Wednesday, March 9, 2016
San Luis Obispo Tribune
Voters reject Paso Robles groundwater basin district
By David Sneed
The effort to form a management district for the Paso Robles groundwater basin appears to have failed resoundingly, according to preliminary election results Tuesday night.
The failure of the management district leaves the future of the troubled basin uncertain. Many aquifers have fallen by 100 feet or more in areas of the basin, causing some wells to go dry and forcing many well owners in the basin to lower the pumps in their wells or drill new, deeper wells to keep the water running. A new state law mandates that basins like the Paso Robles basin, which are in critical overdraft, be sustainably managed by 2020.
Voters in the basin failed to approve a parcel tax that would have generated nearly $1 million each year for five years to pay for management of the basin. Two-thirds of the registered voters who participated in the election needed to vote in favor of the parcel tax, but only 22 percent voted for the tax.
An overwhelming majority of the property owners, 74 percent, in the basin also voted against forming the district. Even if this measure had been approved, the special district could not be formed without the parcel tax also passing.
The results of the election are still preliminary. San Luis Obispo County elections officials will count any ballots postmarked March 8 that are received by Friday.
Ballots were mailed out Feb. 8 to 7,291 registered voters and 4,830 landowners in the basin. Interest in the election was apparently lukewarm, with only 51 percent of property owners and 47 percent of registered voters turning in their ballots, according to Tuesday night returns.
Although ballots will continue to be counted, the results are unlikely to change considering the overwhelming opposition to both measures. County Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong said the ballots counted Tuesday night were all of the returns that his office had received as of Monday. He said only a short stack had been delivered on Tuesday, and he expected only a small number to trickle in the rest of the week.
“We got maybe 20 ballots today,” he said Tuesday evening. “The next time we count ballots will be sometime Friday.”
Once the vote is final, it will be up to the county Board of Supervisors to decide whether it wants to have the county Public Works Department manage the basin under the supervision of supervisors or defer to the State Water Resources Control Board to manage the basin.
A new state law, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, requires that basins such as the Paso Robles basin that have been declared to be in critical overdraft must be sustainably managed by 2020, if not by local officials then by the state. The state declared the basin to be in overdraft because of precipitously falling aquifer levels in many parts of the sprawling 790-square-mile groundwater basin that covers much of the North County.
However, in late February, county supervisors told The Tribune that they are not interested in spending county general funds to manage the district. This opens the door for state water officials to step in and oversee the distressed aquifer.
In a related election, registered voters in the basin elected Sue Luft, Hilary Shirey Graves and Dean DiSandro to the proposed water district’s nine-member board of directors. Large landowners in the basin also elected Stephen Sinton and Dana Merrill to the board. Those elections are now moot, since the district won’t be formed.
The election for two seats in the medium-landowner category in the basin was uncontested. Farmers Randall Diffenbaugh and Bill Spencer would have filled those seats. Medium landowners are those who own between 40 and 399 acres in the basin.
Similarly, two seats in the small-landowner category on the board were not contested. Attorney Edwin J. Rambuski and business owner Chad Patten would have filled those seats. Small landowners are those who own less than 40 acres in the basin.
Shall a special parcel tax be levied to fund a local groundwater management district? (A two-thirds majority is required for passage. All registered voters in the basin received this ballot.)
Shall a Paso Robles Basin Water District be approved, subject to the passage of Measure A? (A majority vote is required for passage. All property owners in the basin received this ballot.)
BOARD OF DIRECTORS
The nine-member board of directors represents registered voters (3 seats), large-property owners (2 seats), medium-property owners (2 seats) and small-property owners (2 seats). The medium- and small-property owner seats were uncontested. These are the candidates for the contested seats:
– 3 seats: Represents registered voters in the district. Four candidates are running.
Hilary Shirey Graves
– 2 seats: Represents owners of 400 acres or more. Three candidates are running.
Top vote-getter: Stephen Sinton
Second: Dana M. Merrill
Third: Serena Friedman
Medium-landowner seats – 2 seats: Represents property owners of 40 to 399 acres. Uncontested.
– 2 seats: Represents property owners of less than 40 acres. Uncontested.
Edwin J. Rambuski
Chad E. Patten
David Sneed: 805-781-7930, @davidsneedSLO, firstname.lastname@example.org
San Luis Obispo Tribune
Deep well drilling in Paso Robles raises contamination concerns
By David Sneed
Wells being drilled as deep as 1,500 feet in the Paso Robles groundwater basin are raising concerns that poor-quality water pumped from deep aquifers could contaminate upper aquifers where most wells draw water.
The issue came to the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday after a deep well in Creston was found to be contaminating upper aquifers.
There are 320 deep wells in the county, with 230 of those in the Paso Robles basin, said Elizabeth Pozzebon, director of county Environmental Health Services. Almost all are agricultural wells, particularly vineyards, and the majority were drilled between 2012 and 2015.
The county defines a deep well as one that is more than 600 feet deep and penetrates more than one aquifer. Some go as deep as 1,500 feet.
County Supervisor Frank Mecham, whose district includes much of the Paso Robles basin, said during the supervisors’ meeting Tuesday that basin residents are increasingly worried that the deep wells are a threat to their well water. The board heard a report on the subject of deep well drilling but took no action.
Deep wells can cause a number of problems, said Tim Cleath, a geologist with the San Luis Obispo-based Cleath-Harris Geologists. The biggest threat is that water from deeper aquifers is often of much-poorer quality and can have high levels of salt, sulfur and other dissolved minerals.
Water from these deep wells is often of such poor quality that it must be mixed with better-quality water before it can be used for crop irrigation.
If a well is improperly drilled or its seal leaks, the upper aquifer can be contaminated by the lower aquifer. Pumping large amounts of water from a deep well also raises the risk of the ground sinking, Cleath said.
All deep wells must be reviewed by a geologist to ensure that the well will not contaminate an upper aquifer, county Health Officer Dr. Penny Borenstein said.
“Additionally, concrete seals must be placed in the borehole to preclude mixing between multiple aquifers when such mixing is determined by EHS to likely result in significant deterioration of water quality,” she said in a staff report to county supervisors.
County Environmental Health Services recently investigated four wells in the Creston area that were drilled to depths ranging from 1,010 feet to 1,485 feet after complaints were received about them.
A geologist determined that three of the wells did not pose a threat to the water quality of the upper aquifer.
However, the fourth well, known as the Cotta well, was determined by county officials to be contaminating upper aquifers.
The county required that a concrete plug be installed to close off the lower aquifer.
A follow-up water sampling plan is underway to determine whether the concrete plug has been effective.
Neighboring wells have also been tested to make sure their water quality has not been degraded, Borenstein said.
San Diego Union-Tribune
El Niño likely to bring rain this weekend and through March
Winter storms likely to ease not end drought
By Joshua Emerson Smith
Going into the weekend, rain and snow is predicted from San Diego up through Northern California, promising to fluff ski conditions, feed crops and continue filling reservoirs.
While California’s historic drought is far from over, El Niño-fueled storms reemerged last weekend after a record hot February.
From farmers to water officials to urban dwellers, Californians now hold out renewed hope March will deliver a miracle for the long-parched state — or at least enough water to somewhat ease drought restrictions.
San Diego could see more rain as soon as Friday afternoon continuing through Saturday morning with longer-term weather patterns suggesting more storms could follow later this month, according to the National Weather Service.
Without any more precipitation, the state’s current mountain snowpack would likely deliver only about half of the spring runoff climatologists have said would be necessary to bust the drought.
“February didn’t happen for us, but March is looking better,” said Jimmy Taeger, a forecaster for the weather service in San Diego. “A good amount of the state has a good chance of above average precipitation.”
Feeding the state’s frozen reservoir, a slug of moisture is also expected to hit the Sierra Nevada Thursday through Tuesday, dropping up to 12 inches of snow in places like Yosemite.
That’s good news for statewide snowpack, which has recently dipped to about 83 percent of normal for this time of year. While precipitation earlier this week helped fill in reservoirs, storms conditions didn’t deliver as much snow as hoped for.
“It was a good storm in that it dropped a lot of rain, but it was a warm storm,” said Doug Carlson with the California Department of Water Resources.
The state’s largest reservoirs added more than 390 billions of gallons of water in recent days. The water level at 12 select reservoirs around Californai now stands at 69 percent, up from about 66 before the last storm, according to the state.
Farmers in the state have been watching these conditions closely, anxious to see if winter storms delivers some relief from financially brutal water curtailments felt hard in the Central Valley.
Lucky for growers in San Diego County, water for agriculture isn’t restricted like in many other parts of the state, but it’s also much more expensive.
The region’s many avocado and citrus trees, which require year-round water, received a much needed dousing over the weekend, as did grazing lands in East County that rely heavily on rainfall.
Local farmers will take all the “free water” they can get, said Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego Farm Bureau. “Anytime it rains a farmer doesn’t have to do an irrigation cycle,” he said. “When it rains, it’s very, very good news for the local farmers.”
The drought has wreaked havoc on the local cattle industry, Larson added. “It’s been terrible. They’ve had to sell their cattle before they were mature because there wasn’t enough grass to feed them.”
Another group of folks glowing after the recent return of winter storms are ski resort operators. On Mammoth Mountain, the last few days have brought several feet of fresh snow.
“Today was an amazing powder day, deep and beautiful,” said Lauren Burke, spokesperson Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. “This has been an amazing return to a normal winter for us. We still have a lot of winter months ahead of us so we’re looking pretty good.”
But the late season precipitation hasn’t been enough for everyone. Mountain High Resort north of Los Angles temporarily closed about a week ago.
“There’s a chance we could be open on Saturday,” said John McColly, chief marketing officer Mountain High Resort. “We’re just sitting back and letting Mother Nature do her thing.”
While this year’s storms have so far helped ease drought conditions, it’s unlikely El Niño will end the drought by this spring. Earlier this year, state officials agreed to eased restrictions on urban water users while also announcing that Gov. Jerry Brown’s mandate to cut water use by 25 percent over 2013 levels would continue through the fall.
“There’s no doubt that we’re in a better situation this year than any of the last four years,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute. “It looks like at lease we might have an average water year and maybe we’ll be lucky and have above average year.
“The bad news is that it won’t solve our problems,” he added, pointing to over-used groundwater supplies and devastated fish populations. “Glass half-full or empty? It’s not as bad as it could have been, but it’s not as good as it needs to be.”
Officials calculated that snowpack would need to accumulate to whopping 150 percent of normal by the end of the official rainy season on April 1 to fully recharge the state’s system of reservoirs.
It would take three to five years in a row of average perception to start to alleviate some of the more entrenched drought impacts, said Michael Anderson, the Department of Water Resources’ state climatologist.
“The notion was if we had a big winter that would wash away most drought impact. But it didn’t play out that way at all.”
About 60 percent of the state is currently suffering “extreme” or worse drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. That’s only down slightly from a year ago when the number was around 67 percent.
“Even if we get above normal precipitation, you have to continue that conservation otherwise you’re going to just suck it back up,” said Dave Miskus of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center.
Southern California water agency moves to buy Delta islands
By Dale Kasler and Ryan Sabalow
In a controversial move that could shake up California’s water community, Southern California’s most powerful water agency moved a giant step closer Tuesday to purchasing a cluster of islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Following months of negotiations, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s board of directors authorized its general manager to enter into a contract to buy the islands from the owner, Delta Wetlands Properties, a company controlled by Swiss conglomerate Zurich Insurance Group.
Metropolitan delivers water wholesale to 19 million people through 26 agencies. The board’s vote, with 54 percent of its member agencies approving under Metropolitan’s weighted voting system, immediately set off alarm bells in the Delta and elsewhere in Northern California.
The Delta is the conduit through which the state and federal water projects deliver billions of gallons of water from Northern California to the vast farmlands of the San Joaquin Valley and millions of urban Southern Californians. The prospect of Metropolitan controlling a group of islands in the heart of the estuary has sparked accusations that the agency will somehow use the islands to engineer a “water grab” – an allegation Metropolitan has steadfastly denied.
Jeff Kightlinger, Metropolitan’s general manager, said he plans to execute purchase documents “within the next couple of days.” He wouldn’t disclose the purchase price Tuesday, but said the deal is for somewhere between $150 million and $240 million. The price will become public once the documents are executed, he said.
The deal involves five islands: Bouldin Island, Bacon Island, Webb Tract, most of Holland Tract and a small portion of Chipps Island. The islands, covering 20,000 acres, are spread among San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties.
Zurich bought the properties more than 20 years ago with the idea of converting the islands, some of which lie below sea level, into for-profit reservoirs that could ship water to Southern California in dry years. The plan has never gained traction, facing considerable legal opposition, and the islands are currently used for farming.
Kightingler said Metropolitan has no plans to use the islands as reservoirs. Instead, it’s exploring using at least some of the land to help pave the way for California WaterFix, Gov. Jerry Brown’s $15.5 billion plan to build massive twin tunnels beneath the Delta and shore up reliability of water shipments to Southern California. Kightlinger said some of the islands could serve as a staging ground for equipment, excavated dirt and other materials. Two of the islands lie in the heart of the proposed tunnels route.
In addition, Kightlinger said Metropolitan is prepared to use the islands to restore wildlife habitat. Given that water-pumping through the Delta is frequently halted because of environmental concerns, Kightingler said restoring habitat represents “enlightened self-interest” on Metropolitan’s part, helping to keep the water flowing by making the Delta’s ecosystem healthier. Owning the islands also would position Metropolitan to repair levees more quickly in case of a major earthquake that might interrupt the flow of water south.
Rather than a ‘water grab,’ he said, “This is about safeguarding the water we do have.”
Kightlinger said Metropolitan believes it has the legal clearance to use the islands for the purposes he outlined.
Delta landowners, however, said they think they could erect legal roadblocks if Metropolitan tries to make wholesale changes to the islands. George Hartmann, a Stockton lawyer who represents farmers and others in the area, said Delta interests can’t prevent Metropolitan from buying the islands but can ensure the agency abides by previously negotiated legal settlements that restrict what can be done with the land.
“We’re not going to roll over and play dead,” Hartmann said. “We’re going to do our best to make sure the agreements are enforced.”
Hartmann scoffed at the idea that Metropolitan wants to improve environmental habitat in the estuary, which has been degraded by decades of pumping.
“They have only one interest. And that is getting more water and securing more stable water, and it’s all about the money,” Hartmann said.
Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of the advocacy group Restore the Delta, agreed, saying the big Southern California agency will find a way to steer more water south. Once Metropolitan has the islands, “they have the resources to change laws and policies to maximize their access to Delta water in their favor,” she said.
Barrigan-Parrilla wasn’t mollified that Metropolitan said it is steering away from Zurich’s water-reservoir plan; her group is opposed to any project that would help facilitate the governor’s Delta tunnels plan.
“We believe that having MWD as a neighbor is an existential threat to the future of the Delta and Delta communities,” she said.
Michael George, a state official who helps oversee Delta water rights, doesn’t see a peril from Metropolitan’s ownership. George, the Delta “watermaster” at the State Water Resources Control Board, said Metropolitan has been “pretty wide open about what it’s doing” and won’t be able to make big changes or export more water south without getting regulatory approvals.
“My sense is that Metropolitan is a very responsible, pretty transparent public agency that owns lots of properties throughout the state and is a pretty good steward of those facilities,” George said. “I certainly would anticipate, as I’m sure they do, that there will be a great deal of scrutiny of however they choose to use their (Delta) property.”
A spokesman for Zurich had no immediate comment.
Metropolitan spokesman Bob Muir said the agency is still discussing whether to take on partners in the purchase, including a group of Kern County water agencies. The Metropolitan board is expected to take a final vote on the purchase in late April.
Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler, email@example.com
Los Angeles Times
Court rejects key lawsuit against California high-speed rail system
By Ralph Vartabedian
The California bullet train has won a court victory in a key lawsuit that sought to stop the $64-billion project because it allegedly violated restrictions voters imposed in 2008.
A Sacramento County Superior Court judge ruled that the allegations in the suit were “not ripe for review,” finding that opponents of the project offered no evidence that the state rail authority would not comply at some point with the restrictions as it continues to plan the project.
“There are still too many unknown variables,” Judge Michael Kenny wrote in his 19-page ruling in the lawsuit brought by Kings County and two farmers. The ruling appeared to leave open the door for the lawsuit to resume in the future.
The chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority, Dan Richard, took the ruling as a validation of the state’s planning.
“Today’s ruling confirms that we are indeed delivering a fast, modern and environmentally friendly high-speed rail system that meets the voter-approved requirements under Proposition 1a,” Richard said.
“This five-year lawsuit wasted taxpayer dollars and delayed implementation, but we are moving forward and redoubling our efforts to build this transformative, job-creating investment in California’s future,” he said.
Though the decision is a victory for the state, it holds the rail agency to strict compliance with some of the bond act requirements that will be difficult to meet.
Stuart Flashman, an attorney representing plaintiffs John Tos, Aaron Fukuda and Kings County, said he would have to consider his next steps and wouldn’t rule out an appeal.
“Though the high-speed rail authority may have won this round, the ruling … provides ominous signs about the authority’s future use of bond funds,” Flashman wrote in an email. “It should perhaps be considered a second shot across the bow of the authority’s current proposed system.”
The 2008 bond act, which provided $9 billion for the high-speed rail program, required that the train system would have to be financially viable, allow the operation of trains every five minutes in each direction, operate without a subsidy, have all the funds identified for an operating segment before the start of construction and travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes, among other things.
The rail project has survived a number of legal challenges, political attacks and regulatory minefields over the last several years. It is struggling to find enough money to complete a partial operating segment by 2025.
Opposition has been strong in the Central Valley, where agricultural interests are backing a proposition for the November ballot that would reallocate bonds for the rail system to new water projects.
The rail system also has encountered difficult technical problems in its plans to cross the Southern California mountain ranges and surprisingly strong resistance in working-class Latino neighborhoods along a planned route in the San Fernando Valley.
Kenny flatly rejected some of the plaintiffs’ arguments, including that the state must adhere to the bond act requirements even if it hasn’t yet tapped into the bond funds for construction. His ruling leaves the state free to continue with existing work using greenhouse gas fees and federal grants, even though it will eventually need the bond funds.
So far, the state has not attempted to sell the rail bonds to fund actual construction, though some environmental planning and administrative costs have been paid for with bond sales.
In an earlier phase of the lawsuit, an appeals court reversed Kenny’s finding that the state violated the bond act because it drafted a funding plan that did not comply with the bond act. In the current ruling, Kenny defers to that decision, saying the state has so far not submitted a funding plan to use the bond dollars.
The plaintiffs in the case asserted that the rail agency violated the bond act when it reached a political compromise in 2012 to share slower speed tracks in the Bay Area with commuter and freight trains.
Instead of speeds up to 220 mph, the trains would be limited to 110 mph. Instead of four tracks through the Bay Area peninsula, the system would use two existing tracks that all the trains share. Kenny ruled that the compromise by itself was not a direct violation of Proposition 1a.
But the suit also alleged that the slower speeds and sharing of track would not allow the system to meet two key requirements: the operation of 12 trains per hour and a 30-minute trip time between San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal and San Jose.
Kenny noted that the authority’s own analysis showed that at 110 mph, trains would require 32 minutes to make the San Francisco to San Jose trip.
Kenny did send a strong message to the rail authority on the issue, when he said it was “most troubling” that the authority based its trip times on a station in San Francisco at 4th and King streets, instead of the Transbay Terminal that was identified as the end point in the bond act. Transbay is 1.3 miles farther along, accessed through a tunnel that potentially could add another minute to the trip time.
Kenny issued his ruling Friday, but it was not posted on the Superior Court website until Tuesday morning.
California needs to streamline rules on organic farms
By Thaddeus Barsotti
Organic is the only style of farming I’ve ever known. My parents farmed organically before I was born and long before the term became mainstream. Now, California organic farmers must compete with organic producers all over the world.
If we want to ensure that the Golden State continues to be the heart of the farm-to-fork movement, California must reform and streamline its outdated organic regulatory system. This is why I support Assembly Bill 1826, the California Organic Food and Farming Act, which may be heard in committee Thursday.
More than two decades ago, California farmers partnered with the state to regulate organics. This effort planted the seeds for organics to become an $8.2 billion industry in the state and a whopping 40 percent of the entire U.S. organic market.
When the federal government stepped in and created the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, we were skeptical. We weren’t ready to hand over the reins to an industry we nurtured and grew, but today the national program regulates all organic product sold in the U.S.
Over the last 15 years, the National Organic Program has proved effective for consumers and producers. More American families buy organic today than ever because they trust the integrity of the organic label, that no matter where a product labeled as organic was produced or sold it meets national standards.
California, however, retains an outdated state organic program. The fees, duplicative paperwork and unnecessary requirements put California producers at a competitive disadvantage. Since taking over my family’s farm 15 years ago, I’ve been required to report the same information on crops, yield and operations to three separate state agencies and one independent certifying agency to obtain an organic label.
No other state requires a state-level organic fee that provides no extra assurance to consumers. When I was elected to the board of the California Certified Organic Farmers, I found thousands of farmers are struggling with these same requirements that provide no benefits to shoppers.
AB 1826 is a solution to an outdated system. It would enable California farmers to be successful, while protecting consumers and growing the economy. The bill maintains a state organic program but lowers the enforcement cost to certified organic producers and allows the state to partner with farmers to advance organic agriculture.
AB 1826 levels the playing field for California’s organic farmers. Without it, we will continue to pay unfair fees and cope with dizzying paperwork that farmers in every other state don’t face.
There is no group of people who wish to maintain the integrity of the certified organic label more than farmers. The distinction is our lifeblood and the foundation of trust with our consumers that is critical to our economic survival. AB 1826 will ensure that we maintain that integrity in California and help us become an even stronger sector of the California economy.
Thaddeus Barsotti is owner of Capay Organic and a board member of California Certified Organic Farmers. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.