Monday, January 11, 2016
Rural Californians sympathize with protesters’ goals in Oregon standoff
By Ryan Sabalow, Dale Kasler and Phillip Reese
Jerry Kresge, a cattle rancher in the remote northeast corner of California, doesn’t necessarily agree with the tactics of the armed activists who have seized a federal office building in Burns, Ore.
But he shares their frustration.
Like the activists in Oregon, Kresge says the federal government’s grip on vast stretches of land in the West has become a stranglehold. Kresge, 56, is even thinking of driving to Burns, about 200 miles from his Modoc County ranching operation, as a show of solidarity – not so much with the activists occupying the building, but with the two imprisoned ranchers whose criminal case sparked the Jan. 2 takeover.
“I am getting fed up,” he said, “just about to my eyebrows.”
Kresge is like many others in rural California who contend they are being smothered by the federal government and its land-management practices. He watched the federal government close forests to logging in the 1990s to protect endangered spotted owls, crippling the Modoc County economy. More recently, he said, the feds have allowed Modoc’s forests to grow out of control, leading to destructive wildfires. Kresge’s cattle compete for grass against herds of feral horses that he says federal officials will not relocate.
Federal agencies own 73 percent of the land in Modoc County, and Kresge said that makes it hard for the county’s 9,400 residents to earn a decent living.
“We either have to quit and go do something else, or we need to fight it,” he said. “I think most folks I know are to the point where they’ll fight.”
Though California’s huge urban population centers drive its politics and its national reputation as a liberal state, there’s another side. In rural areas, public sentiment is often not all that different from the other Western states that birthed the conflict behind the Burns occupation.
Nearly half the land in California is owned by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service or other federal agencies, with the highest concentrations in its far northern and eastern reaches. The federal government owns about 96 percent of Alpine County and 88 percent of Trinity.
Federal control over much of the West dates to the 19th century. As America expanded westward, the federal government acquired hundreds of millions of acres of land. Although Congress handed over much of it to homesteaders and other settlers, it held back enormous swaths as the conservation movement took hold in the late 1800s. Today the federal government owns 640 million acres overall, much of it in the West. It owns 85 percent of Nevada, more than any other state.
In portions of these rural regions, residents live an uneasy coexistence with the government. Federal ownership of so much land sets up almost inevitable conflict: With comparatively little private land available, ranchers, loggers and others routinely have to negotiate deals with the federal government to work the land just outside their windows.
For its part, Washington says it has to strike a balance between commercial interests, recreation and environmental protection of some of the country’s most treasured landscape. Unable to please everyone, land agencies often are sued by competing factions over land stewardship decisions.
To many in these far-flung counties, federal land ownership has come to symbolize overreaching government control. The resentment manifests itself in different ways. One example readily visible in rural Northern California is the State of Jefferson movement, whose roadside banners publicize its efforts to carve a 51st state from nearly two dozen conservative counties in the northern part of the state and southern Oregon.
“How can a county exist when it doesn’t have control of its own land?” said Mark Baird, a Siskiyou County radio station owner and a leader in the movement. “It’s sapping the economy of a lot of the Western states.”
Baird, speaking at a rally on the Capitol steps in Sacramento last week, made it clear he doesn’t support the takeover of the federal building in Oregon. But he and other Jefferson activists understand where the Oregon occupiers are coming from.
“I like the fact that they’re taking a stand,” said Mark Banks, a construction contractor from Tuolumne County who attended the rally wearing a Jefferson Militia cap. “I don’t think an armed resistance is necessarily the way to go.”
Federal lands are by no means off-limits to business. The agencies open up millions of acres for livestock grazing, logging, oil and natural gas production, and other commercial activities. Critics in the environmental community say it amounts to exploitation of a public resource for private profit. They say the fees ranchers pay to graze are so low it amounts to a federal subsidy.
Ranchers counter that rangeland leases come with so much red tape and indirect costs that they are hardly a free ride.
Either way, rural residents are bristling against a perceived loss of control. They seethe in frustration as summer wildfires burn timber that once might have given loggers and mill workers jobs. When federal officials close dusty forest roads to protect sensitive landscapes, the locals see barriers blocking access to huge stretches of county land. Ranchers resent the sanctions they face if they do not pull their cattle off the range by the day their permits expire, even if an early snowstorm slows a roundup.
John Martin, a retired Bureau of Land Management economist who lectures at Boise State University in Idaho, said the frustration goes beyond mere economic concerns.
“You have that attitude, the Western attitude, of ‘leave me alone,’ ” Martin said.
Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno, said the standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon is the latest in a series of skirmishes that have flared since the 1970s. That’s when Congress passed protections for endangered species and a law declaring that federal lands would remain under federal control.
The law helped give rise to the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, an ongoing feud led by Western ranchers and mining interests seeking to reassert local control. Four years ago, for instance, the Utah Legislature passed a law calling on the federal government to turn over more than 20 million acres to the state. And in recent years, some congressional Republicans have sponsored legislation that would transfer land back to the states and local authorities.
Herzik said these efforts are rooted in legitimate concerns about local control. But he said the proponents are fighting a lost cause.
“They’re not going to get the control back,” he said. “While I’m sympathetic to local control, these are federal lands. They’re owned by all the people of the United States. So to say, ‘This is our land because we live next to it,’ well, no. It’s not.”
What’s more, he said, the local-control movement has been co-opted by attention-seeking radicals in Oregon and elsewhere.
“That detracts from the issues of local control vs. federal control that really is at the base here,” he said. “It hurts the legitimate ranchers who are trying to work through these issues with, in a sense, a much stronger partner on the other side of the table: the federal government.”
Environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts oppose the notion of locals gaining control over federal lands. As they see it, ranchers, loggers and oil companies would run roughshod over some of the most pristine, rugged lands in America if given the opportunity.
“They want to take America’s natural heritage and turn it over to the states to privatize them,” said Randi Spivak, director of the public lands program for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group based in Tucson, Ariz.
She said the current rules don’t do enough to keep public wildlands from being exploited. Instead of being safeguarded for environmental purposes, far too much land is open to fossil fuel extraction and millions of acres are open to grazing, she said.
“Does that sound restrictive?” she said. “I think not.”
Up until the Burns incident, the most recent headline-grabbing encounter between ranchers and federal agents came in 2014, when officers came to Cliven Bundy’s southern Nevada ranch to collect cattle as payment for the more than $1 million his family owed in unpaid grazing fees. Bundy says he does not recognize the federal government’s claim to the land. Federal officials eventually backed off after a prolonged standoff with armed activists. Bundy still hasn’t paid.
Bundy’s sons, calling themselves the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, took over the empty Burns refuge building with a group of armed supporters. Their group was originally part of a demonstration on behalf of two Oregon ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven.
The Hammonds were convicted in 2012 of setting two illegal fires on federal rangeland they leased. Prosecutors said they set one of the blazes after illegally killing at least seven deer, and both fires posed a threat to human safety. Even so, a federal judge said it would “shock the conscience” to sentence the ranchers to years in federal prison. Instead, he sentenced them to well below the five-year minimum required under federal law. The elder Hammond served three months. His son served a year.
After prosecutors appealed, the Hammonds were resentenced last October to five-year terms and reported last week to a federal prison in the San Pedro section of Los Angeles.
The ranchers’ case received broad support among Western livestock producers and agricultural activists frustrated with what they saw as another example of heavy-handed oversight of federal lands. The Hammonds argued they set one fire to burn off invasive plant species and the other to buffer grazing land against approaching wildfires.
To their supporters in rural California, the Hammonds were doing the kinds of necessary rangeland management that federal managers are often reluctant to do. The Hammond sympathizers also said the punishment did not seem to fit the crime. The men burned fewer than 200 acres, with no injuries or other property damage. Supporters were appalled that the mandatory minimum sentences imposed fell under a federal anti-terrorism law because the crime involved arson on federal property. These men, their supporters say, are no terrorists.
Some California ranchers say the occupiers’ militant tactics are not productive, no matter how legitimate their frustrations may be.
“I was really disappointed to see them them go to Burns, Ore., because it changed the story from the Hammond family and the total breakdown of justice there to a radical, a far-right radical, militia-based idea,” said Ned Coe, a Modoc County cattle rancher and field representative for the California Farm Bureau Federation. “I was really upset to see that occur, because I felt there was some real opportunity for inroads to be made to the general public.”
Coe said Modoc County, like many rural counties in the West, is chronically impoverished in large part because so much of the federal land is off limits to the local economy. A big culprit, he said, is the spotted owl controversy.
Revenue from timber sales used to to support schools and other essential services in Modoc County. When efforts to protect the spotted owl led to drastic reductions in logging in the 1990s, Congress appropriated funds to offset the lost revenue. But Coe said some years there is not enough money to run the county snowplows.
His fellow Modoc rancher, Kresge, said federal restrictions might make it impossible for his family to continue ranching as it has for six generations. It’s a worry shared by his 35-year-old daughter, Amy Foster, who’s also thinking of heading up to Oregon to support the Hammonds.
They discussed the prospect over lunch last week, he said, including the risk of getting caught in the crossfire if the occupation turned violent.
“She said, ‘Here’s the dilemma. If I go up and heaven forbid there’s bloodshed, and I don’t come home, my husband will still be here to raise my child,’ ” Kresge recounted. “ ‘If I don’t go and we continue to let the federal government run over the top of us, there’s not going to be anything for him anyway.’ ”
They’re still mulling their options.
Map of federal land ownership
COUNTIES WITH THE MOST FEDERAL LAND
Percent of land controlled
San Luis Obispo
Figures are approximate
Source: Bee analysis of data from Esri and U.S. Geological Survey
Ryan Sabalow: firstname.lastname@example.org, 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow
McClatchy Washington bureau reporter Michael Doyle contributed to this story.
Los Angeles Times
Demise of Klamath River deal could rekindle old water-use battles
By Bettina Boxall
The demise of a deal to end decades of feuding on the Klamath River could rekindle old battles over water use and dams in a remote corner of California.
A key piece of a three-part agreement expired when Congress failed to approve it by Dec. 31. The complicated pact, backed by the states of California and Oregon, called for the removal of four hydroelectric dams, settled water rights disputes and spelled out water allocations for irrigators and wildlife refuges in the Klamath Basin.
But the deal never got traction in the GOP-dominated Congress. And though some backers are holding out hope that it can be resurrected, others are doubtful.
“It would be very difficult if not impossible to pull the same parties to the table and reach a similar agreement,” said Don Gentry, chairman of Oregon’s Klamath Tribes.
Conflict over the Klamath embodies classic struggles over western water.
Tribes, farmers, hydropower interests and commercial fishermen all have fought over the 255-mile river, which winds from southern Oregon through Northern California to the Pacific Ocean. Dams, farm and ranch diversions and agricultural runoff have exacted a heavy toll on a waterway that once supported Chinook salmon runs half a million strong.
The clashes drew national attention in 2001, a dry year when the federal government cut irrigation deliveries to preserve fish flows.
Enraged farmers threatened to open irrigation gates by force. The following year, the government increased irrigation deliveries — triggering lethal river conditions that left more than 30,000 dead salmon and steelhead trout floating in the lower Klamath.
The agreements, signed in 2010 and expanded in 2014, were supposed to end the strife. But they didn’t please everyone.
California’s Siskiyou County, where three of the utility company dams are located, opposed their removal, as did key Republican congressmen. Environmentalists and some tribes complained that the pact gave too much water to irrigators and too little to salmon.
Attorney Tom Schlosser, who represents California’s Hoopa Valley Tribe, called the expiration “good news.”
“I’m so tired of hearing this story…. We all sang ‘Kumbaya’ and Congress didn’t pay any attention,” Schlosser said, “when actually the Congress did exactly what it should have done. They looked at this and said, ‘This is a non-starter.”’
The Hoopa, he said, will press ahead for dam removal through the federal dam relicensing process, which was put on the back burner when the agreements were struck. California’s Yurok Tribe, which withdrew from the accord last year, also has indicated it will keep pushing to get rid of the dams.
Other groups could head back to court to settle lingering water rights disputes between the Klamath Tribes and farmers. “Parties are going to start doing some of their own things,” said Greg Addington of the Klamath Water Users Assn., a group of irrigation districts supplied by the federal Klamath Project.
“I’m not saying it’s over,” Addington said of attempts to save the accord. But Congress would have to signal more interest before his group makes another big push for the settlement. “We’re not just going to go beat our head against the wall again,” he said.
The U.S. Interior Department, which oversees federal irrigation operations and wildlife refuges in the basin, supported the Klamath deal. “We still believe the future of the basin lies with negotiated agreements, and we will work hard with the parties to find ways to achieve their collective goals,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewel said in a statement.
The dams, spread across 65 miles of the Klamath, are owned by PacifiCorp, a part of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. empire.
Under the pact, the company had until 2020 to remove the structures, the oldest of which was erected in 1918. The dams block historic salmon spawning grounds on the upper river and create stagnant pools of water that breed toxin-producing algae.
The agreements called for California to help pay for the dam removal and granted PacifiCorp immunity from any liability claims that arose from decommissioning.
Without the Klamath agreements, PacifiCorp faces a lengthy dam relicensing process and requirements to meet California water quality standards that could force it to spend an estimated $400 million on fish ladders and other improvements.
“We’re all just waiting to see whether there’s any desire among the congressional delegation, the administration and the settlement partners to try to resurrect the agreements we made,” said PacifiCorp spokesman Bob Gravely. “We don’t know exactly how that would happen or what it would look like.”
email@example.com, Twitter: @boxall
Water recharge project east of Turlock backed by most landowners
By John Holland
Landowners in the Eastside Water District have agreed to pay about $6 million for a groundwater recharge project aimed at reducing about a tenth of its overdraft.
The proposal drew protests from owners of only 28 of the 605 parcels in eastern Stanislaus and Merced counties. That was far less than the majority required under state law to block assessments.
The tally was announced at a meeting Thursday of the district board, which plans to vote next month on a resolution approving the project.
Eastside plans to build a few shallow basins that, in wet years, will hold excess rainwater delivered in a Turlock Irrigation District canal, plus runoff from Mustang and Sand creeks. Eastside has virtually no surface water of its own for its 61,000 acres, which have suffered from overdraft since the 1950s.
The creek portions of the project could have happened as early as this winter because of strong runoff from recent storms and an executive order from Gov. Jerry Brown that shortens the water-rights process for certain drought-fighting efforts. This would have involved drilling several wells and filling them with gravel to help with infiltration.
“We could build facilities this year to put water in the ground and use water that we otherwise would not have rights to, other than this executive order,” district consultant Kevin Kauffman said.
70,000 Acre-feet of estimated groundwater overdraft in Eastside Water District in average year
6,500 Expected average recharge with project, in acre-feet
$6 million Estimated cost of project to landowners
Board chairman Al Rossini said the weather could turn dry later this winter, but the expedited permit would be worth pursuing for possible use next winter.
For the overall project, farmers will pay up to $30 per irrigated acre per year to start. The charge will be adjusted for inflation over the 10-year build-out and will be roughly $20 to $30 per year in the ensuing 15 years. Owners of unirrigated land will pay much less.
The project could be the first of several that deal with overdraft averaging about 70,000 acre-feet of water per year in Eastside, a key part of the region’s almond production.
Up to 4,000 acre-feet per year will come from Sand and Mustang creeks. The district will buy up to 2,500 more acre-feet from TID at a price to be negotiated.
John Holland: 209-578-2385, firstname.lastname@example.org
Fresno Business Journal
Are biofuels poised to pop in 2016?
By George Lurie
It’s shaping up to be a pivotal year for Valley biofuels businesses. After more than a decade of false starts and rollercoaster price swings spurred by yo-yoing commodity prices, industry insiders are hoping 2016 will be the year biofuels really break out.
While the recent climate change accord signed by world leaders late last year in Paris bodes well for any industries labeled “green,” manufacturing and selling biofuels at a profit continues to be challenging.
With oil currently trading south of $40 a barrel, gas is cheap, selling for under $2 a gallon in virtually every state except California. And cheap gas traditionally creates headwinds for biofuel manufacturers whose margins shrink as prices at the pump tick lower.
But there are a number of positives lining up in the industry’s favor as a new year begins: President Obama continues to support the alternative energy movement and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently issued a final rule designed to significantly boost production of ethanol and other renewable fuels.
Last month, in an update to its Renewable Fuel Standard, the EPA said it will require more than 18 billion gallons of biofuels be blended with U.S. gasoline through 2016 — and industry officials are hoping that mandated number is higher still in 2017.
One area biofuels manufacturer called the EPA’s latest decision “good for our industry because it provides certainty.”
Around the Valley, cheap oil does not appear to be deterring biofuel manufacturers — and particularly ethanol producers — from ramping up their operations to meet the growing demand.
Ventura-based Biodico Sustainable Biorefineries recently opened the world’s first biofuel production facility to operate entirely on renewable heat and power. That plant, located in Fresno County near Five Points, went operational in late 2015. The $6.8 million facility was funded in part by a $2.8 million grant from the California Energy Commission as well as by the company’s private investors.
Biodico also has other active biofuel operations in Southern California, Colorado, Texas and Australia.
Sacramento-based Pacific Ethanol, one of the country’s leading producers of low-carbon renewable fuels, announced in mid-December it is now producing cellulosic ethanol at its Stockton facility using proprietary technology pioneered by a Visalia-based company called Edeniq. (Edeniq’s business model and patented Pathway Technology was profiled in the Feb. 20, 2015 issue of the Business Journal.)
Neil Koehler, Pacific Ethanol’s president and CEO, is betting that producing large quantities of cellulosic ethanol will help the company increase it margins.
“This is an important step in our strategy to increase production yields at our plants and our mission to be the leading producer and marketer of low-carbon renewable fuels,” Koehler said, adding that Pacific Ethanol is working with Edeniq and the EPA “to qualify these gallons [of cellulosic ethanol] for generating D3 cellulosic RINs (Renewable Identification Numbers), which carry a premium over conventional ethanol.”
Koehler said he expects to receive EPA approval of Pacific Ethanol’s cellulosic operations in the first quarter of 2016.
Like many of the publicly traded companies in the biofuels industry over the past decade, Pacific Ethanol has taken its shareholders on a wild ride. Once a stock market darling, its stock sold for more than $200 a share at the height of the early biofuels craze. As 2016 dawns, the company’s stock, which trades under the ticker symbol PEIX, goes for less than $5 a share.
But with the purchase of four Midwestern ethanol plants in July 2015, Pacific Ethanol more than doubled the scale of its operations, entered new markets and doubled down on its bet to be the industry biofuels leader.
Today the company owns and operates eight ethanol production facilities, four in California, Oregon and Idaho, and four in Illinois and Nebraska. Pacific Ethanol’s plants have a combined production capacity of 515 million gallons per year and also produce over one million tons per year of ethanol co-products such as wet and dry distillers grains and wet and dry corn gluten feed.
Edeniq continues to operate three pilot plants in Visalia while partnering with Pacific Ethanol and several other ethanol producers to develop next-generation cellulosic-based biofuels.
Edeniq’s proprietary Pathway Technology, employing a machine called a Cellunator, combines high-shear equipment with cellulase enzymes to convert corn kernel fiber to fermentable sugars.
Pacific Ethanol’s Stockton plant, which has an annual production capacity of 60 million gallons of corn ethanol, is expected to produce up to 750,000 gallons per year of cellulosic ethanol using Edeniq’s Pathway process, according to Koehler.
“Our Pathway Technology enables ethanol plants to produce cellulosic ethanol directly in existing fermentation vessels at a very low cost,” said Brian Thome, president and CEO of Edeniq. “Pacific Ethanol’s production of cellulosic ethanol is an important landmark for both of our companies — and for the ethanol industry.”
But in an editorial published recently in the Modesto Bee, Karen Kerrigan, president and CEO of the Virginia-based Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, offers a different take on the push to use more biofuels.
Kerrigan argues that the federal ethanol mandate has, in effect, levied a $13 billion “ethanol tax” on California residents, who are forced to pay higher fuel costs. A report produced by her organization forecasts that Californians, because of the Renewable Fuel Standard, will pay an additional $28.8 billion in higher fuel costs over the next decade, “with the vast majority of the proceeds,” she adds, “going to out-of-state ethanol producers.”
“It’s time for national political players to stand up to the corn ethanol lobby and demand major Renewable Fuel Standard reforms,” Kerrigan said. “Californians have suffered enough already from this misguided and failed federal program.”
We need more urgency on sinking Valley
Some parts of the Central Valley are sinking, and time is running out to make the hard choices to slow the overpumping of groundwater causing it.
During the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, subsidence, which occurs when underground aquifers are emptied, was a huge problem. Farmers pumped with abandon, and parts of the San Joaquin Valley sank 30 feet. When the federal Central Valley Project started delivering water from the Sierra, subsidence ended.
The epic drought has brought it back, with a vengeance. Farmers have fired up their pumps, including those who have planted almonds and other thirsty tree crops.
Now, some areas in the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley are sinking an inch a month, says the U.S. Geological Survey. A NASA study, based on satellite photos, also found significant subsidence.
Roads can crack and become uneven. Bridges, anchored to either side, can twist. Cement canals can leak. Damage could reach hundreds of millions of dollars, even billions.
In the Central California Irrigation District, which serves customers in the western sides of Fresno, Merced and Stanislaus counties, one canal has suffered a significant crack and a bridge will have to be raised. The district has spent $4.5 million so far on fixes.
There are ways to stop subsidence, but none will appeal to everyone.
And they will be politically difficult, especially if fears of drought subside in El Niño’s rains, though the recent storms have had little impact.
First, the state knows the aquifers most at risk and the location of wells drawing from them. It could impose per-acre fees to pay for infrastructure repairs where the dangers are greatest, such as the Tulare Basin. Some have suggested that counties and water districts ban new wells, or at least require permits to pump in areas most prone to subsidence – an idea well worth considering.
Second, farmers could pump only from aquifers above the clay, which would not compact the soil as water is pulled out. But those aquifers have already been exhausted and refilling them would require injection wells and capture basins. While those projects could be financed through the $7.5 billion water bond passed in 2014, the California Water Commission says it won’t make any allocations until 2017 at the earliest. That should be expedited.
Third, the state could beef up its monitoring. In the 1940s, at the height of the previous subsidence crisis, well-like structures measured sinking. The state could require real-time monitoring for pumps drawing from aquifers below important infrastructure and could limit pumping if subsidence is detected. Starting early could save hundreds of millions in repairs.
Another, perhaps more effective, solution might be the most difficult to achieve – more logical water delivery.
Consider last year’s fiasco. In late spring, San Joaquin Valley farmers were told to expect a certain amount from Lake Shasta and planted accordingly.
Two months later, officials became convinced there wouldn’t be enough cold water to allow salmon to migrate in the winter. So they slashed deliveries, leaving farmers with a choice – pump groundwater or lose an entire season’s investment.
As more demands are made on water supplies and if the drought persists, farmers will again be faced with hard choices.
If they pump, the ground will subside. If they don’t, an entire region’s agriculture-based economy could sink.
Letter to the Editor
New York Times
California’s Water Politics
To the Editor:
“California’s Farmers Try Political Force to Open Taps in Drought” (“The Parched West” series, front page, Dec. 31) leaves an impression that is critical of the hard-working farm families that are the backbone of California’s rural economy, particularly in the productive Central Valley, where most of the country’s fresh fruits and vegetables are grown.
The situation in California is broken and has been for a long time. While you may not like that Westlands Water District and its farmers and neighbors have supported an educational campaign reaching out to the large Hispanic contingent of California’s population, the fact is that in California, water is and should be everybody’s business.
Whether you say it in English or Spanish, if our regulators, agency leaders and politicians don’t get on the same page soon, a much higher cost and tighter supply of safely grown fresh food may make all of us think twice about every bite we put in our mouths.
ANTHEA G. HANSEN
Del Puerto Water District