive insect and fungal pest species in 124 countries around the world. They decided to use global trade connections, and the value of a country’s annual importation, as a proxy for the likelihood that pest species might be carried across borders.
“Trade has been shown repeatedly to be correlated to the number of invasive species a country has,” Paini said. And there are many specific examples, as well — invasive zebra mussels, for instance, which first started showing up in U.S. lakes and waterways in the late 1980s, are thought to have been unintentionally carried over by European ships.
To evaluate a species’ likelihood of establishment once it arrives in a country, they relied on existing data on the worldwide distribution of all 1,300 species included in the analysis and the characteristics of locations where they’re known to be able to survive. The researchers also collected data on crop production in each country so they could calculate the economic threat that would be posed if a species known to be a pest to any of the crops in that nation were to invade.
Overall, the two countries with the potential to lose the most money to invasive species were the United States and China — not surprising, considering both are large agricultural producers. But compared with other countries, the share of agriculture in their overall gross domestic product is fairly small. When the researchers considered the costs of invasion relative to GDP, they found that nations in sub-Saharan Africa, such as Malawi, Burundi and Guinea, were the most vulnerable.
Outside this region, though, the researchers noted that there was little correlation between geography and vulnerability, suggesting a complex array of factors are at play when it comes to whether — and to what extent — a country will be affected by invasive species. Those include the types of crops grown, what pests are already present, which places the country trades with, and how often and what kinds of pests those other places house.
“I spent a lot of time trying to find a pattern,” Paini said. “Was it big countries, was it little countries, was it the number of invasive species that are already present in the country, was it whether the country was landlocked or not? The point is, nothing really popped out.”
On the flip side, the research indicated that China and the United States ranked first and second as potential source countries — also not surprising because they are “characterized by large and diverse trade volumes and have been confirmed as network hubs in the international agrofood trade network,” the researchers wrote.
Of course, there are a variety of other factors affecting the extent to which an invasive species could harm a country’s economy once it’s established, Paini said. “It’s things like how long is it established in the country before it actually grows to a large enough population that it does have an impact? How slowly or how quickly does it spread around the country?” he said, adding that management strategies in individual nations will play a large role as well.
The research does not suggest that its results will definitely happen — rather, it contends that some nations have the potential to be hit harder than others. And Paini noted that the study is also not intended to make recommendations to any particular nation about which species they should most be on the lookout for or which nations they should avoid trading with. The biggest takeaway, Paini said, is that some parts of the world may be particularly vulnerable — suggesting that international bodies may want to pay special attention to the risk of invasives in those places.
“It’s everybody’s responsibility to try to reduce or prevent invasive species from spreading, and just to keep in mind that those countries that are most vulnerable to those invasive species are those developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa,” Paini said. “There is a lot of work being done in that area already for developing countries, particularly in Africa — but I would just say that that work needs to continue.”
New York Times
A Rush of Americans, Seeking Gold in Cuban Soil
By Kim Severson
HAVANA — Being an agricultural official in Cuba these days is like living in a resort town all your friends want to visit. You rarely get a moment to yourself.
For months, Havana’s government offices and its prettiest urban farms have been filled with American bureaucrats, seed sellers, food company executives and farmers who spend their evenings eating meals made with ingredients often imported or smuggled into restaurants that most Cubans can’t afford.
They seek the prizes that are likely to come if the United States ends its trade restrictions against Cuba: a new supply of sugar, coffee and tropical produce, and a new market for American exports that could reap more than $1.2 billion a year in sales, according to the United States Chamber of Commerce.
But for some, the quest is less about the money than about what they say is the soul of Cuban agriculture and how people eat.
“The Cubans are not enthusiastic about a Burger King on every corner or Monsanto being here,” said Representative Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine and an organic farmer.
In May, Ms. Pingree led a coalition of organic industry leaders, chefs and investors on a five-day trip here. Their mission, in part, was to encourage Cuban officials to resist the enticements of larger, more conventional American food and farming interests and persuade Cubans to protect and extend the small-scale organic practices that are already a part of their daily life.
Since agricultural supplies are hard to find in Cuba, farmers repurpose beer cans and other containers to grow plants and package products like honey for sale. Credit Lisette Poole for The New York Times
Cuba, it turns out, is a rare oasis of organic and sustainable agriculture. For reasons of politics, geography and philosophy, the nation was forced to abandon much of its large-scale, chemical-based farming and replace it with a network of smaller farms and more natural methods.
Shortly after the revolution in 1959, Cuba began sending sugar, tobacco and research to the Soviet Union in exchange for a steady supply of goods that included food, agricultural equipment and farm chemicals. But 30 years later, when the Soviet bloc crumbled, the shipments ended.
Without gasoline and spare parts, tractors sat idle in fields. Crops rotted and cattle died. Studies show that the average Cuban lost more than 12 pounds during what President Fidel Castro called the “special period in time of peace.”
With many large government-owned farms failing, Mr. Castro told the nation to learn to grow food without chemicals. Oxen replaced tractors. Smaller, cooperative farms and new markets emerged.
To be sure, Cuba still imports 60 percent to 80 percent of its food, the United States Department of Agriculture estimates, and little or none of it organic. Agricultural chemicals are imported from other countries without trade embargoes. The Cuban government owns about 80 percent of the land the nation could use to grow food, but more than half remains fallow. It is unclear how much of the produce Cuba grows would qualify as organic under United States standards.
Still, a cohesive organic movement is growing. By its own estimates, Cuba has almost 400,000 urban farms, among them about 10,000 small organic ones. The government continues to turn land over to independent farmers to lease, although it requires most to grow food for the state.
For the group of organic true believers who traveled here in May, the dream is to help Cuba stay loyal to a sustainable style of agriculture that rejects chemicals and genetic modification. They point to an incentive: an American market hungry — and willing to pay a premium — for organic produce.
Although only 5 percent of all food sold in America is organic, those sales last year grew three times as fast as those of the overall food market, according to the Organic Trade Association. Cuba offers a new source to feed the demand for organic sugar, honey, fruit and other raw ingredients.
Yet Cuba also offers 11 million potential new customers for conventional agriculture. Just days after Ms. Pingree’s group left, the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, which had already been working in the country, returned.
Founded in 2015 to promote normalizing American relations with Cuba, the group has more than 100 members, including corporations like Butterball and Cargill, commodity associations like corn refiners and soy growers, and several state farm bureaus.
The delegation returned home holding an agreement with Cuba’s Grupo Empresarial Agrícola to re-establish Cuba as a market for American agricultural products. In a follow-up stroke, Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri announced on May 30 that Cuba had accepted a 20-ton donation of long-grain rice grown in his state. The last official shipment of United States rice to Cuba was in 2008.
Although many in the organic industry see the coalition as a threat to their cause, its leaders say they share the same goal: to help Cuba feed itself and improve its agricultural practices.
“There’s not tension, because at the end of the day, this is about how the Cuban farmer is going to raise their productivity and make their own choices,” said Devry Boughner Vorwerk, a former Cargill executive who is now the group’s director. “The key point here is that there is room enough for everyone.”
Doug Schroeder, a soybean farmer from Illinois, came along on the coalition’s trip. His state ships about $20 million worth of corn and soy to Cuba every year under the complex set of rules governing trade between the two countries. If the United States ends its financial embargo with Cuba, that figure could jump to $220 million.
“You multiply that for the entire country and all agriculture sales, and it’s a big deal,” he said.
He anticipates a big market for organics, too, but one in which Cubans provide food for America. The organic industry, he said, “may be going into the back door of a gold mine here. It would be interesting if they could ship organics to the U.S. to satisfy our demand, and we could ship them the goods we do well.”
The secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, seems to be walking the middle of that line. The agreement he signed with his Cuban counterpart, Gustavo Rodríguez Rollero, during President Obama’s historic visit in March included a nod to sharing research on both styles of agriculture.
And when Mr. Vilsack took Mr. Rollero on a tour of Iowa this month, they visited both an organic farm and DuPont Pioneer, the nation’s largest producer of hybrid and genetically modified seeds.
“We have a tremendous opportunity in Cuba to expand exports of soybeans, rice and poultry at some point,” Mr. Vilsack said during that visit. “They in turn have a tremendous opportunity to import into the U.S. organic production. Trade must be a two-way street.”
Those who support organic farming say there is something larger at issue than just trade. Adopting chemical-based farming methods used by large agricultural companies that have been visiting Cuba may seem a lucrative proposition, they say, but it would threaten the organic potential of thousands of acres of fallow farmland in Cuba.
“That is a system of the past,” Gary Hirshberg, the chairman of Stonyfield Farm yogurt company and a leader in the effort to label food with genetically modified ingredients, told Cuban officials during the May trip. “We are the industry of the future.”
Still, that future, organic or not, is most likely a long way off. Cubans interviewed during the trip organized by Ms. Pingree said their country was not prepared to handle a flood of new trade. Cuba’s agricultural system remains so antiquated that even seeds and wheelbarrows are in short supply. The rules for doing business, even for farmers and people trying to start wholesale markets, seem to shift weekly.
“Everybody is adequately sober about the realities of this,” said Laura Batcha, the executive director of the Organic Trade Association.
Mr. Schroeder, the soybean farmer, had the same impression. “I got the feeling they don’t want a Starbucks on every corner,” he said. “They don’t want to be Hawaii. They want to maintain their heritage, but at the same time, they realize they have a lot of need.”
There are other complications. Farmers in Florida and other states who grow food suited to tropical climates are already pushing back against a potential competitor. American shoppers with anti-Castro views are probably not going to embrace Cuban products, even something as benign as fresh-cut flowers, which Juan Núñez, the regional president for Whole Foods who traveled to Cuba with the organic group, thought might be a likely starting point for import.
The agriculture department has yet to even secure office space in the new United States embassy here. And despite Mr. Obama’s push, efforts to lift trade sanctions are moving slowly in Congress and are bogged down in the run-up to the election.
On Monday, Nespresso announced that it would be the first company to sell Cuban coffee in America since the revolution. Through a deal brokered with help from TechnoServe, a nonprofit development organization, pods of Cuban-grown Arabica coffee Nespresso is calling Cafecito de Cuba will go on sale for a limited time in the fall.
People who trade in organics say they, too, are likely to start small. Coffee is a possibility, as is charcoal made from marabú, a thorny, invasive tree that has stymied farmers trying to clear land. The high-quality charcoal has caught on in Europe.
And then there is sugar, especially organic sugar, which is in high demand by American processors. What if raw, organic Cuban sugar became an indispensable ingredient for craft cocktails, Ms. Pingree asked during a stroll through a Havana neighborhood. That could turn public opinion enough to sway Congress.
“It sounds frivolous, but some doors open in moments,” she said. “At this point, we are looking for little paths to move this forward. It’s hard to know which ones they will be.”
Ultimately, the future of Cuban agriculture will be decided in Cuba. Despite their reliance on imported, often poor quality food supplemented with state-issued rations, Cubans have long associated food and farming with health, and have a deep love of cooking — especially with anything grown in Cuba, said Imogene Tondre, an American-born culinary researcher living here.
Cuban chefs are already seeking out better quality food and exchanging ideas with American peers. One of them is Tom Colicchio, the New York chef and television personality who has become active in American food politics and traveled with Ms. Pingree to Cuba.
In meetings during the May trip, he urged Cuban officials to build on the nation’s extensive organic research and the cultural desire for local food, and to resist the monetary lures of big agriculture. “We ask that you have the political will to reject that and continue to do what you are doing and know that there is a market for it,” Mr. Colicchio said in an impassioned plea.
Moraima Céspedes Morales, director of international affairs in Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture, told him to stay calm. “We are trying to produce the healthiest food possible,” she said. “All the pressures, they don’t matter.”
What matters to Cubans, she told the group, is neither American market pressure nor the battle over which style of farming is better.
“The most important program for us,” she said, “is still one of self-supply.”
Correction: June 20, 2016
An earlier version of this article misstated the position held by Moraima Céspedes Morales. She is director of international affairs for Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture, not for Cuba.
Former Tulare City Councilman Mark Watte dies
By David Castellon
Mark C. Watte, a Tulare farmer, dairyman, a former Tulare City councilman and a staple of the World Ag Expo, has died.
Mark Bagby, a spokesman for Calcot Limited, a Bakersfield cotton marketing cooperative out of Bakersfield — of which Watte was a former member of the board of directors — said the 64-year-old had been battling a rare form of cancer for at least a year.
At recent public events, Watte had appeared wan, though he was in good spirits.
Watte recently had started on his second round of chemotherapy, but was found by his wife unconscious Friday night in their Tulare home, Bagby said. Watte later died.
Watte was well-known in the Valley’s farming and dairy industry, helping run his family’s 3,000 acres of farmland growing pistachios, almonds cotton and black-eyed peas, among other crops, while also operating a more than 1,000-head dairy.
Though he resigned from the Calcot board a couple of years ago, citing he was too busy to with his other businesses, in February he was appointed the chairman of the board for Cotton, Incorporated, the national marketing arm of the U.S. cotton industry.
He also was highly learned in all his businesses in which he was involved, serving as an expert on California’s milk-pricing issues and advocating efforts to free up more water from the San Joaquin Delta for Valley farmers and ranchers.
“For me, he was a great friend that I’m going to miss,” said Jerry Sinift, chief executive officer of the International Agri-Center in Tulare, in which Watte was heavily involved for years, along with the World Ag Expo held there annually.
Watte was the 1992 chairman of the Expo, the world’s largest agricultural trade show, and before and after he and other family members were heavily involved in planning and putting the event.
“He’s been one of our biggest champions,” Sinift said.
Watte had for at least the past 15 years served as master of ceremony for the Expo’s opening day event and often served as a spokesman to the media and to dignitaries, including some governors.
“He knew us intimately,” Sinift said, “He was the perfect host.”
But Watte also seemed to be happy to pitch in where he could, even if it was just shuttling reporters and other around the Ag Expo in a golf cart.
“He was instrumental in agriculture in general,” Sinift said.
In an obituary sent to the Times-Delta/Advance-Register, his family wrote that he was a public figure in the City of Tulare and in Tulare County, which included serving as a Tulare City councilman from 2010 to 2012.
He also was a member of the City of Tulare Board of Public Utilities Committee and was a supporter of youth groups, educational programs, and charitable organizations.
Watte and his brother, Brian Watte, were named Tulare Farmers of the Year in 2000, and individually Mark was named Tulare Chamber of Commerce Man of the Year in 2013 and the Tulare County Farm Bureau Agriculturalist of the Year in 2014.
“Mark was an advocate for many causes including the Tulare Regional Medical Center Measure I, World Ag Expo, St. Aloysius School and the list goes on and on. He was a man of deep faith and an active parishioner of St. Aloysius Church, serving as a Sunday lector,” the obituary continues.
Watte is survived by his wife, Joanne, and three daughters — along with their spouses Karen and Danny Tristao; Julie and Jason Starr; and Tracy and Ted Bert, all of Tulare, along with 10 grandchildren.
He also is survived by his four siblings and other family members.
Visitation for Watte will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday at Miller’s Tulare Funeral Home, 151 N. H St., Tulare. Recitation of the Rosary and Mass of the Resurrection will be held at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at St. Aloysius Catholic Church, 125 E. Pleasant Ave.
Burial will follow at the North Tulare Cemetery, 4572 N. J St.
Instead of flowers, family members ask that friends and family send donations to the Watte/Griesbach Memorial Fund, 627 Beatrice Dr., Tulare, or to the Tulare Hospital Foundation, 906 N. Cherry St., Tulare.
Small farmer to Westlands management: time for transformation
By Brad Gleason
I am a farmer in the Westlands Water District. That is not an easy thing to admit these days.
My acres there aren’t vast, nor do I wield much power. I have never sat on the board of directors. Like other smaller farmers in Westlands, I’ve had to accept the reality that the direction of the district – misguided as it has been of late – is beyond my control.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a voice. For the past several years, I’ve been speaking out in private meetings with my fellow growers. Now, given the district’s bent toward secrecy and its habit of shooting itself in the foot, I am choosing to speak out publicly.
Let’s start with Westland’s reason for existence. The district is there to advocate for its farmers. I am not an enemy of the environment or the Delta. I understand the importance of our fisheries. At the same time, I think we have a righteous case for receiving water as part of the Central Valley Project.
What people tend to forget is that the project itself was built in the 1940s in the name of agriculture. The premise was to redistribute some of the state’s water from its flood-prone north and move it to productive soils in the middle.
Among our 600,000 acres in Westlands is some of the most fertile soil in the world. Yes, some of it is plagued with salts and selenium, but much of it isn’t. And that distinction gets lost on the public, in part because the present leaders of Westlands keep making foolish decisions that allow us to be portrayed as the big, bad water guzzler of California.
The blame lies squarely with our general manager, Tom Birmingham, and a handful of longtime board members who continue to support him even in the wake of news stories that paint Westlands as manipulative, self-serving and, in some cases, highly unethical.
Last December, The New York Times ran a front-page story revealing that the district had spent nearly $1 million to prop up a lobbying group called El Agua. The intention of the group is to add the voice of Latino farmworkers to the debate over severe cutbacks in water deliveries to Fresno County’s west side – a worthy goal but less so when it seems that the puppet master behind the scenes is Westlands.
Like many readers, I was surprised to learn that such large sums of money were spent by Westlands to support a front group. And I have been disappointed that public efforts to find out more about the relationship between El Agua and Westlands have been stymied by a lack of transparency on the part of our leadership. Secrecy is not what we need right now.
Then in March, I learned from news accounts that the Securities and Exchange Commission had handed down a penalty of $125,000 to the district and even fined Birmingham $50,000 for issuing misleading financial information crucial for the district’s bond financing.
Birmingham, who serves as both general manager and general legal counsel, stated publicly that the district used “a little Enron accounting” to help achieve debt-coverage ratios. That is not so funny or smart for someone holding down the fort.
Then last week, I picked up the newspaper only to learn that the management of Westlands saw fit to loan $1.4 million, at a ridiculously low interest rate, to a senior-level employee so he could buy a luxury house in Northern California. The interest rate is below 1 percent, and the loan has extended for several years after the initial due date passed.
The farmers I know cannot operate their farms in such a slipshod manner and survive. So why are we allowing such management practices during a time when we have endured federal water allocations of just 5 percent of our contract this year and zero percent in the two previous years?
Perhaps you’re thinking that somehow the government and indirectly your taxes underwrites all this mismanagement. Not a chance. In fact, it comes from monies charged to me and every other grower in the form of assessments and land based charges.
We should be demanding transparency and restoration of trust. In the face of challenges that require new leadership grounded in solid policy, we are instead made to suffer a series of embarrassing gimmicks.
I am proud of the transformation that has taken place in the soil of Westlands over the past two decades. Most of the water we receive now goes to growing high-value nuts, fruits and vegetables that, unlike cotton or grains, receive no federal crop subsidies.
Now it is time for a similar transformation to take place in our management. The Central Valley Project succeeded beyond the wildest predictions in turning the fertile soil of Westlands into some of the world’s most productive farms. That story, sadly, has been lost in all these shenanigans.
Brad Gleason of Fresno farms and owns acreage in Westlands Water District near Coalinga. Write to him at email@example.com.
Life without internet in Yolo County
By Don Saylor and Cecilia Aguiar-Curry
Access to high-speed Internet (broadband) is no longer a luxury. It is a basic necessity in both rural and urban settings to support our community members with their education, access to health care and economic competitiveness in today’s digital economy. While Yolo County sits just to the west of the California state Capitol, funding for broadband infrastructure has been a consistent challenge.
Knights Landing is a rural community just 10 miles north of Woodland. Youth regularly gather outside the Knights Landing Library after hours. These students aren’t congregating to cause trouble; they are accessing the library’s Wi-Fi signal — the only high-speed internet available to them for homework and other needs.
In Knights Landing, a community of 1,000 residents — where 23.5 percent live below the poverty level, 14.7 percent are unemployed and 91 percent of school children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals — there is no affordable means for residents to access broadband (high-speed internet) at home.
The lack of connectivity in Knights Landing is not an isolated situation. This story is one we hear time and time again from people in the communities throughout Yolo County and beyond. These aren’t mountaintop vacation homes lacking access to broadband; these are homes of hard-working residents who are an integral part of our community.
Access to adequate broadband isn’t just a challenge to residents; it also impacts local businesses and their ability to use cutting-edge technologies. Adequate and affordable broadband infrastructure is necessary in today’s digital economy. The many small and medium-sized businesses that cannot afford to build their own infrastructure in rural and urban communities must “get by” with high-cost mediocre service.
Turkovich Family Wines, an award-winning family winery, cannot implement state-of-the-art remote sensing for irrigation and water management in their fields due to lack of connectivity. At their new winery just 2 miles from their downtown Winters tasting room, the internet service is so poor they cannot use efficient inventory and customer database programs.
Inadequate broadband service is not limited to rural communities. Superior Farms, one of the largest providers of lamb in the country, recently relocated its headquarters, citing chronically insufficient bandwidth at its Davis location, which was hindering the company’s use of cloud-based internet services.
Assuring adequate internet access for people living and working in Yolo County is a collaborative effort. Yolo County is home to 210,000 people, four cities, UC Davis and a thriving agricultural economy. Yolo County’s farms are a major contributor to Sacramento’s Farm to Fork Capital movement.
To help preserve land for growing food, 88 percent of Yolo County’s population lives within the cities with large expanses of agricultural land in between. This results in smaller cities and rural communities, offering a smaller market that apparently is not lucrative enough for private broadband providers to install new, or upgrade long-outdated, infrastructure. Closing the digital divide will require public and private solutions.
That is why we are supportive of the Internet For All Now Act to sustain the California Advanced Services Fund — the best mechanism the state has for funding high-speed internet in rural areas and getting all households online. CASF was established by the Legislature in 2008, and has since supported 56 broadband infrastructure projects that have reached more than 300,000 households.
The $315 million collected has come at a low price — from charging 3 to 6 cents per month on Californians’ phone bills. All the projects have required matching funds from cable and telecom companies.
We strongly encourage the Legislature to come together to forge a new broadband funding formula as soon as possible.
— Don Saylor of Davis represents District 2 on the Yolo County Board of Supervisors. Cecilia Aguiar-Curry is mayor of Winters and a candidate for the 4th Assembly District.