Monday, March 7, 2016
Could new storms be California’s ‘March Miracle’?
By Dale Kasler
Was this the start of California’s “March Miracle”?
Rain and thunder hit the Sacramento area Friday afternoon, touching off a weekend that’s expected to be full of stormy weather. The precipitation ended a lengthy dry spell and rekindled hopes that El Niño could put a meaningful dent in the drought.
Forecasters said rain was expected to fall through the evening, intensify Saturday and continue through Sunday and Monday. The storm could bring as much as 3 feet of snow to portions of the Sierra Nevada. A second heavy storm system is likely to move into the region late Wednesday or early Thursday.
“What we’re expecting out of this is … very heavy rainfall, damaging winds and heavy mountain snowfall,” said Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service, in a conference call with reporters. “These storms and their intensities are consistent with the El Niño pattern. They tend to come in episodes.”
The return of wet weather follows the disappointment of February, when Sacramento received less than an inch of rain and a portion of the once-promising Sierra snowpack had melted away. Climate experts said the storms will get California back on track toward easing the drought, but a complete cure this winter is unlikely.
“It’s definitely going to help, but I don’t know that you’re going to be able to say it’s the slam-dunk thing that we needed,” said Michael Anderson, the Department of Water Resources’ state climatologist. “We’ve still got some pretty deep holes.”
Typically, the department says, California’s significant droughts have ended when precipitation hit 150 percent of average. As of Friday morning, overall rainfall was 101 percent of average for this time of year and water content in the Sierra snowpack had fallen to 79 percent of average. Even a drenching March probably will not be enough to end the drought.
“We’re a little late for miracles,” said Bill Patzert, a climate expert at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
Patzert said it was probably unrealistic to expect one wet winter to obliterate what is considered the worst drought in recorded California history. “There is never a quick fix for a drought,” he said.
The rains started in earnest around midday Friday, paused for a few hours, then resumed with vigor late in the afternoon. A much as a half-inch had fallen in portions of Sacramento, and another quarter-inch or so was expected overnight.
Forecasters said Saturday would be comparatively warm, and the precipitation would fall as rain at elevations as high as 7,000 feet in the Sierra. A cold front is expected to roll in late Saturday or early Sunday, bringing snow as low as 3,500 feet.
The snowpack is critical to California’s chances of easing the drought. An ample amount of snow can provide 30 percent of the state’s water supply in spring and summer.
Considerably less rain was expected in Southern California, which has remained relatively dry this winter. El Niño typically delivers the bulk of its California precipitation to the south state.
Forecasters warned this weekend’s storms could bring gusting winds, falling trees, flash floods and other problems, but they said overall the storms should not be particularly destructive. As the rainfall accumulates, however, the second set of storms forecast for next week could lead to worrisome levels in some rivers and streams.
“Let’s call it a manageable March miracle,” said Andy Morin, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s California Nevada River Forecast Center. “We’re really hoping in a manageable way to add to these reservoirs and really start putting the hurt on the drought.”
As the second round of storms rolls in, “those effects can get cumulative, and we could start to have increasing amounts of trouble,” he said.
Flood safety regulators weren’t taking any chances. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Folsom Lake, said it has begun ramping up releases from the reservoir to prepare for incoming flows. While the reservoir is only 62 percent full, and some Sacramento water-agency officials have criticized the bureau for releasing water for flood safety, the bureau said it has to maintain ample empty space to guard against big storms.
The lake is expected to receive 282,000 acre-feet of water between now and March 14, said agency spokesman Shane Hunt. The reservoir’s total capacity is 977,000 acre-feet.
“We’re looking at a forecast showing quite a bit of rain and snow,” Hunt said. “The reservoir is pretty full given where we’re at for the season.” The lake is holding 10 percent more water than average for early March.
The wintry weather was threatening to scramble weekend recreation plans. One big outdoor event was moved inside. The Life in Color paint-spraying extravaganza Saturday afternoon was moved from Bonney Field to the indoor Pavilion. But the Donut Dash in Sacramento’s Land Park was expected to go on as planned, along with the Way Too Cool 50K Endurance Run east of Auburn.
Friday marked the first true rainfall in Sacramento in 14 days, a dry patch that prompted some water officials to worry that El Niño had run its course. However, experts noted that El Niño is often accompanied by lengthy stretches without rain, including a 17-day lull in 1998 and 14 days in 1983. Those were two of the heaviest El Niño winters on record.
“El Niño remains strong and continues to influence the temperatures and precipitation pattern across the West,” Uccellini said.
More hard work ahead for water management says State Water Board leader
By Heather Hacking
Chico – California has water problems. Even before the drought, fish in rivers were struggling, groundwater is polluted and there is not enough water to meet demand.
That’s all reality, said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, who was in Chico on Friday to talk water.
The event was the 24th annual meeting of Northern California Water Association attended by several hundred people at Sierra Nevada Brewery.
Marcus praised leaders in Northern California, and specifically from NCWA, for being thoughtful in their approach to water issues.
“When folks can acknowledge complexity and look for solutions that meet more than their own needs, I respect them,” she said.
Water issues can make people angry and defensive, however solutions need to be considered with a more open mind, she said.
Some urban dwellers are quick to blame agriculture for the state’s water problems, as an example. Marcus said she can be counted on to defend “agriculture against really dumb sound bites.” People need to be reminded that it takes water to grow food and that food is not “beamed from another planet.”
As for problems in the state, they’re real and will only become more challenging over time. The drought dilemma is far from over.
As chair of the State Water Board, Marcus was at the center of the conservation rules for households throughout the state. It was Marcus who talked clearly about military-style showers, nozzles at the end of hoses and using a broom to clean the driveway.
Those rules were important, and remain important, because we don’t know what the future has in store, Marcus said.
LESSONS DOWN UNDER
The extended drought in Australia during the early part of the 2000s was an important lesson to California, she explained.
People in Australia were accustomed to three-year drought cycles. Yet, a three-year drought cycle turned into six dry years, and six dry years turned into a dozen. During the process, Australia needed to spend billions of dollars all at once to keep the country going. One thing that can be learned from Australia is not to expect the next year to bring rain, she said.
This is one of the reasons California leaders chose to continue water conservation beyond the original deadline of February, Marcus said. The current plan is to re-evaluate mandatory conservation in early April.
Drought has touched all corners of California, creating many issues, some competing.
“Our job at the State Board is to be in the middle of everyone,” she said.
She praised Northern California water leaders, and specifically those involved with the Northern California Water Association, for providing strong advocacy for their own position but also helping to come up with solutions for the state as a whole.
This is “not only helpful, it makes us want to help you even more.”
Coming soon will be plans for regional groundwater management, with local agencies working now to meet new rules from the state. This is entirely new to the history of California water use.
After her talk, Marcus told the Enterprise-Record that there has not been much opposition to the state groundwater rules because they were needed. Local water managers could see that land use changes could quickly draw down groundwater supplies.
Lower groundwater levels and land subsidence (permanent shifts in groundwater elevation) have occurred throughout the state, particularly in the Central Valley. In the Sacramento Valley there are only a few reports of subsidence, and people would like to keep it that way.
The deadline for the groundwater management plans is 2022. The way the rules are structured, local groups will set up the new groundwater rules. If that doesn’t work, the state is prepared to step in and be the “800-pound gorilla,” Marcus said.
LOSS OF SNOW
One daunting change in store for California is climate change.
Marcus said an increase in temperature by just a few degrees will mean the loss of California’s snowpack. Snowpack is 1/3 of the state’s water storage in an average year, she explained.
Will that happen in two decades, or four decades? Marcus said no one knows. Yet, when it does, the water “conflicts of today will look like a picnic,” she said.
Any one solution is not going to solve the problem, she continued. To meet future challenges, people in California need to re-use water, conserve water and store water, she continued.
There will also be problems we can’t even envision today.
“Sea levels will rise,” she said, which “can’t be good considering how hard it is to maintain salinity levels” now in the delta.
Inevitably, the population will increase. “We are not going to eat our young,” she quipped.
However, Marcus said she maintains her optimism.
“The beauty is that we can do something about it.”
She said struggles of the future will require “our human skills” and the ability to bring respect to problem-solving.
Contact reporter Heather Hacking at 896-7758.
Reach the author at email@example.com or follow Heather on Twitter: @HeatherHacking.
Why the HLB fight is slow
By David Castellon
John Hendrixson came to the 2016 citrus showcase hoping to hear some good news about the fight against huanglongbing, a disease capable of wiping out California’s citrus industry.
“We would have liked to hear they have an antidote,” or at least that significant progress has been made toward that end, the Orange Cove citrus farmer said.
During the day-long conference, he and his fellow farmers instead heard from researchers that in some aspects, they’re still trying to get a handle on the disease — commonly known as “HLB” — after years of research.
“We’re trying to solve the problem of HLB,” but a big part of that will involve understanding the bacteria, said Wenbo Ma, an associate professor for the the University of California, Riverside’s Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology, who is working on HLB detection.
Normally, scientist can get samples of bacteria and regrow them in labs, as they can with E. coli, for example, but HLB grows only in branches, leaves and insects, she explained.
“That makes the research very, very difficult,” Ma said.“Because of that, we know little about the disease, too.”
Still, she said, her lab is working to identify the proteins produced by the HLB bacteria that affects changes in the infected trees.
“We’re trying to understand these proteins … so we can help detect the disease faster and then also help treat the trees so they are not that susceptible to the bacteria.”
Among the challenges in detection is how early it can occur, as most of the HLB research has been done on trees already showing outward signs of infections, and by some estimates a tree could be infected two or three years before that happens.
In the meantime, while the outward symptoms can’t be seen, Asian citrus psyllids could feed on infected trees that appear healthy to farmers and spread HLB to other trees.
Adding to the detection problems is that the entire tree may not show signs of pathogen cells, as a leaf or branch from one end of a tree may show up positive for the infection, while a leaf or branch from another end could show up negative under current testing methods, Ma said.
And some of the findings aren’t good news, as researchers have begun discovering subtle differences between the symptoms and in the HLB proteins found in trees from different parts of the U.S. and other countries.
“Bacterias are always evolving,” but the changes could be in response to different environmental conditions, including weather and soil, Ma said.
Still, the findings so far should have researchers considering that any solutions to HLB may not work in all parts of the world and a one-shot method may require finding the common factors found in HLB in different parts of the world.
To that end, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture has awarded a $4 million grant for researchers in California, Texas and Florida to look at HLB bacteria from different regions and their proteins, Ma said.
Meanwhile, work is being done to detect HLB by the changes the disease causes in infected trees, which includes development of a hand-held detector to and training dogs to smell the chemical changes in infected trees.
Ed Stover, a USDA research horticulturalist working out of Florida, told farmers here that work is underway to identify the genes associated with HLB, and researchers have been working of breeding new types of citrus trees or adding new root stock to make trees more resistant to HLB, though an immune tree has yet to be developed.
Work also is being done on genetic modifications that, introducing genes from other plants — which so far has included spinach — into citrus stock to develop resistance.
Owl wars: Will shooting the barred owl protect its shy cousin?
By Natalie Jacewicz
The barred owl has speckled brown wings, teddy bear eyes and a hoot that sounds like a puppy mouthing a sock. This one also has a red laser dot on its head. After getting a good look, Lowell Diller fires his rifle. The owl tumbles off its perch to the ground.
Diller has pulled the trigger on barred owls more than 100 times in the forests of Humboldt and Del Norte counties, but he’s no poacher or renegade woodsman. He’s a wildlife biologist who, as part of an experiment sanctioned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, kills one bird to protect another. The northern spotted owl, a smaller Pacific Northwest native that became symbolic of the region’s timber conservation battles, is threatened with extinction.
Diller, a biologist and contractor for Green Diamond Resource Co., a lumber company managing timberland in Humboldt, Del Norte and Trinity counties, agrees the barred owl is “an amazing bird, a wonderful bird.”
But it has invaded California from the eastern United States, muscling out northern spotted owls upstate, and spreading south toward San Francisco. If the barred owls continue their advance, they may swoop in on other birds as well, such as the California spotted owl in the Sierra National Forest and Monterey.
A study soon to be published in the Journal of Wildlife Management and Wildlife Monographs shows the results of Diller’s grisly conservation experiment: It works.
Without barred owls competing for habitat, northern spotted owls bounce back. And conservationists now are staring down the barrel of a big question: How far should humans go to take sides in owl wars?
“By the time I’m done with this,” Diller said, “I’m going to need a lot of therapy.”
Diller couldn’t have chosen a more charismatic creature for extermination. Owls pop up in plushies, knickknacks and even tote bags. Andrea Jones, the National Audubon Society’s California director of bird conservation, suggested people admire owls because “they’re part of a lot of lore and history.” Plus, she added, “Humans love things with big eyes.”
Unfortunately, the big-eyed barred owl is also a big bully. The owl spread from the East, likely as trees were planted in the Midwest and people increasingly suppressed forest fires. Upon arrival, barred owls become real estate moguls and chase other birds from their territory. These bullied birds may fall mute to avoid detection, fail to call out to potential mates and plummet in number.
Northern spotted owl populations, for example, have fallen in some areas by about 12 percent each year, despite efforts enacted in the 1990s to protect their old-growth forest habitat.
“Can you imagine letting something like that go extinct?” Diller asked. “It’s really not acceptable.”
Northern spotted owls also have winning personalities. They’re curious and tend to come closer than many other species when human researchers offer mice. The males carry the mice back to nests to feed their mates. And the owls can remember individual people.
“They very quickly learn that you’re the source of the mouse,” Diller said. “So they’ll kind of get attached to you.”
Once barred owls swooped in, northern spotted owls seemed to disappear, but this evidence was circumstantial. To be sure barred owls were causing the decline, someone needed to create a controlled experiment.
Timberlands with northern spotted owls have to submit habitat conservation plans. Diller had noticed spotted owl numbers were slipping when he met Jack Dumbacher, ornithology curator at the California Academy of Sciences. Dumbacher needed to collect some barred owl specimens, and he had a permit to do so. Diller saw an opportunity.
He realized he could apply for a permit from U.S. Fish and Wildlife to test whether barred owls were actually cutting into northern spotted owl populations. If the experiment supported Diller’s hunch, he could use the findings to inform future habitat conservation plans for Green Diamond, maximizing trees that could be sustainably harvested while protecting a threatened species.
In 2009, with permission from the feds and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Diller set aside patches of timberland to remove barred owls. In other patches, he did nothing. After four years, he would see how northern spotted owl numbers differed in the areas with and without barred owls.
Dumbacher and Diller went into the woods together at dusk, first playing a spotted owl call. If a spotted owl appeared, the pair moved on. If not, they played a barred owl call and waited for a barred owl to move to a perch for a clear visual identification. With one shot, Dumbacher killed the first bird.
“It was quite traumatic, the first one,” Diller recalled. “It was so foreign, the idea of doing something like this. I couldn’t even watch him do it.”
Eventually, he grew comfortable enough to kill the birds without Dumbacher’s help. But Diller’s study suggests his trauma has paid off: In the areas without barred owls, northern spotted owls are no longer declining. The study is the first to prove this treatment works.
Green Diamond has applied for more permits to continue removing barred owls. Gary Rynearson, the company’s chief communications officer and forest policy director, said that more spotted owls does not mean Green Diamond will increase logging, but it does mean that current rates of logging can continue. Though logging companies have often been at odds with threatened species such as the northern spotted owl, the company is excited about the study’s results, Rynearson said.
“When you can protect and sustain a business and jobs and also conserve the northern spotted owl,” he said, “why not do it?”
Now, the Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting four other experiments over larger landscapes in Washington, Oregon and California. These studies could pave the way for more widespread management of barred owls if they continue to move farther south in California.
But the ethics leave some conservationists uncomfortable.
“It’s sort of a no-win situation,” Audubon’s Jones said grimly. “We’re not advocating for the killing or against the killing.”
She blames old-growth habitat destruction for pitting the two owls against each other in the first place.
PETA called the approach “cheap, dirty, destructive and unimaginative,” while Shawn Cantrell, Defenders of Wildlife’s northwestern program director, suggested that barred owl removal should play a short-term role in spotted owl conservation, while habitat restoration should play a bigger one. “When we mess things up, we have an obligation to fix them,” he said.
Even Dumbacher has his doubts about what’s the right approach.
“Right now, it’s a bunch of us nerdy scientists out there, doing what we think is best,” he said. “I don’t know what’s best. I have a broken heart when I think about the forest. There’s no wilderness left in California. We don’t have the resources to save everything.”
When haunted by the killing, Diller tries to focus on what he’s saving: the northern spotted owl. He talks about a pair of owls that emerged from hiding only two weeks after he’d removed barred owls from their old home.
Though he hadn’t seen them in a while, Diller recognized the two owls, thanks to tags. “They were looking for a free mouse and flew up to greet me,” he said. “That was thrilling.”
Contact Natalie Jacewicz at 408-920-5745. Follow her at Twitter.com/NatalieJacewicz. , firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s high time we had a community discussion about marijuana
Let’s start with the assumption that recreational use of marijuana will be entirely legal by this time next year. Let’s also assume that budding entrepreneurs in Modesto, Atwater, Ripon, Ceres, Turlock and every other city in the northern San Joaquin Valley will be eager to put their wares in front of customers.
Will we be ready?
Perhaps, if we require all those leafy businesspeople to meet certain community standards – locating only in specific areas; using discreet signs; disposing of waste responsibly; making certain the air outside doesn’t smell, well, skunky.
There are people in our cities and counties responsible for making such rules, and they’re already asking these questions. The answers they formulate are of vital interest to all of us.
Start with the most obvious question: Will it be legal here?
Maybe or maybe not. Most polls show overwhelming support for legalizing recreational use, with seven different measures proposed for the November ballot to do just that. At least one, and more likely three or four, will make it. So voters will have to choose their favorites.
The proposition with the most backing – including from Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom – gives counties a “local option.” If residents don’t want legal marijuana, it will remain illegal – though it won’t go away. Keeping it illegal means sales will be on the “black market” and the county won’t be collecting sales taxes. It also jeopardizes a county’s ability to share in the much higher taxes being collected by the state – probably around 15 percent.
Meanwhile, people will continue to consume. And with likely availability in nearby counties, consumption will go up – along with all the associated problems. Counties that don’t legalize it will still face increased psychological, health and law enforcement burdens of residents but without more money to pay for them.
Those burdens could be higher than we’re being led to believe. States that have already legalized recreational weed report higher use and greater incidence of associated problems, from overdoses to underage abuse.
The Bee isn’t yet taking a position; we have more research to do. But burying our heads in the sand isn’t a good strategy.
Fortunately, our supervisors and other elected officials aren’t doing that. The county is proceeding on parallel tracks. One group, spearheaded by supervisor Vito Chiesa, is bringing together an elected official and the city manager from each of Stanislaus’ nine cities to, we hope, establish common rules. It would be better, the thinking goes, if one set of rules governed use throughout the county so cities aren’t competing for those sales-tax dollars.
The other group is more broad-based. Led by supervisors Dick Monteith and Terry Withrow, it is examining challenges on several levels – where it can be grown and under what conditions, what are the health concerns, the regulations, law-enforcement needs?
That group is likely hearing echoes from across California. In Santa Cruz County, where numerous “weed patches” have been growing in the mountains for years, a county commission has been meeting since September. It includes four growers (admittedly illegal), and the county is considering rules that will provide protections for small growers. In nearby Monterey County, where the ground is flatter, the county will insist on “rigorous rules around cultivation.” But those rules might favor farmers who have water rights, experience in dealing with waste and fertilizers and pesticides. After all, who do you want growing your marijuana – people who have been skirting the law for decades or those who know how to farm legitimately?
No one we spoke to at the Stanislaus Farm Bureau knows anyone openly talking about getting into the marijuana business. But considering the retail price of cannabis can reach $480 for an eighth of an ounce in Colorado, there are some obvious incentives – especially if the price of nuts continues to fall.
We’re glad such discussions have started. But there’s more to talk about.
Should a societal stigma hang around cannabis like a cloud of smoke? Probably not, considering the vast majority of people alive in the United States today have at least tried it.
Should it be accepted as harmless? No, because it’s not. A clear connection has been shown between chronic use and loss of cognitive function. Further, it has been shown to diminish gray and white matter in the brains of adolescents more rapidly than in the brains of those over 25.
It’s true that marijuana has been used as a drug for at least 4,000 years, but what’s being harvested today in California’s Emerald Triangle is 10 or even 100 times more potent than what baby boomers experimented with in the 1960s. Overdoses and deaths among adolescents and children have ticked up slightly in Colorado.
At the same time, the medicinal value of cannabis is undeniable and can be profound. It greatly reduces seizures for children afflicted with some forms of epilepsy, eases the symptoms of cancer treatments, is used in treating anorexia, arthritis and glaucoma. Denying patients access should also be considered criminal.
But should enjoying the psychotropic effects of cannabis remain illegal? That’s not just a question for board rooms and council chambers. It’s a question we should bring to service clubs, church groups and even the dinner table. The more likely it is that cannabis will become legal, the more important it is that young people in particular understand the dangers. We also should reach out to those more prone to addiction or psychosis.
There’s so much to talk about in how we, as a community, relate to marijuana. We need to start talking about it now.
San Jose Mercury News
GMO labeling laws in states endangered by Congress
Senators who wonder why increasing numbers of Americans are angry at them need only look to the Senate Agriculture Committee’s 14-6 vote Tuesday to prevent individual states from requiring labeling of genetically modified food.
Polls routinely show 90 percent of Americans want this basic right to know. It’s common practice in most developed countries, including 28 European Union nations, Australia, Japan and even Russia and China.
The Senate is doing the food industry’s bidding at the expense of consumers.
It would be different if the Senate planned a federal law to apply nationally. It would make sense to avoid a patchwork of state laws, which will be more costly for producers than uniform rules. California Sen. Barbara Boxer tried to pass a labeling bill two years ago. But the Senate is interested only in preventing rules. It wants labeling to be voluntary.
Campbell Soup announced in January that it will disclose genetically engineered ingredients in its products beginning in about 12 months. But don’t hold your breath for others to follow suit. Many fear disclosure will hurt sales, particularly when competing products carry no-GMO labels.
Opponents of mandatory labeling argue that scientific studies have found no health risk from foods or animals whose DNA has been modified. The National Academy of Sciences, American Medical Association, FDA and World Health Organization all concluded that genetically modified foods are safe.
Consumers counter that it’s too soon to say there are no long-term effects. They make a compelling argument that until enough time has passed to build confidence — after all, more than one product declared safe has turned out to not be over time — they should have the right to know what their families are eating.
More than 25 states have labeling laws in the works. Vermont’s is scheduled to take effect in July.
In 2013, California voters defeated Proposition 37, which required labeling. It was a poorly drafted law, so we recommended voting no — but it was discomfiting to see Monsanto spend $46 million fighting it. State Sen. Noreen Evans introduced a better law, Senate Bill 1381 in 2014, but it fell two votes short in the 40-member chamber.
Agriculture experts estimate that 40 percent of all produce comes from genetically modified seeds, and 90 percent of the corn and soybeans in supermarkets is genetically engineered. That means a lot of products will require a label note. But that in itself will be educational. And since labels are changed all the time, adding this requirement with enough ramp-up time won’t be much of a burden.
This Congress won’t pass a labeling law. But if it really supports states’ rights, it better steer clear of preventing them from acting on the preference of the vast majority of residents.