Friday, December 4, 2015
California farmers now see drought as rule, not exception
By Robert Rodriguez
FRESNO, CALIFORNIA – Farmers are no strangers to struggle or drought. But this four-year drought is different than others, they say. It’s more widespread, touching nearly everyone who turns on the tap or starts an irrigation pump.
This past summer, wells dried up and farmland sat idle. The drought also came to mean that life on the farm has likely changed forever.
“In the early years when we went through a drought, we tended to say that this too shall pass,” said Richard Waycott, president of the Almond Board of California in Modesto. “But there is a different consciousness now. People are looking at the future very differently.”
California farmers talk of a new reality – one in which droughts are more of the rule than the exception, and water availability, both above and below ground, becomes less certain.
Third-generation Fresno County farmer George Goshgarian smiles when he thinks about what his grandfather would say about all the gadgets now on the farm: soil moisture sensors, miles of drip irrigation hose, a weather station and a device that measures the uptake of water in an almond tree.
Goshgarian isn’t entirely sure if any of this technology will ultimately help keep him in business. But he needs to try.
“This won’t be the last drought we will have,” he said.
Goshgarian is also taking part in a groundwater recharge project involving the Almond Board of California, University of California scientists and a San Francisco-based group called Sustainable Conservation. Goshgarian is one of several farmers in the San Joaquin Valley whose lands are being used as test sites. Other trials will be done in pistachio orchards and alfalfa fields. Researchers say recharge could reduce overdrafting – when more water gets pumped from an underground basin than gets replenished – by 12 percent to 20 percent.
This winter, if El Niño delivers as expected, water from the Kings River will be applied on Goshgarian’s 62-acre block of almonds to see how well it recharges the aquifer below. Scientists have identified specific areas in the state that could lend themselves to groundwater recharge.
After four dry winters, Fresno and California’s San Joaquin Valley could see above-average rain and snowfall this winter from an El Niño ocean pattern in the eastern Pacific Ocean. But while chances for a wet winter are increased, meteorologists stress that there’s no guarantee; it will take more than one good year to make up for the effects of the region’s severe drought.
University of California, Davis, soil scientist Toby O’Geen said researchers looked at the type of soil in the area – the more porous the better – and what crop is being grown. What scientists want to find out is if standing water in an orchard or field will damage a plant or tree’s root system.
Goshgarian realizes there is a risk to his orchard, but that’s what farming is about, he says.
“We are in a different paradigm now,” Goshgarian said. “There is a real fear out there about how much water we may have to farm. And that’s why we are doing everything we can think of to keep going.”
Don Cameron, a Fresno County grower who has been working on groundwater recharge for nearly two decades, said one of his vineyards was in standing water for nearly two months in 2011, with no ill effects.
“We have proven we can do it,” he said. “We just need to convince other growers to apply water during wintertime and flood periods. The fact is, we can’t continue to pump and not replace the groundwater.”
The 2015 drought also delivered a gut check for farmers, who long assumed that California consumers were on their side in the fight for water.
During the 2009 drought, when farmers shouldered the brunt of that drought, the public wasn’t asked to reduce water usage. The situation is more dire now. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency that included a requirement for urban residents to reduce their consumption by 25 percent.
People ripped out lawns, trees died and most homeowners conserved as much water as they could. For the most part, people complied. Then came media reports taking farmers to task for how much water it takes to grow certain crops. The public fumed and almond growers, in particular, were roasted for farming one of the most water-intensive crops.
“Farmers thought that because people ate what they grow, that they understood and supported them,” said Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director of the California Water Alliance in Hanford. “But that wasn’t the case at all.”
Farmers admit feeling blindsided by the reaction. Grassroots organizations defending farmers began to sprout, including My Job Depends on Ag, FarmFacts.org and the California Water for Food and People Movement.
Kristi Diener of Clovis, the wife of a farmer, helped launch the food and people group out of frustration over the public’s perception of farmers as water hogs. Her goals are to educate the public about why water is vital to agriculture and to push for changes in water policy. Her group supports the effort to build more dams and reservoirs, including the proposed Temperance Flat Dam, near Auberry in the foothills of eastern Fresno County.
“It seems like a lot of people have been in this water battle for a long time, but you go and march, or hold a rally, and then the rains come and everyone goes about their business,” Diener said. “I felt it was time to stand up and do something because things are not going back to the way they used to be.”
Land goes unplanted
No one understands that more than Cannon Michael, president of Bowles Farming Co., a diversified, 10,500-acre family farm in Los Banos.
Michael fallowed about 2,300 acres, or roughly one-quarter of Bowles’ total acreage, because of a lack of water. The land could have produced alfalfa, tomatoes or melons. On its existing acreage of processing tomatoes, melons, corn and cotton, the farm spent nearly $2 million on a solar installation to reduce the rising cost of operating its electricity-powered irrigation system.
“Any capital expense is going to cut into your profitability, but if we don’t do it, we are risking not being here in the future,” Michael said.
No farm has been immune from the drought’s reach. Small farmers have suffered, too. The Masumotos in Del Rey, growers of organic tree fruit including the famed Sun Crest peach, fallowed about 20 percent of their farm. It was the first time in nearly 70 years that the farm was unable to get water to all of its tree fruit and grape acres.
“My dad would have had a hard time seeing that land fallowed,” said David Mas Masumoto. “We always planted every acre. But this time, we had no choice.”
This year, the Masumotos became students again, learning new things about their water table, how deep it was and where it was under their trees and vines.
Masumoto’s daughter Nikiko also began experimenting with drought-tolerant crops. She planted several olive trees, a fig tree and lentil plants, and is looking into several plants native to South Africa.
“I want to develop as vast a tool chest as I can, assuming that drought will be part of my life,” she said. “I have to accept that and respond.”
The Masumotos have even talked about more dire possibilities, such as how much water it will take just to keep things alive. Nikiko says that in a strange way she feels gratified that this is happening early in her farming career. She is developing the skills and knowledge to farm in this new reality.
She worries that there may still be some who haven’t accepted that California agriculture is changing.
“The global population will be 9 billion in 2050, and California is an essential part of the food system,” she said. “So if we haven’t learned any lessons from this drought, we are going to be in big trouble.”
Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob, firstname.lastname@example.org
Don’t expect a brawny El Niño to bust California’s historic drought
By Tim Sheehan
FRESNO, CALIF. – Scientists say a vast swath of warmer-than-normal water known as El Niño circulating in the eastern Pacific Ocean is poised to be one of the strongest of the past seven decades. It has the potential to play a key role in the formation of storms that could bring much-needed rain and snow to California and at least ease the effects of the state’s severe four-year drought.
But there’s that one word – “potential” – that commands attention for the state’s residents, farmers and water regulators, according to weather experts. They add that it will take more than one good winter for the region to escape the grasp of a sustained drought.
“A strong El Niño refers to how much warmer than average the equatorial Pacific Ocean is,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center in Maryland. “The one we’re seeing now is currently strong. … It’s among the top two or three events we’ve seen going back to 1950.”
The warmest versions of El Niño to develop in the past seven decades occurred in 1997-98 and in 1982-83.
“In both of those events, California saw a lot of rain and snow,” Halpert said. “The hope is that this one delivers a similar type of pattern.”
Even with an El Niño that last month had sea surface temperatures warmer than normal and on the rise, there’s no such thing as “a sure thing” that California will get above-normal rain and snow this winter and spring.
“The conditions are what we’d call ‘favored,’ but you can’t guarantee anything about climate. There are an awful lot of things that go on in climate,” Halpert said. “A strong El Niño shifts the odds in our favor. But even if you go to Las Vegas and play craps with your own loaded dice, you’re not going to roll a seven every time.”
Forecasters anticipate that this El Niño will bring a wet year for California, “especially in Southern California, but that’s not necessarily where we want it to be,” Halpert said, noting that most of the state’s water storage falls as mountain snow in Northern California.
“You can get too much, too fast sometimes, and that creates flooding and mudslides. And you got a taste of that recently,” he added, referring to October mudslides that trapped trucks and cars on Interstate 5 over Tejon Pass south of Bakersfield and on Highway 58 over the Tehachapi Pass between Bakersfield and Mojave.
History shows that El Niño tends to be about an even-money proposition when it comes to dropping substantially more rain and snow on the Central Valley and the central Sierra Nevada. Both of the previous “very strong” El Niño events, in 1982-83 and 1997-98, packed a wet punch across the entire state. But other El Niño events have been duds.
“There have been prior strong El Niño events that did not bring the Valley above-average precipitation,” said Brian Ochs, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Hanford. “Back in around 1965-66 (considered a strong El Niño), Fresno got below-average rainfall and there was snowpack in the Sierra that was average to below average.”
Since 1950, El Niño patterns have occurred 24 times. In 12 of those years, annual rainfall in Fresno has been below the 30-year norm of 11.5 inches. In the other 12, Fresno saw more rainfall than the long-term average. And in the Sierra, at Kaiser Pass in eastern Fresno County, the precious water content of the benchmark April 1 snowpack was actually below normal in 13 of the 24 El Niño years, and above normal 11 times.
That historical context is important for people to remember this year. But forecasters are getting more comfortable with the odds of more rain and snow this winter as the equatorial Pacific keeps warming up.
“A 50 percent chance of above-average rainfall around here is usually pretty confident,” Ochs said. “We’re pretty confident that we’ll see more precipitation than recent seasons, especially the past four years.”
What the future holds
Kevin Werner, a Seattle-based Western region climate services director for the National Centers for Environmental Information, said history can be instructive for people’s expectations for winter weather, with or without an El Niño.
“Historically, we characterize the climate in the Southwest and California as long periods of dry punctuated by much shorter periods of wet, and sometimes extreme wet,” Werner said. “Regardless of El Niño or climate change or anything else, that climate tends to be one that’s highly variable and tends to see a lot of dry days, dry months or even dry years. That’s the normal.”
“There are many other four- or five-year droughts in the paleo-climate data that go back to 1000 AD,” he added.
A scientific evaluation of tree rings, produced last year for the state Department of Water Resources, reinforces that historic climatic perspective. The width of trees’ annual growth rings tends to correspond to wet and dry years as indicated by river flows.
In the San Joaquin River watershed, an analysis of tree rings indicates that over the past 1,100 years, the region has endured 35 sustained droughts of at least four years in length before the current drought began. Five of those periods have occurred since 1900. The average length of those extended droughts was more than six years, and the two longest drought periods reflected in tree rings were 12 years, from 1450 through 1461, and 13 years, from 1471 through 1483.
Weather experts say that even a gully washer of a winter cannot fully heal California’s drought wounds. That’s because breaking a drought of this magnitude requires more than just rain falling by the bucket-load and snow burying the mountains.
“It’s possible in one year do a pretty good job of filling your reservoirs,” said Halpert. “But when you look at drought, you’re looking at time scales of short-term drought and long-term drought. … A long-term drought goes more into the groundwater. Over the last few years, your area has survived by draining the groundwater – and that’s not going to recharge in one year.”
The underground water table takes years to recharge, “and it doesn’t take nearly as long to drain it,” Halpert added. “That’s a challenge that folks in California are going to be dealing with for a long time.”
Inches of rainfall in Fresno in 1982-83, a very strong El Niño year
Inches of rainfall in Fresno in 1997-98, a very strong El Niño year
Inches of rainfall in Fresno in 2015-16, expected to be a very strong El Niño year
Tim Sheehan: 559-441-6319, @TimSheehanNews
Los Angeles Times
Pesticides as bad for kids’ lungs as cigarette smoke, study says
By Geoffrey Mohan
Chronic exposure to pesticides can damage children’s lung function by about as much as secondhand cigarette smoke does, according to a study of farmworker children in the Salinas Valley.
The long-term study of 279 children from farmworker families is the first to suggest that even being one step removed from pesticides can bring harm to children’s lungs. Previous studies examined effects on adults who spray the chemicals or work in fields where the pesticides are applied.
“This is really the first time that it’s a residential population, and a residential population of children,” said study coauthor Brenda Eskenazi, an epidemiologist at UC Berkeley.
The children have been followed since birth as part of a broader study that began about 15 years ago with 601 pregnant women in the Salinas Valley, conducted by the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas, CHAMACOS.
Previous studies from that group have turned up correlations between organophosphate exposure to pregnant women and shorter-duration pregnancies, diminished reflexes in their babies, and lower cognitive function in older children.
In the current study, published online Thursday in the journal Thorax, pregnant women were tested for chemicals in their urine that come from metabolizing organophosphates. Their children were tested at five intervals, from six months of age to five years, then were given a series of exhalation-measuring tests at age seven.
The researchers found a significant correlation between lower exhalation rates — roughly equivalent to about 8% less air — and higher levels of organophosphate metabolites. The decrease in lung function was similar to the declines chronicled in a well-known study of prolonged exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke, conducted in 1983.
No correlation was found between prenatal exposure and the diminished lung capacity.
Half of the women in the study had worked in agricultural fields, while about 84% of the families included at least one adult agricultural worker, Eskenazi said.
How the children may have been exposed is unclear. “It’s likely that some of the exposure is coming through the air, and a lot of the exposure is coming from food or other hand-to-mouth behavior, through ingestion,” Eskenazi said.
Researchers controlled for factors such as asthma incidence, smoking, exposure to particulate matter and a variety of demographic indicators.
“Of course, one study doesn’t ever say everything,” Eskenazi said. “You always have to confirm it with other studies.”
Organophosphates are a class of chemicals found in about three dozen pesticides registered for agricultural use in the U.S., according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which has banned them from home products. Several formerly approved chemicals, including chlorpyrifos, later were banned from food crops after concerns were raised about nerve damage to humans.
The agency is reviewing its registration of the chemicals, and in September issued a draft reassessment of risks the pesticides pose to humans.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, an industry advocacy group, supports continued use of organophosphates, including chlorpyrifos, as a crucial tool in managing dozens of food and fiber crops.
Charlotte Fadipe, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, said agency scientists would review the new study, but would not publicly comment on it.
Follow me on Twitter: @LATgeoffmohan
Appeals court throws out pesticide program
By Chelcey Adami
An appeals court has thrown out California’s light brown apple moth pesticide program aerially sprayed in Monterey County on the grounds that it violates state environmental laws, according to an environmental advocacy group.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture’s statewide pesticide campaign for the light brown apple moth included plans to aerially spray the San Francisco Bay Area for seven years. The program began by spraying in populated areas of Monterey and Santa Cruz counties in 2007 and resulted in hundreds of complaints of harm to human health and wildlife, according to EarthJustice.
The ruling by the Third District Court of Appeals was based on the state’s shift in the program’s goal from “eradication” to ongoing “control” of the apple moth without analyzing health and environmental impacts of an indefinite control program.
“This ruling vindicates our claim that a state agency cannot engage in bait and switch, presenting one program to the public but approving a significantly different program after the public review period ends. The court’s decision affirms the California Environmental Quality Act’s fundamental requirements for informing the public and decision makers,” said Summer Wynn of Cooley LLP, the petitioners’ attorney, in a prepared statement.
The department also failed to study feasible alternatives to its pesticide-based strategy, the court concluded.
The program cost $6 million in federal funds over two years and targets an insect that has done no documented damage to crops or wild plants in California, according to EarthJustice.
“This case is about looking before you leap,” said EarthJustice attorney Greg Loarie, who assisted with the case, in a prepared statement. “The Department of Food and Agriculture tried to impose this spraying program on the public without real environmental review, and the court has rightly called foul.”
California Supreme Court OKs organic labeling lawsuits
By Sudhin Thanawala
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Consumers have a right to file lawsuits under California law alleging food products are falsely labeled “organic,” the state Supreme Court ruled.
Thursday’s ruling overturned a lower court decision that barred such suits on the grounds that they were superseded and not allowed by federal law.
Congress wanted only state and federal officials to police organic food violations in order to create a national standard for organic foods, a division of the 2nd District Court of Appeal decided in 2013.
But the state Supreme Court said allowing consumer lawsuits would further congressional goals of curtailing fraud and ensuring consumers can rely on organic labels.
“Accordingly, state lawsuits alleging intentional organic mislabeling promote, rather than hinder, Congress’s purposes and objectives,” Associate Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote for the unanimous court.
The ruling will have an impact beyond California’s borders, said Marsha Cohen, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.
“Nothing in here is irrelevant to a parallel case in another state,” she said. “The court is simply saying federal law does not supersede our consumer protection functions.”
At issue were allegations in a lawsuit by consumer Michelle Quesada that Herb Thyme Farms Inc. — one of the nation’s largest herb producers — mixed organic and non-organic herbs then falsely labeled the product “100 % organic.” The term “organic” means the food was produced using sustainable practices and without synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, or genetic engineering, according to the California Department of Public Health. The department says products labeled “100% organic” must consist of only organic ingredients.
A call to Cliff Neimeth, an attorney for Herb Thyme Farms, was not immediately returned.
The company said in court documents it had been authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use the organic label.
Allowing individual lawsuits challenging that designation would open it up to interpretation by a “lay jury,” creating a patchwork of standards for the term “organic” that would defeat the goal of a national organic foods marketplace, the company said.
“If a lone consumer can second-guess the USDA’s certification, and a grower cannot rely on its federal authorization to use the term, the already high cost of production of such products will skyrocket, or more likely, there will be no organic products to enjoy,” Mark Kemple, an attorney for Herb Thyme Farms, wrote in a 2014 brief to the California Supreme Court.
Werdegar said judges — not juries — would decide such lawsuits using the federal organic labeling standard.
Raymond Boucher, an attorney for Quesada, said the ruling was a big victory for consumers.
“When Ms. Quesada goes in to buy a product that’s stamped as organic, she wants to know this truly is organic, and she can feel good about it,” he said.
The state Supreme Court’s ruling reinstates Quesada’s lawsuit. The suit seeks to represent thousands of consumers who “fell victim to Herb Thyme’s scheme to mislead consumers into paying premium prices for impostor products,” her attorneys wrote in a court filing.
Santa Rosa Press Democrat
North Coast wineries see opportunities, challenges ahead in 2016
By Bill Swindell
The North Coast wine industry remains in a relatively strong position going into 2016 despite a much lighter grape harvest this year and persistent environmental concerns, especially as its water use comes under greater scrutiny in a drought era, industry analysts said Thursday.
They are optimistic that the healthy state of the region’s wine industry will continue into the new year as sales remain strong for the premium wines — those priced at $10 and more per bottle — that are the hallmark of Napa and Sonoma counties.
But speakers at the North Coast Wine Industry Expo held at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds also noted that for every likely positive, there was a potential negative that could impact the fortunes of the multibillion-dollar industry in the coming year, whether from the environment or the fickle nature of consumers.
“California domestic (sales) and exports are up, but growth has slowed down,” said Damien Wilson, chair of wine business education at Sonoma State University.
While the number of global wine drinkers has doubled since 1980, Wilson noted consumption levels have not kept pace. For example, the U.S. wine market grew 0.4 percent in 2014, the smallest increase in years, he said.
“Global consumption failed to move the volume for an entire generation,” Wilson said.
Much of the focus Thursday was on the 2015 grape harvest, which was much smaller than the three previous bumper crops. Glenn Proctor, a partner at San Rafael wine and grape broker Ciatti Co., said he estimates this year’s crop could be down as much as 24 percent from 2014 when the final numbers are announced early next year.
The short crop has brought the wine market back into balance. There are now 17 million gallons of wine available on the bulk market, half the amount at the beginning of the year, Proctor noted. Many wineries pulled their products off the market, given the smaller harvest this year.
“What the short crop has done in 2015 has changed the marketplace,” he said. “We see buyers becoming buyers again … the sellers have gotten a little more coy.”
Strong demand will remain for local pinot noir and cabernet grapes, growers noted, continuing a trend of recent years, especially after this year’s light crop.
Bill Pauli, president of Pauli Ranch and Yokayo Wine Co., said he estimated the pinot noir crop in Sonoma County was down this year by 1.1 million cases over the average of the previous three years, while the Mendocino County pinot crop decreased by 175,000 cases this year over the same time period.
Smaller wineries will be hurt more by the shortage than large companies, which can source grapes from throughout the state as well as Oregon and Washington, Pauli said.
“If you are a small winery with one or two or three different products, the impact will be far more than if you are a very large winery with supply in multiple locations,” he said.
Although it is not expected to end the drought this year, many farmers are optimistic the El Niñ o weather pattern will bring much-needed rain this winter to keep the soil moist through bud break. But even if the rains come, they will not negate the moves toward greater water conservation. Wineries in areas that do not have ready access to water, such as Paso Robles, are expected to suffer the most as the drought continues.