Wednesday, November 18, 2015
Pesticides are used safely on California farms
By Paul Wenger
As a farmer who works directly with pesticides, it’s maddening to hear folks who have no first-hand knowledge make unsubstantiated claims about their use and safety.
The latest is the comment from the Center for Biological Diversity, claiming that glyphosate is “probably” a human carcinogen, citing a World Health Organization report (“California needs to rid the Valley of cancer-causing pesticide,” Viewpoints, Nov. 9).
There seems to be a misconception that pesticides are always bad. Shampoo, soap, every disinfectant you apply in your house and rub on your hands are all pesticides. Technology, including pesticides we use on our farms and ranches, has positioned the United States in general and California in particular to be recognized as producing the safest food in the world with the least environmental impact.
Glyphosate, known by its brand name Roundup, has contributed to a safer work environment for me, my sons and employees who use it to control weeds, and only when we need it.
Before glyphosate, we had to apply preventive herbicides, many of which were more difficult and dangerous to handle and had greater potential to damage the environmental. Glyphosate use has increased because it is effective and safer to use.
As a farmer, I must go through training before I can purchase pesticides for my farm, then must report when, where and how much I use. My employees must also be trained. Ironically, any consumer can purchase pesticides, including glyphosate, at a local hardware store and use it without any training or reporting.
The Center for Biological Diversity said the eight poorest counties in California have used a lot of glyphosate. That’s not surprising, since those same counties produce an abundance of the state’s food. Some of those crops find their way to countries like China, where people are afraid to eat their own food.
The center should be more concerned about other countries that produce food with pesticides that do not meet the same standards as California’s. If Californians ate only imported food, it might lead to an appreciation for our rigorous guidelines.
Paul Wenger is president of the California Farm Bureau Federation and grows almonds and walnuts near Modesto. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Counties working together on water storage
By David Castellon
County supervisors are hoping a new agreement will help secure billions of dollars for Valley water projects.
The Tulare County Board of Supervisors approved a joint exercise of powers authority agreement Tuesday with four other counties to lobby together to get a portion of California’s $7.5 billion Proposition 1 dollars to fund Valley water-storage projects.
In particular, officials in Tulare, Fresno, King, Madera and Merced counties could seek as much as $1.5 billion to cover half of the projected costs to build the proposed Temperance Flat Dam along the San Joaquin River Gorge, about 20 miles north of Fresno.
The Friant Dam was built in the early 1940s along that waterway, forming Millerton Lake, a federal reservoir that releases water into the Friant-Kern Canal. It extends south through eastern Tulare County and into Kern County, supplying surface water to farms, as well as some communities that include Lindsay.
But as reservoirs go, Millerton doesn’t have much storage capacity, a maximum of 520,500 acre feet of water. A single acre foot is the amount of water that would fill an acre one foot deep.
Because of that low capacity, a lot of water runoff in wet years, a lot of storm water and mountain snowpack runoff is released but not directed to water customers in order to keep Millerton from becoming too full and posing a flood risk.
“They had to surrender 600,000 acre feet of water in 2011,” a highly wet year, said Denise England, water resources program manager for Tulare County.
Efforts to build a dam upstream of Millerton to create a reservoir that could hold more than double the lake’s capacity have been in the works for more than a decade with water experts and community officials in the south Valley supporting the efforts.
But it wasn’t until last year that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation finally issued a draft environmental impact report on the dam project after about a dozen years of work to get things moving.
Still, California’s fourth year of severe drought is reinvigorating the push to finally build Temperance Flat Dam, as did California voters’ decision to approve Prop. 1 last year, which would allow the state to sell billions of dollars in bonds to fund water projects and drought-relief efforts.
A total of $2.7 billion of that money is earmarked for water storage projects, and when state lawmakers developed the Prop. 1 ballot initiative, the expectation was that a major chunk of that money likely would go to help fund the Temperance Flat project.
Tulare County and the other four counties forming the JPA plan to work together to try to acquire Prop. 1 money for the dam project, as well as to pay for other water-retention projects the south Valley, the area in California hardest hit by the drought.
As of Nov. 16, a total of 1,879 domestic wells have been reported dry in Tulare County, and the county has approved 4,480 well drilling permits since Jan. 1, 2014.
And both 2014 and 2015 marked the first times farmers and communities ever have received zero allocations of water through the Friant-Kern Canal system, notes a report to the supervisors.
“Tulare County remains ‘ground zero’ for the state’s most serious economic and social water supply reduction impacts,” the report continues.
As for the Prop. 1 money, England noted that it can be used to pay for only half of any water storage projects. She said current estimates are for the dam to cost about $3 billion, so up to $1.5 billion could be covered by state bond money.
As for the rest, since Temperance Flat would be a federal dam, the federal government likely would have to pay for a good chunk of the rest of the project, but England noted that that communities, farmers and water districts benefiting from a Temperance Flat Dam may may have to put up some money toward its costs.
As for the JPA, which will be called the “San Joaquin Valley Water Infrastructure Authority,” its creation also is expected to help the five counties identify other “viable” water-storage projects in the Valley, the report to the Tulare County supervisors continues.
Voting to approve the JPA was delayed for weeks as the counties involved suggested and then voted on revisions to the agreement.
Those agreed-upon changes include expanding the number of members of the JPA’s board of directors from a representative from each of the five counties and four others to a total of 11 members.
That includes increasing the number of members representing water districts and cities from one in each category to two.
A Native American tribal council member and an at-large member also will be appointed as members of the planned JPA board.
Tulare County will make an initial contribution of $50,000 into the San Joaquin Valley Water Infrastructure Authority, and additional payments may be needed later to cover future costs.
The Tulare County supervisors approved the agreement with little discussion, and England noted that the supervisors in Kings and Madera counties had approved the agreement prior to Tuesday morning’s meeting.
Fresno County supervisors approved the JPA agreement later in the day, during their meeting.
Groundwater feud brewing in Kern?
By Lois Henry
First rule of groundwater: Not all parts of a groundwater basin are equal. Some are more equal than others.
What that means is get ready for a good ol’ east-west water feud in Kern County as ag districts try to adhere to the state’s new groundwater law meant to stem over-pumping of our aquifers.
Specifically, the issue is “safe basin yield.”
That refers to how much water can be extracted from the basin, by whom and from where considering how much is known to go back into the aquifer through a variety of methods — rain, banking, natural streams, etc.
That is extremely difficult to decide because (first rule of groundwater) not all areas have the same amount nor quality of groundwater.
Kern’s groundwater basin, as determined by the state Department of Water Resources, stretches across the valley floor from the Sierra foothills on the east to the base of the Temblor range on the west.
The land in the center and east parts of the basin has fabulous groundwater. Land in the far west, not.
The haves are getting worried that the groundwater law will give the have-nots a hand in their cookie jar.
“It’s kind of a selfish thing,” acknowledged Dana Munn, general manager of Shafter-Wasco Irrigation District. “But they’re not farming with their own groundwater now. So should they get a portion of the safe basin yield from the usable groundwater basin?”
Munn referred mostly to the Berrenda Mesa, Lost Hills and Belridge water districts.
Those districts are west of Interstate 5 and rely almost entirely on water from the California Aqueduct or other surface supplies, most of which has been stashed in the Kern Water Bank.
What groundwater does exist under those districts is considered too salty for irrigation.
And we’re talking about a lot of acreage, nearly 144,000 acres in Lost Hills, Berrenda Mesa and Belridge combined. The largest landowner is Paramount Farms, or Wonderful, as it’s now known, owned by billionaire Stewart Resnick.
Munn’s concern is that by putting those districts and their crummy groundwater into the overall basin, all that water could be counted into the safe basin yield.
If an extraction number is set allocating, say, two acre feet per year to each landowner in the basin, that could give a lot more water to Resnick and his fellow west side growers. And that could shrink the share for growers whose land actually sits over usable groundwater.
“People seem to think it wouldn’t work out that way,” Munn said. “But no one’s passed a rule against something like that happening, so, yeah, I’m getting pretty defensive about it.”
He’s not the only one.
Mark Mulkay, general manager of Kern Delta Water District, was equally nervous about the possibility of opening up the usable groundwater basin to new pumping from folks to the west.
“My idea is you have to pump where you live,” he said.
That may be an internal rule that Kern’s water districts agree on, but the state doesn’t make a distinction between usable and non-usable groundwater, said Eric Averett, general manager of Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District and director of the Kern Groundwater Authority, which is trying to coordinate groundwater use plans per the new state law.
“We have to account for all the water whether it’s usable or not,” he said. “It all influences water levels in the basin. No one is claiming that (salty) water can be pumped.”
The state agreed that getting antsy over this issue now may be premature as regulations on how to implement the groundwater law aren’t expected out until early next year.
And even then, “It will be up to locals to decide how to manage the basin,” said Tim Goodwin, with the Department of Water Resources. “It could be that some parts of the basin are managed and others are just monitored.”
That didn’t assuage concerns.
In fact, Maurice Etchechury, general manager of Buena Vista Water Storage District, has slowed way down on a project that would have pumped slightly brackish groundwater from a new aquifer discovered in his district to blend with fresh water. He got a $2 million state grant for the project but is worried the groundwater law will count the brackish water “against” the district.
“I have to report and record all extractions (under the new groundwater law),” he explained. “So if pumping the well with 3,000 TDS (total dissolved solids, or excess salt) counts the same as pumping from a well with 800 TDS, which one do you think I’m going to pump?”
He’s trying to get clarity on how the groundwater law may affect that project, but clarity is slow in coming while the grant has a sunset date.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “Just one more of the unintended consequences of that law.”
Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry. Her column runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read archived columns by Lois Henry at Bakersfield.com/henry.
Lois Henry appears on “First Look with Scott Cox” every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM and 96.1 FM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your 2 cents in by calling 842-KERN., email@example.com
MID should account for water and power rates
In explaining why it was necessary to restructure its electricity rates, Modesto Irrigation District told us exactly what percentage of its costs are fixed and what percentage varies with the price of natural gas. That indicates MID knows well – down to the penny, we’re certain – what it costs to create power and deliver it to customers.
Why then can’t MID explain the same for water?
Why won’t MID break down the costs of its two vastly different enterprises? Why can’t MID tell us why it continues to offer farmers water at far below cost?
MID has realized significant savings as the price of natural gas has plummeted; returning some of that to ratepayers is fair. But continuing to subsidize water deliveries through electricity bills is not.
The district claims it can’t separate the costs and benefits of electricity and water; that electricity generated at Don Pedro Dam is inextricably tied to the delivery of irrigation water. That doesn’t account for the value of canals used as city storm drains, operating a drinking water plant and providing other services.
“We operate the entire organization as a single organization,” said one executive. A single organization made up of two very distinct parts.
MID knows exactly what it spends for every service it delivers. It should put a price on each and settle up with ratepayers on both sides of the house.
Credible sources say irrigation water subsidies have amounted to over $100 million through the years. If they’re wrong, MID should show us.
This electricity rate change offered an excellent opportunity. Instead, MID addressed one tiny inequity while leaving intact an enormous – and growing – injustice.
The board voted to increase the fixed-charge fee by 60 percent, and triple the one-time connection fee for solar panels. For justification, it noted that 60 percent of its electricity costs are “fixed.” Other public and investor-owned utilities across the nation are making similar moves. At the same time, MID will allow charges based on use to fall. The net result will be an “average” reduction of roughly $2 – maybe 1 percent.
Those who generate their own power through rooftop solar arrays won’t even see those meager savings. Instead, the fixed-charge increase will send their bills up by 60 percent, as the fixed-charge fee rises from $12.50 a month to $20.
MID can call it a bookkeeping change, but we think it has more to do with the future of rooftop solar. In California, rooftop panels generated 3.2 gigawatts last year; it could be over 4 gigawatts this year.
From Bakersfield to Redding with Modesto smack in the middle, the Central Valley might be the greatest place on earth to tap into that generation. With roughly 1.3 million homes (not counting apartments), there’s almost limitless rooftop potential. A Morgan Stanley “blue paper” described a new generation of batteries due to arrive by 2020 which will store enough charge to power a house through several cloudy days and nights.
We doubt many will unplug entirely, but they’ll be buying far, far fewer MID electrons. From such customers, MID’s only income will be that monthly fixed-charge fee.
MID officials say such considerations never entered their thinking on the new rate structure; that it’s based on what is true today.
At the same time, we understand that MID’s bookkeepers are constantly working the numbers, making projections, hedging costs, squeezing every volt for that last electron. That’s what good bookkeepers do.
Bookkeeping is a wonderful thing. You can use it to explain just about any decision you want to make, just as long as you refuse to explain how you keep the books.
Imperial Valley Press
Second US senate hopeful visits Valley
By Edwin Delgado
Assemblyman for California’s 76th district Rocky Chavez visited Imperial Valley on Monday, With the primary objective of meeting with agricultural leaders and announcing his candidacy for the U.S. Senate.
Chavez, who has been to Imperial County on multiple occasions through the years, visited the Imperial County Farm Bureau during its board meeting to introduce himself to the members that had not met him before.
“He came last year and learned about the agricultural industry. He really wants to know more of the industry and what we’re doing locally,” Imperial County Farm Bureau Executive Director Linsey Dale said.
According to Chavez, he wanted the local leaders to get to know him and his proposals in hopes of getting their support for next year’s Senate race.
“I started looking at this race a couple of years ago and had already met with people before,” Chavez said. “I’m coming back again to re-introduce myself with the Farm Bureau and other local leaders. I want them to know who I am.”
Chavez’s family came from Mexico to California to work in the fields was born in Los Angeles and is currently living in Oceanside. In his capacity as assemblyman, Chavez serves as vice chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee and the Assembly K-12 Education Committee. Chavez is also a member of the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management, STEM, and Veteran’s Affairs.
He was appointed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to be undersecretary of the California Department of Veteran Affairs, soon after became the acting secretary.
Chavez served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 28 years until he retired as a colonel in 2001 and believes his experience has helped him gain knowledge and develop leadership. Due to his different experiences and positions he has held, issues such as veterans’ affairs, education and immigration are crucial for him.
“We have several problems in California as far education, especially in the Latino community, which is why I got involved in education in the beginning,” Chavez said. “The big issue across Imperial Valley and for the agricultural community is water — how we’re going to build a structure together for U.S. senator can get involved.”
Chavez said it was important to him to run for Senate as he believes the two U.S. senators of the state along with the governor are the three most crucial and influential positions to aid the state.
Overall, Chavez hopes that he left a positive impression with the local community as he seeks to get elected next year.
“There are greater days coming with the right leadership and I believe I have that,” Chavez said.
Chavez was the second U.S. Senate candidate to visit the Valley as Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez spoke to community members in Heber on Nov. 12.
Staff Writer Edwin Delgado can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
California pot farmers wrestle with new medical marijuana rules
By Jeremy B. White
An unmistakeable scent, rotten-sweet and earthy, greets visitors to Basil McMahon’s pine and oak sheltered Nevada County farm.
It wafts from cannabis plants growing in a murky legal terrain between acceptance and prohibition.
Over the next few years that will change, as a sweeping new package of laws will reverse years of state silence by regulating and licensing every stage of the medical marijuana industry.
For consumers, the shift will mean more assurance that their medicine won’t be laden with pesticides and other impurities, but likely result in higher prices. For growers, the new regime will recognize cannabis as an agricultural product, conferring legitimacy and imposing new rules on farmers accustomed to tending their plants without a stamp of approval from the state.
“It means I’ll be able to do what I’m doing without fear of persecution for the first in my life, for the first time in generations,” McMahon said as workers trimmed buds from the fall harvest. “That’s exciting, but it also presents a lot of questions and challenges.”
While voters authorized medical marijuana in 1996, until this year the Legislature had failed to create a system for regulating it.
Marijuana farmers for years operated in a space with inconsistently enforced rules and scant oversight, with local officials tasked with monitoring what the state could or would not. Without a permitting process for legitimate operations, raids posed a constant threat. Bad actors could degrade the environment with few consequences. A lack of formal tracking allowed marijuana to flow freely to the black market for recreational, not medical use.
Now, growers will need to obtain cultivation permits and abide by rules for water and pesticide use, with state agencies policing their environmental impact and vetting labs that will test for pesticides and other contaminants. The California Department of Food and Agriculture will track medical pot’s progress with a “seed-to-sale” monitoring system.
“It’s such a paradigm shift in that for the last 30 to 40 years the standard procedure for a marijuana farmer was to throw away and burn all his paperwork,” said Stephen Dillon, executive manager of the Humboldt Sun Growers Guild. “It was considered evidence to be used against you in a court of law.”
Like McMahon, many marijuana farmers speak optimistically about the opportunity to operate free of the need for surreptitiousness and threat of raids.
“It was a low-scale war for a long time, and people are sick of it,” McMahon said. “They would much rather be above board, do things right and not worry about law enforcement.”
But they also warn that if permits are too costly and compliance is too cumbersome, the new regime could backfire and send farmers deeper into the woods.
“If you try to go zero to 100 all at once, you push people further underground,” said Assemblyman James Wood, D-Healdsburg, an architect of the new framework. “They’ll say ‘hey, I never did that before, and I won’t do it now.’”
Not all marijuana farmers have been growing exclusively for medicinal use. It’s common knowledge that weed has far more value on the black market, and the financial motive proves irresistible to some.
“Most cannabis that comes from northern California is sold in the non-legal marketplace,” said Casey O’Neill, a prominent voice for growers who runs HappyDay Farms in Mendocino County. “We know that.”
For the new program to successfully divert cannabis from the black market to regulated dispensaries, farmers say, it will need be worth the time and investment required to abide by the rules and obtain permits.
“If they set up too rigorous of a program then they will not get buy-in, and if they don’t get buy-in nothing has changed,” Dillon said. “We will continue to have one of the largest black market industries in the country.”
Dillon’s Humboldt Sun Growers Guild, which operates in a co-op-like system that pools contributions of individual farmers, has modeled the new reality ahead of schedule, imposing stringent rules on contributing farmers. The cost of compliance means a higher price for their marijuana.
“They’re competing with a thriving black market,” said manager Chrystal Ortiz. “It’s not fair that we have to compete with these people who can buy a bunch of cartel-grown cannabis … and they’re not paying taxes. They’re not paying their employees. They didn’t get their water permitted.”
Competition with black market prices is not the only consideration. Many farmers worry that the new rules will benefit large-scale enterprises that have the resources to comply, pushing out smaller growers in the process.
“Very small local mom-and-pop growers who are naturally environmentally conscious, who never produced big gardens,” have already had to contend with ‘a huge green rush’ that descended, said Robert Sutherland, founder of the Humboldt Mendocino Marijuana Advocacy Project.
Given its precarious legal position, “the sky has always been falling on the cannabis industry,” O’Neill said. But now the fears are different.
“We’re afraid of big business,” he said. “We see these huge capitalist enterprises looking to overtake everything we’ve been working at this whole time, to gobble up our way of life and turn it into something to make money.”
Staying afloat could come down to quality. Stricter testing and labeling standards mean cannabis consumers will get more information about what they’re purchasing.
“One of the things we hope to see is the value travel back up the supply chain,” said Emerald Growers Association executive director Hezekiah Allen. “If you’re producing a good, organic clean product today it doesn’t matter, because it disappears into the void that is the unregulated marketplace.”
The state of weed sent to dispensaries and manufacturers can vary widely. One cannabis oil maker described rejecting weed that stank of rotten egg because of the spray it was treated with. The new system will bar that kind of tainted herb.
“You can’t get away with it anymore. Organic certified pesticides are showing up, bad pesticides are showing up,” Ortiz said. “I’m having to deny cannabis left and right.”
Then there’s the matter of marketing. The Humboldt Sun Growers Guild already has a product name, True Humboldt, with a slogan (”Since the beginning”) and a sleek website trumpeting its virtues.
“We believe the Humboldt name and history is a big brand,” Dillon said.
The hope is that highlighting the origins, akin to Napa County wines or microbrews, will boost the value of the product and help smaller farmers compete with larger operations.
“Do Doritos sell more than Kettle Chips?” Ortiz mused. “I do think it will demand a premium price, and as soon as it’s mandated for the dispensaries, we’ll be good.”
Recognized brand or no, growers will need to navigate a new distribution system with new gatekeepers.
The laws prohibit growers from getting licenses to transport their product and distribute it to dispensaries. The multi-tiered system is intended to prevent large monopolies and to impose another layer of accountability, tasking the distributor middlemen with ensuring the product stays in legitimate channels.
Some growers believe it will give them a reliable pathway to market. The current system, Allen said, “is very disorganized, very decentralized and totally inefficient.”
“I don’t want to drive all over the state delivering medicine,” Allen said. “I want to farm.”
Others worry about ceding too much control to distributors, which could dissolve the relationships they’ve already built with dispensaries and let larger growers occupy more shelf space.
“It doesn’t matter if you have a 15-year relationship with a dispensary where your cannabis has been going, you now have to give that to a distributor,” Ortiz said, but handing oversight to distributors could mean of “small-batch, craft cannabis” could “go in a catalog with all the other ones and just become a number.”
There are other consequences to legitimization. Growers will be eligible for an array of state tax breaks for business expenses like equipment purchases, just as other farmers are, though federal tax relief will still be out of reach.
Anyone who obtains a license would be deemed an “agricultural employer,” meaning their workers would be covered by the state’s farm labor laws. They could organize or submit claims to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board.
“The UFW is definitely going to look at organizing marijuana workers,” said United Farm Workers spokesman Marc Grossman. “If marijuana is going to be regulated as a legitimate agricultural product then they would be agricultural workers just like wine grape or tomato workers.”
And a crop often seen as a menace will join grapes, rice and strawberries in the pantheon of legitimate California crops. Chrystal has already met with the Humboldt County agricultural commissioner, the type of contact she said would have been impossible before.
“Some folks involved in other kinds of agriculture aren’t particularly thrilled this is going to be considered an agriculture product,” said Wood. “Certainly in my district there are folks who cultivate cannabis and want to join the farm bureau at some point. They might ruffle some feathers.”
Such legitimacy gives growers hope that they can step into the mainstream and thrive. But they also worry about what could be lost.
“I look forward to being able to continue to grow more or less on this scope,” McMahon said. “I don’t look forward to a future where the economy is built around growing this plant the way almonds are grown.”
Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert, email@example.com