Friday, May 27, 2016
Two Delta districts may be off the hook
By Alex Breitler
In a significant reversal on Thursday, state water officials moved to drop their case against two Delta water districts accused of illegally diverting water during the drought last summer.
The State Water Resources Control Board concluded, in a draft decision, that a water availability analysis upon which the case was based had “significant” shortcomings. However, the state also continued to defend its disputed right to crack down on high-ranking senior diverters who pump when water isn’t available.
The decision still must be approved by the full board in June.
Officials had proposed fining the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District near Tracy a total of $1.4 million, alleging that the district kept pumping for 12 days last June even though water was no longer available under its century-old water right.
The smaller Westside Irrigation District also faced a possible cease-and-desist order.
“Without adequate testimony to explain and support the manner in which the water availability analysis was constructed and used, and given the potential magnitude of the discrepancies … we are unable to find that the prosecution team has carried its burden of proof,” the state’s draft decision says.
Jeanne Zolezzi, the Stockton attorney representing the Westside district, said the water board came to the correct conclusion.
“That determination, however, should have been made before enforcement actions were filed,” she wrote in an email Thursday. “The small agricultural districts being prosecuted by the State Board have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending themselves against these unjustified and unwarranted actions.”
Hearings on the case began on March 23 and were expected to last about 11 days. On March 25, however, water board members who were acting as “hearing officers” or judges, of sorts, abruptly suspended the remainder of the proceedings, saying they wanted to deliberate on “certain factual issues.”
More than two months later, the state moved Thursday to dismiss the case entirely.
The decision, however, appears to be narrow in scope. The state continues to insist that it has the right to cut off even senior-water rights holders, a position which was expected to be challenged by Delta interests in the hearings.
Nor does the decision mean that water curtailments weren’t needed last summer, said George Kostyrko, a spokesman for the water board.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean the water districts had water available to them,” he said. “It means the prosecution team didn’t prove its case.”
In a prepared statement, Rick Gilmore, general manager of the Byron-Bethany district, said he was pleased the water board “finally did the right thing.”
“We will review this ruling in greater detail with our legal team and look forward to putting this chapter behind us,” he said.
— Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at recordnet.com/breitlerblog and on Twitter @alexbreitler.
Santa Rosa Press Democrat
Another water grab surfaces in Congress
House Republicans are trying a new approach to divert more water from Northern California.
Check that. They’re dusting off a stale and disreputable tactic: attaching a proposal that can’t pass on its own to unrelated legislation that has bipartisan support.
In this instance, they’re hitching a ride on Senate-approved energy measures that reached the House floor this week. One is a must-pass bill that contains $37.4 billion in funding for the upcoming fiscal year. The other is a broader energy policy bill.
These parliamentary maneuvers are further evidence that growers and water districts can’t justify what they want – more water at any cost, even jeopardizing endangered salmon and the North Coast communities that rely on fishing for their economic survival.
Northern California representatives have been locked out of negotiations as their Central Valley colleagues have produced one bad bill after another. Valley legislators, meanwhile, have ignored a science-based measure introduced by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.
Huffman made some progress this week on a related front, when a House committee voted to modernize management practices at dams managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, which would end the practice of releasing water from Lake Mendocino to protect against a flood that isn’t even in the weather forecast.
The GOP bill heads in the opposite direction: ordering more pumping of water to farms south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which would threaten salmon runs as well as the environmentally fragile delta itself.
The legislation also would shrink a San Joaquin River salmon-and-habitat restoration program, mandate the sale of New Melones Dam on the Stanislaus River to local water districts and prohibit the use of federal money to purchase water to supplement flows for environmental purposes in river basins that have suffered from drought.
A stand-alone version of the water bill passed the House over the objection of environmental groups and Northern California congressional representatives. That measure stalled in the Senate.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein told McClatchy Newspapers that she doesn’t think the latest bill could pass the Senate either. The danger is that it could slip through if other issues in the energy legislation dominate the attention of a House-Senate conference committee.
Feinstein, who has tried for several years to broker a compromise, offered alternative legislation of her own earlier this year. Unfortunately, it also lacks adequate safeguards for the delta and the salmon whose continued existence is dependent on its restoration.
California may be past its most recent drought, but that doesn’t mean water supplies are unlimited. The state and federal governments have made a priority of protecting natural resources, including endangered species. That shouldn’t be abandoned to facilitate larger diversions to the Central Valley.
Residents still are being asked to conserve. But, as Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton pointed out on these pages, California agriculture uses 80 percent of the state’s water, and growers kept planting thirsty nut trees throughout the drought while pressing, often in court, for maximum diversions and pumping groundwater at an unsafe rate.
Their bid for more water continues in Washington, but it’s time to tighten the tap.
Presidential race unclear for California agriculture
By David Castellon
No doubt about it, California’s agricultural industry is acutely aware that a lot is riding on them in this year’s presidential election.
Trade agreements, workplace law, employee health insurance, immigration and food policies all are topics affected by the White House affecting farmers, ranchers and other businesses tied to the food raised in California — far and away the nation’s top state in agricultural production.
And normally this far in an election year, groups that include the California Fresh Fruit Association would be putting their support behind a particular presidential candidate believed to best represent the interests of farmers.
But that hasn’t happened yet, despite California’s Presidential Primary Election being less than two weeks away.
“I think we’re all very frustrated in where we are in this election,” said Barry Bedwell, president of the Central Valley-based association that represents growers of 13 fresh fruit commodities, including table grapes, peaches, cherries and apricots.
“I’m not seeing anybody who is clear-cut better for agriculture,” he said of the major candidates still in the race — Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
“We don’t have a clear-cut choice because there are issues and challenges with each of the candidates,” at least from the perspective of the agricultural industry, Bedwell said.
“I am disturbed that this is the best we have of candidates,” added Manuel Cunha, Jr., president of the Nisei Farmers League, a trade association representing farm owners across California.
The big problem, he said, is that the three frontrunners all have big pros and big cons on issues important to the industry.
For example, Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, favors reducing regulations on businesses — “He hates bureaucratic agencies” — and many in the ag industry believe they’re over-regulated, Cunha said.
“The other two candidates want to create more government,” he said of Democrats Clinton and Sanders.
But immigration is another major issue for the industry, as many farmers and ranchers depend on cheap labor from Mexico and favor immigration reforms that will allow workers to legally come across the border to work here and then go home.
And fears of getting caught in immigration raids here are keeping some workers from crossing the border, which has exacerbated the shortage of farm laborers here, Cunha said.
Unfortunately, politicians have been batting around immigration for years “as a political tool to win elections, but don’t do a damn thing to get anything done,” he added.
Trump has put immigration front and center in his campaign, but he wants to put up a border wall and favors more restriction on crossing from Mexico to the U.S., while the GOP is favoring mandatory e-verification of workers to determine they’re legally in U.S.
Neither of these generally sit well with the farmers, who are concerned they’ll be more vulnerable to penalties for hiring undocumented workers under a Trump administration, Cunha said.
Clinton, on the other hand favors a guest worker program and she supports two programs President Obama started — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability — that allows children of illegal immigrants born in the U.S. and their parent temporary deferment from deportation while allowing them time to apply for citizenship, which farmers in the Nisei league largely favor, he added.
As for Sanders, “I have no idea where he is at” on immigration,” Cunha said.
With these significant differences on issues important to California agriculture, he asked, “Which one do you pick? And I’m greatly concerned on this.”
“We have concerns with all three candidates,” added Bedwell.
For example, he said, “We in California support the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” a trade agreement signed earlier this year by a dozen Pacific Rim countries, including the U.S., touted as improving trade between the countries, as well as creating jobs and reducing poverty.
“And we in ag see it as an opportunity to reduce tariffs and thus increase trade” of U.S farm goods, Bedwell said.
But Trump sees this and the earlier North American Free Trade Agreement as bad deals for the U.S. while Sanders also opposes them for different reasons and Clinton — who earlier supported the agreements — now is against them, too, Bedwell said.
And while members of the California Fresh Fruit Association generally are aligned with the Democratic candidates on immigration reform, they’re at odds with the two on environmental issues.
“We think there is room for discussion on the Endangered Species Act,” Bedwell said.
Many in the ag industry say the act has resulted in large amounts of water in the San Joaquin Delta being directed away from farms and communities that need it to protect endangered fish, which has become a major hot-button issue in California during the current, severe drought.
With all these negatives against the candidates, “It’s probably easier to edge out the bottom person than the top person,” from an agricultural perspective, Bedwell said.
“If we were really pointing to who is probably presenting the most challenges, we would probably have to say Bernie,” he added.
“Mary Ann Leffel, president of the Monterey County Business Council agrees.
Her group represents the interests of all types of business in her county, including the top industry there — agriculture.
“I think that probably a candidate that would be the least favorable for business is Bernie Sanders — for all business — end of the story,” Leffel said.
While she wouldn’t say whether Clinton or Trump would be the best candidate for California agriculture, she said a Sanders presidency could result in additional taxes and and industry regulations “that put more of a burden on producing food and putting your workforce to work.
“And it just drives up the cost of production and creates more burden,” that could drive some farming operations and other business out of the U.S., Leffel said.
“You can grow strawberries lots of places” outside this country, she noted.
And Cunha said representatives from Mexico’s already have been communicating with California farmers about the advantages of moving their operations south, across the border.
Deborah Yashar, marketing and communications manager for the Ecological Farming Association — also known as “EcoFarm” — disagreed with Leffel and Bedwell, saying that her group supports Sanders for president.
The Soquel-based nonprofit educates farmers in ecologically-sound farming practices.
“Bernie Sanders, he wants to fight for small and mid-sized farms, as well as underserved farmers,” including those who are minorities, women, low-income and socially disadvantaged, Yashar said.
In addition, she said, the senator from Vermont wants to enforce anti-trust laws against large agribusinesses, supports labeling on food products made with genetically-modified ingredients wants add-on programs to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — formerly food stamps — offering incentives for people on welfare to buy vegetables and fruits in lieu of less healthy foods.
Sanders also has said he wants to shift federal farm subsidies from large-scale farms.
“He says it’s unacceptable the top 10 percent of farms collect 75 percent of farm subsidies … while the bottom 62 percent don’t get any subsidies,” Yashar said. “I don’t see the other candidates talking about this big issue.”
Not surprisingly, EcoFarm finds Trump the least favorable candidate, she said, noting that the millionaire condones GMO labeling but only on a voluntary basis for food manufacturers.
“We all know that GMO companies don’t want to, and they are fighting hard to keep GMO products from being labeled,” Yashar noted.
Still, in her group’s view, Trump has one positive, in that he opposes to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“That’s a good thing, in our view, because the Trans-Pacific Partnership basically supports monopolies and international trade that takes advantage of disadvantaged economies and manipulates the marketplace,” Yashar explained.
Several agricultural organizations contacted declined to discuss their groups’ presidential preferences or didn’t respond to interview requests, including the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, the California Grower Foundation and Western Growers.
The California Farm Bureau in Sacramento responded with an email stating, “Farm Bureau continues to research the candidates’ positions on the issues important to farmers and ranchers.”
“We haven’t had those discussions yet,” to get some a consensus on whom dairy operators in the state favor for president, said Lynne McBride, executive director of the California Dairy Campaign in Turlock.
For now, Bedwell said the California Fresh Fruit Association isn’t donating money to any of the presidential candidates until the group can decide on whom to support, which may occur after the California’s June 7 primary and after the Republican and Democratic parties formally select their respective candidates.
Hopefully, once that happens the nominees will elaborate on and clarify their views on issues important to agriculture, he said.
In the meantime, Cunha said, his group is willing to educate Trump on immigration issues and educate the Clinton on the problems the ag industry is facing from over regulation, as “The Endangered Species Act is out of control.
“What we want them to do is sit down with us — the industry, the workers and not somebody who hasn’t done it.”
But even then, it may come down to writing down the pros and cons of each candidate and supporting the candidate who has the most pros, Bedwell said.
“This is the most difficult decision I can remember for California agriculture,” he said. “In the past you did have clear choices. It was clearly weighted one way or the other.”
Food processors meet in Modesto to talk about challenges – and robots
By John Holland
Food processors meeting Thursday in Modesto heard concerns about water supplies, the complex rules on air pollution, and the need to improve trucking routes.
But never mind that – those were some cool robots that high school students demonstrated at the front of the banquet hall.
The Manufacturers Council of the Central Valley, mainly representing food and beverage companies from San Joaquin through Merced counties, held its 25th annual meeting.
The DoubleTree Hotel gathering dealt with the usual topics affecting canneries, poultry plants, nut processors, dairy companies, wineries and other handlers of the region’s farm bounty.
The mood lightened when the Beyer High School robotics team showed its skill with a technology already in wide use among food processors. Members built and programmed remote-controlled vehicles that have shined in contests involving shooting a basketball, storming a fake castle and other feats.
“It gave me something to look forward to in my career,” member Hayden Ricklick told the audience. “It gave me a passion. It gave me a drive.”
Despite these shining stars, a shortage of skilled labor besets the industries. They need electricians, welders, electronic troubleshooters and other people in the food plants and in places, such as can-making plants and freight railroads, that serve them.
The council has been bringing employers to high schools to show what jobs are out there and to convey that it’s not the “grimy” work of old, Executive Director Jennifer Carlson Shipman said.
“We plant the seed and spread the message about the wonderful opportunities available in a career in manufacturing,” she said.
Shipman noted the council’s work to streamline air quality rules at the regional, state and federal level. One proposal from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, she said, could mean an end to combustion engines.
The council is monitoring a possible November ballot measure that would increase the sales tax for transportation projects in Stanislaus County. And it worries that customers of the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts could face high costs for new hydropower licenses on the Tuolumne River, as well as reduced water.
“All of our members have to deal with a roller coaster of environmental compliance,” Shipman said. “You never know where that ride is going to take you.”
John Holland: 209-578-2385, email@example.com
Santa Maria Times
Presidential hopeful Sanders to rally in Santa Maria
After learning that a farm labor camp is being planned near Orcutt, some local folks might ask — why?
The only reasonable answer we can think of is that such a facility seems the logical next step for local growers, after one of those business owner’s plans to accommodate migrant workers in regular housing went up in flames. Literally.
The Santa Barbara County Planning Commission will consider the farm worker housing compound proposal at its regular meeting June 1, at which issuance of a conditional-use permit will be discussed.
The proposed camp would be located on property at 3650 Highway 1, west of Orcutt, about a mile northwest of Black Road, and is being called the Curletti Farm Employee Housing Project. Here are some details:
Proposed are 30 bunkhouses capable of housing 20 workers each, plus three larger structures with cooking and laundry areas to accommodate 200 workers each.
Despite the math implicit in those worker totals, county officials say the average daily occupancy would likely be about 450 workers.
All workers housed at the proposed camp would be involved in the federal government’s H-2A program allowing U.S. employers to bring in foreign nationals, which under federal law are not considered undocumented.
The H-2A program’s part in this plan also is the reason the camp is being proposed. The program requires growers to provide housing for foreign guest workers.
All very clean and neat — except according to federal data, H-2A workers make up only about 3 percent of the nation’s agricultural work force, a percentage that likely is unrealistic here in California, where undocumented migrant workers have been an integral part of the local economy for generations.
And therein lies the impetus for a local grower to propose a work camp. Undocumented workers, those not enrolled in H-2A, do not have to be provided housing, and the result has been fairly obvious over the years — large groups of people crammed into rental housing that was substandard before workers moved in.
The only realistic alternatives to proposals like the one to be considered by the Planning Commission are that government provide such housing, or the private sector provides rental space for migrant workers.
The problem with government providing worker housing is that translates to taxpayers footing the bill for the benefit of the private sector, which in this case would be local growers. The problem with the private sector providing the rental housing is what we mentioned earlier — the potential for dozens of people to be crammed into a one-bedroom bungalow.
Another issue is that not a lot is known about the extent of the migrant worker housing problem in California. There is visual and anecdotal evidence, but to our knowledge there has never been a statewide survey to quantify the issue — in a state that hosts the majority of the nation’s undocumented farm workers.
There are about two dozen public migrant housing centers in California, typically serving fewer than 2,000 worker families, which is a tiny fraction of the total migrant work force. At one point in the not-so-distant past, a grower told us North County had about 15,000 migrant workers during peak season, most undocumented. That number has shriveled in recent years, as anti-immigrant sentiment has spiked in America.
All things considered, making a camp available to several hundred H-2A workers may be a good idea, but it is something that needs to be thoroughly examined and discussed.
We’d like to hear from readers, who we suspect may have some strong opinions. What do you think?
TPP will help us sell fruit in Asia; politicians should help it pass
By Neill Callis
A recent U.S. International Trade Commission report confirms what the 98-year-old family-owned farming company I work for has known for decades: Opening export markets is a good thing, especially for the California fresh produce industry.
According to the ITC report, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement will increase U.S. fruit, vegetable and tree-nut exports by nearly $1 billion, or 8.3 percent.
Though this is a big number; we import $6 billion more in fresh produce than we export. So the U.S. still has a long way to go after TPP is enacted. But first, we need to get this agreement passed by Congress.
This is where our local representatives – Jeff Denham, Jim Costa and David Valadao – need to step in and help push the deal through the House. TPP will be a net positive for their constituents in farming communities up and down Highway 99, including my family’s own farming operations in Turlock and Firebaugh.
Turlock Fruit Company specializes in honeydews, cantaloupes and “mixed melon” varieties; we are one of the last California asparagus growers still in operation. All of our fruits and vegetables are carefully harvested and packed by hand, which requires a skilled workforce. With labor costs set to rise 50 percent over the next five years and ever-increasing water shortages (and costs), our business landscape will grow increasingly fraught with risk as our margins shrink.
To remain viable and profitable, we need a strategy to offset these perils. Foreign markets are a key part of our business plan.
During the summer harvest, I work with my 86-year-old grandfather-in-law, Don Smith, where we see first-hand the volatility of the U.S. fresh produce market. One adage is always true: When you are “long” on product (have excess supply), so are all of your competitors.
Fruits and vegetables are highly perishable, and farmers cannot simply store our inventory until supplies dwindle and markets improve. Instead, we need a sales strategy that includes the opportunity to export products to other countries.
However, exporting fresh produce carries significant risks. Our trading partners do not always play by the same rules as Americans. TPP will ensure that our trade happens in a fairer market with a more level playing field. All we want is the opportunity to compete.
TPP will promote “freer” trade in two important ways.
First, TPP will immediately eliminate many of the tariffs that make our produce prohibitively expensive overseas. For example, Vietnam currently levies a 15 percent duty on asparagus and 30 percent on melons. So, we don’t ship to Vietnam, nor do any of our domestic competitors. These tariff barriers will go away the day TPP goes into effect, opening a market for American fresh produce estimated to be worth over $700 million per year.
Second, TPP takes productive steps to ensure more scientifically based and consistently applied sanitary and phytosanitary measures. Put simply, every country reserves the right to ban imported fresh produce if it exceeds a certain threshold for pesticide residues or is found to contain unwanted pests or diseases. However, many countries use arbitrary thresholds as a barrier to trade, subjecting our exports to unnecessary inspections and delays, often leading to substantial losses.
Without TPP, the future of our export program will be in jeopardy, and we would likely reduce our plantings by hundreds of acres, leading us to lay off a significant number of seasonal employees in the field and packing shed.
This will also have an impact on many of our vendors: seed companies, fertilizer companies, trucking companies, equipment manufacturers. A decrease in acres affects more than just our bottom line – it ripples up and down the supply chain.
In short, we support TPP because it gives us the opportunity to compete in free and fair markets, making it more likely we’ll be able to keep the farm going long enough to give my son and daughter a chance to continue the family tradition for a fifth generation.
Neill Callis works in sales and management of Turlock Fruit Co. and is a member of the Western Growers Association’s Future Leaders Program. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.