Wednesday, January 13, 2016
Clashes on California water resume in DC with introduction of drainage bill
By Michael Doyle
WASHINGTON – U.S. lawmakers from California have more political turbulence ahead of them with the introduction Tuesday of a bill to settle a long-running San Joaquin Valley irrigation drainage dispute.
The legislation by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, would implement a sweeping drainage settlement reached between the Obama administration and the Westlands Water District. It also reignites some of the same regional and partisan conflicts that have dogged past water bills.
“This legislation is necessary to approve and authorize the drainage settlement,” Valadao said, adding that it “has the potential to save taxpayers billions of dollars.”
The 19-page bill essentially matches the terms of a legal settlement announced last September. It relieves the federal government of the obligation to provide irrigation drainage to Westlands farms. The government’s failure to provide the drainage as part of the Central Valley Project network of reservoirs and canals led to tainted soil and serious environmental problems.
In return, the 600,000-acre Westlands district will retire at least 100,000 acres of farmland. The nation’s largest water district will also receive a potentially advantageous new type of contract and have its own remaining $375 million debt to the government forgiven, among other changes.
Westlands would gain title to an array of canal facilities and buildings, under the bill, and would also assume responsibility for paying landowner claims currently made against the federal government.
“Ensuring taxpayer dollars go towards meaningful projects, such as increased water storage rather than fighting unnecessary litigation, is the responsible and most efficient use of taxpayer dollars,” Valadao said.
But in a sign of clashes to come, as well as a reminder of perennial congressional vexations, Valadao’s bill drew immediate fire from Democrats in the House of Representatives who represent portions of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and who have long fought Westlands.
“I oppose this bill, or any legislation, that would codify principles that benefit the nation’s largest water district at the expense of taxpayers and the environment,” said Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton.
Three other House Democrats joined McNerney last September in criticizing the legal settlement, with Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, calling the agreement a “bad deal.”
The legal settlement, and the legislation introduced Tuesday, in turn, are the unanticipated progeny of water decisions made long ago.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation began delivering water to Westlands in 1967, and up until the mid-1970s constructed some 70 miles of a planned 207-mile drain. Instead of reaching all the way to the Delta, it ended prematurely at Kesterson Reservoir.
Federal officials now peg the constantly escalating cost of completing that drainage system at upward of $3.5 billion.
The bill introduced Tuesday faces several hurdles. Though the Republican-controlled House could conceivably launch it relatively quickly, California water legislation often bogs down on Capitol Hill.
After an 18-year legal battle, for instance, negotiators reached a deal in September 2006 to restore salmon to the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam. Legislation implementing the settlement was first introduced in December 2007.
In March 2009, the San Joaquin River legislation finally reached the White House as part of a larger package.
For the past several years, California water legislation intended to address the state’s drought has foundered over disagreements between House Republicans and California’s Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.
Neither Feinstein nor Boxer has yet introduced similar irrigation-drainage legislation in the Senate. On Tuesday, four months after the Justice Department and Westlands announced their settlement, both senators indicated they were still reviewing the ensuing legislation.
“We will be getting feedback from all the stakeholders,” Boxer’s spokesman Zachary Coile said.
Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10
High-speed rail board awards third San Joaquin Valley construction contract
By Tim Sheehan
SACRAMENTO – The California High-Speed Rail Authority board Tuesday awarded a three-year contract valued at $444.3 million for design and construction of the third segment of the rail line in the San Joaquin Valley.
Tuesday’s 6-0 vote by the rail agency’s directors authorizes CEO Jeff Morales to negotiate and finalize a contract with California Rail Builders for a 22-mile stretch of the bullet-train route from the Tulare-Kern county line to Poplar Avenue in Shafter, northwest of Bakersfield. California Rail Builders submitted the lowest-cost bid among four proposals by firms competing for the job.
California Rail Builders is led by Ferrovial Agroman US Corp., an American subsidiary of Spain’s Ferrovial S.A., and augmented by Eurostudios, a Spanish engineering company, and Othon Inc., a Houston engineering and environmental consulting firm. Ferrovial has extensive experience in infrastructure construction in the United States and around the world, including work on high-speed rail lines in Spain, Turkey, Algeria and Columbia.
The California Rail Builders/Ferrovial Agroman bid came in at $347.5 million, well below engineers’ estimates of $400 million to $500 million. The rest of the contract value comes from an estimated $107 million to cover the costs of protecting or relocating utilities owned by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., AT&T and Level 3 Communications.
The contract covers construction of the route up to the railbed in both at-grade and elevated areas, as well as relocating four miles of existing freight tracks, crossings for waterways and wildlife, and some road overpasses to carry traffic over the new line.
Once a contract is executed, it will extend work being done by construction teams that have contracts for nearly 100 miles of rail line in the San Joaquin Valley, stretching from Avenue 17 northeast of Madera to the Tulare-Kern county line.
The first contract, for just under $1 billion, was awarded in mid-2013 to Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons for a 29-mile segment from Madera to the south edge of Fresno. The second contract, for about $1.4 billion, was awarded a year ago to Dragados/Flatiron, a joint venture of two construction firms, and covers about 65 miles from American Avenue south of Fresno to the Tulare-Kern county line.
Construction will start later this year on the second contract south of Fresno. Work is under way on the Fresno-Madera segment, but is running well behind the original schedule. Scott Jarvis, the rail authority’s chief engineer, said delays in buying or acquiring the land needed for the railroad right of way has meant slow progress.
But, he added, the authority is slowly catching up on delivering the land needed by the contractor for substantial construction to happen.
“We are getting to a point where we have a critical mass to start construction at multiple locations” in the Fresno-Madera section, Jarvis told the board’s finance & audit committee before Tuesday’s board meeting. “Right of way is no longer hindering (the contractor’s) capacity to start construction.”
The anticipated completion date for the Fresno-Madera section remains mid-2018, said Jarvis. But that date could be pushed back into 2019 as the rail authority and the contractor negotiate possible changes to address the late start in construction caused by the slow pace of land acquisition.
Land purchase for the section between Fresno and the Tulare-Kern line is ahead of schedule, Jarvis added, keeping the schedule on pace for completion of construction in mid-2019.
One final construction package is expected to include laying rails along the entire Madera-Shafter route through the Valley. Lisa Alley, an authority spokeswoman, and Jarvis said that contract could also include other components needed to test and operate a train system, including the electrical system to power the trains, signal and safety systems and communications. Jarvis said the authority may be able to seek proposals for that contract by the end of this year.
So far, the winning bids for all three design/construction contracts in the Valley have all come in significantly below engineers’ estimates. Cumulatively, the authority estimated that the three sections would cost between $3 billion and $4 billion; the total of the winning bids for the three contracts add up to less than $2.6 billion, not counting add-ons allowed for hazardous waste cleanup or utility relocation work.
The project continues to face considerable obstacles, however, from legal challenges to political opposition to questions about its ongoing financial resources. The rail authority has about $6 billion for construction in the Valley, including about $3 billion in federal stimulus and transportation funds and $3 billion from Proposition 1A, a high-speed rail bond measure approved by California voters in 2008. It is also receiving a share, estimated at about $500 million a year, from the state’s greenhouse-gas reduction program funded by the sale of industrial pollution credits.
But the available money is a far cry from the $68 billion that the agency forecasts as the cost to build Phase 1 of its statewide system linking San Francisco and Los Angeles with trains capable of traveling at up to 220 mph through the Valley.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority received five bids for its Construction Package 4, a 22-mile section from the Tulare-Kern county line to Shafter. One proposal was disqualified for not providing required financial documentation.
Technical score (30 max.)
Price score (70 max.)
Total score (of 100)
California Rail Builders
Salini Impregilo/Security Paving Joint Venture
Dragados/Flatiron Joint Venture
Tutor Perini/ Zachry/Parsons
Central Valley Connection Builders
Disqualified – not scored
Tim Sheehan: 559-441-6319, @TimSheehanNews, firstname.lastname@example.org
MID hopes future pond is golden
By Garth Stapley
The Modesto Irrigation District is moving closer to constructing a small reservoir east of Modesto.
MID board members on Tuesday approved an initial environmental study for the future reservoir, which would cost about $6 million and allow the district to better manage flows in two nearby canals, making water deliveries to farms more efficient.
The board also hired a new attorney, agreed to continue watching whether ash from the 2013 Rim fire is harming the Tuolumne River, and learned that lots more rain and snow are needed to climb out of the drought.
Plans for a regulating reservoir on 60 acres near Milnes Road and Church Street, north of Empire, are about 95 percent done, MID senior civil engineer Chad Tienken told the board Tuesday. The oversized pond would hold about 265 acre-feet of water, or about 86 million gallons, fed by MID’s main canal from the Tuolumne.
By comparison, MID’s principal foothills reservoir, Don Pedro, can hold more than 2 million acre-feet, and Modesto Reservoir, 29,000.
Another canal at the Empire property diverts a third of the main canal’s water to feed crops. A reservoir there would allow MID to keep water levels in both canals more constant, Tienken said. The district has looked at other sites for similar reservoirs, including one in Salida, but they’re very expensive and farmers pay only a fraction of the current cost of water delivery, a benefit subsidized by electricity customers.
Next steps for the Empire reservoir include more environmental documents and finding money to pay for it.
Such projects figured in the 2012 battle over a proposal to sell water to San Francisco. Proponents said profits would help pay for needed upgrades; some farm leaders urged options, including examining whether farmers might cover the cost of some work, and public outcry eventually doomed the water-export proposal.
Board member John Mensinger said it’s good that the Empire reservoir would not be lined, allowing water to seep down and replenish an aquifer. “We’re entering a world where we need sustainable groundwater management,” he said.
After meeting in closed session, the board announced a unanimous vote to hire Hilmar attorney Ronda Lucas as MID general counsel. She succeeds Joy Warren, who left for undisclosed reasons in late May.
Lucas worked 11 years for the California Farm Bureau, first as an environmental policy analyst, and later, after working through law school, as an attorney. She opened her law practice in 2007; in 2012, Lucas spoke publicly against the MID proposal to sell water to San Francisco. Lucas will join MID in February with a $169,800 annual salary.
The MID board received good news about winter weather, boosting the water level in Don Pedro Reservoir nearly as high as when the 2015 irrigation season began, with more rain and snow expected this year. A huge storm with potential for dumping up to 10 inches in parts of the Central Valley is expected to hit mid-next week, said John Davids, the district’s irrigation operations manager.
However, “we’re not out of the woods yet,” Davids said.
MID hopes the weather will ease effects of the lengthy drought, which limited farmers to 16 inches of water in 2015. That was down from 24 inches in 2014, and from 36 inches in 2013, when the Rim fire started in the Stanislaus National Forest and ravaged 400 square miles, becoming the third-largest wildfire in California history.
Worried that ash would wash into Don Pedro and pollute the Tuolumne, MID and its partner, the Turlock Irrigation District, paid a federal agency to study water quality. But comparatively little water in the past two dry winters prevented scientists from capturing useful data, so the MID board agreed to pay another $33,500 to look at El Niño runoff this year.
The board also agreed to continue last year’s leadership in 2016, with Larry Byrd as board chairman and Mensinger as vice chairman.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390, email@example.com
San Luis Obispo Tribune
Ban upheld on use of sewage sludge as crop fertilizer
By David Sneed
San Luis Obispo County’s virtual ban on using sewage sludge as fertilizer for food crops will stay in place for two more years, and work on crafting a new sludge ordinance has been halted.
After a contentious two-hour hearing Tuesday, a divided San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors decided the current interim ordinance is working just fine and it is premature to begin work on a permanent set of rules for land application of sludge, also called biosolids.
“I think our timing is really off on this,” Supervisor Debbie Arnold said. “There is no problem. I would be inclined to extend the interim ordinance when the time comes.”
The use of sludge is controversial because it can contain toxic heavy metals and other contaminants. Many speakers at Tuesday’s hearing urged the county to look at alternatives for the use of sludge that doesn’t involve land application.
Others, including Greg Kester of the California Association of Sanitation Agencies, urged supervisors to adopt a land application ordinance to give the 20 wastewater treatment plants in the county options for disposing of their sludge.
Supervisors Arnold, Lynn Compton and Frank Mecham voted to retain the interim ordinance until it expires in 2018. They also voted to have county planners stop the preparation of an environmental impact report.
“We are looking for a problem that does not exist,” Mecham said.
Supervisors Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill disagreed. The interim ordinance has been in place too long, and it is time to replace it with something permanent, Gibson said.
Dan Buckshi, the county’s administrative officer, said interim ordinances are, by their nature, meant to be temporary but the sludge ordinance has been in place for 12 years.
“We have kicked this can down the road for years and years and years. We have to look to the future, and I think continuing with the EIR process is the way to do it,” said Gibson, using an acronym to refer to the environmental impact report.
In 2004, the county adopted the interim ordinance that limits the amount of sludge that can be used as fertilizer on agricultural crops to 1,500 cubic yards a year. For the 12 years the ordinance has been in place, no one has applied to use any sludge, partly because of the restrictive nature of the interim ordinance.
County environmental health officials were in the process of drafting a permanent sludge ordinance and were about to begin the process of preparing the impact report to cover it.
Mecham said the cost to do an impact report was a concern. Ellen Carroll, county environmental coordinator, estimated the cost of preparing the impact report to be between $200,000 and $300,000 with $200,000 already budgeted.
“I beg you to look at alternatives,” said Linde Owen of Los Osos. “The contaminants that come out of the waste stream are just that — contaminants.”
Others urged supervisors to find a way to use sludge locally. Currently, three-quarters of the 12,000 tons of sludge produced in the county each year is sent out of the county to composting facilities in Santa Maria and the San Joaquin Valley.
In addition to land application, sludge can be used for a variety of other purposes including as fuel in cogeneration plants or as compost when mixed with green waste. Composted biosolids sold in 40-pound bags are available at most retail nurseries and home improvement stores.
“Biosolids are a resource and a very valuable resource,” said David Hicks, wastewater manager for the city of San Luis Obispo.
David Sneed: 805-781-7930, @davidsneedSLO, firstname.lastname@example.org
Snowpack in Kern River watershed still slightly below normal
By Steven Mayer
We’ve all heard the news: The snowpack in parts of the Sierra Nevada is well above normal for this time of year, with new storms expected later this week and next.
So we should be celebrating, right? Drinking Champagne to save water?
Well, don’t pop those corks just yet.
Closer to home, the snowpack in the Kern River watershed, which feeds the City of Bakersfield, supplies irrigation water for many area farms, and helps replace depleted groundwater, is still below normal.
Though not by much.
“We’re just below average, a half-inch below normal for Jan. 6,” said John Ryan, hydrographic supervisor for the City of Bakersfield’s Department of Water Resources.
Ryan was referring to a graphic snapshot he prepared to help Bakersfield City Council members get a look at where the Kern watershed is now, compared to previous years.
Using eight automated snow sensors scattered throughout the Kern River watershed — these sensors measure water content, not snow depth — Ryan determined that on Jan. 6 there were 8.7 inches of water content spread out through the watershed, compared to a normal level of 9.2 inches.
That’s not bad, Ryan said, as long as it continues to snow through January, February and March. On April 1, when the rainy season comes to an end, Ryan would like to see measurements showing close to the basin-wide average of 21.5 inches of water content.
“It will probably take three normal-type years to get us back to business as usual,” he said.
That squares pretty closely with the outlook from Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program.
Gehrke said in a statement that more than four years of drought have left a water deficit around the state that will be difficult to overcome in just one winter season — even a good one.
“Clearly, this is much better than it was last year at this time, but we haven’t had the full effect of the El Niño yet,” Gehrke said. “If we believe the forecasts, then El Niño is supposed to kick in as we move through the rest of the winter. That will be critical when it comes to looking at reservoir storage.”
At Isabella Lake, reservoir storage remains pretty dismal, although water managers have gotten some breathing room since Oct. 3, when the lake reached a nadir of 30,158 acre feet, just barely above the recreation level of 30,000 acre feet, which the lake is never supposed to drop below.
According to Ryan, summer storms last July kept the lake from dropping below that level. As of Monday, the lake was up to 33,156 acre feet — an improvement but still only 6 percent of capacity and much lower than the normal level of 29 percent.
Meanwhile, Bakersfield’s rain totals this season also remain slightly below normal, according to the National Weather Service.
Bakersfield has seen 2.02 inches of the rain since Oct. 1, shy of the normal 2.37 inches, weather service data show. The city got much more rain — 3.31 inches — at this time last year.
But what happens in the mountains is more important to Bakersfield’s water outlook than rain in the city.
“Snow is money in the bank,” Ryan said.
“If we can get a few average or slightly above average years, that should right any ship.”
Farmers, supervisors are right to be concerned about SMUD transmission lines
Farmers in our area have a right to be concerned with plans by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and Western Area Power Administration to build a 500-kilovolt electric transmission line through Colusa and Sutter counties.
The structures and lines might not mean much to city dwellers; but for people who have to work around and under them, it’s a big deal.
Farmers will be planting under and around the structures. Scarier still, ag aviators will be flying near them. Power lines probably constitute the biggest safety concern for pilots of crop dusting and planting planes, and that’s part of the norm for our part of the agricultural region. If the planes are flying safely around the towers, it can mean more air drift for whatever they’re sowing or spraying.
Not only that, but the lines could prove disruptive to another valuable resource: wildlife refuges along the way. Also, there’s some worry by county supervisors that the new lines could impact the Sutter Energy Center.
One of SMUD’s proposals would build 44 miles of new transmission line along a corridor from a substation in Maxwell east through part of the 4,507-acre Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, then southeast along the edge of the Sutter National Wildlife Refuge. The line would end at O’Banion substation in Sutter County. New lines would go up next to existing lines.
Another plan would use a similar route but bypass the Sutter refuge. A third option would involve a 27-mile line connecting an existing line to the east, near Arbuckle, to O’Banion, avoiding both refuges.
A SMUD spokesperson said in a recent news report that a public comment period has just begun and there will be public scoping meetings in the two counties: A Sutter County meeting is at 4 p.m. today (Weds.) at the Sutter Youth Organization Center, 7740 Butte House Road in Sutter. There will be another meeting starting at 8 a.m. Thursday at the same location.