Wednesday, February 10, 2016
California farmers reap record sales in record drought
Ellen Knickmeyer and Scott Smith
FRESNO — A new state report shows California farmers reaping record sales despite the epic drought, thriving even as city-dwellers have been forced to conserve water, household wells have run dry and fish have died.
California’s 76,400 farms recorded $53.5 billion in sales in 2014, the year Gov. Jerry Brown declared the state in a drought emergency and launched what in 2015 became mandatory conservation for cities and towns. The sales figures are the most recent annual ones released by the state agriculture department.
With the punishing drought entering its fifth year, the figures are sure to stoke tensions between farmers on one side and, on the other, city-dwellers and environmentalists, who complain they are being forced to make greater sacrifices than growers.
Experts cite two key reasons for California farms’ strong showing even in dry times: a California almond boom fed by surging demand from China and elsewhere, and farmers’ ability to dig deeper, bigger wells to pump up more groundwater when other sources run out.
The state report tracked sales, not profits. Higher costs for water and other expenses of the drought outstripped sales for some farmers, but experts said it is clear many others made strong profits, as evidenced by the rush by growers and corporate investors to get into the almond business and take advantage of a run-up in prices.
Jay Lund, a water-resources researcher at the University of California at Davis and an influential voice in water policy in the state that is America’s agricultural powerhouse, said the sales figures show that California farmers are doing what they should be doing in a dry spell.
“To me it illustrates that you can actually have a fairly good job in managing water,” Lund said.
Some of those who consider themselves the losers in California’s water wars see it differently.
“The water they’re taking, they’re also taking from communities around them — like us,” said Guillermo Lopez, a resident of Fresno County, the state’s third-most productive farming county, who was forced to haul water when his family taps ran dry. “We’re the ones left with no water.”
Lopez’s family well was one of 2,250 household wells around the state to run out of water because of the drought and overpumping of the state’s underground water reserves, according to state figures.
Wells in Lopez’s neighborhood outside the city of Fresno began running dry a year ago, and his family was forced to buy bottled water until a state relief fund paid to have a large water tank installed next to the home. Lopez said that was about the same time he also noticed farmers nearby pumping heavily from deep wells to irrigate their crops.
Wildlife has also suffered, including endangered fish. Federal and state water managers, trying to balance competing demands from farms, cities and the environment, were unable to keep enough water in rivers for California’s endangered winter-run Chinook salmon, which have gone through record die-offs.
California farmers’ record sales come “at the expense of our rivers and fisheries,” said Kate Poole, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“There’ve been vast amounts of water taken away from the environment” by water managers in the drought, Poole said. “It’s caused many of our native fish to crash to the lowest levels ever.”
California just went through its driest four-year period on record. Brown asked California cities and towns to cut water use 20 percent in 2014, then made a 25 percent cutback for urban users mandatory the next year. Californians learned to take shorter showers and let their lawns turn brown.
Farmers say that they have suffered in the drought, too, and that the rising cost of irrigating their crops is eating into their profits. Not only are their water costs higher but their power bills have shot up because they’re running their well pumps more.
“You can’t assume all farmers have a new pickup and their wives all have a new Cadillac,” said Pete Belluomini, who grows potatoes, onions, almonds and other crops in Kern County, the state’s No. 2 agriculture county.
The University of California at Davis estimates that more expensive water and other drought-related expenses cost farmers $2 billion in 2014.
The state ordered thousands of farmers to stop taking water from rivers last year in rare move that hit even some of those with seemingly ironclad water rights dating back a century. In the fertile San Joaquin Valley, some farms in 2015 received no surface water for a second year in a row and were forced to rely on their wells to irrigate crops. Experts warn that Californians are pumping up groundwater at unsustainable rates, causing the ground during the drought to sink more than a foot in parts of the Central Valley farm country.
Heavy demand for almonds in Asia and Europe has spurred a boom in the planting of almonds in California and drawn hedge funds and big corporations into the business. California almond production has doubled since the start of this century, surpassing even grapes in 2011.
Environmentalists and others complain that almonds are thirsty crops, requiring about a gallon of water per nut, or more than wine grapes use. Some agriculture experts counter that almonds are exactly the kind of high-dollar crop California farmers should be planting to make the most of scarce water.
California farmers have passed the higher costs of water on to consumers, with almond prices soaring from $2.40 a pound in 2012 to $5 last year.
The recent state agriculture report, released late last month, shows almonds were the state’s second-biggest cash crop in 2014 after dairy. Exports accounted for $4.5 billion of California almond farmers’ total $5.9 billion in sales, agriculture officials say.
However, the outlook for almond sales has dimmed since 2014, with overplanting by eager farmers and an economic slowdown in China threatening to end the boom.
“It’s a curious case where the effects of the economic growth thousands of miles away might have more effect than a drought in California,” said Lund, the UC-Davis expert.
Farmers say they’re getting a bad rap over water
By David Castellon
Despite better a winter that is shaping up to be wetter than average in some parts of California, experts say it’s far from enough to put much of a dent in the four years of drought that preceded it.
As such, the controversy on how to allocate water and what restrictions to put on communities, farms and other businesses is unlikely to get a reprieve any time soon.
But for some farmers attending this week’s World Ag Expo in Tulare, concerns about how farmers are being portrayed in the battle over water is a concern, as some say they’re being painted as the bad guys in all of this.
Certainly, farmers have been vocal in their opposition of federal court rulings that result in large amounts of surface water from Northern California being directed away from farms and communities to preserve populations of delta smelt, Chinook salmon and other fish in waterways.
But Charlie Pitigliano, a Pixley grower of pistachios and citrus who also is chairman of this year’s Ag Expo, said that makes no sense to him.
“Why would you take water away from farmers who are feeding millions and million of people,” he asked in an interview after Tuesday’s opening ceremony for the Expo.
Unfortunately, he said, the farmers’ side of this isn’t getting enough attention, so political decisions are being made on water issues in which the needs of the agricultural industry aren’t being given enough weight.
Making matters worse is that farmers are getting a “hard rap” in all this, portrayed as being wasteful with water.
Among the claims that have circulated is that farmers are using 80 percent California’s water, but many farmers and politicians challenge that claim, as well some academics.
The truth is that about 50 percent of California’s water goes toward environmental purposes, including keeping enough water in the state’s waterways to keep them flow going — which also prevents salt water from permeating into the San Joaquin Delta — and to maintain fish populations, said Glenda Humiston, vice president over agriculture and natural resources for the University of California’s Office of the President.
Part of that water also is absorbed into the soil, feeding wells, she said.
As for the rest of the water, about 10 percent goes to “urban” uses — for homes and most businesses — and 40 percent is used by commercial agriculture.
“And I would argue that 40 percent is for urban, because it’s for food,” said Humiston, who was at the Ag Expo Tuesday.
Besides being victims of the “numbers game,” farmers also are being accused of using more water than they need, said California Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, R-Madera.
“I feel that they’re blaming us for not using water wisely when they’re flushing their water out into the ocean” to preserve fish populations, Pitigliano added.
As for why, he said, “There are a lot of people in the state that don’t support agriculture. That agriculture isn’t needed. That we can get what we need somewhere else. And that somewhere else is out of this country — where people work in substandard conditions at pennies on the dollar compared to American workers.”
And politicians and residents in urban areas — who tend to carry more political clout than those in rural areas — are buying enough into the claims about farmers wasting that Pitigliano and others are concerned it could affect water policies in the state that end up hurting farmers.
Among those concerns are that these attitudes could affect rules being developed that will require California farmers for the first time to meter the amount of water they pump from their wells — and likely will include restrictions on how much they can use.
“The public needs to be informed of what’s really happening,” said Ruben Llamas, an alfalfa farmer from Chino, who made the trip south to Tulare for the Expo’s opening day.
He said he has heard on the radio claims of farmers — particularly nut growers — using too much water, but Llamas said he and most every farmer he knows, “We use the least amount of water possible and not waste it.”
And considering how much water costs — particularly in the current drought — “Farmers have a financial incentive to [conserve],” Llamas said.
Most households aren’t as efficient in their water use as farmers, who use research and technology to find out how much water their crops need and try to apply no more, he said.
In comparison, people who water their lawns for 20 minutes a day don’t realize that they don’t need to use that much water, Llamas said.
Danny Weins, a vineyard superintendent from Temecula, said complaints from homeowners in Riverside County that farmers were paying less for water than residential users prompted boosts in water rates for farms there based on use
And in some cases, farmers are paying more than residential customers, which has significantly added to their production costs, he said.
“It’s been very difficult for the gentleman farmer,” with a small farm who can’t easily afford the higher rates, Weins said.
Part of the controversy in Riverside County stems from the fact that “When the homeowner drives by a field and sees the water running, they see a small picture of what’s happening,” he said.
“They just see a six-inch pipe pumping water into a field,” but they don’t realize the amount of water needed to keep grape vines and other crops alive and productive, Weins said, adding that a person taking a shower typically uses as much water as is needed keep to a grape vine alive and healthy for a month, Weins said.
“They don’t see the amount of water it takes to make that quality plant.”
But if growers had to cut back their water use to the degree some are suggesting, they would see the the quality and sizes of fruits and vegetables in their grocery stores decline, as would the amount of available produce, as production would certainly decline as a result, Weins said.
And the prices of those fruits and vegetables would go up significantly due to production losses, added Kyle Washburn, a citrus and avocado farmer from Hemet.
“The politicians, to me, are the worst ones” in the water debate, he said. “Because they don’t go out in the fields and see we grow food for people. If we don’t grow food, we’ll have to buy it from foreign countries.”
And if that happens, he said, “You’re going to pay $5 for an avocado,” Washburn said.
House bill advances on removing wolf from endangered list
By Kristena Hansen
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — A bill that would uphold the state’s contentious decision last year to remove the gray wolf from its endangered species list gained traction at the Legislature on Tuesday.
Ratifying the decision in state law could stop a lawsuit by conservationists. Removing wolf protections has drawn thousands of comments from powerful farming and ranching groups who support it and environmentalists who oppose it in a long-running clash in Oregon’s political realm.
Delisting is not an automatic greenlight for killing wolves, Republican Rep. Sal Esquivel said before voting for House Bill 4040.
“This doesn’t mean we’re going to go out and hunt wolves into extinction again,” Esquivel said during a hearing of the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources hearing.
The measure cleared the committee and now heads to the House floor.
Delisting allows the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to consider hunting in the future as one of several tools under its wolf management plan. Hunting is not part of the discussion now.
The management plan says the species can lose state protections if certain benchmarks are met that prove extinction is no longer a substantial threat. The commission overseeing the wildlife department voted to take the gray wolf off the state’s endangered species list in November, following a recommendation by state biologists.
That led three conservationist groups to sue. They want an impartial judicial review of the commission’s decision, arguing it failed to follow the best available science or get an independent examination.
If the legislation is approved, state law would uphold the commission’s decision and negate the request for a review, said Nick Cady, legal director at Eugene-based Cascadia Wildlands, one of the groups that sued.
“It’s inappropriate because they’re depriving the public of its right for judicial review,” Cady said. “It’s kind of undemocratic.”
Lawmakers tried to ease the tension through another bill approved in the same hearing Tuesday. It would raise fines for illegally killing various wildlife species, including the gray wolf.
Supervisors create groundwater agency for Indian Wells Valley
By James Burger
Kern County supervisors approved the creation of a ground water sustainability agency in the Indian Wells Valley on Tuesday.
They did it over the objection of attorneys for private mutual water agencies and the agricultural growers who own them.
The new agency, made up of representatives from Kern, Inyo and San Bernardino counties as well as the Indian Wells Valley Water District and the City of Ridgecrest, will regulate use of water in the desert water basin.
But county officials say the desert’s major pistachio and alfalfa growers, Mojave Pistachio and Meadowbrook Farms, have fought for voting rights on the board in a lengthy exchange of letters between county and ag company attorneys.
Kern County Counsel Theresa Goldner told supervisors two weeks ago that the private corporations had no legal ground to have voting seat on the GSA itself.
So the growers’ lawyers asked for a seat on an advisory board called the “development committee.”
On Tuesday, Goldner said those lawyers were trying to take control of that committee for their clients, remove requirements to make actions of the committee public and weaken the power of the main groundwater sustainability agency to regulate water use.
“Their concept seems to be having a greater voice in the shaping of the Groundwater Sustainability Agency than a member of the general public,” she said. “I think they’re trying to control the GSA development committee.”
An attorney for the mutual water districts said they were not trying to take control of the committee or block public access to their actions.
They wanted, he said, to make sure their clients had “meaningful” input into the development of the GSA.
Woodland Daily Democrat
Flood risk can be higher with levees than without them
By Kat Kerlin
People living behind levees on floodplains may not be as immune to flood damage as they think, according to results of a study led by a UC Davis team.
Levees often prevent costly flood damages and even loss of life. However, when those levees overtop or fail, and water spills onto the floodplain, the long-term damage can be far worse than if those levees were not there, the study found.
The study, published this week in the journal Environmental Science & Policy, estimated long-term flood risk, probabilities of levee failure, and resulting economic losses in the Sny Island levee district along the Mississippi River in Illinois and Missouri.
“Levee protection does prevent flood damages locally, but it needs to be examined very carefully, structure-by-structure, and quantified for all people and economic activities affected by that protection,” said lead author Nicholas Pinter, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at UCD.
The study period preceded the massive flooding the Midwest endured this fall, which occurred in a separate section of the Mississippi River. However, Pinter said the same risks and benefits occurring in his Midwest case study apply to many levee systems worldwide.
The scientists modeled four flood conditions — 2-year, 5-year, 100-year and 400-year flood levels — with and without levees. Levee failures were also modeled. The study included floodplain land excluded from flood hazard maps because it is behind levees accredited by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The researchers noted that excluding such lands underestimates the actual flood risk nationwide.
Because levees raise flood levels in surrounding locations, they are known to export flood risk from one set of floodplain residents to their neighbors. For example, the study documented up to 8 feet of additional water imposed on the town of Hannibal, Missouri, due to the Sny Island levee.
Overall, the research team found that the Sny levee system prevents about $51 million per year in flood damages, primarily for the agricultural sector and some low-elevation properties. However, for up to a third of residential structures and 22 percent of commercial structures behind the Sny levee system itself, the flood damage risk was higher with the levees than it would have been without them, because of the catastrophic nature of levee failure.
This counterintuitive “negative benefit” of levees — meaning the actual increase in risk to some residents behind levees — is on top of the export of flood risk to a levee district’s neighbors, and other levee impacts.
U.S. floodplains are lined by more than 100,000 miles of levees, many of which are in questionable states of repair. The prevalence of levees across U.S. floodplains should be viewed as opportunity, the researchers said.
Some levees can be targeted for alternative measures, such as setbacks, bypass channels, flood easements and even local removal. These kinds of projects can lower flood levels, recharge groundwater and restore habitat.
“The positive thing is that levees are so extensive in the U.S., that there are widespread opportunities for rebalancing flood risk and, at the same time, improving river and floodplain ecosystems,” Pinter said.
What can the Sacramento region learn from your study?
Levees are a useful and necessary part of our flood management portfolio. But not every new levee or enlargement of a levee is a good project. We’ve suggested a three-part sniff test: Levees are an appropriate solution when they protect infrastructure — people, buildings — that is 1) concentrated, 2) of high value, and 3) pre-existing.
Natomas was a field-of-dreams levee, and most flood researchers and floodplain managers would point to that as a mistake. You don’t take largely undeveloped floodplain, build a big wall and then build billions of dollars of new infrastructure behind it, researchers reported. The beneficiaries of such projects are the developers and the local tax base, but residents, the state, and U.S. taxpayers are left with a Pandora’s Box of residual risk and liability.
But there are other spots, like downtown Sacramento, that are pre-existing, concentrated and of high economic value, so a levee there makes sense, according to the study. Even more so with the added protection afforded by the Yolo Bypass.
“We’re saying, do careful analysis, assess all the benefits and the costs, including to the environment, and pick the optimum solution,” Pinter said.
Regulators shouldn’t deprive farmers of a safe pesticide
By Ted Sheely
Farmers in California have it tough these days. Despite recent rainfall, we continue to suffer through one of the worst droughts in history.
Now state regulators are trying to deny us the right to use one of the best and safest products in the world to protect our crops.
They claim that glyphosate, a popular weed killer, causes cancer. This is sheer nonsense – a cockamamie idea rejected by scientists and regulators for decades. Banning it threatens to raise food prices on consumers, to force farmers to adopt less-tested technologies and, perhaps worst of all, spread unwarranted fear.
The problem started last year, when a French-based unit of the United Nations, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, announced that glyphosate is a “probable human carcinogen.”
Nobody wants to use products that cause cancer. Farmers like me devote themselves to growing healthy and nutritious food, not spreading sickness and disease. That’s one of the reasons we prefer glyphosate. It’s one of the most scrutinized chemicals on the planet. Researchers have studied it for 40 years and they’ve consistently determined that it’s safe for ordinary use, not just by farmers but by gardeners.
When regulators routinely give glyphosate a new look, they find nothing new. “Our review concluded that this body of research does not provide evidence to show that glyphosate causes cancer,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said last year. The European Food Safety Authority agreed.
Earlier this year, however, the U.N. agency went rogue. Everybody should know two things about the agency. First, it has a long history of alarmism. A few years ago, for instance, it peddled the now-discredited idea that cellphones cause brain cancer. Second, its own organizational preamble warns policymakers not to take its findings too seriously.
Despite this, California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment decided late last year to change its previous determination that glyphosate is safe. Leaning on the U.N. agency’s disputed claim, it has chosen to reclassify glyphosate as carcinogenic. This is the very definition of a reckless bureaucracy.
Bureaucrats in Sacramento should quit taking their cues from an unaccountable agency in France. They should pay attention to what respected American scientists have said for years about glyphosate and think about the good of California’s people.
Ted Sheely, who raises lettuce, cotton, tomatoes and other crops on a family farm near Lemoore, is a board member of the Global Farmer Network. He can be contacted at email@example.com.