Wednesday, April 13, 2016
McClatchy News Service
House Republicans reopen the bidding on California water bill
By Michael Doyle
WASHINGTON – House Republicans intent on storing more California water and redirecting it to farms have resurrected some familiar and controversial ideas, this time as part of a must-pass spending bill.
The provisions, including a freeze on an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program and mandated pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, are now folded into a Fiscal 2017 energy and water appropriations bill. It’s a new tactical move, designed for leverage.
“Once passed by the House, (this) offers the Senate another chance to consider this important legislation,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield said Tuesday, adding that “our senators failed to meet the moment” in previous sessions.
The provisions included in the 82-page energy and water bill are a familiar wish list, largely reflecting previous California water legislative packages that have failed to clear Congress over the past four years. There are some differences, though.
Previous bills, for instance, would have ended the San Joaquin River salmon and habitat restoration program altogether and replaced it with something smaller. The new language, reflecting the limits of an annual appropriations bill, would simply block spending for the next fiscal year.
In a similar vein, previous bills would have directed sale of the New Melones Dam to local water districts. The new language is less ambitious, directing the federal Bureau of Reclamation to work with local water districts to increase New Melones storage opportunities.
“Congress cannot make it rain but we can enact policies that expand our water infrastructure, allow for more water conveyance, and utilize legitimate science to ensure a reliable water supply for farmers and families,” California’s House Republicans said in a joint statement.
The package unveiled Tuesday is all-but certain to pass the Republican-controlled House, as have previous California-related bills before it. Unhappy over provisions that include the mandatory Delta pumping for the benefit of San Joaquin Valley farms, Northern California Democrats will be opposing the measure.
“It’s inexcusable that today some of my colleagues introduced provisions that do nothing to actually address the water shortage, but instead just pits one area of the state against others,” Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, said Tuesday.
The bigger test will come in the Senate, where Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has joined Republicans in calling for more Delta pumping but has also negotiated for continued environmental protections. Feinstein’s California colleague, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, has repeatedly voiced concerns about the GOP approach, as has the Obama administration.
Feinstein said Tuesday she hopes to include $100 million for drought relief in the Senate’s version of the energy and water appropriations bill set for subcommittee markup Wednesday. In theory, this will set the stage for a House and Senate conference later this year to iron out differences.
Separately, Feinstein said she hopes to move a stand-alone drought bill that would ease limits on water transfers south of the Delta, but not mandate specific pumping levels. Boxers has not taken a position on the bill, which also would compel completion of feasibility studies for storage project.
“My focus is on getting the full bill that was introduced in February through the Senate,” Feinstein said Tuesday.
Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10, firstname.lastname@example.org
North Valley rivers make ‘endangered’ list
By John Holland
The San Joaquin River and its three main tributaries ranked second on a list of “endangered” streams released Tuesday by a national group.
Water demand from farms and cities has sapped the San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers, said the annual report from American Rivers, based in Washington, D.C.
“Dams, levees and excessive water diversions have hurt river habitat and opportunities for recreation and community access,” the report said. “The river’s salmon and steelhead populations are on the brink of extinction.”
American Rivers called on the State Water Resources Control Board to boost the flows. That agency already has proposed that they increase to 35 percent of natural conditions from February through June of each year – something water users say would mean lost food production and jobs.
In response to the listing, the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts noted their efforts to enhance the Tuolumne fish habitat. They have argued that factors other than water volume, such as predation by non-native fish and pollution, are part of the picture.
“We are disappointed in American Rivers’ attack on the Tuolumne River and their lack of acknowledgment of all that has been done to improve the fishery,” MID spokeswoman Melissa Williams said in an email on behalf of both districts.
The San Joaquin river system ranked first on the endangered list in 2014 but was not on last year’s. No. 1 for 2016 is the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint river system in Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
American Rivers compiles the list to draw attention to current or pending threats it sees on the streams, including dams, hydroelectric plants, mining and pollution.
The group notes that a San Joaquin River stretch upstream of the Merced confluence has been mostly dry since Friant Dam was built around 1950. A major restoration project is underway.
The Stanislaus has relatively higher flows because of federal and state rules for fish. The Tuolumne and Merced could have increased releases as part of new hydropower licenses.
The state board is expected to announce a revised proposal this year for the February-to-June flows on all four rivers. The aim is to improve fish numbers and water quality there and downstream in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Michael Martin of Mariposa, director of the Merced River Conservation Committee, urged steps aimed at enhancing agriculture and the ecoystem. They include water efficiency on farms and “conjunctive use” of rivers and groundwater.
“Science has found that a healthy river needs more water,” Martin said. “We have to work together to find solutions to better manage the water we have.”
Mike Jensen, spokesman for the Merced Irrigation District, said the report overlooks the groundwater recharge that happens through irrigation with surface water.
“Further, at multiple times during the recent drought, the Merced River ran essentially dry,” he said. “Were it not for Exchequer Dam, there would have been no water in the river.”
Jensen said the district has proposed to change its river management in a way that benefits the environment. This includes increased flows, adjustments in flow timing, control of predators, restoration of old mining damage, and hatchery upgrades.
“To have an honest and reasonable discussion, there must be a recognition that the Delta itself has been drastically and dramatically altered over time,” he said. “The once wild and naturally vibrant Delta ecosystem is now hundreds of square miles of levees, armored channels, highways, railroads, cities and farms. Yet our community is being asked to give up its water to improve the water quality in the Delta for others’ benefit.”
ENDANGERED RIVERS, 2016
1. Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint river system in Georgia, Alabama and Florida, under heavy demand for cities, farms, recreation and other uses
2. San Joaquin River and three main tributaries – Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced – because of excessive diversions
3. Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania and Maryland, dam operations and water quality
4. Smith River in Montana, proposed copper mining
5. Green-Duwamish River in Washington, floodplain management and pollution
6. Pee Dee River in Virginia and Carolinas, hydropower
7. Russell Fork River in Virginia and Kentucky, coal mining
8. Merrimack River in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, polluted runoff
9. St. Lawrence River in New York, hydropower
10. Pascagoula River in Mississippi, proposed dams
Source: American Rivers
John Holland: 209-578-2385, email@example.com
Modesto Irrigation District sued over electricity charges
By Garth Stapley
More than 100,000 families and businesses buying electricity from the Modesto Irrigation District eventually could be represented in a class-action lawsuit filed this week against the nonprofit utility.
The lawsuit says it’s illegal to overcharge electricity customers in order to subsidize farmers’ water rates. If a judge grants class status and plaintiffs prevail, electricity customers in Modesto and surrounding areas served by MID could receive unspecified refunds and pay lower power prices in the future.
“Each month, MID imposes … an illegal tax which is embedded in its electric utility fee and charges,” reads the lawsuit, filed Monday in Stanislaus Superior Court.
The San Diego law firm Krause Kalfayan Benink & Slavens is bringing the lawsuit on behalf of Modesto resident Dave Thomas and “all similarly situated customers” except farmers buying irrigation water and MID employees. Thomas has been a member of the Stanislaus Taxpayers Association many years, and the law firm has won several judgments against government agencies in fee-related cases.
The lawsuit had not been served on MID as of Tuesday afternoon, district spokeswoman Melissa Williams said in an email. “As with any pending litigation, at this stage we unfortunately can’t provide any further details,” she said.
MID leaders for years have sought to right the imbalance, but critics say they’re moving at a snail’s pace.
A Modesto Bee analysis of bond documents in June showed that MID saw a $106 million profit selling electricity in 2014, while farmers paid less than 17 percent of what it costs MID to deliver water, even after a series of irrigation rate bumps in recent years.
Overcharging for electricity might not be illegal if MID were to ask voters to approve power rates, the lawsuit says, but MID leaders have not done so. Neither have they raised power prices since an attorney advised them nearly four years ago that doing so without a customer vote might be illegal.
In 2012, then-MID board member Tom Van Groningen said the district expected a lawsuit challenging the inequity. Upon leaving office the next year, he said he regretted not being able to correct the imbalance, and former board member Glen Wild, who also left in 2013, said it’s “clearly wrong” for customers in an area known for low income and high unemployment to subsidize wealthy farmers.
A string of critics joined the chorus, including previous insiders such as Lee Delano, a former MID assistant general manager who gives slideshow presentations on the subsidy, and Dale Bosowski, a retired MID senior resource manager. Steve Mohasci, who worked for an investor-owned utility in Iowa, has produced numerous charts and papers blasting the inequity. Ross Campbell, a retired Modesto public works director, and Paul Baxter, a retired Modesto deputy city manager, have roundly criticized MID’s refusal to produce transparent accounting.
The district says its water service deserves but gets no credit for replenishing groundwater aquifers and for canals that support power poles and that carry stormwater from Modesto streets. But MID has resisted calls to separate its water and power bookkeeping, the components of which have mingled since the utility began producing retail electricity in 1923.
MID has about 3,100 farm accounts; the actual number of growers is less because many farms have several accounts each.
The MID board, dominated by growers since its inception, last year rejected the idea of radically accelerating its goal of erasing the imbalance, opting for smaller steps. On Tuesday, board members will decide whether to raise water rates. If that happens, the district’s water revenue would bump up 20 percent to $3.82 million – only 18 percent of MID’s true cost, $21.2 million, for delivering water.
Tuesday’s MID board meeting begins at 9 a.m. in the chamber at 1231 11th St., Modesto.
Balancing costs of service with revenue from what is charged to customers has been the standard since California voters embraced Proposition 218 in 1996, and Proposition 26 in 2010 closed a loophole used by some utilities. Modestans may recall a Prop. 218-based lawsuit brought against City Hall in 1998 by the Stanislaus Taxpayers Association, challenging the city’s practice of overcharging people $3.5 million yearly on water and sewer bills and transferring the windfall to Modesto’s general fund – an amount that pales next to MID’s electricity profit.
In addition to subsidizing farmers, the extra money repays MID’s debt and builds its reserves.
The class-action lawsuit asks Superior Court Judge John Freeland to declare that MID is charging an illegal tax, and to prevent the district from continuing to collect it “unless (MID) first obtains voter approval.”
If the judge grants class status, MID power customers since Feb. 19, 2015 – a year prior to Thomas submitting a pre-lawsuit complaint to MID – could be eligible to join the lawsuit. They would be notified by mail, email or published notice, the lawsuit says, and could receive refunds if Thomas’ lawyers win in court.
Krause Kalfayan, the law firm, has won more than $200 million for clients, its website says. Victories came in 2014 against Pasadena and in 2015 against Chino; both had been transferring excess water revenue to each city’s general fund in violation of Prop. 218.
The MID complaint is more similar to one the firm is pursuing against Los Angeles. Both claim violations of Prop. 26; the Los Angeles case involves an 8 percent transfer of water and power charges paid by 6.8 million customers, or about a quarter-billion dollars a year, to the city’s general fund. The firm is bringing at least seven additional class-action claims against various other agencies and conglomerates, its website says.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390, firstname.lastname@example.org
Climate change rules to start hitting dairies
By John Cox
Kern County dairies will be asked to upgrade their manure management practices, if they haven’t already, as part of a strategy proposed this week for cutting California’s emissions of methane and other short-lived but powerful greenhouse gases.
A draft document released late Monday by the California Air Resources Board calls for a 75 percent reduction in methane emissions from the state’s dairies by 2030. The proposal included an analysis of existing technologies it says can help dairies reach that goal.
The board also called for a 25 percent reduction in dairies’ enteric fermentation emissions, commonly known as cow burps, by 2030. But because of a lack of experience in the field, the document proposes no concrete measures for achieving the goal beyond monitoring and supporting research.
Besides methane, the “short-lived climate pollutants” targeted in the draft include black carbon, or soot; and hydrofluorocarbons such as refrigerants and aerosols. Though less pervasive than carbon dioxide, these materials are considered much greater agents of climate change, pound per pound, representing a total of about 12 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Environmental groups applauded the proposed reductions as a positive step toward fighting climate change and improving the Central Valley’s air quality.
“This is great news for our communities,” Felipa Trujillo, a representative of the Committee for a Better Shafter, said in a news release. “The fact that there will be a mandatory reduction on the methane emissions speaks to the work that different groups and communities have done to pressure (the air board) to take these sorts of steps.”
Local and state farming and dairy groups did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Bakersfield-based California Bioenergy LLC, a company working with Kern dairies to convert their manure to fuel for sale, said the proposal will be well-received by industry so long as there continue to be financial incentives to offset the investments required to achieve emissions reductions.
“We don’t want to put additional financial burdens on the dairy industry, which faces volatile and at times low milk prices,” said the company’s president, Neil Black, who noted he had not yet read the air board’s proposal.
Some environmental activists expressed hope the proposal will lead to greater adoption of pasture-based dairy farming in the Central Valley, which for the most part relies on a more industrialized model. Pasture-oriented dairies, which are more common in Northern California, use manure as fertilizer and produce relatively little methane.
Air board officials said they did not expect to see widespread conversion of Central Valley dairies to the pasture model. Rather, they outlined two practical methane-reduction arrangements — sale of air quality credits, and production of biogas for electricity or natural gas vehicle fuel — whereby dairy farmers can make money reducing their emissions.
Some dairies have already moved to capture their herds’ methane emissions, either for on-site power generation or for processing and sale to utilities. In exchange, they may qualify for grants or credits from a variety of state and federal agencies.
This week’s draft includes a lengthy economic analysis of the costs and potential revenues involved in various options for reducing manure methane.
Simply reducing dairy emissions without trying to resell methane is inexpensive but doesn’t generally turn a profit, said one of the proposal’s authors, science advisor Ryan McCarthy. On the other hand, he said, there’s more money but greater financial risk in converting the gas into fuel.
Which approach dairies choose to adopt is up to them, he said, adding, “we’re not at this point being prescriptive.”
The proposal’s release begins a months-long process of gathering public input on the strategy. Even after its adoption, expected in September or October, rules on exactly what dairies must do to comply probably won’t be finalized for another couple of years.
KPCC Radio, Pasadena
The insect that could destroy California’s avocado crop
By Erika Aguilar
Orange County officials are looking for help stopping an invasive pest in its tracks as it threatens to spread to the state’s avocado belt.
The polyphagous shot hole borer, a beetle smaller than the size of a sesame seed, has chewed through so many trees in Orange County that the Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved $750,000 in emergency spending, effectively doubling their efforts to treat infested trees and remove the ones that cannot be saved.
But the county’s also looking for state help fighting the beetle as it continues to spread through Southern California and potentially outside of the region.
“There’s a sense that the state of California has basically has walked away from this,” said O.C. Supervisor Todd Spitzer.
The borer was first discovered in an avocado tree in 2012 in South Gate, according to arborists and tree scientists at the University of California Riverside who have been working on ways to eradicate the pest and its accompanying tree-killing fungus.
Since then, the California Avocado Association has spent approximately $2.6 million on researching the beetle infestation, said research program director Tim Spann. The National Parks Service has paid for beetle eradication in parks and the California Department of Food and Agriculture has kicked in another $31,000 to the fight, he said, but still, avocado farmers are worried.
“Growers are frustrated,” he said. “They see the state response to things like fruit flies, other pests, and they wonder why we can’t get that same level of response for this pest.”
A spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture says the state does not have a regulatory program for the polyphagous shot hole borer but the department has funded research. It is also participating in two task forces on the issue.
Avocado trees aren’t the only ones at risk. Hundreds of other tree species including big leaf maple, California box elder, sycamores, and coast live oaks and willows have been attacked.
It’s actually the fungus that the Southeast Asian beetle grows inside the tree that kills it. So far, Orange County Parks staff estimate the shot hole borer has killed $1.4 million dollars worth of trees. Another 320 trees are being treated.
UC-Irvine tree experts are helping Riverside researchers in the search for a cure or natural predator to the borer since the insect has attacked dozens of sycamore trees on the Irvine university campus.
“It’s going to be a pest for our natural areas and homeowners,” Spann said.
Spann said the association found one beetle in San Luis Obispo County early this year. He said because the beetle seems to like a variety of trees, there’s concern about it spreading to other groves in the Central Valley.
Sptizer called the beetle a public safety issue because a dead tree could fall on park patrons.
San Bernardino, Riverside, San Deigo and Los Angeles County parks officials have identified several locations where the beetle has infested trees, said Orange County Parks Director Stacy Blackwood.
As an immediate response to manage the spread, especially as the summer season lends itself to camping trips, Blackwood said Orange County will not allow people to bring camp firewood to parks.
The real costs of minimum wage hikes
By Norm Groot
Just this past week, our governor and Democratic legislators reached a compromise on the state’s minimum wage, mostly to avoid a costly ballot initiative fight precipitated by the unions that was due to occur this fall. While we all can say it’s desirable to have living wages for everyone, and indeed locally that is important to our community, there must be a thorough examination of the real costs of these minimum wage increases.
In summary, signed into law on April 4, the minimum wage in California will begin increasing next year until it reaches $15 in 2022. At that point, the minimum wage will be indexed to inflation, ensuring that it keeps pace with economic factors in our state. There are few off-ramps where wage escalations could be held off in years of economic hardship or increasing unemployment, at the discretion of the governor.
The math is simple: this is a 50% increase in the minimum wage in just six years. Where else in the economy has a 50% increase been absorbed in that short a time frame and not resulted in visible impacts?
The agreement making this mandate seems to have bypassed any vetting with the business community. These wage increases will hit hardest to the hospitality, agriculture and retail sectors. Of these, only the agricultural sector cannot raise wholesale prices because of market forces. Ag has always been a price-taker economy, so automatic increases in farm gate prices are not a sure thing.
But let’s look at this further. Restaurants surely will increase their prices due to increased labor costs. Prices of retail goods and services will certainly keep pace with the increases. Hotel, theme park and sports venue pricing also will adjust to absorb the additional labor costs.
Doesn’t that mean that the minimum wage earners will be paying more for their meals, goods, and services in direct relation to the wage increase? Isn’t this just a form of induced price inflation?
But it doesn’t just stop with the increase to the minimum wage. Other business costs are directly related to wage levels such as overtime, worker compensation insurance premiums, state and federal unemployment insurance taxes, and paid-time-off mandates that our state and municipalities have imposed in the past two years. These will add more costs beyond just the 50% increase in wages, almost like a multiplier effect on labor costs. Did our governor and legislators consider these costs when mandating such a large jump in a short time frame?
Added to this is also a proposal in Sacramento to change overtime hours in Agriculture. If enacted, that will heap-on additional costs to harvesting our crops and potentially less hours for workers as employers attempt to control their overtime costs.
For the local farmers and ranchers, it will be those who currently struggle as small operations to remain competitive that may feel this impact the most. Most likely there will be job cuts to balance the increase in labor costs. And, ultimately, some small farms may be driven out of business as they fail to cover their costs.
Looking further into the future for long-range impacts, we most likely will see a shift away from labor intensive crops to those that can be mechanically harvested. That means more job losses for California workers. This creates an uneven playing field as California growers complete with other states, such as Arizona, and may ultimately dictate that California growers can no longer be low-cost volume growers or be attractive to mass market outlets that demand the most competitive pricing.
So, the overall impacts may be dramatic as we struggle in Ag to make ends meet with increased labor costs, additional regulatory requirements and reporting, increasing health care costs, and loss of crop protection tools that invite diseases and pests that host themselves to our fields locally.
Ag is under attack in California, and minimum wage increases in the next six years may just be the tipping point for many farmers and ranchers. How much do we want to pay for our food if it has to be produced somewhere else? Becoming a state and nation dependent on food imports is probably not the best public policy decision.
In this case, short-term decisions will have long-term lasting impacts.
Norm Groot is executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau