Friday, February 26, 2016
Could El Niño turn into a dud for California?
By Phillip Reese, Dale Kasler and Ryan Sabalow
Sacramento is in the peak of its rainy season, but there is no substantial rain in the forecast. The Sierra snowpack has fallen below normal levels for this time of year. The state’s three largest reservoirs remain far below capacity.
Whither El Niño?
A winter season that began with considerable promise toward breaking the drought has given way to a staggeringly dry February. Despite heavy rain in January, the Sacramento area this season has seen just half as much precipitation as it did at the same point in 1983 and 1998, the last two major El Niño winters.
Compounding California’s water woes, residents have lagged recently on water conservation. The State Water Resources Control Board reported Thursday that California’s urban water districts missed their conservation mandates in January for the fourth month in a row. Cumulative savings for California since June, when conservation ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown went into effect, have now slipped below the governor’s 25 percent mandate.
“We can’t count on El Niño to save us,” Felicia Marcus, the state’s chief drought regulator, said Thursday. “February has been a bear, with no disrespect to bears … . We’re hoping for a miracle March and an awesome April.”
Sacramento has received just eight-tenths of an inch of rain so far in February. The average for the month is 3 inches. But experts such as Bill Patzert, who tracks the climate at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, said the dry spell doesn’t mean El Niño has run its course.
In the 1983 El Niño winter, for example, “the big show really didn’t happen until March and April,” he said. “I’m still holding out hope.”
Jan Null, a private consultant with Golden Gate Weather Services in Saratoga, agreed.
“It’s possible there’s another shoe to drop,” he said. “There is still a lot of warm water out in the Pacific,” Null said. Warmer-than-average waters in the Pacific are the hallmark of El Niño.
During the next seven days, the only rain in the forecast is a mild system arriving Friday night that is expected to bring less than one-tenth of an inch of precipitation to Sacramento, and a pattern next Friday described by the National Weather Service as “not a very strong system.”
Null said this year’s winter is yet another reminder that El Niños are unpredictable and any long-range weather forecast is suspect. The nexus of warm water in the Pacific is farther west than usual this year. That is a factor in determining where the rain will fall. Often, El Niño brings heavy rain to Southern California; this year, it’s been rainier in Northern California, and portions of the Pacific Northwest have gotten record precipitation.
“We don’t know all the answers,” Null said. “This has sort of become the poster child that all El Niños are different.”
Historically, California’s significant multi-year droughts have ended when statewide precipitation totaled about 150 percent of average, according to the Department of Water Resources. The current drought, in its fifth year, is believed to be the worst on record. So far, rain in Northern California is at 105 percent of average, while the snowpack has fallen to a statewide average of 91 percent.
While precipitation this winter is a major improvement over the past four years, “it’s only average now,” said the National Weather Service’s Michelle Mead. “We need it above average to make a dent.”
The state water board has extended the urban conservation mandates, which were due to expire this month, through the end of October. But the extended regulations relax the conservation mandates for many inland communities, where hot weather makes it harder to keep lawns and trees alive. Many of the water agencies in greater Sacramento will see their targets fall by 3 percentage points.
Water board officials defended the modified regulations Thursday, but said they’ll take a fresh look at the standards once they have a better idea of how much precipitation the state receives this winter.
The January conservation numbers showed Californian cities cut water use by about 17 percent compared with the same month in 2013. That was the worst performance since mandated cuts began last June, and it means cumulative water savings from June through January have fallen to 24.8 percent. That’s two-tenths of a point below the 25 percent figure ordered by Brown last spring.
The water board said it isn’t surprising that savings rates have slipped. Sprinklers have largely been shut off and Californians are having to eke out savings by taking quicker showers and flushing toilets less often. The results “are still worthy of considerable respect and praise,” Marcus said. “We’re going to be close enough to 25 percent to declare victory.”
Sacramentans cut water usage by 11 percent in January compared with 2013, the lowest savings rate outside of the Bay Area. It was the first time that Sacramento underperformed the state average since mandatory cutbacks began.
Most water districts in the Sacramento region are under orders to cut water use by at least 28 percent. Nine water districts in the region failed to achieve even a 10 percent savings in January, including the cities of Sacramento and Folsom.
Eleven of the 23 largest water districts in the region have fallen below their cumulative conservation targets. Most are missing the targets by a small amount and are unlikely to face penalties. Furthest off the mark are the customers of Golden State Water Company Cordova, the city of Folsom and the Fruitridge Vista Water Company.
Rob Roscoe, general manager of the Sacramento Suburban Water District, said his agency’s 12 percent reduction for January shouldn’t be surprising.
“You’re forced to get those savings inside,” Roscoe said. “That’s a heavier lift. So inside you’re talking about instead of just resetting your sprinklers, it’s a lifestyle change. It’s a three-minute shower instead of a five -minute shower. It’s not flushing the toilet unless you really have to. It’s only full loads of clothes and dishes.”
It could get worse. With February coming in dry and unusually warm, some residents in the region are turning on their sprinklers, something that normally doesn’t happen during winter.
“I joke about tearing out my landscaping and putting in cactus and, you know, another couple of years of this, it might not be a joke any more,” said Neil O’Hara, an environmental consultant who lives in East Sacramento.
Phillip Reese: 916-321-1137, @PhillipHReese, firstname.lastname@example.org
UN science report warns of fewer bees, other pollinators
By Seth Borenstein
WASHINGTON – Many species of wild bees, butterflies and other critters that pollinate plants are shrinking toward extinction, and the world needs to do something about it before our food supply suffers, a new United Nations scientific mega-report warns.
The 20,000 or so species of pollinators are key to hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of crops each year — from fruits and vegetables to coffee and chocolate. Yet 2 out of 5 species of invertebrate pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, are on the path toward extinction, said the first-of-its-kind report. Pollinators with backbones, such as hummingbirds and bats, are only slightly better off, with 1 in 6 species facing extinction.
“We are in a period of decline and there are going to be increasing consequences,” said report lead author Simon Potts, director of the Centre for Agri-Environmental Research at the University of Reading in England.
And it’s not just honeybees. In some aspects they’re doing better than many of their wild counterparts, like the bumblebee, despite dramatic long-term declines in the United States and a mysterious disorder that has waned.
The trouble is the report can’t point to a single villain. Among the culprits: the way farming has changed so there’s not enough diversity and wild flowers for pollinators to use as food; pesticide use, including a controversial one, neonicotinoid, that attacks the nervous system; habitat loss to cities; disease, parasites and pathogens; and global warming.
The report is the result of more than two years of work by scientists across the globe who got together under several different U.N. agencies to come up with an assessment of Earth’s biodiversity, starting with the pollinators. It’s an effort similar to what the United Nations has done with global warming, putting together an encyclopedic report to tell world leaders what’s happening and give them options for what can be done.
The report, which draws from many scientific studies but no new research, was approved by a congress of 124 nations meeting in Kuala Lumpur on Friday.
“The variety and multiplicity of threats to pollinators and pollination generate risks to people and livelihoods,” the report stated. “These risks are largely driven by changes in land cover and agricultural management systems, including pesticide use.”
But these are problems that can be fixed, and unlike global warming, the solutions don’t require countries to agree on global action — they can act locally, said Robert Watson, a top British ecological scientist and vice chairman of the scientific panel. The solutions offered mostly involve changing the way land and farming is managed.
“There are relatively simple, relatively inexpensive mechanisms for turning the trend around for native pollinators,” said David Inouye of the University of Maryland, a co-author of a couple chapters in the report.
One of the biggest problems, especially in the United States, is that giant swaths of farmland are devoted to just one crop, and wildflowers are disappearing, Potts and others said. Wild pollinators especially do well on grasslands, which are usually more than just grass, and 97 percent of Europe’s grasslands have disappeared since World War II, Potts said.
England now pays farmers to plant wildflowers for bees in hedge rows, Watson said.
There are both general and specific problems with some pesticide use, according to the report.
“Pesticides, particularly insecticides, have been demonstrated to have a broad range of lethal and sub-lethal effects on pollinators in controlled experimental conditions,” the report said. But it noted more study is needed on the effects on pollinators in the wild. Herbicides kill off weeds, which are useful for wild pollinators, the report added.
The report highlighted recent research that said the widely used insecticide neonicotinoid reduces wild bees’ chances for survival and reproduction, but the evidence of effects on honeybees is conflicting.
In a statement, Christian Maus, global pollinator safety manager for Bayer, which makes neonicotinoids, said: “The report confirms the overwhelming majority of the scientific opinion regarding pollinator health — that this is a complex issue affected by many factors. Protecting pollinators and providing a growing population with safe, abundant food will require collaboration.”
Potts said global warming is “very clearly a real future risk” because pollinators and their plants may not be at the same place at the same time. England has seen one-quarter of its bumblebee species threatened, and those are the type of bees most sensitive to climate change, he said.
England has lost two species of wild bumblebees to extinction and the U.S. has lost one, Inouye said.
The story of honeybees is a bit mixed. Globally over the last 50 years, the number of managed honeybee hives — ones where humans keep them either as a hobbyists or as professional pollinators — has increased, but it has dropped in North America and Europe, where there is the most data, the report said.
Potts said the number of managed hives in the United States dropped from 5.5 million in 1961 and dropped to a low of 2.5 million in 2012, when colony collapse disorder was causing increased worries. The number of hives is now back up slightly, to 2.7 million.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a University of Maryland bee expert who wasn’t part of the report, praised it for looking at the big picture beyond honeybees.
Doing something is crucial, he said.
“Everything falls apart if you take pollinators out of the game,” vanEngelsdorp said. “If we want to say we can feed the world in 2050, pollinators are going to be part of that.”
Los Angeles Times
How the honey bee crisis is affecting California’s almond growers
By Robin Abcarian
The last of the evening light had disappeared, stealing the incandescence from a million pink and white almond blossoms. Inside the modest conference room of a research facility once operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the South Valley Bee Club convened its regular meeting.
More people than usual — 51 — turned up Tuesday. A sprinkling were out-of-staters, part of a huge migration of keepers and their bees who trek to California each year from as far as Florida and New Jersey for what has been called the planet’s largest “managed pollination” event.
Without bees, there can be no almonds. In fact, each of California’s nearly 1 million acres of almond orchards requires two hives. But California beekeepers have only a quarter of the needed hives.
As almond acreage has exploded and bees have been in some kind of crazy death spiral, growers have been in a mild state of panic over where to find enough little pollinators.
As a result, they are willing to pay dearly — up to $180 to rent one hive for a couple of weeks.
“None of us wants to get into the bee business,” said Los Banos almond grower Joe Del Bosque, whose bee budget is $250,000 this year. “Bees are livestock. It’s like owning a dairy. A lot of work.”
Hence, the annual bee migration.
“We’re the whores of agriculture,” said Dave Hackenberg, a Pennsylvania beekeeper, who rents his hives on a national circuit, starting with almonds in February, ending with Brazilian peppers in Florida in the winter.
After the bee people finished their barbecue dinner, they turned their attention to two of the world’s leading bee researchers.
David De Jong has studied bees in Brazil for more than 35 years, and is an expert on a particular mite that plagues bee colonies. Jeff Pettis of the USDA’s Bee Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., has been instrumental in determining why bee colonies are in such steep decline.
Bottom line: There’s no single cause for the weakening or untimely demise of the tiny creatures that make the almond harvest possible. The idea of a mysterious “colony collapse disorder” has seized the public imagination — who among us does not love bees, or at least the idea of bees? — but it’s mostly a misnomer.
Bee failure has multiple, probably interlocking causes, many of which are still poorly understood. Bees are vulnerable to pesticides and pests such as the varroa mite, fungicides and fungus, and a host of viruses that cause them to fly slowly, or act demented or die prematurely.
Pettis has looked at the effect of high and low temperature spikes on queens during transportation, and drone sperm motility issues.
What else hurts bees? “Cellphones,” joked one beekeeper. “Aliens,” said another.
Finally, Jack Brumley, a Porterville-area beekeeper with 40 years of experience, could take it no longer.
“We’ve been talking about this problem for what, 10 years?” said Brumley, 72, who told me he lost more than half of his 9,000 hives this year. “How many more academic papers do we have to pay for? How many more PhDs do we have to educate before we get some information that I can take home and use?”
Knowing laughter rippled through the room.
“Don’t bark at me,” Pettis said. “You need to talk to some of the people down in Washington, D.C., and get a few more of us out in the field that care about the industry.”
In 2014, President Obama, acknowledging the critical state of bee colony health, ordered the creation of a national strategy “to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators.” The goal is to reduce honey bee colony losses to no more than 15% within a decade.
Needless to say, people in this room aren’t holding their breath.
On Wednesday morning, on the edge of a fragrant almond orchard south of Bakersfield, I donned a rather fetching white bee suit and joined two University of Maryland entomology students collecting bees for testing by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Kneeling on the ground, Nathalie Steinhauer, a doctoral student, stuffed pine needles into a baffled smoker, lit them, then gently puffed smoke into square wooden hives to calm the bees, which, to put it mildly, can get agitated when disturbed.
I had learned this the hard way a few days earlier, when I visited one of Del Bosque’s orchards in Firebaugh, north of Fresno, with his longtime beekeeper, Rosemary Grissom. As I approached a hive to shoot some photos, Grissom ordered me to back away from it quickly but calmly.
I was wearing black, a color that displeases bees because it makes them think bears, their natural enemies, are coming for their honey. I didn’t move quite fast enough.
Let’s just say I now have a visceral understanding of what it means to have a “bee in your bonnet.” There is no mistaking the sound of an angry bee, especially when it’s stuck in your hair.
Steinhauer’s colleague, Meghan McConnell, a master’s student, gently pried frames from their hives. Each frame was covered in thousands of cells, filled with honey, or pollen, or larvae or pupae. Being careful to avoid hurting the queen bee, who is essential, McConnell shook each frame into a pan, then scooped up a quarter-cup of bees into a live-bee box or a jar of alcohol.
Back in the lab, the live bees will be tested for viruses; the dead ones for pests. With a narrow stick, she painstakingly collected pollen to test for pesticides.
“Look here,” McConnell said. “You can see two babies being born.”
In a corner of the frame’s spectacular swirl of brown, orange and yellow, two new bees poked their teensy heads out of hexagonal cells.
In a day, they’ll be at work in the almond blossoms. In a few weeks or so, they’ll be dead. In a perfect world, the hive would live on, ad infinitum. These days, survival is always in doubt.
Anyway, next time you pop a handful of almonds, thank a bee.
email@example.com, Twitter: @AbcarianLAT
Modesto-based egg producer rejects abuse claim
By John Holland
An animal rights group Thursday released a video it says shows abused hens at a J.S. West & Cos. egg farm – a charge the Modesto-based company rejected.
Direct Action Everywhere claims that the hens at a farm near Atwater were more densely housed than allowed under a 2008 ballot measure, and that some of them were diseased.
J.S. West said the camera merely captured the natural tendency of hens to sleep close together, and some of the footage of sick birds might not be from its operation.
“Recently, a group of animal rights activists illegally broke into one of our henhouses in the middle of the night and videotaped our hens sleeping,” the company said in an emailed statement to The Modesto Bee. “Despite the fact that chickens sleep in a group, the activists are claiming that their video shows the birds to be in violation of Proposition 2. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
The statement said consumers can see how the hens are really treated in a video at www.nucalfoods.com, the website for a Ripon-based cooperative that distributes eggs.
J.S. West, founded in 1909, is one of the leading egg producers in California and also does business in feed, propane and almonds.
Direct Action Everywhere is a global network of activists that last year released a video claiming abuses at Diestel Turkey Ranch near Sonora. That company responded that the footage might not have been shot on its property and that the dying birds it depicted are a normal part of livestock raising.
The group said its J.S. West investigation found “grotesque lesions” and other health problems with the hens, along with spacing much tighter than what Proposition 2 required as of 2015.
“In virtually all of the cages, a hen would not be able to walk, turn around or spread her wings,” said Dr. Sherstin Rosenberg, a veterinarian working with the group, in a news release. “The hens living in this facility are systematically subjected to needless suffering.”
The ballot measure, approved by 63 percent of California voters, targeted industry-standard cages that provided an average of 67 square inches of floor space per hen. The language did not include specific dimensions, but it did say that the birds should be able to stand, turn and engage in behaviors such as dust-bathing, where they clean themselves.
Some backers said Proposition 2 meant cage-free production in large barns and outdoor enclosures, but the industry disagreed. J.S. West was the first to start converting its barns, with cages that provide an average of 116 square inches per hen as well as spots for perching, nesting and other activity.
“For these reasons, J.S. West’s hen housing system was the first hen housing system in the world to be certified by the American Humane Association,” the statement said.
John Holland: 209-578-2385, firstname.lastname@example.org
Environmentalists sue for more rules to protect sage grouse
By Matthew Brown
BILLINGS, MONT. – Environmental groups sued Thursday to force the Obama administration to impose more restrictions on oil and gas drilling, grazing and other activities blamed for the decline of greater sage grouse across the American West.
A sweeping sage grouse conservation effort that the government announced last September is riddled with loopholes and will not be enough to protect the bird from extinction, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Idaho.
It follows several legal challenges against the same rules from the opposite end of the political spectrum. Mining companies, ranchers and officials in Utah, Idaho and Nevada argue that the administration’s actions will impede economic development.
The ground-dwelling sage grouse, known for their elaborate mating ritual, range across a 257,000-square-mile region spanning 11 states.
The new rules and land use policies for federal lands in the region were meant to keep the popular game bird off the endangered species list. They are backed by more than $750 million in commitments from the government and outside groups to conserve land and restore the bird’s range.
But the lawsuit from the Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity and two other groups said the rules have too many exceptions favorable to industry at the expense of the bird.
“Each state had its own specific loophole,” said Erik Molvar with WildEarth Guardians, another plaintiff in the case. “For Wyoming, there are huge loopholes for oil and gas. Nevada has loopholes for geothermal power. In southeastern Oregon, there were loopholes for wind farms. And everywhere there are loopholes for transmission projects.”
Interior Department spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw declined to comment directly on the lawsuit, but she said the government’s conservation plans follow the best science and were crafted in partnership with state and local officials.
“The plans are both balanced and effective, protecting key sage-grouse habitat and providing for sustainable development,” Kershaw said in an emailed statement.
The grouse population once was estimated at 16 million birds across North America. It’s lost roughly half its habitat to development, livestock grazing and an invasive grass that encourages wildfires in the Great Basin of Nevada and adjoining states. There are now an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 greater sage grouse.
The Prairie Hills Audubon Society of South Dakota was another plaintiff in Thursday’s suit.
Notably absent was its parent organization, the National Audubon Society. The influential, New York-based advocacy group supports the administration’s plans and wants them to be given time to work, spokesman Nicholas Gonzalez said.
Marin Independent Journal
Agriculture is vital to Point Reyes National Seashore
By Kate Powers
Recent reports in this newspaper about a lawsuit alleging environmental damage from ranching operations at Point Reyes National Seashore, and violation of federal laws by park officials over extension of leases for the ranchers, sow public confusion about the historic role of ranching in the seashore. Some clarification is needed.
Contrary to an impression the reports may have created, ranching in the pastoral zone of the seashore has the support of many prominent environmentalists. Marin Conservation League, along with many other organizations, supports the continuation of agriculture in the national parklands managed by the seashore. The current Comprehensive Ranch Management Plan process, which this lawsuit seeks to abandon, provides an opportunity to demonstrate that ranching on the seashore can be sustainable and complement the park’s many other values, and to plan with full public review.
Ranches under lease from the National Park Service provide habitat for wildlife without compromising habitats of sensitive species and cultural (indigenous) sites located throughout the park. They reflect more than 150 years of agricultural history of the area, and they maintain open scenic vistas that enhance the recreational experience of millions of visitors. The seashore ranches also contribute to the overall economic health of agriculture in Marin.
Other land management agencies in the Bay Area, e.g. East Bay Regional Park District, lease public land for grazing as a means of managing fire fuel load, maintaining grassland habitat, and fostering biodiversity.
A recap of ranching history will help.
A collaboration of environmentalists and ranchers was critical in creation of the Point Reyes National Seashore in the 1960s. The ranchers supported creation of the seashore as the preferred alternative to having the lands sold off, for example to pay estate taxes and breaking up the ranches for development that surely would have followed.
In return, ranchers were assured that ranching could continue in the seashore. The ranchers had the option of reserving a right to continue to use the property for a fixed term or for their lifetimes. The purchase price was reduced by the value of the retained right.
As these “reservations of use” expired, the Park Service leased the ranches for varying periods of time, usually a maximum of five years, and subject to conditions that have changed over time. With short-term leases, seashore ranchers have not qualified for loans or matching grants that could assist them with the costs of implementing environmental improvements.
In 2013, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar directed the seashore to enter into 20-year leases with the ranchers. Longer-term leases would enable the ranchers to plan for and finance a variety of beneficial projects and capital needs. Longer-term leases would also give the next generation in these third-, fourth- and fifth-generation Point Reyes families the opportunity to continue to care for land that is part of the fabric of our community.
Long-term leases resulting from the current ranch management planning process will enable the Park and the ranchers to ensure that agriculture in the seashore is current with the evolving “best management practices” of sustainable agriculture, including the opportunity to increase carbon sequestration on grasslands.
These sustainable practices, which also address ecological values like habitat and water quality, include over 30 USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Services conservation practices that the Marin Carbon Project, Marin Resource Conservation District, and some ranchers are already implementing on agricultural lands in Marin, including ranches under Marin Agricultural Land Trust easements.
Marin Conservation League committees are participating in the ranch planning process, guided in part by MCL’s recently updated agricultural policy, which is available through the MCL website “Advocacy” page.
MCL continues to support the retention of agriculture on pastoral lands managed by the seashore.
Kate Powers of San Rafael is the president of the Marin Conservation League Board of Directors. Her column reflects a consensus of MCL’s board.