Monday, April 25, 2016
Lawsuit accuses regulators of loosening Sacramento Delta water rules
By Ryan Sabalow
Three environmentalist groups filed a lawsuit Friday alleging that to increase water flowing to farms and cities, state and federal regulators in the drought have repeatedly relaxed water-quality standards on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the detriment of its wild fish species.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco claims the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency failed to enforce the Clean Water Act.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, The Bay Institute and Defenders of Wildlife say they sued in response to nearly two dozen decisions made by California’s State Water Resources Control Board that reduced water quality standards to increase water shipments to farms and cities.
The groups say the decisions have had disastrous consequences for native fish that were already struggling in the fragile estuary. Two species in particular, Delta smelt and winter-run Chinook salmon, are hovering on the edge of extinction.
“This is just becoming habit now,” said Kate Poole, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The agencies aren’t even trying to come up with ways to meet these requirements.”
Poole said the State Water Resources Control Board has an obligation to order cuts to water deliveries, even to senior water rights holders, when their diversions harm water quality. The lawsuit claims the EPA had an obligation to step in because of the state’s decisions.
An EPA spokeswoman had no comment Friday. A Water Resources Control Board spokesman said he had no comment, but Thomas Howard, the board’s executive director, said earlier this week that he didn’t think the allegations raised by the environmentalists had merit.
Environmentalists have long argued that excessive human demand for Delta water is the primary reason for the ongoing decline in fish populations. Pumps at the southern end of the Delta near Tracy deliver Sacramento Valley water to 19 million Southern Californians and millions of acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley. Water also is diverted by farms and cities upstream of the Delta as well as inside the estuary.
The lawsuit contends the most recent example of regulators relaxing water-quality standards occurred this week. The state board approved a request by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and federal fisheries officials that lowered minimum flow and oxygen requirements on the San Joaquin River before it flows into the Delta.
Environmentalists say the decision will harm migratory fish, including federally protected steelhead, as well as fall-run Chinook salmon.
Poole said nearly 10,000 adult Chinook recently had made their way through the Delta into the San Joaquin River basin to spawn, so ample flows are critical right now because their offspring are trying to make it down the river to the Pacific Ocean.
“We’re not giving the juveniles a way to get out safely,” Poole said. “We’re basically hammering the fall run that did successfully make it up there to spawn.”
Fall-run Chinook make up the bulk of the fish caught by California’s $1.4 billion-a-year salmon fishing industry.
Howard, the Water Resources Control Board executive director, said he signed off on the plan because the drought has so depleted New Melones Reservoir that there’s a need to maintain enough cold water flows for fish to last throughout the rest of the year and into 2017.
New Melones, on the rim of the eastern San Joaquin Valley, is the state’s fourth largest reservoir. It’s at 27 percent of capacity.
The matter is complicated because two local irrigation districts, Oakdale and South San Joaquin, have senior water rights that entitle them to up to 600,000 acre feet of water from New Melones, said Shane Hunt, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Reclamation.
Hunt’s agency operates New Melones Dam, but is a junior-water rights holder.
“At least where I’m standing right now the problem is that the only entity that has responsibility to meet those public-trust flows is the bureau,” Howard said, “and they don’t have the water.”
As part of the agreement, the districts will allow 75,000 acre-feet of water to flow into the San Joaquin River system, but that’s not enough to maintain the minimum standards.
Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow.
What’s eating the salmon?
By Mike Wade
Water managers have been saying for years that California’s salmon population is under attack by non-native predatory fish. Now there is science to prove it.
In a report on April 19 to the State Water Resources Control Board, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sean Hayes, whose doctorate is in ecology and evolutionary biology, talked about the multiple stressors that affect the life cycle of salmon. Hayes and his team from the NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center conducted acoustic tagging of baby salmon over the course of five years.
Their results confirmed similar studies over the past 25 years, showing that only 3 percent of the salmon smolts migrating to the ocean survive their journey in the two to three weeks following their release from upstream hatcheries.
Striped bass and largemouth bass, as well as channel catfish and white catfish, were identified as the predators doing the most damage to young salmon. Hayes estimated the current bass population needs about 27,500 tons of food in a year to sustain itself. Of that, about 264 tons is salmon.
That means this predator has the capability of decimating the entire salmon population in any given year.
In the water board meeting, Hayes described the changing nature of the Delta as a difficult challenge. Bass were introduced to the Delta from the East Coast 130 years ago to populate a new western commercial fishery. These non-native fish, as well as critical habitat loss, Asian clams that compete for food, and water hyacinth all contribute to poor conditions for native fish like salmon.
In addition to predators, the study identified three other factors that affect the salmon life cycle: water diversions, water temperature and contaminants.
Water diversions have been regulated for 20 years and the result has been little, if any, identifiable improvement in salmon populations.
Water temperature is getting more attention lately, at least in the upper reaches of the Sacramento River for the benefit of naturally reproducing salmon. Cold-water releases from Shasta Lake are designed to keep temperatures in the river low enough to benefit newly hatched salmon smolts.
Eliminating predatory bass and catfish altogether likely won’t solve the problem, according to the report. But it does identify “hot spots” in numerous sections of the Delta where salmon numbers suffer their greatest losses and where Hayes believes more attention to predator control needs to be focused. Allowing unrestricted fishing for bass or other predators in those areas would reduce the risk to salmon.
Another area where improved management can help is restoration of tidal habitat. Young salmon need a place to grow before migrating to the ocean. The Delta that existed before development began 150 years ago had vast swaths of tidal marshland that served as incubators for young fish. Today it is estimated that just 15 percent, and some say as little as 4 percent, of natural areas remain unchanged.
Recent experiments in the Yolo Bypass west of Sacramento show that restored habitat can help salmon grow stronger, which Hayes said would improve their survival chances as they migrate to the ocean.
No single tactic will fix all the problems in the Delta. The failed strategy of restricting water deliveries for the past 20 years proves that singling out one activity to help endangered salmon won’t work. It will take the collective effort of federal fishery agencies, the state water board, public water agencies such as irrigation districts and local landowners to address all the things Hayes discussed in the report.
Only then can we expect positive results in the effort to rebuild salmon populations to a sustainable level and deliver the water supplies we need to grow our food.
Mike Wade, a Modesto resident, is executive director of the Sacramento-based California Farm Water Coalition.
California desperately needs new surface storage
By Aubrey Bettencourt
Californians deserve rational and complete answers to their questions: Why has our state failed to initiate a meaningful response to not just one or two, but three catastrophic droughts we’ve experienced over the last 45 years?
California simply needs more water. Its people, fish, wildlife, food producers and others – all have been harmed by delays in our response to periodic droughts and climate change. What was an inconvenience in 1973 and a severe shortfall in the 1980s became an economy-stopping, public-health-threatening assault on our state’s residents in 2012-15.
In his commentary, “Nostalgia, not facts, drives Congress’ drought proposals” (Forum, April 17), Matt Weiser calls building dams and tinkering with the federal bureaucracy’s regulations under the Endangered Species Act “radioactive options.” He calls instead for groundwater recharge, water conservation on farms, stormwater capture and wastewater recycling.
From 2000 to 2014, Californians have passed $27.1 billion in water project bond measures, some funding projects he claims we still need. Another 33 percent was earmarked to ecosystems enhancements. Of the total, only $2.7 billion – 10 percent – can lay claim to funding water storage projects.
We have 50-year-old regulations with 21st century problems. Structural defects in the federal Reclamation Act and Endangered Species Act were starkly revealed during the current drought. Reclamation isn’t permitted to consider building new facilities, only maintain its existing ones.
Had Sites reservoir been online during 2014-15, Shasta, Trinity and Oroville reservoirs would have held enough cold water to chill the Sacramento River and avoid killing 95 percent or more of its spawning salmon and their offspring.
Had a Temperance Flat reservoir been available, spring and summer flows down a restored San Joaquin River would have carried steelhead downriver and pushed salt water, salmon smolt and Delta smelt back to sea, minimizing water quality problems and preventing the salmon and smelt from swimming toward export pumping stations.
California’s water system desperately needs new surface storage to operationally balance demands for ecological water use with the needs of California’s cities, farms and even the wildlife refuges that depend on water imports. That means we need new federal legislation with provisions that Weiser finds radioactive, but many thoughtful and caring Californians deem essential.
Aubrey Bettencourt is the executive director of the California Water Alliance, a statewide water policy nonprofit. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many farmers had no choice but to grow almonds
By John Michelena
Almonds have a rich history of bringing luck and prosperity in many cultures. Five candy-coated Jordan almonds are still sometimes given at weddings as wishes for happiness, health, wealth, longevity and fertility – a custom that originated in 1533 with the wedding of Catherine de’ Medici.
Almonds are treasured by farmers, too.
King almond has been the crown jewel of Central Valley crops for about a decade. Almonds have become the “go-to” miracle crop, bringing consistent returns and even some windfall profits. More than a few large producers became rich rather quickly, and with their riches have come labels like almond baron or even robber baron.
But they are not typical of most almond farmers, just like every person living in Silicon Valley is not Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Ellison.
Almond farmers are trying to stay afloat among a multitude of rising costs and regulations. Most probably grow a variety of crops, and many are somewhat new to growing almonds. Some might even be weekend farmers, owning a few acres and paying household bills with a regular city job.
Why almonds? As water became far more expensive and complicated to obtain during the drought, many farmers were desperate to find a crop that could cover the increased costs. With prices rising, they rushed to plant as many almond trees as possible. Besides, almonds offered labor-saving advantages in irrigation and mechanization.
They needed a high-value crop to repay those annual operating loans and mortgages, especially when their businesses are located in one of the most heavily regulated and expensive places on earth to operate.
As almond fever was spreading, politically motivated water policies disrupted the normal balance of California agriculture, incentivizing excesses in planting high-value crops at the expense of almost everything else. Many farmers abandoned alfalfa, cotton and other low-value crops because they had become unprofitable as the cost of water climbed higher and higher and it became more and more difficult to meet all the new regulations.
A lot of them came up with the same plan at the same time. California is producing almost 2 billion pounds of almonds per year, or about three times the amount we produced two decades ago. Almond acreage has more than doubled from 15 years ago.
On the demand side, the news is not good. World economies are slowing. The countries largely responsible for much of the phenomenal growth in demand – China and India – will likely purchase fewer nuts this year. The outlook from Europe is distressing as Italy and Germany signal systemic banking instabilities. It’s also unclear whether sweet California almonds are considered luxury items or a staple that people need.
But even with sharp price drops and these uncertainties, almonds are still more attractive than other crops.
So it’s not surprising that major mal-investments developed in the almond industry.
The reverberations might spread far beyond the busting of almond’s bubble and the shattering of its image of invincibility. The economic ramifications are incalculable and spread far beyond the farm.
Almonds paid the bills and kept California’s hazardous, impractical water scheme afloat for many years. Without almonds’ strong revenue stream, it’s possible larger cracks and fissures will develop, imperiling any number of economic sectors and industries.
Folklore says that dreaming of whole almonds foretells wealth, whereas dreaming of broken almonds indicates problems. Hmmm … guess we’ll have to sleep on it, hoping to dispel our unpleasant dreams.
John Michelena is a West Side grower and community columnist. Email him at email@example.com.
Thousands of Sierra trees getting cut to prepare for summer
By Marc Benjamin
NORTH FORK – Once bathed in deep green, the forests in the foothills and Sierra east of the San Joaquin Valley are increasingly turning reddish-brown as drought- and beetle-weary trees die by the month.
It is a somber warning of a potentially dangerous summer.
That ominous unnatural color reveals the homes of Western bark beetles, who bore into ponderosa pines, their tree of choice, and carve tiny pathways into drought-stricken trees that possess too little sap to eject the insects, as they had before the drought.
The tiny beetle, about the size of a flea, has mobilized fire crews, utilities, county officials, the California Department of Transportation, the U.S. Forest Service, local volunteer agencies and residents to reduce the threat of potentially devastating fires.
A study next month examining trees from the air is expected to report a near doubling of the 29 million trees already reportedly dead or dying. In 2014, it was already a crisis when 3.3 million trees had fallen prey to the infestation, said Daniel Berlant, communications director for Cal Fire.
“From the top of Kern (County) to Tuolumne County is the hardest hit,” Berlant said. “But we are seeing tree mortality moving farther north into the Placer County area at the top of Lake Tahoe.”
Local and state officials want the ponderosa pine’s territory, generally above 3,000 feet in elevation, declared a federal disaster area. But so far, the pitch has fallen on deaf ears.
“I don’t know why you have to wait for a disaster, for someone to get killed or maimed,” Madera County Supervisor Tom Wheeler said. “I don’t know how they can say we don’t have a disaster.”
Wheeler said concerned constituents are calling. They want help.
“I can’t go anywhere that people don’t say they lost another tree, five more, 10 more,” he said. “I get emails or texts every day.”
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, whose district covers mountain areas in Madera and Fresno counties, said a Federal Emergency Management Agency declaration can only be issued for disaster responses, not preventing them.
In the meantime, McClintock is trying to move $200 million in the federal budget from U.S. Department of the Interior land acquisition programs into “hazardous fuels reduction.”
But $200 million is a small amount for what is needed. In Fresno County alone, officials say the cost to cut necessary firefighting fuel breaks along roads will reach $98 million.
Despite drought-relieving rains and snow this winter in the Sierra, for many trees it’s too late, and tree deaths will continue for three to five more years, officials say.
The state’s Tree Mortality Task Force recently added new members: Calaveras, Amador and El Dorado counties.
Meanwhile, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Caltrans, Fresno County, local fire-safe councils and California’s two largest electric utilities are funneling millions of dollars to cut down dead and dying trees.
Caltrans officials estimate they will remove upwards of 40,000 trees statewide along highways this year.
“Since trees continue to be affected by drought and beetle infestation, the number of trees that need to be removed will continue to grow,” said Cory Burkarth, a public information officer for Caltrans in Fresno.
The Sierra National Forest is shifting money slated for fighting fires to tree removal and reinforcing fuel breaks, said Iveth Hernandez, public affairs assistant for the forest.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has 54,000 miles of power lines in fire-prone areas. It will remove 124,000 diseased, dead or dying trees this year, three times more than average before the drought, said spokeswoman Katie Allen. She said the utility has 80 to 100 crews contracted in local counties.
PG&E also is distributing $2 million to fire-safe councils for tree removal and fire-break efforts. Cal Fire also is distributing funds from State Responsibility Area fees paid by residents living in Cal Fire protection areas.
In February, Cal Fire issued $1.75 million in grants for fire-safe councils between Kern and Tuolumne counties. Nearly all the grants focused on tree removal.
Biomass plant idea
For now, dead and dying trees are cut down and left on private property. The trees have little value, but one idea is to use them for biomass to generate electricity.
North Fork is reviving its old mill site as a biomass plant to use wood chips and wood debris to produce one to two megawatts of electricity, which would provide power to between 1,000 and 2,000 homes. The project was granted $4.9 million by the California Energy Commission last year and could open in early 2017, creating jobs and a way to use the massive amounts of dead-tree waste.
But even though it can use waste wood, the plant will not come close to meeting the need to get rid of the trees.
“Our capacity will be more than exceeded by just the logs in Madera County,” said Justine Reynolds, project manager for the Yosemite/Sequoia Resource Conservation and Development Council, the nonprofit shepherding the project.
A 25-megawatt Fresno biomass plant that produces electricity from agricultural waste also could be a destination for wood chips made from dead and dying trees.
Rick Spurlock, plant manager for Rio Bravo Fresno, said the facility could take wood waste from Fresno, Tulare and Madera counties. Making it cost effective is an issue because of transportation costs to move the waste from the mountains, he said.
Company officials are working to establish agreements to get material from high-hazard zones. If the wood catches fire in the forest, it pollutes. Rio Bravo’s pollution technology can remove up to 99 percent of pollutants from reaching the air compared with open burning.
“In my opinion, there is no other alternative for this material,” he said.
Making the cuts
Priority for tree cutting is given to areas where fire history and the number of dead trees could cause the perfect firestorm.
In eastern Fresno County, dead trees are coming down, but probably not fast enough, officials say.
“These trees have been through this before, but we’ve never had this much of an infestation of bark beetles,” said Jim McDougald, a division chief for Cal Fire in the Fresno-Kings Unit.
For now, the focus is cutting dead trees within 200 feet of either side of a roadway. Those trees, marked for death by blue dots of paint, are then ground into wood chips and spread on the forest floor.
Clearing both sides of the road will keep fire from climbing into dead trees and spreading embers toward nearby homes.
Cressman Road, located off Highway 168 near Shaver Lake, has both fire history and widespread dead trees. Like many of the other priority sites, Cressman has only one way in and one way out, and requires a fuel break to allow for easier evacuation, McDougald said.
“Work we’re doing in here will reduce the risk of a fire that can cost millions of dollars and save the community,” he said.
But more work, he admits, needs to be done.
In Madera and Mariposa counties the mortality rate is 80 percent to 90 percent. The hardest hit populated locations are Cascadel Woods, near North Fork, and Bass Lake.
Ponderosa pines normally die from bark beetles, but the numbers usually are quite small.
“The normal kill rate is 1 to 2 percent,” said Len Nielson, a forester and division chief for Cal Fire in the Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit.
But the beetle population has exploded during the drought. As beetle numbers grew, the number of dead and dying trees has grown along with it.
“In Cascadel, it’s 90 percent,” Nielson said. “You can’t find a live ponderosa pine. If they’re not dead, they’re already infested.”
Norval Lee watches anxiously as a dead ponderosa pine outside his Cascadel Woods home is attacked limb-by-limb by a chainsaw-wielding worker in a cherry picker.
He tried to save the tree with plant food and extra water, but to no avail.
Now, he is most worried about keeping big trees, which puts the “Woods” part of the name in his rural, mountain Madera County hamlet at 4,200 feet in elevation.
“It’s near power lines,” he said. “I don’t want any pine trees in my yard at all … I’m hoping to get that tree down so it doesn’t fall and hit my house.”
The work at Lee’s house was part of a PG&E program to clear trees from power lines.
In the Cressman Road area residents are encouraged seeing McDougald and fire crews clearing dead trees.
Abb Adkisson, a retiree from Los Angeles who has lived on Cressman full time for 21 years, says the fire crews are doing “a fantastic job” cutting down trees and inspecting properties.
“What we’re most worried about is the unknown and the fire season coming up,” said Adkisson, who also serves as a firefighter for the Pine Ridge Volunteer Fire Department.
But seeing the trees fall brings a sense of sadness, too.
“Mainly we live up here because of the trees and the forest,” he said. “The seriousness of fires makes it so that these trees have to come down.”
Pat Ubbink, who also retired from Los Angeles and has lived on Cressman for 25 years, recently paid to have 80 pines removed. It gave her some peace of mind but “it cost quite a bit.”
“If a fire comes through here, I think we’ll do pretty good now that our trees are all cut down,” she said.
But despite the cost, she feels fortunate because she was able to pay for it. Tree fallers have long waiting lists.
“If everybody could afford to do something it would be much better, but I know they can’t,” she said.
Oakhurst tree faller Richard Brechbuehl, who has been in the business for 40 years, said there is a lot of potential work, but that estimates and costs are often a bitter pill for customers.
“People are in shock,” said Brechbuehl, who owns Tree Works. “They can’t afford to get it done or they’re hoping the government or PG&E will do it.”
Speaking from a home near Echo Valley, where he had just removed 60 trees, he said, the bill was $24,000 for the homeowner.
That’s enough for residents, who have been turning against forest management policies.
“The average person at the grocery store gets it now and they’re mad,” he said. “But it’s too late because no one anticipated this kind of disaster.”
Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin, firstname.lastname@example.org
Orange County Register
Farm labor election funny business
Since when in our democracy are election results destroyed before being counted? That’s what’s happening in a labor case involving workers for Gerawan Farming of Fresno.
In 2013, those workers voted to decertify representation by the United Farm Workers because the union had done nothing for more than 20 years. Shortly after, the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board ordered the ballots impounded without counting, citing charges of irregularities.
On April 15, reported the Fresno Bee, the ALRB “upheld an administrative law judge’s decision to dismiss” the farm workers’ position and “the balloting by Gerawan workers will be nullified.” In his earlier ruling, “Judge Mark R. Soble determined that Gerawan had violated the Agricultural Labor Relations Act by supporting and assisting in signature gathering for the decertification petition.”
Why couldn’t they just count the votes and announce the results, then deal with any objections?
The Bee reported that, on April 18, Gerawan officials rejected the charges and said they would appeal the decision to the state Fifth District Court of Appeal in Fresno. It’s likely the case will end up with the state Supreme Court.
The UFW, naturally, backed the ALRB’s decision. Where has it been the past 20 years?
The leader of the 5,000 Gerawan workers, Silvia Lopez, has been called “the new Cesar Chavez,” the UFW co-founder, who died in 1993. According to a 2012 article in the liberal Nation magazine, UFW membership dropped from 50,000 in the 1970s to 6,000 in 2012. According to UnionFacts.com, membership since has increased to 10,278.
Ms. Lopez said she now wants a new election. Her attorney, Anthony Raimondo, said, “Workers’ future should be decided by workers, not by judges, bureaucrats and politicians. Let the people vote.”
That seems obvious to us. The ALRB should schedule a new election, to be supervised by independent monitors.