Friday, January 29, 2016
State starts decisive year on governor’s water tunnels
By Ellen Knickmeyer
SAN FRANCISCO – State regulators launched Thursday into a year of pivotal decisions on Gov. Jerry Brown’s quest to build two giant tunnels to ferry water from Northern California for Central and Southern California, a $17-billion project that would be one of the largest in decades in the state.
Brown’s administration and the water agencies that are slated — but not yet formally committed — to pay for the two, 35-mile-long tunnels from the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers are the project’s biggest supporters, and the 2016 calendar is full of federal and state hearings and reviews that are required to start digging.
Brown and big Central and Southern California water agencies are the tunnels’ biggest advocates, while many Northern and Central California cities, towns and counties, and environmental and fishing groups oppose them. Supporters and opponents chiefly disagree over whether the project would further harm Northern California’s winding Delta and the San Francisco Bay, the biggest West Coast estuary in the Americas and home to increasingly endangered native fish.
On Thursday, regulators of the State Water Resources Control Board weighed whether it was appropriate to start its upcoming hearings regarding the tunnels when the backers have yet to fully specify the project’s design or finish legally required studies of whether the tunnels would hurt the Delta’s wildlife, overall habitat and human users.
The regulators said Thursday they would announce a possible decision on the timing issue in the next week or two.
Kenneth Bogdan, attorney for the Department of Water Resources, the main state agency involved in tunnel planning, told regulators that the project’s backers hope to have the needed environmental impact review completed in late June.
The similarly named Water Resources Control Board, which is charged with approving or disapproving changes in water intake and water quality with the project, is scheduled to formally start its hearings at least two months earlier, in April.
Bogdan told regulators that the details released so far on the tunnels’ planned design and operation, and preliminary and past environmental reviews, would be enough for the hearings to start.
“It’s not just a matter of ‘trust us,’” Bogdan told the water regulators. “We feel there is enough information” already.
“Saying you don’t think your conclusions will change” after a full review of any environmental impacts “doesn’t warm anyone’s heart,” Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state Water Resources Control Board, responded.
Thomas Berliner, an attorney for water agencies, urged the water board to stick to the planned timeline. Since water agencies are the parties slated to pay for the tunnels, “they take their chances as far as moving forward” if any of the upcoming environmental reviews ultimately kill the project, he said.
Brown’s administration, Southern California’s massive Metropolitan Water District, and other backers of the tunnels say the tunnels will provide a more reliable and earthquake-resistant conduit of Delta water to agricultural and urban water customers.
Opponents say they fear the tunnels will take too much of the delta’s freshest water, dooming the native species in the Delta and the farms and towns around it. Delta officials and other opponents allege the Brown administration is eager for quick government decisions on the project so as to persuade the large water agencies, which have yet to formally commit to the tunnels or to paying for them, that the project is viable.
The largest bloc of speakers Thursday were opponents to the tunnels.
They urged the water board to make project backers complete their designs and environmental reviews before weighing the water issues involved.
“We don’t even know what they really want to do,” said Osha Meserve, a lawyer for Delta farmers and others opposing the tunnels. “They need to present a complete application.”
Santa Rosa Press Democrat
Lake Mendocino nears winter capacity; Lake Sonoma close behind
By Glenda Anderson
Recent rainstorms have swelled Lake Mendocino, reopening the reservoir to motor boats for the first time since August, swallowing islands raised by the drought and bringing fresh hope to ranchers and water officials.
By Thursday afternoon, the lake had reached 98 percent of capacity for this time of the year, when some space is reserved in the reservoir to help with flood prevention.
Once the level hits 100 percent, dam managers must increase releases to keep it at that level, unless they are given permission to hold back additional supplies.
In March, the reservoir’s storage capacity will rise from 68,400 acre-feet to about 110,000 acre-feet, a change aimed at maintaining adequate water supplies throughout the dry season for people, fish and agriculture along the Russian River. The key to recovery from the drought is filling the reservoir to its maximum capacity in the spring.
“It’s raining, I’m happy,” said Janet Pauli, a Mendocino County rancher and local Water Agency board member. But she has seen the rain dry up before spring in past years, so her optimism is cautious.
“We will be fine if it continues to rain and snow,” Pauli said.
Lake Sonoma, the region’s largest reservoir, also is faring well. It was at 94 percent of capacity as of late Thursday afternoon, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website. When full, the reservoir offers a two- to three-year supply for the Sonoma County Water Agency, which provides drinking water to more than 600,000 residents of Sonoma and Marin counties.
Other reservoirs in the state, especially the larger ones, are filling more slowly after years of depletion.
Lake Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir and a key source for the system that supplies farms and cities farther south, is at 49 percent of capacity.
“It’s going to take a lot of storms to get us full,” said Don Bader, deputy area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation.
Lake Oroville, the second-largest reservoir in California, is at 39 percent of capacity, and Trinity Lake, the third-largest reservoir, is just 27 percent full.
Still, Bader is heartened by this winter’s steady stream of rainstorms, which have improved conditions.
“We’re on our way,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or email@example.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter.
Los Angeles Times
California solar owners face new fees, utilities say costs should be higher
By Ivan Penn
California utility regulators narrowly passed new rules that will increase costs for owners of rooftop solar systems, part of a broad reshaping of the state’s energy future.
The California Public Utilities Commission, on a 3-2 vote Thursday, stopped short of the even higher charges that the state’s investor-owned utilities wanted.
The opposing commissioners said they voted against the proposal because of the last-minute elimination of an electricity transmission fee, a move that they said made the overall arrangement too rich for the solar industry.
The decision, which initially applies only to new solar panel systems, was viewed by some as a compromise. But others say it’s a defeat for the utilities.
Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric and Pacific Gas & Electric had pressed the commission to charge solar owners hefty fees that the solar industry said would crush their business.
By Edison’s account, the average solar customer under the current structure has a monthly electric bill of about $82. Under the commission’s decision, that would increase to $91. A utility counterproposal would have increased it to $103.
“Our decision today is a big step forward,” said commission President Michael R. Picker, who added that solar customers would face even higher costs over the next few years. “It’s a big step but it’s only one of many.
“This has been a very difficult task, to find the right balance,” Picker said. “There’s a shift in the way we use electricity. … [The decision] also forces the utility to come to grips with the technology challenges.”
The slim passage of the measure came with commissioners Liane M. Randolph and Carla J. Peterman siding with Picker. They noted, however, that with the new world of individual electricity generation on customers’ rooftops, the utility and solar industries have much to learn.
“I think it really does strike the right balance with the information we have right now,” Randolph said of the decision.
But concerns over fairness to non-solar customers and the effect on utilities led commissioners Mike Florio and Catherine J.K. Sandoval to oppose it.
Florio and Sandoval were particularly upset by a revision to the proposed decision late Wednesday afternoon that favored rooftop solar owners.
The solar industry had lobbied hard over the last week against a little-noticed footnote that would have required solar owners to pay an electricity transmission charge to ensure that they, like other ratepayers, paid their share of the cost of maintaining the electric grid of transmission wires and the like.
Solar industry representatives said that the electricity transmission charge would have doubled the fees solar owners would have had to pay.
Without the transmission fee, solar owners faced an average $6 monthly charge. With transmission costs, the monthly charge could have topped $12 for the average solar owner, potentially wiping out the savings that solar gave them. The solar industry said the monthly cost could go as high as $18 a month.
But in the end, the revised proposal released by the commission Wednesday deleted transmission from the footnote and eliminated that monthly fee for solar owners.
“All of us are pro solar,” but the final proposal didn’t shift enough costs to solar users, Florio said. “I don’t think these benefits are going to accrue to solar customers, they’re going to accrue to solar vendors.”
Sandoval estimated that the cost breaks extended to solar panel owners could be as much as four times bigger than all the reductions offered to low-income utility customers.
Much of the nation awaited California’s action on rooftop solar because the state leads on solar installations.
Some states such as Nevada have rolled back rooftop solar benefits to a point that the solar industry intends to close operations in those locations.
The proposal’s passage brought cheers not only from the solar industry but farmers and some business owners with solar panels on their roofs.
“We all know that California is a world leader when it comes to being green,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar Energy Industries Assn. “But today’s vote is more than that. It is about California continuing to champion innovation and a different way of doing things, in this case, building a smarter energy grid and allowing individual consumers to generate their own clean electricity.”
At Full Belly Farm in California’s Capay Valley, close to 80% of the packing shed energy usage is offset by solar generation. Co-owner Paul Muller said that the solar system “alleviates stress on the grid at peak electricity hours, when our need for cooling and pumping water is greatest. … It’s absolutely essential.”
The new monthly fees are just part of the overhaul of the rules governing the “net energy metering” policy, which allows solar panel owners to sell the extra energy they don’t use back to the electricity grid.
Under the decision, new solar customers would face a one-time charge to tie into the grid. The commission estimates the fee would range from $75 to $150 per solar customer.
In addition, rooftop solar customers would pay a fee estimated at 2 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity used from the utility companies, no matter how much power their solar systems generate. This fee would amount to about $6 more a month for the average solar user.
Utilities also would place new solar customers on time-of-use rates, which rise during periods of high electricity demand.
Solar owners would still receive retail value for the electricity they produce in excess of what they use from the power company each month. But on an annual basis, that benefit gets reduced to a wholesale value.
The new net-energy metering program will take effect for new customers after the utilities’ reach certain participation caps, or July 1, 2017, whichever occurs first.
Existing owners are exempted from all the changes for 20 years from when they installed their solar systems and connected to the grid.
Utilities decried the new program as insufficient and unfair to non-solar customers.
“This decision puts the burden of subsidizing solar on low-income customers who can least afford it, and SCE believes that policy is unwise and unfair,” said Pedro Pizarro, president of Southern California Edison.
San Diego Gas & Electric said that “the California Public Utilities Commission ignored state law and the clear direction from the state Legislature, which called for them to reform net energy metering to ensure the benefits are balanced with the costs of the program.”
The utilities argue that rooftop solar owners already benefit from a 30% federal solar investment tax credit, which Congress last month extended through 2019.
Task force struggles to advise supervisors
By Wes Bowers
STOCKTON — In an effort to prevent the loss of agricultural lands to development and habitat preservation, San Joaquin County Supervisors have given a task force authority to review complex mitigation applications on a case-by-case basis instead of creating a blanket policy.
But the Agricultural Technical Advisory Committee has struggled with those tasks since its formation.
In 2006, supervisors adopted an ordinance establishing the Agricultural Mitigation Program, which states that when agricultural land is changed to a non-agricultural uses, the entity causing the change must obtain a perpetual easement on similar land and restrict its use to agriculture.
The ordinance also established the AgTAC, a nine-member panel charged with developing mitigation strategies and providing periodic reports to supervisors.
John Beckman, an AgTAC member, said the committee’s main purpose was to return to supervisors periodically with recommendations on how easements could be layered.
The ordinance states that habitat easements — lands already designated for wildlife or natural preservation — cannot have agricultural easements placed over them.
But agricultural easements — or lands already designated specifically for agricultural use — can have a habitat easement placed over them, providing the new designation does not substantially impair or diminish the productive value of the land.
“The AgTAC has not (come up with any recommendations),” Beckman said. “They have not done that because representatives of the (San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation) refuse to allow any type of easement that would stack a habitat easement on an ag easement.”
Bruce Blodgett, the farm bureau’s executive director, said if the county does not want to diminish the productive value or capacity of land, then stacking easements should not be allowed.
He said the county’s top four agricultural commodities according to the 2014 crop report — almonds, milk, walnuts and grapes — would not be allowed on layered easements, hurting the county’s economy.
“We can’t even get an agreement with the (committee) on a document because they keep going back to the same issue,” Blodgett said. “They want to stack easements, they don’t care if they limit the agricultural productivity of the land. It’s the same issue repeatedly.”
Beckman argued that habitat easements do maintain the productive value of the land and urged supervisors to direct the AgTAC to do what it was tasked to do in 2006.
Steven Mayo, program director of the San Joaquin Council of Government’s Habitat Conservation Program, said habitat and agricultural mitigation are the same in many ways. He said habitat comes in forms of row and field crops, which is agricultural, and comes in forms of riparian, which is natural.
The habitat conservation program’s objective is to preserve habitat for endangered species and provide development methods for projects.
Mayo said as much as 80 percent of the mitigated lands it oversees, of more than 15,000 acres, consists of row and field crops.
“That means we require (property owners) to keep cultivating that land, whether it be alfalfa, corn or other types of grain,” he said. “It’s not just orchards and vineyards.”
Mayo said a habitat easement doesn’t limit what a landowner can grow, or how much is permitted on the property. That decision, he said, is left to the landowner.
He said landowners also should be given the choice to determine how mitigated properties should be designated.
County Counsel Mark Myles said both the ordinance and SJCOG clearly give landowners those choices.
Joe Peterson, another AgTAC member, said the commission made the easement issue its top priority, but the ordinance hasn’t been given a chance to be employed as only one mitigation application had been presented to the committee in the past decade.
He said when AgTAC was formed, it decided that it would review easement stacking on a case-by-case basis. If AgTAC couldn’t make the determination to allow a stack, he said the easement project would be sent to the board of supervisors.
While there are opportunities to stack easements, there will be instances in which stacking doesn’t work.
“We want the program to work,” he said. “But we haven’t had an opportunity to let the program work. Bring us projects. (The board) is just saying ‘this won’t work, we have to be able to stack.’ That’s not beneficial. If we’re making up for that (potential) loss (of agricultural land), stacking isn’t the final option.”
Supervisor Chuck Winn read a 2009 memorandum from the County Counsel that stated while the board had tasked AgTAC with developing a mitigation strategy, it also was asked to consider that the determination of whether easements should be stacked on property should be based on factors specific to the property.
Winn said that meant easements should be reviewed on case-by-case basis as Peterson suggested.
“I would agree that there may be one of those stackings that might appropriate,” he said, “and the other one may be looked at on a case-by-case basis, depending on terrain or land, etc., which should be resolved either by AgTAC, or certainly by this board.”
— Contact reporter Wes Bowers at (209) 546-8258 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at recordnet.com/bowersblog and on Twitter @WBowersTSR.
San Francisco Chronicle
Deadly threat to citrus prompts quarantines in Bay Area
By David Perlman
An insect pest that is threatening the historic orange and lemon groves of Southern California has begun moving into the Bay Area, where it could kill backyard citrus trees of every variety.
Known as the Asian citrus psyllid (pronounced sill-id), the insects were detected in Daly City and Pacifica three months ago. Some 64 square miles of San Francisco and San Mateo County, and 173 square miles around San Jose and southern Alameda County, are now quarantined to prevent the citrus trees or their leaves and branches from being moved out of the area.
“Even though Northern California has no citrus industry, orange and lemon trees are everywhere in backyard gardens, and we don’t want to see the problem spread,” said Fred Crowder, San Mateo County’s agricultural commissioner.
Many plant nurseries in the region sell citrus trees, and, in compliance agreements with the state, the nursery owners are pledged not to sell their plants or move them outside the quarantine areas.
Biologist Victoria Hornbaker, the state’s citrus control program manager at the Department of Food and Agriculture, said the psyllid is harmless by itself and no bigger than an aphid on a rose bush. It feeds on the leaves and stems of citrus trees, and infects them with a strain of bacteria that causes an invariably fatal plant disease called Huanglongbing, also known as HLB or citrus greening disease.
Harmless to humans
The insects and the bacteria they carry are harmless to humans and animals, but they swiftly destroy all types of citrus: orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, tangerine and mandarin, as well as kumquats and pomelos, which citrus gardeners often graft onto their trees. The bacterial disease causes the tree’s leaves to turn yellow and its fruit to be distorted and bitter tasting.
“There is no cure, and once infected, a tree will die,” Hornbaker said.
There have been no reports of psyllids north of San Francisco, Hornbaker said.
Citrus grower watchful
Anne Teller, whose Oak Hill Farm in Glen Ellen grows organic produce and who cares for her calamondin and Washington navel orange trees next to her home, says she knows the psyllids well.
“I’m feeding and pruning and watching our farm’s plants closely all the time,” Teller said. “I know what a citrus psyllid looks like because other psyllid species attack eucalyptus trees and there’s plenty of them around here. So if I spot one citrus psyllid on my oranges, you can bet I’ll be on the phone fast.”
In San Mateo County, the first evidence that the insects had arrived came Oct. 28, when county agriculture workers were inspecting a trap set for the Mediterranean fruit fly in Daly City and found a single psyllid instead, Crowder said.
“We flooded the area with hundreds of traps right away, and a week later when crews in Pacifica were tapping a trap, they found wings from a psyllid insect there, too,” he said.
State agriculture department officials immediately established the psyllid quarantine area. The quarantines covering the city of San Jose and nearby areas, including parts of southern Alameda County, were established later when evidence of the psyllid was detected there.
“I really think we’ve got the problem nipped in the bud here,” said Joseph Deviney, Santa Clara County’s agriculture chief, “but we need to keep everyone on the alert.”
In 29 other counties
In Southern California, where the state’s $2.5 billion citrus industry is threatened, quarantines have been set up covering nine entire counties including all of Los Angeles, and citrus growing areas in more than 20 other California counties are also under quarantine.
“This is truly a crisis,” Hornbaker said. “It’s a fight we have to win because it threatens everyone who keeps a single tree in their garden as well as a major California crop.”
David Perlman is The San Francisco Chronicle’s science editor. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @daveperlman
State experts are urging people with citrus trees on their property to inspect their leaves every month for the brown mottled wings of the Asian citrus psyllid, and to report any evidence of the pest promptly. The hotline number is (800) 491-1899.
Canned tomato growers seek consumers on social media
By John Holland
Growers of canned tomatoes, faced with the fresh-is-better mantra among consumers, have taken their case to Facebook and other social media.
They gathered in Modesto this week to hear the latest on this campaign and about water, exports and other issues facing the industry.
Leaders said business generally is strong, with extensive plantings even amid the four-year drought, but it could be even better if consumers learn what’s really in the cans.
“Moms feel guilty reaching into the cupboard for a can of tomatoes,” said Alec Wasson, who is helping with the social media campaign. “We’re trying to reach out to them that they’re getting more lycopene (a possible cancer fighter) than in a raw tomato.”
About 225 people turned out at Modesto Centre Plaza for the 69th annual meeting of the California Tomato Growers Association. Its products go to canneries that employ several thousand people each summer. The group does not deal in fresh-market products, which earn much more per pound but are far lower in volume.
The canning industry is among the largest in the northern San Joaquin Valley, where growers had an estimated $289 million in gross income in 2014.
Canners tells consumers that their tomatoes are harvested at the peak of ripeness, unlike the many fresh-market versions that are picked yellow and later ripen. They say the process seals in nutrients and, in the case of lycopene, even increases the amount. And they note that canned tomatoes are affordable, available year-round, and easy to use.
The social media campaign, now in its third and final year, was developed by the Tomato Products Wellness Council. It uses Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram and other channels to share recipes, videos and health tips.
“(Growers) are starting to appreciate that even if they aren’t on Facebook, that’s where the moms are,” Wasson said.
He calls himself “chief tomato evangelist” on his business card. He is the son of Rodger Wasson, who also is working on the campaign and used to lead groups promoting almonds, strawberries and other farm products.
The Facebook effort resulted in 7.6 million “impressions” on consumers last year, and other media are doing well, too, Alec Wasson said. The most success has come in the Midwest and South and among lower-income families looking for bargains, he said.
The industry also is working to increase sales to school cafeterias and other large-scale users of tomato sauce, salsa, ketchup and other products. It argues, for example, that pizza is healthier with more sauce and less cheese and sausage.
California growers produced a record 14.3 million tons of canning tomatoes last year, said Mike Montna, the association’s president and chief executive officer.
The group negotiated a price of $80 per ton from processors, the second-highest on record, so tomatoes were a worthwhile use for the limited water, he said.
Growers expect to produce about 13.2 million tons this year, according to a survey this month by the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Industry leaders said this actually could be too much, since worldwide inventories of processed tomatoes are high.
“With weakness in the export market, we can’t sell that much, said Bruce Rominger, a Yolo County grower and chairman of the group’s board.
He noted the recent strengthening of the dollar against other currencies, which makes U.S. products more expensive in other nations. On top of that are European Union tariffs that add 14 percent to the cost.
BY THE NUMBERS
14.3 million: Tons of canning tomatoes grown in California last year, up from 14.1 million in 2014
$1.25 billion: Gross income to California growers in 2014, up from $996 million in 2013
$52.5 million: Gross income in Stanislaus County in 2014
$103.9 million: Gross income in Merced County in 2014
$132.7 million: Gross income in San Joaquin County in 2014
▪ A half-cup serving of diced canned tomatoes has 15 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamin C and 10 percent of the vitamin A.
▪ Canned tomatoes are a good source of lycopene, which is believed to protect against cancer.
More information: www.tomatowellness.com
Modesto: Stanislaus Food Products, supplying Italian restaurants and pizzerias under several labels
Oakdale: ConAgra Foods, sold under the Hunts and Ro-Tel labels
Escalon: Escalon Premier Brands, sold to food-service customers under several labels
Los Banos: Morning Star Packing Co., tomato products for food industry
Los Banos: Ingomar Packing Co., tomato products for food industry
Sources: California Tomato Growers Association; Tomato Products Wellness Council; county agricultural commissioners