Monday, March 28, 2016
California lawmakers to scrutinize new bullet-train plans
By Juliet Williams
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — State lawmakers will have their first opportunity to quiz the officials responsible for California’s $64 billion high-speed rail plans at a committee hearing Monday to review a new business plan that calls for overhauling its proposed route and postponing the first service by three years.
Those overseeing the project are expected to face tough questions about the plan to shift construction to the San Francisco Bay Area rather than head first to Southern California, an acknowledgement of the financial and political challenges that have plagued the project.
The new plan calls for building the first 250-mile segment from the rural town of Shafter to San Jose at a cost of nearly $21 billion. The first leg would begin operating in 2025 — three years later and 50 miles shorter than the original planned route that would have sent trains to the San Fernando Valley.
Project backers are touting it as the first plan to build a fully operable line using only available funding. But a briefing prepared for lawmakers ahead of Monday’s meeting notes: “The funding outlined by the authority is far from guaranteed and associated risks remain high.”
The Legislature approved the first long-term funding source for high-speed rail in the 2014-15 budget, giving it a quarter of funds from fees charged to polluters, about $500 million a year. The rail project also has about $3.2 billion in federal stimulus funds and nearly $10 billion in bond money approved by California voters in 2008.
Public concern has increased as land acquisition got underway in the Central Valley. A poll last week by the Public Policy Institute of California, however, found a slim majority of Californians still support high-speed rail; though support is much more enthusiastic with a lower price tag.
Lawmakers so far have played only a limited role in high-speed rail.
The state’s independent legislative analyst this month urged the Legislature to become more involved, suggesting that it require more detailed planning on the cost, scope and schedule of each high-speed rail segment.
Some Southern California lawmakers are also concerned about the decision to bring service north before it heads south.
Monday’s meeting of the Assembly Transportation Committee is expected to allow more time for public comment than an Assembly hearing in January that left critics incensed. However, no critics of the project are among the seven speakers scheduled to testify Monday.
In a letter to the committee, Citizens for High-Speed Rail Accountability urged lawmakers to reconsider all funding for bullet trains. “There is not enough money available to put a functional financially sound high-speed train on what they are building,” the group wrote.
San Jose Mercury News
Gov. Brown’s $17 billion Delta tunnels plan faces new hurdle — a leading taxpayers organization
By Paul Rogers
In a development that casts significant doubt on whether Silicon Valley’s largest water district will help pay for Gov. Jerry Brown’s $17 billion Delta tunnels plan, a majority of Santa Clara Valley Water District board members now say they want to put the issue to a public vote.
The district, which provides 1.9 million residents of Santa Clara County drinking water and flood protection, has been a key player in Brown’s controversial plan. Its share of the tunnels project could cost up to $1.2 billion.
The district’s staff has insisted for years that it can raise property taxes on Santa Clara County homeowners without a public vote to help pay for the tunnels because the project is simply an addition to the State Water Project, the series of dams and canals that was authorized by state voters in 1960 at the urging of Brown’s father, Gov. Pat Brown.
That vote predated Proposition 13, the 1978 measure that requires most new taxes to be approved by voters. But this month, one of California’s leading taxpayer groups waded into the battle, joining environmentalists in raising major questions about the tunnels project.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — founded by the co-author of Proposition 13 — sent water agencies in Silicon Valley and Alameda County a letter suggesting possible legal action. The letter argued that the tunnels were not part of the original State Water Project plan and that any property tax hike to fund them would be illegal without voter approval.
“What the voters approved in 1960 doesn’t say anything about tunnels,” said Timothy Bittle, the association’s attorney.
If water agencies can raise property taxes to pay for the tunnels without voter approval, homeowners could be on the hook for big tax increases if there are cost overruns, as there were with high-speed rail and the rebuilding of the Bay Bridge, he said.
“Before Proposition 13, you had seniors on fixed incomes who couldn’t pay their property taxes, and their homes were going into foreclosure,” Bittle said. “Prop. 13 was intended to make your property tax bill predictable so you could budget for it. If these water agencies are given a blank check for the tunnels, then the property tax bill would no longer be predictable, and there might be some people who would lose their homes.”
Earlier this month, Bittle sent letters to the Santa Clara Valley Water District and Zone 7 Water Agency, which serves roughly 200,000 residents of Livermore, Pleasanton, Dublin and part of San Ramon, saying that they were being put “on notice.”
Contacted by this newspaper, five of the seven members of the Santa Clara Valley Water District board said they favor putting a nonbinding advisory measure on the ballot next year in Santa Clara County asking voters if they would raise property taxes to pay for the project, which could cost the district $470 million to $1.2 billion, although final costs won’t be known until state studies are finished this fall.
“I have concerns about the project. As we all know, the record is not good for large-scale public infrastructure projects on cost overruns,” said Barbara Keegan, chairwoman of the Santa Clara Valley Water District board.
“If there’s a possibility that property taxes could be going up without any sort of cap on them, that’s unacceptable to me,” she said. “And I would certainly think it would be appropriate for the public to weigh in on that.”
The other district board members that say they would support an advisory vote are Dick Santos, Gary Kremen, Tony Estremera and John Varela.
Bittle said an advisory measure would be good for water officials who want to avoid “political suicide,” but he added that no money could be committed from property taxes anywhere in the state, including the massive Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, without a binding two-thirds vote.
Nancy Vogel, a spokeswoman for the state Natural Resources Agency, said Friday that a 1983 court case, Goodman v. County of Riverside, provides authority to raise property taxes without a vote for the tunnels project.
If local water agencies decide they want to help pay for the tunnels project and receive its water, she said, they are free to raise the money any way they want, from property tax hikes to water rate hikes.
“It is up to the local water agencies to determine how best to pay for their State Water Project bills,” she said.
The whole issue is likely to end up in court.
“This tunnels project is already on financially thin ice at best. Requirements for a two-thirds vote to provide property taxes to pay for it would effectively kill it,” said Jonas Minton, a former state Department of Water Resources official who now works with environmental groups.
Brown is proposing to build two tunnels, each 40 feet in diameter and 35 miles long, under the Delta. The idea is to reduce reliance on the massive state and federal pumps at Tracy — which draw water south to cities and farms — and are sometimes shut down to protect endangered salmon, smelt and other fish. The environmentally sensitive Delta is the linchpin of the State Water Project, which consists of 34 reservoirs, 20 pumping plants and 701 miles of canals and pipelines from Lake Oroville, in Butte County, through the Delta to the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
But environmentalists, Delta farmers and some Northern California lawmakers call the tunnels project a water grab by Los Angeles and corporate farmers in the Central Valley that would harm the water quality of the San Francisco Bay and the Delta.
So far, the Santa Clara Valley Water District has contributed $13.7 million toward the $250 million the state has spent on reams of studies and analyses of the proposal. Other agencies, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Westlands Water District in Fresno and the Kern County Water Agency, have contributed most of the rest.
If one pulls out or decides it can’t raise property taxes to pay the costs, that means costs for the remaining agencies would go up.
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulrogerssjmn. , firstname.lastname@example.org
San Jose Mercury News
Groundwater law, winter rain trigger flood of aquifer-recharge experiments around California
By Emily Benson
WATSONVILLE — A historic 2014 law requiring water agencies across California to replenish the state’s imperiled aquifers created a new problem: Many local officials just weren’t sure how to do it.
But this winter’s abundant rains are triggering a flood of experiments that have turned the state’s agricultural regions into aquifer-recharge laboratories.
Farmers in Modesto inundated an almond orchard with the city’s stormwater. Water managers in and around Fresno have more than 20 new groundwater recharge projects in the works. On the Central Coast, researchers in the Pajaro Valley are carefully designing percolation basins to capture rainfall before it gushes out into the Pacific.
“Groundwater has kind of been out of sight, out of mind for a long time,” said UC Santa Cruz hydrologist Andy Fisher, who’s leading the research team in the Pajaro Valley. “Suddenly it’s on people’s radar again.”
Californians still don’t know if this winter’s rains will be enough to refill the state’s reservoirs and bring an end to the historic drought. But one thing we do know is that even if Gov. Jerry Brown declares the dry spell over this spring, California’s underground water woes will still be with us.
For decades, water has been sucked from aquifers faster than nature can replenish it — and the drought has only intensified the thirst for groundwater. Scientists agree that it will be decades before a future governor can declare California’s groundwater problems solved.
The state has designated 21 groundwater basins throughout the state “critically overdrafted.” Most of them are in the Central Valley, but three basins on the Central Coast — in the Pajaro, Soquel and Salinas valleys — are also on the list.
California was the last Western state to regulate groundwater. And it took the state’s most punishing drought ever to force the Legislature to finally act.
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires local governments to come up with written plans by 2020 that ensure that basins are kept in balance. It aims to make overdrawn aquifers a relic of the past by 2040.
Overpumping groundwater can cause the overlying surface to sink. Last summer, sections of the San Joaquin Valley were collapsing by two inches a month, threatening roads, pipelines and canal linings.
In coastal locations, however, seawater intrusion is a bigger menace than land subsidence. The ocean has crept miles inland in parts of the Soquel, Pajaro and Salinas valleys, turning groundwater into unusable brine.
Fisher and his team got a jump on some colleagues working on recharge projects because they began monitoring one percolation basin in the Pajaro Valley in 2011, just as the drought began.
With Fisher’s help, the owners of the property and the company farming the land teamed up to build a series of ditches to capture runoff, the water that collects and flows across the ground when it rains. The ditches direct that water into a sediment-settling pond; then a culvert funnels it into a 2-acre infiltration basin. From there, the water drains through sandy soil to refresh the aquifer below.
Pressure sensors at key points track how much water flows into the basin, and a rain gauge — its top ringed with prong-up plastic forks to keep birds away — monitors precipitation. A digital camera mounted on the hillside takes a picture every few minutes to serve as a “gut check” that the flow and rain measurements reflect reality, said Fisher’s graduate student Sarah Beganskas, a Ph.D. candidate in hydrology.
Recharging groundwater supplies with surface water isn’t a new idea: The Santa Clara Valley Water District maintains 99 percolation ponds, which together total about 265 acres, according to district spokesman Marty Grimes.
Between 1915 and 1965, groundwater overdraft in the Santa Clara Valley led to about 13 feet of land subsidence in parts of San Jose. The district stopped the sinking by replenishing the aquifer below, and the groundwater level has largely rebounded since then.
The Santa Clara Valley district’s percolation basins are fed partly by water from the state and federal water projects. The Pajaro Valley and its neighboring basins along Monterey Bay lack a connection to the project pipelines. They depend on other sources of water for groundwater recharge, like recycled wastewater or stormwater runoff.
Fisher and Beganskas are developing other percolation ponds in the Pajaro Valley. Based on maps of soil types and water runoff simulations, they estimate that the valley could support about a dozen sites like the one they’re monitoring. Together, the researchers say, the sites could supply about 10 percent of the annual groundwater deficit in the Pajaro Valley.
They’ve also learned that how hard the rain falls affects how much water the basin collects. During drizzly showers, rain has time to soak back into the soil, then naturally filter down to the aquifer. But during heavy storms, precipitation rushes into rivers and to the ocean — unless a stormwater collection system is there to catch it.
“During a big storm, that’s when you’re going to get the most bang for your buck,” Beganskas said.
Roughly the same amount of rain fell during the winters of 2011-12 and 2013-14, for example, but in 2011-12 it was mostly light and moderate rain, while the winter two years later saw fewer but more severe storms. The experimental basin collected about 7½ times as much water in the latter year.
Last winter, the infiltration basin gathered more than 100 acre-feet of water, much of it during a single December storm. That’s enough to supply 200 families with water for a year.
Months earlier, Fisher and Beganskas had calculated that a large downpour could overwhelm the final culvert leading into the basin, creating a flooding hazard. So acting on the researchers’ recommendation, the farming company replaced the pipe with a larger one three months before the December deluge.
That may seem like an easy fix, but it’s a crucial one — and it was only possible because someone was keeping track of the rainfall and runoff data, Beganskas said.
Because of climate change, intense rainstorms may become more common along the Central Coast in the coming decades, said Howard Franklin, a senior hydrologist at the Monterey County Water Resources Agency.
“We’re going to see many more drought periods interspersed with extreme events,” he said.
Those deluges could be a significant source of water in the Salinas and Soquel Valley groundwater basins, which are overdrawn by up to 28,000 acre-feet per year.
Small field projects such as the ones in the Pajaro Valley supply researchers with knowledge and data they can apply across different kinds of landscapes, as long as they take local conditions into account, said UC Davis groundwater hydrologist Thomas Harter.
“Andy’s work has statewide implications and even beyond that,” he said.
Fisher and Beganskas certainly hope so.
“You can’t just dig a hole in the ground,” Beganskas said. “You have to be smart about it.”
Contact Emily Benson at 408-920-5764. Follow her at Twitter.com/erbenson1, email@example.com
Why Saudi Arabia bought 14,000 acres of US farm land
By Elliot Spagat and Aya Batrawy
SAN DIEGO — Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy company will soon be unable to farm alfalfa in its own parched country to feed its 170,000 cows. So it’s turning to an unlikely place to grow the water-chugging crop — the drought-stricken American Southwest.
Almarai Co. bought land in January that roughly doubled its holdings in California’s Palo Verde Valley, an area that enjoys first dibs on water from the Colorado River. The company also acquired a large tract near Vicksburg, Arizona, becoming a powerful economic force in a region that has fewer well-pumping restrictions than other parts of the state.
The purchases totaling about 14,000 acres have rekindled debate over whether a patchwork of laws and court rulings in the West favors farmers too heavily, especially those who grow thirsty, low-profit crops such as alfalfa at a time when cities are urging people to take shorter showers, skip car washes and tear out grass lawns.
“It’s not easy to completely grasp the business model of the Middle East, but it may not be about business at all,” said John Szczepanski, director of the U.S. Forage Export Council. “The primary focus is food security, and the means to that end lie in acquiring the land and resources to ensure long-term supply.”
For decades, Saudi Arabia attempted to grow its own water-intensive crops for food rather than rely on farms abroad. But it reversed that policy about eight years ago to protect scarce supplies.
To further conserve water, the country has adopted bans on selected crops. This year, the kingdom will no longer produce wheat. In December, the government announced the country will stop growing green fodder, livestock feed derived from crops like alfalfa, over the next three years.
Almarai already farms worldwide to make sure that weather, transportation problems or other conditions don’t interrupt supplies. The expansion in the American Southwest was a “natural progression” in its effort to diversify supply, said Jordan Rose, an attorney for the company’s Arizona unit.
“The cows feed multiple times a day, and they need to be certain that they are always able to fulfill that unwavering demand,” she wrote.
Despite the widespread drought conditions, the U.S. is attractive to water-seeking companies because it has strong legal protections for agriculture, even though the price of land is higher than in other places.
“Southern California and Arizona have good water rights. Who knows if that will change, but that’s the way things are now,” said Daniel Putnam, an agronomist at the University of California, Davis.
Over the last decade, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates emerged as significant buyers of American hay as their governments moved to curb water use. Together they accounted for 10 percent of U.S. exports of alfalfa and other grasses last year.
The land purchases signal that Almarai doesn’t just want to buy hay; it wants to grow. And it’s not the only Arab-owned Gulf company to take that approach.
Al Dahra ACX Global Inc., a top U.S. hay exporter based in Bakersfield, California, is owned by Al Dahra Agriculture Co. of United Arab Emirates. It farms extensively in Southern California and Arizona and, according to its website, plans to add 7,500 acres in the United States for alfalfa and other crops. The exporter packages crops grown across the West at its two plants in California and one in Washington state.
Most of the farms that Arab companies own worldwide are in developing nations. For instance, Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund has holdings in Latin America and Africa.
But part of the kingdom’s long-term food security strategy means investing in higher-cost countries with greater political stability, said John Lawton, owner of Agriculture Technology Co., a farming company in Saudi Arabia.
In 2014, Almarai paid $47.5 million for more than 9,800 acres in La Paz County, Arizona, a sparsely populated alfalfa-growing region that is exempt from severe restrictions on pumping imposed on Phoenix, Tucson and other large Arizona cities under a 1980 state law designed to protect the state’s aquifers.
It later turned to the Palo Verde Valley, where Southern California settlers staked claim to the Colorado River in 1877, beating Los Angeles and San Diego under a Gold Rush-era doctrine called “first in time, first in right” that governs the 1,450-mile waterway. The company paid $31.5 million for 1,790 acres in January after buying about 2,000 acres there last year.
Farmers and water experts have greeted Almarai with both cheers and jeers.
Supporters note that the company has embraced water-conservation methods that few other farmers have adopted. The Arizona Department of Water Resources released maps that show well levels on Almarai’s property in La Paz County rose in recent years, and the farm’s footprint has remained about the same since 2000.
In California, some farmers say Almarai is a well-run company that has boosted the economy by growing its own alfalfa and buying more hay from neighboring farmers. The company recently broke ground on a plant in California’s Imperial Valley to package hay into ship-ready bales.
Others say the purchases highlight misguided water policies. La Paz County Supervisor Holly Irwin raises concern that Almarai will deplete wells.
“We’ve got them coming, moving in here and using our natural resources up. Why isn’t anyone paying attention to the ground we live on?” she said.
Christopher Thornberg, an economist at the University of California at Riverside, called alfalfa farms a “shocking waste of a resource” and suggested California consider seizing land under eminent domain.
“At some point in time,” he said, “we have to face the fact that the state cannot continue to prosper under the current circumstances.”
Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Los Angeles Times
California’s largest reservoir filling too fast thanks to El Niño, must release more water
The El Niño-fueled storms that have swept through Northern California in recent weeks have swelled some of the state’s largest reservoirs to encouraging levels even as the state’s drought persists.
One of the biggest beneficiaries has been Lake Shasta, a keystone reservoir of the Central Valley project, which serves California growers.
To make room in Shasta for water from last weekend’s storms, the Federal Bureau of Reclamation ramped up releases from 5,000 cubic feet per second to 20,000 cubic feet per second on March 18. It was the first time since 2011 that the bureau released water into the upper Sacramento River at such a rapid rate, said spokesman Shane Hunt.
Officials began slowing the releases again on Wednesday, Hunt said. The rate is expected to return to around 5,000 cubic feet per second by Monday.
“We never got to the point where the increased releases drew the lake down at all,” Hunt said. “We just slowed how fast we were gaining.”
Lake Shasta, he added, is “still gaining storage and will continue to do so.”
On Thursday, Shasta was holding about 3.9 million acre feet of water, or 87% of its capacity and 110% of average for the day.
Lake Shasta is California’s biggest reservoir and a key source of water for the state.
Farmers watch agency crumble
By Don Curlee
Watching a tragedy occur is a painful experience, but California agriculture is having to tolerate the pain as a once-respected and pertinent state agency appears to be on the brink of disintegration.
The Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) is taking steps to destroy itself and the act that created it, the 40-year-old Agricultural Labor Relations Act. Purpose of the act and the board that oversees it is to allow the state’s 500,000 or more farm workers to hold secret ballot elections at their work sites to determine if they want to be represented by unions.
The act is historic in that no other state guarantees such a right. Action at the state level is necessary because the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) specifically excludes agricultural workers from its provisions. A barrel full of favorable attention for California was created when the act was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in his first term in 1975.
But instead of growing in grace and performing its duties impartially the act (board) is becoming a laughing stock and a bloated bureaucracy. For a significant portion of its life the board has operated with only three members, although its charter specifies five. It has been hard to justify the expense of the full five members because the demand by workers for elections has been almost non-existent for a large share of the board’s lifetime.
A little more than two years ago the board took a sharp turn for the worse. It coincided with a significant increase in its budget (something all but dyed-in-the-wool unionists find hard to justify), and the subsequent hiring of a new general counsel. She expanded her staff almost entirely with known fans and devotees of the United Farm Workers union (UFW).
A kind of belligerence emanated from that department of the agency, breaking any compatibility it had with the board itself.
The eventual outcome of the new era of the general counsel has created national negative attention, eventually leading to her dismissal. That was followed by the transfer or removal of two of her closest loyal union-supporting staff members.
Instead of the housecleaning many hoped for, especially with the appointment of a new and experienced chairman of the board, under-worked staff members in the general counsel’s office began agitating for new and expanded responsibilities. Not surprisingly, the activities they proposed for themselves and the agency centered around the education of all farm workers regarding the way the agency operates, supposedly in the farm workers’ behalf.
To many observers in the agricultural community, the great expansion of duties these agency staffers propose is more akin to brainwashing. They want to meet with workers all over the state at their work times while they are gathered on farm property. To do so means they will need to enter the property, hold informational sessions at lunch or break times, all in the name of informing, but in reality, encouraging the farm workers to call for union elections.
Underlying the suggestion of such a mammoth educational undertaking is the crass and selfish goal of increasing the size of the agency. In the world of bureaucrats the bigger your bureau the more stature it commands. The bigger your bureau the more important and vital you are as an individual. Twisted, but logical to dyed-in-the-wool bureaucrats.
The farm and farmworker community are viewing this deterioration of the ALRB with profound sadness. The agency’s transition from election overseer to defender-protector-educator-big daddy of farm workers is a serious misstep of state government. It speaks of a brotherhood with a union dominated legislature and with unionists everywhere.
It takes the ALRB from triumph to tragedy. It won’t be — isn’t — pretty.