Monday, June 20, 2016
Palm Springs Desert Sun
Bill targets secrecy in California water data
By Ian James
Farms and golf courses rank among the biggest water users in the Coachella Valley, but detailed information about how much water each of those businesses use is kept secret by the area’s largest water agency.
That would change under a bill now before the California Legislature. The bill would clarify previous legislation by specifying that while residential customers’ data may be kept confidential, the public is entitled to information about how much water and energy is used by businesses and institutions.
“People have a right to know who’s using what, and especially with a commodity like water,” said Assembly member Mark Stone, a Democrat who represents the Monterey Bay area.
The bill, AB 1520, was introduced last year in the Assembly Judiciary Committee, which Stone chairs, and was approved last week by the Senate Judiciary Committee. It will go next before the Senate Appropriations Committee.
One of the organizations backing the bill is the First Amendment Coalition, which in 2014 sued the Coachella Valley Water District and the Desert Water Agency after they stopped releasing detailed information about groundwater pumping by large customers such as farms, golf courses, housing developments and resorts.
DWA later settled the case and resumed disclosing pumping data for businesses and organizations. CVWD, however, won the case in Riverside County Superior Court, with the judge backing its argument that the district didn’t need to disclose the data.
“Secrecy should never be the norm when it comes to government unless there’s some special justification for secrecy,” said Peter Scheer, executive director of the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition. “This bill would return California to a status quo of public access and transparency.”
Scheer said it’s crucial for the public to have access to detailed information to spot patterns in water use over time, and to assess whether government agencies are managing water supplies effectively.
“It’s very, very hard for the public to know whether agencies are doing what they need to do without access to this data,” Scheer said.
Managers of the Coachella Valley Water District have said they believe all of their customers are entitled to privacy, whether they are individuals or businesses. Heather Engel, CVWD’s director of communication and conservation, said the district hasn’t taken a position on the legislation.
Until 2013, the water district included data in annual reports on the amounts of groundwater pumped annually by more than 160 entities, ranging from farms and golf courses to resorts with acres of grass and artificial lakes.
Sprinklers water grass on a piece of property adjacentBuy Photo
CVWD stopped releasing that information in 2014 after The Desert Sun published the names of some of the area’s biggest water users. CVWD also has denied requests for the data.
The bill is cosponsored by the California Newspaper Publishers Association and backed by other organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.
The legislation faces strong opposition from a long list of business and agricultural groups, as well as the Association of California Water Agencies, the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, and the California Municipal Utilities Association.
Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, objected to the legislation for various reasons. For one thing, he said, the amounts of water used in agriculture vary greatly from year to year depending on the weather and the crops selected.
“What are you going to do with the information? At the beginning it seems somewhat innocuous. And then later on you find out that somebody’s taking that information, misinterpreting it or reinterpreting it and it creates a lot of problems. So that’s why we’re opposed to it,” said Wenger, who farms crops including almonds, walnuts, pumpkins and corn in Modesto.
“When they pull this kind of information together, it’s usually the precursor to restricting you to a set amount of water usage,” Wenger said. “They’re going to say, ‘Well, historically you’ve used X-amount of water. That’s what you’re going to be entitled to going forward.’ That doesn’t work for agriculture.”
Farms in the Central Valley have been pumping groundwater heavily during California’s five-year drought to make up for the lack of surface water. In many areas, water tables have fallen to record lows.
California adopted historic legislation in 2014 to move toward managing the state’s aquifers, many of which are declining due to excessive pumping. Another bill before the Legislature this year would clamp down further by prohibiting the drilling of most new wells in places where aquifers are in critical overdraft.
Information on diversions of surface water is collected and released by the state. But water districts continue to keep confidential information about water use by many business customers.
AB 1520 would change that by specifying that the public is entitled “to know the usage rates of industrial, institutional, and commercial water and energy users.” The bill says the privacy interests of those water users aren’t sufficient to justify granting an exemption to the public records law.
“People have a right to know who the big users are, and why and where water is going, and where electricity is going,” Stone said. “We are all ratepayers. We all suffer the drought and shortages, so it’s in the public interest.”
Scheer pointed out that California’s public records law already protects corporate trade secrets.
“If it’s not a trade secret, then it doesn’t deserve protection,” Scheer said. “There’s no reason to give them additional exemptions.”
Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said if water agencies are able to keep such data confidential, that makes it difficult for journalists to assess their performance.
“The agency may be turning the other cheek or a blind eye to a particular water user and doesn’t want that information to be publicly known,” Ewert said. “Without that information, you can’t publicly hold the agency’s feet to the fire.”
Ian James writes about water and the environment for The Desert Sun. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @TDSIanJames
San Francisco Chronicle
California drought bummer: Sierra water runoff coming up short
By Kurtis Alexander
The El Niño-fueled storms that coated the Sierra with nearly normal snow this winter brought blasts of hope to drought-weary California.
But after the flurries stopped and the seasons changed, the melt-off from the high country has been swift and disappointingly scant, according to new water supply estimates from the state.
The Department of Water Resources now projects that the mountains will produce about three quarters of normal runoff during the months of heaviest snowmelt, shorting the rivers and reservoirs that typically provide a third of California’s water — and cementing a fifth year of historic drought for the Golden State.
The projections arrive alongside forecasts for potentially dry La Niña weather next winter. And they come as cities and towns face a crucial deadline for deciding how much water to ask consumers to save in the coming year as part of the state’s broader conservation effort.
If this year’s snowmelt “was among a bunch of normal years, it wouldn’t be alarming,” said Steve Nemeth, water supply forecaster for the Department of Water Resources. “But (the melt) is not good enough to erase all the concerns after four years of record drought.”
Snowmelt’s earlier arrival
Runoff from the northern Sierra will be just 71 percent of normal between April and July, according to the state estimates. The central Sierra will yield roughly 77 percent of average over the same time, while the range’s southern end will produce only 63 percent.
The lackluster runoff prompted the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership of federal and university experts tracking water problems, to lift all of California into the category of “abnormally dry” last week, after nearly a year of slightly wetter conditions.
“With the rapid snowmelt this year, water supply may be a concern later this summer,” the experts wrote in their weekly update.
Recent studies have shown the snowmelt in California is coming increasingly early, putting peak runoff further ahead of the peak demand seen in the dry summer months. The trend is driven by rising temperatures and the fact that more precipitation is falling as rain instead of snow.
The state water board is scheduled to receive declarations Wednesday from all urban water suppliers in California on how much water they plan to save through January. Allowing the suppliers to set their own goals represents a significant easing of the government’s rationing measures, which until recently involved mandatory caps set by the state.
The new terms require water agencies to cut back enough to maintain a reserve big enough to last for three dry years.
Officials with the State Water Resources Control Board say the less rigid policy is warranted because of the boost in Sierra snow this winter. Snowpack measured 87 percent of average at the traditional peak time of April 1 — compared with just 5 percent of average at the same point last year, when the mountains were essentially barren.
But runoff tracks differently than snowpack, depending on factors like the temperature and storm frequency, how dry the earth is and how much water is used by plants.
Critics of the state’s move to ease water policy say the change is premature after five years of below-average snow.
“Returning the conservation targets to local control is going to have negative consequences,” said Sara Aminzadeh, executive director of the conservation advocacy group California Coastkeeper Alliance. “Already you’re seeing it.”
Several water agencies, in anticipation of this week’s deadline, have said they don’t need to conserve any water to ensure they have a three-year reserve supply, including the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
The city’s water supplier, though, says it will continue to urge conservation even as it maintains ample water in its Sierra-fed Hetch Hetchy system.
“Because we had an above-average precipitation year at Hetch Hetchy, we were able to fill the reservoir and refill our water bank a substantial amount,” said Charles Sheehan, an agency spokesman.
The commission’s supply stands at 87 percent of the historical average.
The East Bay Municipal Utility District, meanwhile, says its mountain-fed supplies are at 100 percent of normal for this time of year. The agency has not yet calculated how much it plans to save in the remainder of the year.
California’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville, also remain at or above their typical levels. Most reservoirs to the south, however, are short of where they normally stand.
The U.S. Climate Prediction Center is pegging the chances of a La Niña emerging this fall or winter at 75 percent, which could spell more bad news for California.
The climate event, which is characterized by cooler-than-normal water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, tends to produce weather that’s distinctly opposite of that of its sibling El Niño.
“Still too early to know exactly what that means for California,” said Daniel Swain, a climate researcher at Stanford University, “though it probably does not bode well for drought relief.”
Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: kurtisalexander
Farm Beat: Salmon predation issue has new twists
By John Holland
The photo with this column can’t help but draw your eyes. It shows a baby salmon being removed from the gut of a non-native bass that preyed upon it on the Tuolumne River.
Irrigation districts have used the shot in claiming that predator control would serve the native salmon better than boosting releases from their reservoirs into lower river stretches.
The proposal, much questioned by environmental and bass fishing groups, had a pair of new developments in recent days. Several districts and their business allies filed a petition June 9 to increase the state’s catch limits on striped and black bass. And a congressional committee voted Wednesday for a bill that would end the federal mandate to double striper numbers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The bill was introduced by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock. I mentioned it in my April 10 story on the predation issue, which included the salmon-inside-a-bass photo. It was taken by Fishbio, an Oakdale-based consulting firm that works with irrigation districts and other clients.
Advocates for reducing bass say it would be far cheaper and more effective than increasing the amount of water released for salmon in the lower Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced and San Joaquin rivers. They warn of lost jobs and income if this water did not go to farms and cities.
Environmental leaders have told me that predation is one of several stresses on salmon: They also contend with degraded spawning grounds and water that can be too warm and polluted.
The California Striped Bass Association joins the call for higher flows. It argues that the bass – an East Coast native believed to have been first planted in California in 1879 – can coexist with salmon with proper river management. And it says increasing the catch limit would do long-term damage to a sport fishery that has its own benefits to the economy.
The California Sportfishing Protection Alliance did a blog post in response to my April story. It acknowledged that “photos of captured stripers disgorging baby salmon are particularly dramatic,” but the problem lies mostly with low flows.
The daily limit on striped bass would rise from two to six fish under the petition to the California Fish and Game Commission. It also would reduce the size limit from 18 to 12 inches. For black bass, the catch limit would go from five to 10 fish and the size limit from 12 to 8 inches.
The petition is similar to a 2012 effort that failed to sway the commission. All five of its seats have had new appointees since then.
The San Joaquin Tributaries Authority is among the petitioners this time. It includes the Modesto, Turlock, Merced, South San Joaquin and Oakdale irrigation districts, along with San Francisco, which draws from the Tuolumne.
The Denham bill won a unanimous vote at the House Natural Resources Committee and next goes to the full House of Representatives.
John Holland: 209-578-2385, firstname.lastname@example.org
Los Angeles Times
As triple-digit temps and winds hit the Southland, firefighters keep battling nearly 8,000-acre Sherpa fire
By Joseph Serna
Despite winds blowing 50 mph and triple-digit heat this weekend, firefighters made gains on a wildfire that has burned more than 12 square miles of forest in Santa Barbara County and Los Padres National Forest since last week, officials said Monday.
The Sherpa fire was reportedly 54% contained and had burned 7,893 acres since it started Wednesday afternoon near Refugio Road in the Santa Ynez Mountains. Residents in Refugio, Venadito, Las Flores and El Capitan canyons have been under a mandatory evacuation since shortly after the fire began to grow.
The fire also burned a small water treatment building at El Capitan state beach, fire officials said, and damaged avocado, lemon and olive crops. At one point, the fire forced the closure of the 101 Freeway.
“The greater danger of the fire is always at night here because of the ‘sundowner’ winds,” said Costa Dillon, an information officer stationed at the command post on Sunday.
Those conditions are expected to continue Monday, the U.S. Forest Service said.
A red flag warning has been issued for Southern California through Tuesday morning. Temperatures are expected to hover in the triple digits in Los Angeles and remain in the 90s near the Sherpa fire, authorities said.
The blaze is the largest active fire in California, according to state and federal data.
In San Diego County, a wildfire fueled by dry brush and sweltering temperatures has scorched 1,500 acres just north of the U.S.-Mexico border and prompted mandatory evacuations for the entire east county community of Potrero.
About 25 homes south of state Route 94 and east of state Route 188, near where the fire initially sparked about 11:30 a.m. Sunday, were also evacuated.
In Silver Lake, a fire broke out Sunday that threatened homes and forced the closure of the 2 Freeway for several hours.
The fire started near the intersection of Lake View Avenue and Allesandro Way – the cause was under investigation – and pushed northwest by winds, Los Angeles fire officials said. Nearly 200 firefighters responded as a helicopter swooped over the freeway, dropping fire retardant.
Crews needed about 45 minutes to get the fire under control. Two homes on Corralitas Drive were damaged along with three sheds on nearby properties, said David Ortiz, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department.
Fire torched us last year, and the blazes keep coming
By Hudson Sangree
Michael “Cowboy” Cowen and his wife, Shannon, do their laundry in an outdoor washing machine. They take shelter in the shade of makeshift awnings and live in a 35-foot travel trailer with their toddler son Justice.
The family is surrounded by a landscape of blackened trees and scorched earth that used to be their lushly wooded homestead on a hillside above the Jesus Maria Creek, near the rural community of Mountain Ranch.
The Butte Fire that blasted through the foothills of Calaveras County last year reduced their home and all their possessions to ash. The towering oaks and pines that once shaded them will take generations to regrow.
“I can’t ever imagine being cool here again,” Michael Cowen said as he paced his property last week. His deeply tanned face was lined with anguish.
Summer starts Monday, and the state faces another fire season. Many worry it could be a repeat of last year, when massive wildfires tore through populated areas and ravaged landscapes parched by years of drought.
The Butte Fire was among the worst. It spread to nearly 71,000 acres in Amador and Calaveras counties, killed two people and burned 475 homes during three weeks last September. It was the seventh most destructive wildfire in state history in terms of structures destroyed.
The Valley Fire, in Lake County, was the third most destructive. Witnesses described towering flames that swirled like tornadoes and moved at the speed of racehorses. The fire claimed 1,300 homes, burned 76,000 acres and killed four people over a few days last fall.
Both fires left residents huddled in tents and small trailers, wearing donated clothes and desperate for aid and supplies. Many are still trying to reclaim their lives as another fire season begins.
Like the Cowens, they often live in temporary shelters surrounded by vast tracts of blackened trees. Fire authorities say that those dead trees are prime fuel for new fires and that state and local agencies and utility companies are working overtime to clear them.
“It’s just a standing dry, dead fuel bed,” Chief Ken Pimlott, head of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said last week. “Fire will move through stands of dead trees at exponential rates.”
The Cal Fire director said last winter’s normal rainfall delayed this year’s fire season but didn’t dampen California’s epic drought enough to prevent more conflagrations.
“We are really in the fifth year of a drought in many areas of the state, particularly the southern two-thirds,” he said. “We’re parched.”
“Even with precipitation and snow in the northern half of the state, it’s not enough to reverse the impacts of way-below normal precipitation (during the previous four years).”
The rains did produce a bumper crop of tall grasses that will dry out and serve as kindling for forest fires, “that very light flashy fuel where fires first ignite,” Pimlott said.
“We’re getting to a place where we’re ripe to burn,” he said.
Already, fires have erupted in the northern part of the state. Friday, the Camanche grass fire in Amador County burned 200 acres, closed Coal Mine Road and forced evacuations. By Saturday, it was 85 percent contained and the evacuations were lifted.
The lightning-sparked Pony Fire has burned nearly 3,000 acres in the Klamath National Forest in Siskiyou County. It was 40 percent contained as of Saturday.
In the south state, the wind-driven Sherpa Fire in Santa Barbara County closed Highway 101 and exploded to 4,000 acres on Friday. By Saturday, the fire had spread to to more than 7,600 acres and was 45 percent contained. State authorities warned that Southern California could experience potentially record-breaking temperatures starting Sunday.
And last week, a simple spark from a lawnmower started an 83-acre wildfire in Calaveras County called the Cheyenne Fire. Though it was brought under control, it provided a sobering reminder of the dangers at hand.
Firefighters are gearing up for what could be another year of massive wildfires, including populated areas, Pimlott said. Forecasters predict a higher-than-normal potential for fires in the central and southern Sierra Nevada and in Southern California, he said.
Extended drought and higher temperatures caused by climate change are likely to keep firefighters on high alert for years to come, Pimlott said.
“California has always had a climate conducive to wildfire … (but) the overall trend is toward a more flammable state,” he said.
The state and counties will need to get smarter about land-use planning to limit settlement in fire-prone areas, he said. Tens of millions of dollars have been allocated to planning evacuation routes, reducing forest fuels and removing standing dead trees, especially near utility line and roads, he said.
“This has been a long-term slow-moving disaster,” Pimlott said.
At the Cowens’ homestead on Railroad Flat Road near Mountain Ranch, the Butte Fire took everything they had in minutes, including their house.
“It melted,” Michael Cowen said.
Only eight of the hundreds of old-growth trees on their property are still alive, he said. The couple hope to rebuild even though their insurance won’t cover full replacement costs.
Cowen has done the best he can to make the trailer comfortable, including hooking up power by buying a utility pole for $1,100 and installing it so Pacific Gas & Electric could connect its power lines to the trailer.
(Poor tree maintenance by PG&E and its contractors led to a tree falling on a power line and starting the fire near Jackson, according a Cal Fire investigative report. The company is being sued for hundreds of millions of dollars by government entities, including Cal Fire and Calaveras County, and by residents who lost their homes.)
Cowen also got his well working again and built a shaded platform for a clothes washer and dryer beside his gravel driveway. He installed an inflatable children’s pool recently so his son could play in relief from the heat.
“With electricity I was able to do the well,” Cowen said. “With the well I was able to bring my family here.”
The situation can seem nightmarish, he said, but it’s better than the temporary trailer parks they lived in for six months after the fire. The land is still theirs and can be rehabilitated, he said.
Cowen said he hopes his son will inherit the property someday when the woods are green again. His voice broke and tears filled his eyes as he talked about the difficulty of rebuilding his family’s life from nearly nothing.
“Some days the amount of work is incomprehensible,” he said. A measure of relief comes from neighbors who drive by, beep their horns and yell his nickname, Cowboy, he said.
“They all give me love when they go by and honk.”
About half of Cowen’s neighbors, especially those who were older, decided to take their insurance money and move to nearby towns such as Jackson and San Andreas, he said. Even some whose houses didn’t burn decided they’d had enough; the fire destroyed the wooded landscape they loved, he said.
Many fire-scarred properties were taken over by marijuana growers. Their terraced gardens and circular planters cover hillsides easily seen from roads. Residents tell of taking walks and being confronted by men with rifles.
DiAnne Lawley, 72, said she’s bothered by the influx of pot growers and the 360-degree view of dead trees from her hilltop property. But she decided to rebuild anyway after her house and cabin burned down.
Lawley walked her 4-month-old German shepherd puppy into her newly framed house. It will have a large game room for her grandchildren and handicapped access for her old age, she said.
Lawley said that after looking elsewhere for months, and weighing the fire risk of living in the foothills near Mountain Ranch, she decided to rebuild to be near her old neighbors, or at least those who remained.
“The bottom line that brought us back,” she said, “was the people.”
Hudson Sangree: 916-321-1191, @hudson_sangree
Blackbird’s future uncertain in Kings County
By Eman Shurbaji
For the second year in a row, an increasingly rare bird avoided Kings County during its nesting season.
The tricolored blackbird, which historically nests March through May in the Central Valley, decided to nest in Kern, Tulare and Merced counties instead of Kings County this year. The nearest nestlings were just over the Kings-Tulare border in Tulare County.
“We have 30 acres of native ground where we can encourage birds to nest if they want to,” said Brian Medeiros of Medeiros and Son Dairy, a dairy in Lemoore.
Like most dairymen, he’s aware of the bird’s candidacy for the Endangered Species List. It’s been a candidate since December 2015 and though it has protection under federal law, placing it on a list will lead to more involvement from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“We do watch our fields [and] if there’s a large colony we’ll look,” he said.
What endangered listing means
Dairies are a favorite breeding ground for the birds because they create colonies in triticale, the plant dairymen grow to feed their cows. Food and water are also readily available and nearby adult birds can find seeds to eat and large insects to feed their young.
However, this creates a problem for dairies since harvest season coincides with the birds’ nesting season. Before researchers found a connection between dairies and bird nesting, farmers were likely unknowingly destroying nesting grounds.
According to the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s most recent data, there were 145,000 birds in 2014, compared to 400,000 birds in 2008.
If the bird is placed on the endangered list, dairies won’t have to move or designate land for the birds, but it adds another level of protection for the species, said Neil Clipperton, bird conservation coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“It would increase our tracking of the species and our efforts to locate and protect the colonies out there,” he said.
He adds that an endangered listing — which may occur as early as December 2016 — impacts activity that may harm species. “Taking” the bird — which include hunting, pursuing, capturing or killing — becomes illegal.
Currently, a program allows dairy farmers to voluntarily work toward preserving the bird by delaying crop harvests. If birds are found on a dairy in the spring, several organizations — Western United Dairy, Audubon California, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, California Farm Bureau Association, Dairy Care and Sustainable Conservation — work together to provide farmers with grant money to delay harvests of triticale.
“If it gets on the Endangered Species List, agencies would be more involved and reporting wouldn’t be voluntary,” said Paul Sousa, director of environmental services at Western United Dairymen.
Sousa says there’s a “big difference” in the presence of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife over the past two years, as research efforts to save the bird continues.
What it means is that dairy farmers would not be just voluntarily reporting the bird on their property. If the bird is an endangered species, then it would be a federal crime to not report it.
The bird’s breeding pattern in Kings County has shifted over the past decade.
“It doesn’t seem dairies were used heavily [in nesting] in Kings County,” said Clipperton. “Historically they nested on the Kings and Kern [counties’] border and east toward Tulare County.”
In 2014, there were 5,000 birds on agricultural land on the Kings and Kern counties border, and in 2011, though most of the breeding took place near the Kern border, some activity was found near Tulare County. In 2000, breeding was noted on a dairy between Hanford and Corcoran.
“The numbers have been dropping and so there’s less birds everywhere,” said Clipperton.
At the end of May, the birds migrated to the Sacramento Valley where they will breed a second time. After August, they’ll stay in lowland areas of California, in the Central Valley and “go up to the coast quite a bit,” Clipperton said.
Clipperton says he “can’t say precisely why” numbers have dropped in Kings County, but he hypothesizes it’s due to a loss of habitats where birds can both nest and feed their young. The birds were once laying eggs in “big open spaces,” but these areas have given way to farmland and developments.
“The young eat mostly large insects and some crops support large insects,” he said. “What’s not good are orchards and vineyards, especially big crops.”
Kings County Farm Bureau executive director Dusty Ference echoes concerns about habitat loss, but is hopeful the birds will return to Kings County — and that farmers will work to preserve their numbers.
“The farm bureau strives to inform and educate, and we’ll help arrange meetings between growers and the appropriate agency if a grower finds birds on their property,” he said.
The reporter can be reached at email@example.com or 583-2430. Follow her on Twitter @emanwriter