Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Too many water straws in the ground?
By Alex Breitler
Where’s the water?
Somebody’s got to ask that question, state Sen. Lois Wolk says, before even more new wells can be drilled in California.
Never one to shy away from controversial water policy, Wolk, a Davis Democrat whose district formerly included Stockton, is pushing a bill that would require local agencies to place conditions on new well construction — in some cases, at least.
The state is already implementing new laws regulating the use of precious groundwater for the first time in California, but it will be decades before all regions of the state are required to reach sustainable levels of use.
Wolk’s bill, which passed out of committee last week, is intended to speed up compliance.
“There’s been a tremendous increase in the number of wells being dug,” she told The Record last week. “In counties where you know you have a groundwater problem, it’s important for the board of supervisors to set up some kind of process that governs how many straws can be put into the ground.”
Bad idea, farmers and local government agencies say. Bruce Blodgett, head of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation, said the bill could make it more difficult for farmers to drill a new well during emergency drought conditions.
“Somebody’s orchard and vineyard could be lost while wading through a permit process,” Blodgett said. “It’s not going to work.”
In a letter to Wolk, San Joaquin County officials called the bill “unconstitutional” because it could stop landowners from “making reasonable use of underlying groundwater.”
The county already is using less groundwater after building $700 million worth of infrastructure to take more water from rivers. In some urban areas, groundwater levels are actually rising as a result, officials have said.
And while portions of the San Joaquin Valley have seen the surface of the land drop by a foot or more in recent years because so much groundwater has been pumped to the surface, land subsidence in San Joaquin County is nowhere near that extreme, officials have said.
Yet San Joaquin County’s groundwater is still considered to be “critically over-drafted” by state officials, and for that reason would be subject to the strictest terms in Wolk’s bill.
The bill actually prohibits agencies from issuing permits for some new wells in areas with critical overdraft, though cities or counties can avoid that by putting in place an ordinance that will impose their own conditions on property owners in determining whether there is water available, Wolk said.
“It’s up to the local boards of supervisors to oversee that and to ask the question,” she said.
San Joaquin County’s Environmental Health Department issues permits for new well construction already, but is not authorized to evaluate how those wells might affect the groundwater basin, a spokesman said.
Replacement wells that do not draw any additional water are exempted from Wolk’s bill, as are small domestic wells that draw no more than 2 acre feet of water per year.
Wolk’s legislation, Senate Bill 1317, is scheduled to be heard again today in the Senate Governance and Finance Committee.
— Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at recordnet.com/breitlerblog and on Twitter @alexbreitler.
MID raises farm water prices 20 percent
By Garth Stapley
Modesto-area farmers will pay higher water rates this year, irrigation leaders decided Tuesday after a hearing dominated by a dispute over electricity customers being forced to subsidize farm water prices.
The issue last week leaped from the boardroom to the courtroom with a class-action lawsuit asking a judge to reverse the 90-year-old subsidy.
Some in the audience spoke about the legal challenge and asked for more aggressive action to eliminate the policy. Power customers will shoulder 82 percent, or more than $17 million, of the cost for delivering water this year, even after Tuesday’s rate increase.
“I object to this subsidy,” said Lee Delano, a retired MID assistant manager.
Steve Mohasci, a retired utility economist, said 115,000 MID electricity customers, many of them poor, are overpaying to keep water prices low for about 600 farms, with the average subsidy about $157,000.
“That’s not exactly equitable social policy,” he said.
John Duarte, who owns a Hughson nursery, calculated that farmers will pay $16.75 per acre-foot of water with Tuesday’s increase and concluded, “I think the water’s too cheap.” Farmers would need to pay about $92 to cover MID’s delivery costs, but charging that much would lead to growers pumping more groundwater, lowering water tables and perhaps resulting in “astronomical environmental problems,” he said.
“I encourage getting to a more realistic water rate,” said Duarte, figuring that about doubling the new price might strike a balance.
Board member John Mensinger, who represents an urban district, said, “I happen to agree (Tuesday’s increase) is not enough.” But a majority of the five-member MID board are themselves farmers, and even if they wanted sharply higher prices, state law governing rate hikes would prevent that without going through another three-month approval process, Mensinger said.
Others came to farmers’ defense.
“I want to compliment this board for staying fast and not wavering,” said dairyman Pete Verburg.
Attorney Stacy Henderson, who represents some growers, said MID’s irrigation division deserves, but doesn’t get, “proper credit” for some things that benefit its power division; farm advocates have noted that MID canals accept power poles and carry rainwater away from the city, for instance. Henderson predicted that “misrepresentations will be clarified,” and “the result will be that what MID is doing is fair, legal and proper.”
Tuesday’s action will bring 20 percent more water revenue to MID. A drought surcharge imposed in each of the past two years will not be levied this year; MID expects to deliver 36 inches of water, double last year’s historic low 18-inch allocation.
Board members Nick Blom and Larry Byrd, both irrigation customers, said small farms struggle to make ends meet and all farmers pay electric bills like everyone else. Byrd said agricultural pumps brought MID $13.8 million in 2015.
“Three or four people have been beating the drum about the subsidy – I can hardly say the word, it makes me so sick to think about it,” Byrd said. “Now the snowball has gotten bigger and they’re all tickled pink because they’ve gotten what they want with all this media attention, but it’s pitting the farmer against the city.
“I’m not going to let anybody put pressure on me,” Byrd continued. “Hell yes, I’m ready to take on the fight.”
Duarte, a 2011 MID candidate who had not previously addressed the issue, said he “didn’t hear any disrespect” from Tuesday’s audience. “We’re just giving you ideas on how we see things and what you might want to weigh,” he said.
The class-action lawsuit mentions the farm subsidy while focusing on the larger issue of MID simply charging more than it costs to deliver electricity. Bonding documents last summer suggested that MID’s net electricity profit came to $466 million from 2010 to 2014, or an average $93 million a year; the extra money pays down debt and builds reserves.
In other action, MID showed no sign of backing down on a plan to drastically lower subsidies for new solar customers despite strong opposition from representatives of the solar industry. The board is scheduled to vote on that issue at next week’s meeting starting at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the chamber at 1231 11th St., Modesto.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390
Valley has ‘F’ air, Lung Association says; data outdated, locals say
By Marc Benjamin
San Joaquin Valley’s air quality got an “F” in the latest American Lung Association’s State of the Air Report.
The report, released Wednesday, issued the failing mark to all eight Valley counties.
The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, however, says the report uses old data. The district is touting its best air year in its more than 40 years of existence.
Fresno’s ozone readings were fourth-worst and particulate matter second-worst in California to Kern County. Hanford-Visalia was third in both categories.
On the positive side, the report said, air quality has improved for both ozone and particulate matter. Dating to 2004, the report said, unhealthy air days for particulates fell 37 percent, largely because of more wood-burning restrictions.
The report also showed a 39 percent drop in unhealthy days for ozone dating to 2000. It crediting the drop to upgrades in vehicle emission controls.
Valley air district officials say the report is outdated, using data from 2012-2014, in the heart of the five-year drought, when dry conditions led to diminished air quality compared with normal rainfall years.
In 2015 and earlier this year, when more normal conditions prevailed, the San Joaquin Valley had its best pollution readings in the more than 40 years of the district’s existence, said Seyed Sadredin, the district’s executive director.
Sadredin said pollution has fallen 80 percent since 1980 in the San Joaquin Valley air basin, which that stretches between Kern and San Joaquin counties.
He said 2015 was the cleanest year for ozone, which appears during the summer months. The district reported its lowest number of ozone exceedences. There was none in July, generally the most polluted month of the year.
It also was the district’s best year for reducing particulate matter. In the most recent year, particulate matter fell to 20 micrograms, 50 percent lower than 2006-2007, a recent significant rain year.
Sadredin credits the $40 billion paid by businesses and farms, along with the state’s strict air quality regulations on vehicles.
“We still have a long way to go, but this report ignores the progress and the investment that has been made,” he said.
He described the lung association’s report as “an elementary school” or “bumper sticker” characterization of the Valley’s air quality issues.
Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin, email@example.com
Strawberry crop hit hard by rain in Modesto, Merced
Strawberry farmers in the valley are facing a shortage of strawberries after recent rain in the Valley.
By Erin Tracy
Heavy rain more than a week ago resulted in a strawberry shortage throughout the state.
Strawberries tolerate some moisture from light spring rains but soakings such as that from the storms the weekend of April 9 rotted nearly all of the strawberries that were ripe for the picking. The Modesto area got more than 2 inches of rain.
“Even green strawberries were affected by that rain,” said John Bos, owner of Dutch Hollow Farms on Oakdale Road. “The field was flowering beautifully and that rain came in and you just see green strawberries that have turned brown. It affected not only that crop, but the crop that was going to ripen three weeks from then.”
Bos suspects the shortage to last another three weeks, possibly longer depending on rain from a storm forecast Friday.
After a storm, it takes a few days for mold to show up, and it was a few more days before local stands ran out of good strawberries.
Bee Yang, owner of Monte Vista Strawberries in Turlock, has been out of strawberries since Saturday.
He said in the 24 years his family has been in the business, he has never seen rot this extensive.
His 6 acres produce 37,000 pounds of strawberries during a three-day period. A contractor for Dole Food Co., Yang said he salvaged half of them to be juiced, but the rest were spoiled.
“Sugar and rain don’t mix,” said Modesto farmer Bill Loretelli.
He said he lost about 80 percent of his 1.5-acre crop and stopped selling strawberries at his fruit stand on Claratina Avenue on Friday. By Monday, the demand was so great he sold some he “was not too proud of, that were not quite ripe.”
The rains only impacted the ripe berries at Loretelli Farms, but brown rot developed in green strawberries at many farms and some even lost plants.
Yang’s Farm and Produce Stand in Merced had to dig up some of the plants, according to employee Leng Vang.
He said some strawberries were salvaged here and there but the stand lost about 95 percent of the 2-acre patch, while many farmers in the area lost everything. He said some stands in the area closed down altogether.
“The average farm is probably losing $500 a day in sales right now,” Bos said.
That loss is trickling down to the pickers. The farmer still has to pay them to clear the fields of the rotten berries, but pickers earn only about $10 an hour rather than the higher per-bucket rate when the fruit is edible.
Right now, “it is taking the average picker a half-hour to make a bucket they usually fill in 5 to 10 minutes,” Bos said. “If they fill 10 buckets an hour they get $30 an hour, but if they are only picking five buckets it’s a whole other story.”
The cost to consumers at the stands locally, however, hasn’t increased.
“It would instantaneously turn away customers,” Bos said.
All the farmers acknowledge that the state as a whole needs water, but hope the storm predicted for Friday isn’t another soaker. If the prediction holds, it should bring only about one-tenth-inch to a quarter-inch of rain.
Meced Sun-Star reporter Thaddeus Miller contributed to this report., firstname.lastname@example.org
Some dairies closing while they still have equity
By David Castellon
TIPTON — Jack Mendonsa paid a bargain price for the 88 head of dairy cows he bought Tuesday at the Martin Dairy.
But the Delano dairyman wasn’t feeling good about the windfall, because he was among about 40 dairy operators here attending a “complete dispersal” auction of the dairy, in which the the owners sold off all 750 head of cattle in their operation.
Manuel Martin started the dairy back in 1946, “from nothing,” family members said.
While they would like to carry on his legacy, the aging siblings who own the dairy have no younger relatives interested in taking over the family business.
But their decision to walk away from operating a dairy and to sell off their cattle was less about family issues and more on the state of the dairy industry here and across California, where dairies get some of the lowest prices in the country for their milk.
In fact, dairy operators here and across the country have been dealing with depressed prices since 2009, with their only respite being a jump in prices per hundred weight — 100 pounds of milk — that lasted only a few months in 2014.
Since then, prices have dropped, staying well below what it costs to produce milk.
As a result, in the past decade, about 600 California dairies have shut down — 32 just last year — and some in the industry say a lot more could shutter this year, as 2016 is shaping up to be one of the worst financially for dairies.
Mendonsa, whose herd currently numbers about 3,000 cows, said he has been to about 15 to 20 dairy auctions in the past 90 days, and based on how the local industry is doing, “We’ll still probably see another 15 or 20 of these sales — maybe 30” this year in the Valley alone.
Certainly none of this is new, considering dairy operators have been operating in the red for years, as the prices paid for their milk has mostly come short of production costs.
Currently, the price paid for California milk — set each month by the state’s Secretary of Agriculture — is about $13 per hundred weight. The average cost to produce that amount of milk is $19.74, according to the California Dairy Campaign.
Dairy operators contacted at the Tipton dairy auction reported their production costs average about $2 less than the Campaign’s average. But the difference still deals owners a major financial blow.
“It’s terrible, people running out of money to pay bills, vendors and stuff,” Mendonsa said.
While many dairies have gotten loans and credit to stay afloat, banks are less inclined to do that these days with the industry’s ongoing pricing problems.
“The banks, they’ve got no mercy. They’re not going to put bad money after bad money,” said Joe Machado, who operates an 1,100-head dairy near Hanford.
Dairy operators who leased their land and weren’t in good financial shape were the first to fold, often because their banks foreclosed on them.
But that has changed, as a growing number of dairies shutting down this year aren’t being forced to, but rather “It’s people who are tired of losing money,” Machado said.
“I’ve seen a lot of friends and family members [quit],” he said. “I’ve seen them forced, and I’ve seen them voluntarily go.”
That was the case for Christine Foreman and her six brothers who own Martin Dairy.
“It’s been a long time,” she said of the events that prompted the family to close, even though they probably could have gone another couple of years.
But they didn’t want to drain off so much equity in their land that they had nothing left, and their cattle still fetched decent prices, said her husband, Kent Foreman, who has helped run the dairy.
“Seventy years, it’s a long time. It’s like seeing your life going away,” Christine Foreman said, adding that “There’s no way we can keep it going.”
For some, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel for milk pricing, Kent Foreman said. “In this case, somebody took the light out, they took the fixture and boarded the tunnel up.”
And it’s not just the milk pricing at issue here, he said, noting the increasing number of burdensome and costly regulations being placed on California dairies, “and the dairymen whose making nothing has to pay for them.”
On top of that, California is usually at or near the bottom of what dairies are paid for their milk among the major milk-producing states, and the state’s new law to raise minimum wage to $15 an hours in a few years also makes now a good time to get out of the dairy business here, Foreman said.
Then there are prices for agricultural land, which currently are high — despite some predictions of prices for ag land softening — prompting some dairy operators to sell their land while they still have equity or convert it to farm land, said Eddie Mendes, who milks about 2,000 cows on his Lemoore dairy.
He noted that a bank is far more likely to give a loan to start a nut farm than to give a loan to start a dairy.
“We figure you’re going to see more dairies shut down this year — especially what I call ‘Small mom-and-pop dairies” like this one,” Kent Foreman said, adding that the Martin Dairy already has been leased to become a heifer ranch, where calves from other dairies are raised until they’re old enough to be impregnated and bear calves of their own, so they become milk producers.
Lynne McBride, executive director of the California Dairy Campaign, said that she sees 2016 as a potential tipping point for the estimated 1,400 dairies still operating in the state, as many owners could decide they’re done with the business or just done with California and move with their cows to states with better milk pricing and less onerous regulations.
“Our dairy producer members continue to question their future in California,” she testified last week during a hearing in Sacramento on milk pricing organized by state Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross.
Dairy operators have been working in recent years to get California on the federal milk order, in which the federal government sets prices paid for milk, which are higher in most other states.
But on average, the federal price overall has been only $1 more than California’s price, so dairies here still would operate the red if those prices were to convert today.
Still, dairy operators here will take whatever they can get until the prices improve enough that they can be profitable again.
And things could be worse, said some of the dairymen at Tuesday’s auction, noting that feed prices, which skyrocketed in recent years, actually have declined his year — enough to give some dairies enough breathing room to keep their operations afloat at least a little while longer.
As for whether any financial relief is on the horizon for California dairies, the operators here said they saw few positive signs, unless oversees exports of dry milk products increase significantly, and part of that would involve Russia ending its ban on American agricultural goods.
In the meantime, “I you look at supply and demand, it looks like it’s going to be bad through the end of this year,” Mendonsa said of milk pricing.
And while some experts have predicted better prices next year, he warned, “You have to remember, it’s a prediction.”
Supervisor candidates face off at Solano Farm Bureau forum
By Jessica Rogness
Water allocations, preservation of open space and the future of energy production were up for discussion Monday at the Nut Tree Airport.
Candidates for two open seats on the Solano County Board of Supervisors put forth their opinions and plans in response to questions on these and other issues posed by the Solano County Farm Bureau, who may make an endorsement if 60 percent of the farming community reaches a consensus.
In District 5, which covers the city of Rio Vista, the Elmira area and parts of Fairfield, Suisun City and Vacaville, incumbent Skip Thomson was up against challenger Mike Reagan, a former supervisor.
In District 2, encompassing Benicia, Cordelia, Green Valley and half of Vallejo, five candidates are vying for the seat, after the incumbent Linda Seifert announced earlier this year that she will not be seeking a third term.
Candidates include former Benicia City Councilman Mike Ioakimedes, Solano Community College board trustees Denis Honeychurch and Monica Brown, Michael Coan of Green Valley, and Tamer Totah of Fairfield.
Coan was absent from Monday’s forum, as he had a previous engagement.
Some questions from the farm bureau were asked of all the candidates, while others were specific to either District 2 or District 5.
“Agriculture is the biggest industry in Solano County,” Honeychurch said, when all candidates were asked how they would secure Solano County’s water supply.
It would only be fair for farmers to have better representation in a groundwater sustainability agency (GSA), he said.
Ioakimedes said he would be helpful in forming such a GSA, due to his experience identifying Vallejo and Benicia’s differing needs for Solano County Transit (SolTrans).
“You guys are on the front lines and you need to be there,” he said of farmers.
Brown liked Congressman John Garamendi’s, D-Solano, advocacy for more water storage.
“Everybody who is a stakeholder should be at the table,” she said.
Totah said he wanted to keep water channels local.
“I think it’s important that we continue to have as much water as possible,” he said.
Solano County is very fortunate that they have the water they do, Thomson said.
Solano Irrigation District ought to remember its “core mission,” he said, which is to serve farmers.
“It’s about responsible growth that protects our county,” he said.
Reagan also agreed farmers should have equal representation in a GSA.
“The ag industry in the county basically draws 50 percent out of the aquifers,” he said.
The future of energy production also was a topic of discussion Monday.
“Every home should have solar,” said Brown, who expressed a preference for that and wind power, and expressed she does not support crude by rail and fracking.
Brown and Honeychurch both praised the solar panels on the Solano College parking lot.
Honeychurch added that he supported natural gas production near Rio Vista as clean energy.
Thomson admitted the county was probably at the end of wind turbine production due to its interference with Travis Air Force Base, and supported SolAgra, which involves solar panels that farming equipment can drive under, a project where Reagan was hired as a consultant.
“It’s fascinating,” Reagan said, thanking Thomson for expressing support for the project. “Could be world-changing when we get it running.”
Totah also expressed support for solar energy, but hoped it could become more affordable for homeowners.
Ioakimedes identified as an environmentalist, but said as a supervisor, he also would have to represent workers employed by Valero and their families.
All candidates present expressed support for the Williamson Act, a topic that is of interest to the farm bureau every year, moderator and bureau president Ryan Mahoney said.
Solano County did not do what others did, Reagan said, which was eliminate the Williamson Act, which provides property tax relief to owners of farmland and open-space land in exchange for a 10-year agreement that the land will not be developed or otherwise converted to another use.
He would be open to accepting new contracts, which is currently suspended in the county.
Thomson challenged that, claiming agriculture wasn’t a priority for the board while Reagan was a supervisor, and that Reagan chose not to bring contracts back.
Thomson said he would be bringing it up before the board.
Totah said he would support new Williamson Act contracts, working within a general plan, but would like to see more information on how a transition would be made.
Honeychurch also would be open to considering new contracts, after hearing the benefits.
Ioakimedes was concerned that Solano County had suspended this program, while Brown simply affirmed that she supported the act and would be open to considering new contracts.
A proposed 1/2 cent sales tax to repair Solano County’s roads was also up for debate.
“Our roads are a mess,” Honeychurch said, and although the funds should be obtained in a different way, he said there isn’t available money.
“Sometimes you have to put out in order to give back,” Brown said.
Ioakimedes called it the tax a “stopgap measure” that doesn’t really solve the problem, but supports the tax, and claimed it will have great oversight.
The roads where Totah owns a business are so bad that deliveries won’t be made on certain days, he said, and he knows realtors who avoid certain roads when showing homes.
He supports the tax, but said the county needs to adjust its budget.
Thomson said the public is accepting of the tax, and he would appoint someone from one of the taxpayers’ associations to be on the oversight board.
Reagan, however, was not happy with the tax, and called the proposed oversight board “toothless.”
“We have never been able to get a two-thirds vote for it,” Reagan said, although there is no question county roads are falling apart.
He feels the state should supply the funding.
Other questions from the farm bureau related to the farm-to-fork movement, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, state regulations and the future $15 an hour state minimum wage.
Thomson and Reagan will face off again tonight at a forum hosted by the Vaca Valley Tea Party from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Pietro’s No. 2, 679 Merchant St., in Vacaville.
Both candidates will give a brief opening statement and then answer questions which have been submitted by members and by the community at large. Areas of interest will include transparency, immigration, ballot measures, unfunded pension liabilities and water.