Monday, June 13, 2016
How plans to save fish species could cut summer water supply
By Ryan Sabalow, Dale Kasler and Phillip Reese
This year was supposed to be different. With Northern California’s reservoirs finally brimming and cities liberated from stringent conservation rules, farmers were expecting more water for their crops. The worst of the drought seemed over.
Or maybe not.
Despite a winter of fairly abundant rain and snow in the north state, federal fisheries regulators are considering a set of plans that would put Sacramento Valley reservoirs on a tight leash again this summer. Their aim is to prevent two endangered California fish species from going extinct.
Critics say two federal plans under discussion could cause another year of water shortages in farms and cities across the state. The Sacramento area’s main reservoir, Folsom Lake, could get drawn down below average levels once more, although the situation wouldn’t be as severe as last year’s record low. On Thursday, 15 members of Congress from California sent a letter urging the Obama administration to reject the dam-management proposals, saying they would “significantly reduce the water supply available to Californians.”
“Potentially, we’re looking at two train wrecks occurring,” said Rep. Jim Costa, a Fresno Democrat who was among the House members who signed the letter.
At their core, the proposals under discussion represent a drastic – some would say desperate – effort to bolster the populations of fish species that have been decimated by years of drought and environmental decline in California’s overdrafted watersheds.
The first proposal involves holding back substantial volumes of water at Shasta Lake into the summer to protect juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon. Maintaining a deeper pool of water behind Shasta makes for colder water. The idea is to release that colder water later in the year, when the salmon make their annual return to their spawning grounds below the dam.
The past two summers, excessively warm water in the Sacramento River killed off nearly all of the juveniles. Scientists say a third year of die-offs could mean the extinction of the winter-run as a wild species.
The second plan aims to rescue the Delta smelt, which also teeter on the brink of extinction. The Bureau of Reclamation, which operates dams in the federal government’s Central Valley Project, is considering letting more water flow to the Pacific Ocean through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta this summer, said spokesman Shane Hunt.
Both fish are protected by the Endangered Species Act, meaning the federal agencies that oversee California’s fisheries are bound by law to try to save them.
But the plans would have human consequences as well. Holding more water behind Shasta would curtail water deliveries to Central Valley farmers at crucial times in the growing season. Letting more river water flow to sea could mean less water for farms and cities south of the Delta.
That it’s come to this is astounding to many in California’s water community, who say a winter of precipitation should have eased the supply situation.
“We’ve really been blessed this year with snowpack and precipitation,” said David Guy of the Northern California Water Association, an umbrella group of water agencies. “You would think in a year like this, we’d be able to use that water … for urban use, for farmers, for birds, for fish.”
The federal agencies involved in the discussion – the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – hold considerable sway over how the Bureau of Reclamation operates dams in the Central Valley Project, power granted by a series of court rulings involving the Endangered Species Act. The State Water Resources Control Board also will need to sign off on the plan, but so far, everything “is still up in the air,” said spokesman Tim Moran.
Maria Rea, assistant regional manager for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the federal agencies are trying to balance competing demands for a water supply that remains surprisingly taut.
“All the agencies are working together on a daily basis to try to find a scenario that work best for smelt and salmon, and for water supply and operations,” she said. “It’s a challenging year.”
Rea said 2016 started out with promise. Shasta Lake gained nearly 1 million acre-feet of water during a two-week period in March. With the reservoir projected to fill, the Bureau of Reclamation gave Rea’s office a flow-control model that appeared to meet the temperature requirement to keep the winter-run Chinook from dying. On April 1, the bureau announced its water-delivery projections to its contractors.
“Then – fairly familiar story here – about two weeks later they sent us an email that said the lake was setting up much warmer than they had predicted, and their projections and predictions about ability to meet temperatures were no longer valid,” Rea said.
In 2014, a similar scenario played out: Federal and state officials announced a plan to keep temperatures in key portions of the Sacramento River below 56 degrees, the point above which young salmon start to die. The bureau calculated the water would be cold enough to ensure survival of 30 percent of the fish. But its calculations proved faulty, and only 5 percent of the juveniles lived. Last year was even worse; water temperatures exceeded the maximum 1,600 times and only 3 percent of the juveniles survived.
Sparked by “long-standing” concerns with the bureau’s modeling, Rea said, the fisheries regulators are trying to build in extra cushion this year. They’ve told the bureau to keep the water temperature directly over the spawning beds below Shasta Dam at 55 degrees or lower.
Hunt said Friday that meeting that goal may not be realistic. “We’re not sure the parameters that … they want us to meet are possible,” he said.
Maintaining that 1-degree difference would translate into additional water held back longer at Shasta – and considerable anxiety for downstream farmers awaiting deliveries.
After two years of heavy fallowing of fields, rice farmers significantly ramped up their planting this spring in the expectation that water deliveries were returning to normal, said Tim Johnson of the California Rice Commission. But already some farmers say they’re grappling with Sacramento River flows that are lower than expected, and worry whether they’ll have enough water to sustain their crops.
“The expectation had been that the same sorts of sacrifice would not be required, because we have water behind Shasta,” said Lewis Bair of Reclamation District 108, an irrigation agency in Grimes.
In Sutter County, the small Meridian Farms Water Co. shut off one of its three pumps several weeks ago because the Sacramento was so low it was getting harder to pull water out.
“The river was dropping, and we were in danger of damaging (the pump),” said manager Andy Duffey. Farmers who rely on that pump are drawing on groundwater instead, but are worried about making it through the summer, he said.
Holding water back at Shasta could have implications beyond the Valley’s rice fields. It may mean a second year in which regulators draw more heavily on Folsom Lake to help control salinity levels in the Delta.
State and federal dam operators are required to maintain flows that ensure downstream fish survive. They’re also supposed to ensure enough fresh water flowing through the Delta to keep seawater from rushing into the estuary and compromising salinity levels. The fresh water pumped from the Delta supplies irrigation for millions of acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley and drinking water for 25 million residents.
Costa, the Fresno congressman, said preliminary modeling his staff has performed, based on the federal proposal, show that regulators would need to drain Folsom down to 300,000 acre-feet, less than a third of its total capacity.
Hunt, the Bureau of Reclamation spokesman, said a number of scenarios are being discussed. “Some of them do rely more heavily on Folsom than others,” he said, “probably not to the extent that we saw last year, because Folsom is in such a better place than it was a year ago. But there are real possibilities that it could impact Folsom.”
Tom Gohring, executive director of the Sacramento Water Forum, said urban water districts that rely on Folsom for their supply shouldn’t have a problem providing for their customers, but some are getting anxious because the feds haven’t offered a precise plan.
“The uncertainty that we’re feeling right now is really hard to deal with,” Gorhing said.
Costa said the Shasta scenario would have ripple effects on agricultural operations throughout California. Farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley could see zero water deliveries from the Delta for a third straight year, despite having been promised a 5 percent allocation, he said. Eastside farmers could lose half of the federal water deliveries they were told in April to expect, according to Costa’s calculations.
That could force farmers to crank on their groundwater pumps for yet another year, a troublesome prospect in parts of the Central Valley where groundwater basins have been declared critically overdrafted.
“That’s not sustainable,” said Johnny Amaral, deputy general manager at the sprawling Westlands Water District in the San Joaquin Valley. “Pumping that much groundwater is not sustainable.”
Efforts to save the tiny Delta smelt might translate into additional shortfalls in water deliveries.
Based on abysmal spring trawling surveys for adult smelt, scientists say only a few thousand of the estuary’s namesake fish remain, after numbering in the millions just a few decades ago. Steve Martarano, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that because the fish live only a year, the juveniles that are left must be kept alive through the hot summer so they can grow into adults and spawn next winter and spring.
Hunt said the bureau is considering “augmenting Delta outflow” this summer – that is, letting more water than usual flow to the ocean “to make sure the babies that were produced this year thrive and survive.” He said the bureau might try to buy the water rather than just cut deliveries to contractors, but funds are limited and there’s not much water available to purchase.
Like the fisheries agencies, the Bureau of Reclamation finds itself in a difficult balancing act: While the water situation improved this spring, the drought never went away.
“This is still just the drought affecting us,” Hunt said. “We’re not out of the woods. Everything is not fixed.”
Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow,firstname.lastname@example.org
Water users target Delta fish — again
By Alex Breitler
A popular Delta sportfish may be on the hook yet again after water users mostly south of the estuary asked state officials this week to allow more of the fish to be caught, in order to reduce their numbers.
A nearly identical proposal, ardently opposed by Delta fishermen, was rejected in early 2012 by the state Fish and Game Commission.
But the water users didn’t stop fighting. Their concern is that stripers, which are technically not native to the Delta, gobble up threatened and endangered fish. And the decline of those species has reduced the amount of water that can be pumped to southland cities and farms.
Whether controlling the striper population will improve the Delta’s health, however, is the subject of much controversy. Some experts believe that reducing the number of stripers could actually make things worse.
It’s worth a try, said Michael Boccadoro, a spokesman for the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, a group of south Valley landowners that has worked to deflect blame for the Delta’s decline away from water exports and onto the so-called “other stressors” like predatory fish.
“We’re viewing this as a very modest first step,” Boccadoro said, describing the striper plan as an “experiment” that could be altered depending on the result.
“We’ll be the first to admit that while this is something that needs to be done, we need to monitor it closely,” he said. “If there are negative effects, we stop. If it’s positive, we take it a little further. But we’re not going to know unless we start.”
Longtime striped bass fishermen on Friday were not surprised to hear that the issue had been resurrected.
“Of course it has,” said John Banks of Stockton, a member of the California Striped Bass Association. “They will never admit that the water transfers are responsible for the loss of salmon and other indigenous fish. So they have to pick a whipping boy, and it’s the stripers.”
David Hurley of Stockton said his fellow fishermen will fight the proposal, which this time is originating not only from Boccadoro’s coalition, but also from heavyweights such as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Kern County Water Agency, as well as farm organizations and the California Chamber of Commerce.
“They want one thing: They want more water,” Hurley said Friday. “And the stripers are very easy targets.”
Introduced to the Delta in the late 1800s, stripers have coexisted with salmon all of that time, and young stripers have in fact declined in recent decades alongside native species.
At the same time, no one disputes that adult stripers are voracious predators and, given the opportunity, will eat the smaller endangered fish.
Water users sued the state in 2008, saying that protections for stripers were harming the native species. A settlement required the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to write a proposal to change the rules, but the Fish and Wildlife Commission by a 4-0 vote refused to adopt it.
Little has happened since then to resolve the dispute. An independent panel of scientists in 2013 concluded that while stripers do eat salmon, there wasn’t enough evidence to determine whether they are harming salmon populations as a whole.
Just three weeks ago, California native fish expert Peter Moyle and other scientists with the U.C. Davis Center for Watershed Sciences said they were skeptical that controlling stripers would help.
In addition to eating threatened fish, stripers eat other fish that eat threatened fish, the experts wrote in an online article. Removing stripers could suddenly allow another alien species to surge in number and cause more harm than good.
“It seems unlikely that a large-scale predator removal program focused on striped bass would have a sustainable, measurable effect on populations of its prey species,” the group concluded.
To which, Boccadoro responded on Friday: “Nobody knows. But we’ve tried water releases and I haven’t seen a correlation between threatened salmon and smelt increasing … Let’s try something else.”
The proposal would increase the bag limit for stripers from two to six fish, and would decrease the size limit from 18 inches to 12 inches. That is identical to the failed proposal from 2012.
One difference this time, however, is that the water users also want to reduce protections for black bass, another invasive species prized by tournament fishermen. The Delta is considered one of the best black bass fisheries in the country.
Under the water users’ proposal, the black bass bag limit would increase from 5 fish to 10 fish, with the size limit declining from 12 inches to 8 inches.
Also changed since the 2012 vote: All five of the commissioners are gone, their replacements having been appointed in the ensuing years by Gov. Jerry Brown.
— Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or email@example.com. Follow him at recordnet.com/breitlerblog and on Twitter @alexbreitler.
Santa Maria Times
Twitchell report shows no severe water shortage
By Logan B. Anderson
Though long-running drought conditions have put a strain on groundwater levels, the Santa Maria Valley Management Area is not experiencing a severe water shortage, according to water watchers.
Last month, the Twitchell Management Authority released its 2015 annual report for its management area. The study defines, declares and recommends action regarding water in and around its groundwater basin.
Before declaring that the management area — a 175-square-mile region of the Santa Maria Valley that includes the cities of Guadalupe, Santa Maria, Orcutt, and spans parts of southern San Luis Obispo County and northern Santa Barbara County — is not experiencing a severe water shortage, officials had to answer some questions.
First, studies had to show an increase of groundwater use, which wasn’t evident because of ongoing conservation efforts. Second, officials had to demonstrate groundwater levels have been in chronic decline during the last five or more years, which is true here and for most of drought-stricken California. Next, groundwater levels had to have dropped below historic lows, which hasn’t happened. Finally, officials had to show that any groundwater level decline was not caused by drought, which cannot be shown.
“All four criteria are to be met in any given year in order to determine such a finding,” said Liese Schadt, contract hydrologist and author of the water management area’s report.
The management authority is the steward of the groundwater basin, which local water purveyors use to supply water to area homes and other water users. The basin is recharged by precipitation, mountain runoff, river and creek flows and is supplemented by water pumped from Northern California.
The report officially focuses on three areas: hydrogeologic conditions, water requirements and supplies and disposition.
To study hydrogeologic conditions, engineers look at precipitation, water discharge, and groundwater levels and quality.
Since the 1940s, the average rainfall for the Santa Maria Valley Management Area has been about 12 inches a year. With current drought conditions, Schadt said, the area has been well below average since 2002.
In 2015, the Santa Maria Valley only measured about 4 inches of rainfall.
A drop in precipitation directly relates to nearly absent water levels in the Twitchell Reservoir, area streams and rivers. It also impacts potential recharge of the basin’s water levels.
“Really hoping for an extended wetter period soon,” Schadt said.
Water discharge is measured at the Twitchell Reservoir, Sisquoc River and at the start of the Santa Maria River valley floor.
“Twitchell Project conserves runoff for purposeful recharge to the basin,” Schadt said.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t any water released from the Twitchell Dam in 2015 due to the lack of precipitation.
“Sisquoc River discharge is uncontrolled and directly reflects the fluctuation in precipitation,” Schadt said.
Water watchers measure water in acre-feet. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or the amount of water generally needed to supply the annual needs of four to 10 people in an urban environment.
The long-term annual average of water from the Sisquoc River is 36,400 acre-feet.
In 2015, only 250 acre-feet were recorded in the river southwest of Santa Maria.
“It was kind of a difficult year,” Schadt said.
When it comes to surface water quality, Sisquoc River water seems to be the best. Twitchell releases are the next best. Orcutt Creek is at the bottom of the list when it comes to water quality, according to the report.
“Orcutt Creek is the worst,” Schadt said. “When it gets to the valley floor, it gets to be like a drain. Dissolved salts and nitrates are much higher.”
For groundwater, the best water quality is found in the deep aquifer zone, far underground. The poorest quality is in shallower regions due to farm runoff, the report said.
To study water requirements, supplies and disposition, engineers look at water usage in 2015.
Agriculture is the chief water customer in the Santa Maria Valley Management Area.
In 2015, water used for agriculture irrigation was about 115,000 are-feet, within historical range of 80,000 to 132,000 acre-feet a year.
Pastureland was the chief agriculture water user in 2015, using 4.7 acre-feet, or water per acre, of pasture.
Rotational crops, like broccoli, used 2.6 acre-feet of water per acre of farmland. Strawberries used 1.6 acre-feet; vineyards used 1.4 acre-feet of water per acre of land.
Municipal water used “quite a bit less than agriculture demand,” Schadt said.
The total water used in cities in the area in 2015 was 19,620 acre-feet. The city of Santa Maria was the main water user, with 12,500 acre-feet of water pumped last year.
Conservation efforts on the municipal side of the water plan saved a considerable amount of water in 2015. Water watchers used 12 percent less total water in 2015 then 2014. Total water pumped from the groundwater basin was down, too, 21 percent lower in 2015 then 2014.
At the completion of the annual report’s studies, officials make recommendations about monitoring and use.
The Santa Maria Valley Management officials recommend the expansion of monitoring to facilitate a better understanding of the resource.
The report also recommends augmenting the water supplied by the state, which already has been done. The state has increased its water allocation by 60 percent in 2016.
Management authority officials also want local purveyors to continue their conservation efforts and to continue to assess the distribution of groundwater to other areas.
Logan B. Anderson covers city government in Santa Maria for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter: @LoganBAnderson.
Del Norte Triplicate
State water control board answers SB88 letter
By David Anderson
The State Water Resources Control Board doesn’t care if Del Norte County is flowing with water while the rest of the state is in drought.
The agency wants to track water withdrawals down to the minute, throughout the state, according to the latest response to an appeal by Del Norte County Supervisor Chris Howard and others.
The state said in a written response dated June 3, “Senate Bill 88 and the State Water Board’s Regulation were adopted to provide the State Water Board with more accurate and timely water diversion and use data, and to make this data more transparent for stakeholders.
“This data is vital for decision-making when evaluating requests for new water diversions, assuring adequate water is available for public trust resources, verifying that water is not being wasted or used unreasonably, and assessing adequacy of supplies during drought periods. lt is also important for future policy and planning decision relative to climate change.”
To do this, the state is requiring anyone drawing more than 10 acre feet of water annually to install accurate measuring equipment on their diversion apparatus, pursuant to Senate Bill 88.
Del Norte County has 290 water rights, with 167 active diverters drawing at least 10 acre feet per year. Ten acre feet is equal to 3.25 million gallons.
Some in the area think the legislation is excessive.
As a result, last April, the Del Norte Resource Conservation District wrote a letter asking the State Water Resources Control Board for relief from the water-diversion measuring requirements.
In the April letter, “the… District asked for the opportunity to discuss a possible option to the requirement that all active water diversions in the County provide measurement of said diversion through a certified metering device.”
Howard, a supporter of the Resource Conservation District’s letter said from his office at the Alexandre Farm, “Is it really necessary in a community where there has never been a drought?”
The Control Board said, “the Regulation were not intended to be limited to areas affected by drought, but to apply statewide. This is especially applicable to areas having valuable public trust resources. Del Norte County is home to some of California’s wild and scenic rivers with important runs of endangered species. The Smith River has wild and scenic designation, and supports valuable public trust resources. Therefore, a county-wide exemption for Del Norte County is not consistent with Senate Bill 88, and would not be protective of important public trust resources, especially in unique geographic locations.”
Howard said Alexandre’s pumps their water from the Smith River and boasts the oldest water diversion system on the river with a “pre-1914 water right.” Currently the farm measures its water diversion by a device inside the intake pipe that spins like a propeller, measuring the water pumped in acre feet, Howard said. He said the meter gives them an annual number of acre feet withdrawn.
Howard said, the state… depending on the acre feet used, wants a device to measure by the day, the hour and the minute. He said a device like that would be cost prohibitive.
Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown, in reaction to the unprecedented drought, signed Senate Bill 88 into law. The bill, called the Emergency Regulation for Measuring and Reporting the Diversion of Water requires license and permit holders who divert more than 10 acre-feet — approximately 3.2 million gallons — of surface water annually to install measurement devices or establish some means of tracking their diversion.
The bill also authorizes the State Water Board to adopt regulations on how diversions are measured, said Charles R. Delgado, assistant legislative director for the Water Resources Control Board.
The water board’s response continued, “the State Water Board appreciates Del Norte Resource Conservation District’s efforts to develop a basinwide measurement plan for the 167 surface water diverters of Del Norte County. Your description of the steps diverters have taken — or would take — to measure their water diversions appears reasonable and most diverters may already be substantially in compliance with the requirements of the Regulation. However, while many existing measurement devices in Del Norte County may meet the requirements of the Regulation, as previously stated, a basinwide plan may overlook important smaller sub-watershed or tributary level considerations needed for public trust protection.”
The Regulation allows a diverter to submit an alternative compliance plan when strict compliance with one or more of the measurement requirements is not feasible and would be unreasonably expensive, unreasonably affect public trust resources, or result in the waste or unreasonable use of water, the response said.
The response continued, “a diverter or group of diverters may also propose a collaborative measurement method in lieu of a measurement device at each point of diversion. State Water Board staff is preparing alternative compliance plan forms (which will be available on our website) for diverters. Knowing that winter access is also a problem for specific diverters, staff is also preparing alternative compliance plan templates that address limited winter access.”
According to the state, the new Regulation provides that the State Water Board may increase the 10-acre-foot reporting threshold to 25 acre-feet in a watershed or subwatershed, if it finds that the benefits of the additional information within the watershed or subwatershed are substantially outweighed by the cost of installing measuring devices or employing methods for measurement for diversions at the 10-acre-foot threshold. This determination, however, cannot be made until January 1 , 2017, per California law.
Reach David Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dairy farmer near Patterson making most of scarce water
By John Holland
John Azevedo stretches the water that helps produce the milk on his dairy farm west of Patterson.
He is experimenting with drip irrigation lines for feed corn that used to be flood-irrigated. The water that chills his milk tanks is reused in nozzles that cool the cows on summer days.
Azevedo is one of 16 farmers featured in a new report from Dairy Cares, a statewide industry program that encourages water and energy conservation and other practices.
“Dairymen are pretty proactive,” the fourth-generation farmer said at his Magnolia Avenue spread Wednesday. “They’ll go after that technology to save water.”
The print and online report, “Our Sustainability Story,” mostly deals with farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. The region makes up most of a California industry that leads the nation in milk production.
Farmers describe how they have turned manure into methane that is burned to produce electricity. This breaks down one of the most potent of the gases believed to be changing the global climate.
Some farmers have installed solar panels or energy-efficient pumps, fans and lighting. Some sow feed crops through the stubble left from the previous harvest, which reduces soil erosion and the number of fuel-consuming tractor passes.
Dairy farms have long disposed of manure-laden water from barn floors by mixing it with fresh water to irrigate and fertilize their feed crops. The report notes a recent effort to educate farmers on regulations aimed at keeping this practice from polluting groundwater that people drink.
Azevedo has 720 milking cows on a farm that has been in his family since 1914 and employs eight people. He is a member of the California Dairies Inc. processing cooperative, with locations including Turlock and Los Banos.
The farm has about 600 acres of owned and leased land to grow corn, wheat, alfalfa and other feed. Azevedo gets water from the Patterson Irrigation District, where he is a board member, and from the ground. The district supply – from the San Joaquin River and the federal Delta-Mendota Canal – has been reduced in recent years by drought and fish protections.
Drip lines have become common in tree and vegetable crops, but they have been considered inefficient for the tightly-spaced crops on a dairy farm. They are getting another look because of the tight water supplies.
“I think you’re going to see more and more of this because water prices are going to rise,” Azevedo said as employee Tre Moore unspooled the black tape amid foot-high cornstalks.
The lines have tiny openings that direct the water to the plant roots. They have to be replaced when the field is tilled for the next crop, but Azevedo said they still hold promise. He might expand drip to all 300 acres of corn and wheat. Alfalfa is still not a practical use, he said.
James Garner, who compiled the report for Dairy Cares, was on hand at the Azevedo farm. He works for Cogent Consulting and Communications Inc. in Sacramento, whose clients include the California Milk Advisory Board.
The report takes on claims from environmental activists that dairy cows and other farm animals consume too much water and are major contributors to climate change.
“The water footprint per gallon of milk is 65 percent smaller compared to 1944,” Garner said.
John Holland: 209-578-2385
FEATURED IN THE REPORT
Along with John Azevedo, the report on sustainable dairy farming features these farmers in the Northern San Joaquin Valley:
Dante Migliazzo of the Atwater area describes how he boosts the milk output per cow through breeding, high-quality feed and comfortable housing. This cuts down on the contribution to climate change.
Antonio Brasil, near Dos Palos, installed a system in which bacteria digest manure into a gas burned to generate electricity. It also produces fertilizers suited to home gardens and his feed crops.
Frank Dinis, near Hilmar, trains workers on humane handling of cattle at six farms owned by Chuck Ahlem and his son Mark.
Dave Ribeiro, near Los Banos, talks about proper housing, nutrition and veterinary care.
The report is at www.dairycares.com.
Palm Springs Desert Sun
$5,000 grower fine in pesticide case shows inequities
By Eduardo Guevara
“Nothing happens. It is harmless.”
The story sounds too familiar – it echoes that “collective hysteria” notion proposed when “odors from an undetermined source” were affecting east valley residents, specifically from Mecca. The worst part of this whole situation with the pesticide/odor masking agent in October is not that it happened, but that the response from the responsible party, and the apparent inability of the regulatory agency with jurisdiction to act, were actually expected.
We have an issue here – after seven months of investigations, the Agriculture Commissioner came up with a figure of $5,000 for grower Amazing Coachella, which according to Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Robert Mulherin, was “appropriate based on the investigation and evidence gathered.” We, as parents, trust our local school districts not only with the academic, and to some extent civic, formation of our youth, but we also implicitly trust them with keeping our students in a healthy and safe environment. In this case, the district’s ability to provide such safe and healthy environment was hindered by a combination of a “trained pesticide worker” and the lack of teeth of our regulatory agencies.
Sounds familiar, right?
The principles of environmental justice, as stated by CalEPA, “call for fairness, regardless of race, color, national origin or income, in the development of laws and regulations that affect every community’s natural surroundings, and the places people live, work, play and learn.” Certainly, a number of students – our students, including my own son – were affected where they normally play and learn.
I completely agree with CRLA: a $5,000 fine, which could either be “retired or reduced” after a hearing is just a slap in the wrist for a grower operating all across the state (and not exactly a deterrent) and a slap in the face of the affected people, whether they are students, parents, or teachers. It is also a cruel reminder of how disproportionately affected some areas of the valley are compared to other areas. And it is also an opportunity for the grower to be accountable for a situation which, even if it was unintentional, impacted the operations of a local high school in a negative way.
More importantly, this is a clear call to review the best practices for applying pesticides or other substances in a way that they will not affect the surrounding areas (especially schools, medical facilities, or senior communities), to revisit the idea of buffer zones, and to make every effort possible to prevent this incident from repeating itself.
We were lucky this time as nobody ended up in the emergency room. Let us not wait until that happens to come to the table and start working on this.
We need to make sure the Coachella Valley is “Amazing” because living here allows you to thrive, and not because it is “Amazing” how much you can get away with.
Eduardo Guevara is the Executive Director of Promotores Comunitarios del Desierto, a Chiriaco Summit based community/grassroots group working in environmental justice and social issues in the valley. He can be reached at email@example.com