Ag Today Friday, April 1, 2016

Ag Today

Friday, April 1, 2016


Sacramento Bee

California lawmakers send Jerry Brown historic $15 minimum wage

By Jeremy B. White and Taryn Luna

California lawmakers moved swiftly Thursday to ratify a deal boosting the state minimum wage to $15, sending legislation to Gov. Jerry Brown just days after the governor announced a deal with labor leaders.

With his planned signature in Los Angeles on Monday, Brown will avert a costly ballot fight, give California the nation’s highest wage and make it the first state to vindicate organized labor’s national “Fight for 15” rallying cry. Labor officials were triumphant.

“The credit for making history today belongs to the workers who spoke out and risked it all, the labor unions and community organizations who supported them, and elected leaders here in California who listened,” Service Employees International Union Local 2015 president Laphonza Butler, who had vowed to pull back an SEIU-backed minimum wage ballot initiative if the bill passes, said in a statement. “As a result, millions of Californians are on the path out of poverty.”

Wage hikes would occur annually, beginning with a boost to $10.50 in 2017 for businesses with 26 or more employees, $11 in 2018 and another dollar each year thereafter.

After the wage hits $15 it could continue to rise with inflation. Smaller businesses would have an additional year to implement each annual bump. The bill would also provide in-home health aides three annual sick days. According to the Department of Finance, a $15 wage would cost California about $4 billion a year.

Brown had warned a $15-an-hour wage must be done carefully, noting costs to employers and the state. But with a measure heading for the November ballot, he negotiated with unions and other advocates to include provisions that allow governors to postpone an increase if the economy falters.

Those provisions would allow governors to suspend annual wage increases short of $15 if officials project that the state’s budget reserves will be in the red, or if employment and sales tax revenue decline.

Governors would need to decide each September whether to suspend increases coming the following January.

In the first significant test for new Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, Senate Bill 3 passed the Assembly floor on a 48-26 mostly party-line vote Thursday. Two Democrats voted no – Assemblymen Adam Gray of Merced and Tom Daly of Anaheim – and Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, withheld his vote.

The Senate approved the measure 26-12, following a similar pattern: Not a single Republican supported the bill in either house. Onlookers in the gallery erupted in cheers and shouts of “Si Se Puede!” after both votes, highlighting the vote falling on Cesar Chavez Day.

Democratic backers called the bill a lifeline to workers struggling to survive on the current $10-an-hour minimum wage. It drew support in the Assembly from both liberals and business-friendly moderate Democrats.

“Stagnant wages have hindered economic growth and relegated too many Californians to a life of poverty, especially in the Inland Empire,” said Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, D-San Bernardino, a moderate facing an election challenge from the left.

At times shaking their heads and scoffing at the comments in opposition, Senate Democrats repeated that an increase of the minimum wage will make life easier for the state’s lowest income families and lift them out of poverty.

“There are people out there working 40 hours a week, doing back-breaking work, and still not earning enough to support their families,” said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara.

Republicans argued the bill would backfire, hurting the people it is intended to help by leading employers to cut entry-level jobs and raise prices. They warned an inflated cost of living would impoverish senior citizens living on fixed incomes.

“Income inequality is the definitive challenge of our generation,” said Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, R-Big Bear Lake, but “low wages are a symptom of income inequality. They are not the root cause.” A $15 minimum wage, he said, would “unintentionally make the problem much, much worse.”

Those arguments amplified criticism from business groups who have assailed the $15 rate. They call it an untested overreach that will worsen a business climate already burdened by heavy regulation and a recently implemented $10 wage that is among the country’s highest. California Chamber of Commerce president Allan Zaremberg called it “too much, too fast” in a statement.

“Once taxpayers wake up and see newspaper headlines tomorrow morning, business owners are going to think it’s an April Fools joke,” said Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa.

Assemblyman David Hadley, R-Manhattan Beach, said it would inflict pain on economically beleaguered areas of California, criticizing lawmakers “who live in high-wage, affluent parts of coastal California, who are prepared to throw an entire region of this state under the bus.” He accused supporters of rushing needlessly.

“We went from a backroom deal on Sunday to a vote on the floor of this chamber on Thursday,” Hadley said. “For those of us who do not get back to our districts during the week,” he added, “this bill will have gone from a news article, a backroom deal, to passed through the Legislature without my having spent face-to-face time with a single one of my constituents. And I wonder if perhaps that was not the point of this whole exercise.”

Countering that point, Democratic backers argued policymakers have had years to mull a higher wage amid a concerted campaign to raise it.

“If you haven’t been talking about the minimum wage in your district,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, “then you probably haven’t been talking.”

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert Jim Miller of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.



Associated Press

Feds to announce water allotment for some California farms

FRESNO, Calif. – Federal officials will say how much water some California farmers can expect to receive this year in one of the nation’s most productive agricultural regions.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s announcement on Friday affects San Joaquin Valley farmers, spanning California’s interior from Stockton to Bakersfield. It is home to about one-third of California’s farmland.

Because of drought, many of the farms in the last two years received no water from a vast system of reservoirs and canals.

Farmers say they fear another tough year, despite the El Nino weather system causing Northern California reservoirs to spill over.

Farmers have been forced to buy expensive water, rely heavily on groundwater or fallow fields.

State officials, who run an interrelated system, have said they’ll provide 45 percent of the water their customers requested.



Salinas Californian

County gets $250K groundwater sustainability grant

By David Castellon

A $250,000 state grant will allow Monterey County to expand its work to develop a model on ground water levels and movement in the Valley.

The county is among among 21 in California that will split $6.68 million from Proposition 1 bond money to help plan sustainable groundwater strategies.

Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties were among those chosen to receive the grants ranging from about $249,000 to $500,000 for Central Valley counties, the driest part of the state.

Monterey County officials began work on the Salinas Valley Groundwater Basin Assessment and Modeling plan back in 2014, with the development of a “snapshot” of the groundwater situation here, including assessments on storage capacity and how deeply seawater has intruded inland into the aquifers, said Carl Holm, director of the Monterey County Resource Management Agency.

That same year, California enacted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in response to the state’s severe drought — now in its fifth year. The law requires the creation of groundwater sustainability agencies across the state to assess conditions in their local water basins and come up with management plans within 20 years to ensure those water sources can be sustained.

“When the state created the Groundwater Sustainability Act, they had identified the Salinas Valley as one of the aquifers of interest for them,” primarily because the region’s primary industry, agriculture — which generates about $8 billion in direct sales and related commerce — is heavily dependent on water, Holm said.

“So, obviously, it’s important to manage the groundwater,” also the primary source of water for homes and businesses here, he said.

“The point is to bring the basin into balance, to restrict the seawater intrusion and to have a sustainable water supply for the uses in the Valley,” Holm said.

To that end, the five-year study was launched, with the second part involving a hydrological model of the county that will include monitoring well levels and creating a digital system in which projects requiring water — new homes, business developments, etc. — can be “plugged in” to show their effects on water levels in the aquifers, he explained.

Monterey County has committed $750,000 from the General Fund — the county’s main pot of money — to pay for the project, and has spent more than $350,000 so far.

The $250,000 grant was announced earlier this week by the California Department of Water Resources. The funds are coming as part of Prop. 1, which California voters passed in 2014 authorizing the sale of $7.12 billion in general obligation bonds to pay for projects to improve the state water supply through infrastructure projects, water treatment technology, improved conveyance systems and improved water management, to name a few.

“The awards were made to counties with high and medium priority groundwater basins, some of which are in critical overdraft,” stated a DWR news release.

“This funding will help counties address long-term planning goals, better understand what’s coming in and going out of their aquifers, and get the much-needed jump start on addressing the new regulations,” Laura McLean, senior engineering geologist with DWR’s Sustainable Groundwater Planning Grant Program, said in a written statement.

Monterey County has yet to establish a groundwater sustainability agency, and Holm said it wasn’t clear if one or more agency is likely to be formed here.

But the data from the assessment and modeling program will be valuable in developing a sustainability plan, and with the extra funding from DWR, the total cost of the expanded research and development could end up costing more than $1 million, he added.

And the county will look at other possible funding sources to help pay for the work and offset the county’s costs, Holm said.

“More funding will certainly become available to help groundwater sustainability agencies moving forward,” the DWR release continues. “We aim to complement the timeline requirements of the law as we continue to streamline our grant processes to get the money out as quickly as possible.”



Oroville Mercury Register

No miracle, but March was good for the water supply

March might not have been a miracle when it came to rainfall in Northern California, but it was pretty marvelous.

Local rainfall totals in March ranged from 150-200 percent of average for the month. The snowpack in the northern mountains climbed from 90 percent of average on Feb. 29 to 97 percent of average by the end of March. And most dramatically, north state reservoirs filled to the point water had to be dumped to free up space for flood control.

Chico saw 8.33 inches of rain during March at the Enterprise-Record’s weather station in south Chico. Average for the month is 4.33 inches. Oroville’s rain was measured by the National Weather Service at 6.84 inches, with 4.47 inches average for March. In Paradise, 14.87 inches of rain fell, with the March average being 8.24 inches.

The totals are short of the “March Miracle” of 1991, when storm after storm erased a multi-year drought in a single month. In Chico, 11.79 inches of rain fell that March.

No one’s saying this March has ended the current five-year drought, but Lake Oroville and Shasta Lake each have a million acre-feet more water than they did at the end of February.

Lake Oroville currently holds 3.05 million acre-feet, 86 percent of capacity and 113 percent of what’s average for the end of March. It held just 1.86 million acre-feet when the month began. The water level then was more than 131 feet below the 900-foot elevation that is considered full. It has risen almost exactly 100 feet during the month, and is now about 32 feet from being full.

Shasta Lake has topped 4 million acre-feet in storage, up from 2.77 million acre-feet at the start of the month. It’s at 88 percent of capacity.

Both the big lakes made huge dumps of water during March to open room for possible flood waters. The spillway at Oroville Dam opened March 24 and releases into the Feather River ramped up to 6,000 cubic feet per second. Releases from Shasta and Keswick dams into the Sacramento River peaked at 20,000 cfs on March 18.

With April 1, the protocols about how much space has to be kept open in the reservoirs change, and they can be allowed to fill a bit more. Releases have already been scaled back, with Oroville down to 2,500 cfs Thursday. The Department of Water Resources plans to continue reducing that in steps down to 1,050 by April 7. The Shasta/Keswick releases are down to 3,000 cfs.

Whether the lakes will fill is an open question, but the snowpack in DWR’s Northern Sierra/Trinity Region is at 97 percent of normal, holding the equivalent of 28 inches of rain.



Los Angeles Times

UC Irvine’s leafy campus is now one big laboratory to fight tree-killing beetle

By Amina Khan

When the first few sycamores began dying in UC Irvine’s Aldrich Park in late 2014, the victims numbered in the dozens. But over the next several months, hundreds of cottonwoods, native willows, goldenrain and coral trees met the same fate.

“We’ve seen infestations of pests, but nothing to this extent,” said Richard Demerjian, director of UCI’s Office of Environmental Planning and Sustainability. “It came as quite a shock.”

It was the work of the polyphagous shot hole borer, an invasive beetle that’s been attacking and killing an astonishing range of trees throughout Southern California.

Plant pathologists are overmatched. The beetle isn’t native to the area and has no natural predators here. When it strikes, the only thing to do is to try and contain it before it spreads. As the beetle has spread farther into five counties, even that has seemed like a losing strategy.

But the UC Irvine outbreak presented scientists with an opportunity to change that — by turning the leafy grounds into a giant outdoor research lab.

“The beauty of UCI is that it’s a university, and they’re used to researchers,” said John Kabashima, an environmental horticulture advisor and entomologist with the UC Cooperative Extension who is involved in the effort.

Dozens of trees around the campus now bear white tags that say, “This tree is part of a joint UC research project. Please do not touch or climb on the tree.”

One of the scientists running this giant experiment is Akif Eskalen, the plant pathologist who first identified the sesame seed-sized beetle in a South Gate avocado tree in 2012. He’s been studying infested plants about 45 miles away at UC Riverside.

At UC Irvine, with so much devastation concentrated in one place, the conditions are practically tailor-made for a controlled study to test different chemical and biological treatments using the same kind of trees growing under the same environmental conditions. With any luck, the results will help Eskalen hone his response to the wily pest.

The beetles burrow tunnels into trees, ejecting a sawdust-like frass behind them. They use the empty space to farm several species of fungus, which they eat and feed to their young. But the fungus also spreads through the tree’s system, ultimately killing it.

A quick inspection is enough to make the scientists feel like underdogs. Eskalen pulled out a pocketknife and scraped the bark off several trees, revealing bore holes beneath.

The university has identified 2,000 infested trees, many of which will have to be cut down. Many now resemble amputees, their main branches or entire tops lopped off. Some 400 hardwoods on campus were so badly mauled that officials have already removed them.

Nearly every sycamore in sight bears some kind of wound, and the damage is more than cosmetic. Heavy branches, structurally weakened by the relentless attack, pose a threat to public safety if they fall.

After trees die, their wood can become a hazard as it’s hauled away, giving the beetles a free ride to new territory.

There’s an economic risk too, since the beetles have a taste for avocado trees. It’s also not clear what will happen if — or when — the beetle moves into the Central Valley, California’s agricultural heartland.

At UCI, Eskalen selected 130 sycamores for his experiment and divided them into 13 groups of 10. Four of the groups were treated with different insecticides; three were treated with different fungicides; and four others got one of each.

Another group was given a beneficial bacteria found in some California trees that’s thought to kill the fungus.

The final group served as a control and received no treatment at all.

To keep track of how well each intervention works, researchers are counting the holes the beetles leave in each tree. Each dot is a literal data point.

These pinpoint wounds are marked with a different color of paint every month, to help the scientists see how many holes are freshly drilled. Any unmarked holes are a sign that the beetles are still drilling.

The scientists are allowed to cut down and section the trees, sample them, and even leave some infested trees alone. Having this flexibility is essential to understanding the success — or failure — of a given pesticide, Kabashima said: “That’s why we’re learning so much here at UCI.”

Like lots of high-level research, there’s quite a bit of grunt work. On a recent sunny day, Eskalen checked in on Joey Mayorquin and Beth Peacock as they painted blue dots on the paper-thin bark of a sycamore in Aldrich Park. Nearby trees are speckled with orange, white and green — flecked with so many colors that they bear a vague resemblance to a Georges Seurat painting.

Mayorquin, a UC Riverside graduate student, knelt at the tree’s base while Peacock, a UCR research assistant, used a stepladder to reach higher. Both daubed blue dots next to each new hole and used clickers to keep count of them.

“It is very time-consuming,” Mayorquin said. “We actually made good time last week when we were here; we were able to get through 40 trees in about a full day.”

Soon after he started the experiment, Eskalen began to worry that his dot-painting procedure wouldn’t tell him which holes were empty and which ones were occupied. After a sleepless night, he finally came up with an additional strategy.

To see which holes were in active use by beetles, the researchers painted white rectangles that were about the size of a sheet of printer paper on the bark. Some paints were too thick; others left the wood discolored. After several tests, he settled on a water-based latex paint that would not interfere with the beetles’ drilling and would wear off without hurting the tree. Eskalen knew that the mother beetles guarding their young inside couldn’t stand to have their only means of entry and exit clogged up. And indeed, they burrowed out of the holes that had been covered with paint — revealing those holes that were still in use.

“That’s why it’s very important for us to study the biology of the enemy,” he said.

Eskalen checked one of the painted white patches. He points to numbers scribbled on the bark from early in the experiment. On Oct. 23, he’d counted 25 new holes. On Oct. 27, only 20 were active.

The researchers also used 3D-printed traps designed by UC Riverside entomologist Richard Stouthamer and colleagues to catch beetles that come out of their holes. The researchers don’t even need beetles to fall into the traps; if they catch any frass the team will know the hole is active.

The team has been monitoring these trees since June; this June they will gather all the data and analyze their results, and continue monitoring for a few more years. Eskalen hopes they will lead him to a chemical or microbial weapon that could help beat back the infestation.

The scientists expect that any ammunition they find here will also help them fight an invasion by the Kuroshio shot hole borer, a closely related species of beetle with its own fungi that has opened up a second front in San Diego County and established a foothold in Orange County.

On the highly monitored and manicured campus, UC Irvine’s trees are relatively lucky; in wilder areas the beetle has gone unchecked, ravaging natural habitats. A four-mile-wide willow forest in the Tijuana River Valley now has 140,000 severely damaged trees, according to John Boland, an ecologist who has been studying the area for more than 14 years.

Despite all this effort, Eskalen doesn’t believe pesticides are a long-term solution — they’re expensive and require repeated applications, and may not be allowed on crops or in many of the wild, thickly wooded areas under attack.

Ultimately, he said, the only way to defeat the bugs is to identify and deploy another creature that naturally preys on the beetle or its fungi.

Although the beetle infests trees in many parts of Southeast Asia, it does not run rampant there the way it has in Southern California. Eskalen and Stouthamer suspect it has predators there that keep it in check naturally, and they’ve gone to Vietnam and Taiwan to search for them.

Finding them would just be the first step. Before they could bring them to California, they’d have to study them there to ensure they don’t attack California’s beneficial native insects.

In the short term, the best-case scenario for UCI is to manage the pest without allowing it to spread. With some 30,000 trees remaining on campus, Demerjian is prepared for a lengthy fight.

“This is going to be a pest that we’re going to have to deal with for many years,” he said. | Twitter: @aminawrite



Los Angeles Times

Fungus that has killed roughly 7 million bats has now reached the West Coast

By Louis Sahagun

Federal biologists on Thursday confirmed the presence of a lethal fungus known as white-nose syndrome in Washington, the first occurrence in western North America of the disease that has killed roughly 7 million bats.

The discovery of white-nose syndrome in a little brown bat in North Bend, Wash., about 30 miles east of Seattle, is a setback for cooperative conservation measures, such as restricting human access to bat roosting sites, to slow the spread of the epidemic that was first documented in 2007 in New York.

Since then, the disease that gets its name from the powdery, white substance that appears around muzzles, ears and wings of affected bats has swept across 28 states and five Canadian provinces.

“We are extremely concerned about the confirmation of white-nose syndrome in Washington state — about 1,300 miles from the previous westernmost detection of the fungus that causes the disease,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said.

“Bats are a crucial part of our ecology and provide essential pest control for our farmers, foresters and city residents,” he said, “so it is important we stay focused on stopping the spread of this fungus.”

Bats feast on such night-flying insects as mosquitoes, which transmit West Nile virus, and agricultural pests damaging to cotton and corn crops. They also pollinate plants, including the saguaro cactus.

The current value of pest control provided by bats each year is at least $3.7 billion nationwide.

White-nose syndrome has killed mostly little brown bats, which have lost more than 20% of their population in the northeastern U.S. over the past nine years. Mortality rates among colonies of some species in eastern states, such as northern long-eared bats, have reached 99%.

There was no reason to believe that the disease wouldn’t eventually make its way to the West Coast. However, biologists did not expect it to spread across geographic barriers such as the Rocky Mountains so quickly.

“We had hoped that the disease would stay out of the West long enough to get promising potential treatments up and running,” Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said. “Now, it looks like it’s here to stay.”

Follow me on Twitter @LouisSahagun and “like” Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.