Monday, May 16, 2016
McClatchy News Service
A question for the ages: Can Congress pass a California water bill?
By Michael Doyle
California’s two Democratic senators remain somewhat out of sync over proposed water legislation, underscoring its ambiguous future on the eve of a big hearing.
Four months after Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s introduction of her latest California water package, Sen. Barbara Boxer is still evaluating the 185-page bill. Her wait-and-see attitude hints at complex undercurrents, as she supports some parts of Feinstein’s bill while seeking more feedback about other parts.
“I think many of us feel the same way as Sen. Boxer,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. “We appreciate that Sen. Feinstein has reached out and taken some new ideas that she’s rolled into that bill . . . but it still contains this very problematic Delta operations piece.”
Feinstein’s legislation will be one of five Western water bills considered Tuesday by the Senate Water and Power Subcommittee. It’s the first Senate hearing since last October on a drought-inspired California water bill.
“It’s vital that other senators understand how harmful this historic drought has been for California and what our comprehensive bill would do to address it,” Feinstein said.
The hearing could thus foreshadow the bill’s path to the Senate floor and eventual negotiations with the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, which passed its own version last year. Already, the hearing’s schedule reveals one possible scenario for how the action might unfold.
The four other bills being heard Tuesday include measures for Colorado, Arizona, Montana and Nevada, among other Western states. The chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, has previously stressed her interest in shaping a West-wide package rather than passing single-state bills one at a time.
“Reliable access to water is fundamental to Western economies, and these measures provide a variety of tools to fight water shortages,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican whose legislation spans 142 pages.
This scenario, then, packs the California water bill aboard a bigger boat to attract broader Senate support. The Democratic-controlled Congress took this approach in 1992, when lawmakers overpowered farmers’ objections and passed the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, which steered more water to environmental protection.
Another potential route for California-specific language is inclusion in an annual energy and water appropriations bill. The Senate on Thursday passed its version of the annual funding bill. A House version includes many California provisions, some of them controversial, and House and Senate negotiators will eventually have to write a final bill.
Feinstein’s California-oriented water bill being reviewed Tuesday is her third try.
It eases limits on water transfers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta but does not mandate specific pumping levels. It authorizes $1.3 billion for desalination, water recycling, storage and grants. It compels completion of feasibility studies for storage projects such as Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin River.
The GOP-authored House bill, authored by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, sets up a more explicit conflict between farmers and environmentalists with provisions that include mandated pumping levels to farms south of the Delta.
Money is another point of conflict, as House Republicans might resist the kind of explicit spending entailed by Feinstein’s $1.3 billion bill. Feinstein, in turn, has problems with the House Republicans’ repeated proposals to end an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program.
Further complicating the picture, Feinstein’s bill has driven a wedge among Northern California Democrats, who have often hung together in opposition to water bills they deem dangerous to the Delta. In February, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, endorsed Feinstein’s effort, which includes support for the proposed Sites Reservoir in Colusa County.
“This legislation addresses our immediate water challenges while preparing our state for future droughts,” Garamendi wrote.
Other Democrats, though, remain worried about some facets of Feinstein’s bill.
“Her provisions on operations still remain deeply troubling because they benefit one California region over another,” Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, said Friday.
Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10
When Water Policy Kills Farming, Consumers Will Pay the Price
By Daniel Errotabere
When you open your pantry or refrigerator, what do you see? Tomatoes, oranges, lettuce; grains and nuts; chicken and beef; butter, milk, cheese and other dairy products, and yes … almonds – it’s very likely you are looking at products from the Central Valley, most likely grown in the Westlands Water District.
California’s Central Valley has more than 150 years of history following the Gold Rush. People from the Midwest, Europe, China, Mexico, and other parts of Latin America settled and brought their cultural and food influences, which became a staple of Californians’ dinner tables. They also brought their craft of farming, which became an essential part of California’s self-sufficient economy, providing jobs to people where the climate and soil make the land incredibly productive.
But California’s bounty is in jeopardy. Following many years of drought, farmers on the west side of the Central Valley were optimistic this year that a wet winter and spring would increase the amount of water allocated by the federal government.
Instead, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that Westlands would receive only 5% of its contract allocation.
This failed policy demands change. At minimum, Congress needs to pass legislation that requires federal regulators to maximize water allocations during periods of heavy rainfall – a reasonable policy that will help preserve California agriculture.
Water restrictions are due, in part, to environmental protections for at-risk habitats and endangered fish species. Like so many policies viewed through a single-issue lens, inflexibility in the execution of these protections is causing collateral damage with little consideration to the economic and human consequences of failed water policies. Ironically, rather than having a beneficial impact, the fish populations are now even more at risk.
Farming is a complex business and a labor of love. In a good year, with responsible water management, growers in Westlands are able to produce an annual average of more than $1 billion worth of food and fiber, generating approximately $3.5 billion in farm-related economic activities for surrounding communities.
These efforts support more than 50,000 people who live and work in the communities dependent on the agricultural economy. Our life’s work significantly impacts the economies of not just local communities, but the San Joaquin Valley, the State of California, and the nation as well. When anti-farming activists blithely block any reasonable policy that might allow farmers to receive more water, they should also be required to explain how communities would replace the jobs and income lost by failed water supply policies.
Equally concerning is that the lack of action on drought legislation will cause repercussions that have a permanent impact. My family has farmed in the Valley for almost 90 years; these last few years of drought have pushed us to our limit. We’ve fallowed 1,700 acres of tomatoes, garlic, onions, and garbanzo beans, and relied on costly and environmentally taxing groundwater pumping to maintain the rest of our land through the last two years of operating under a zero water allocation from the federal government.
It won’t just be farm communities impacted by today’s water status quo. Californians, who want homegrown organic foods, may have to settle for produce grown and imported from other countries. And taking Central Valley land out of production will also hurt U.S. consumers in general. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, within 40 years, agriculture will have to increase by 70 percent globally to feed the world – and farmers will have to produce more food with less land and less water.
So enjoy the bounty of your pantry and fridge. But don’t take it for granted. Unless Congress acts quickly to allow water policy flexibility and provide some relief to farmers, California consumers may pay the price with changes they never expected.
Daniel Errotabere is a third generation farmer in the Westlands Water District. His family began farming in this area in the late 1920’s. He currently farms alongside his two brothers and their families in the west side of Fresno County. Their primary crops are tomatoes, garlic, onions, almonds and garbanzo beans.
Farm community rallies for strong political, legal clout
By Reed Fujii
Ag Unite, a program to encourage farmers to get more involved in public policy issues affecting agriculture in California, drew 800 farmers and ranchers from five counties to a meeting Thursday in Modesto.
Speakers at the midday event said the sometimes divided farm community needs to come together to deal with increasing battles over the use of key resources, the land, water and air.
Paul Wenger, California Farm Bureau Federation president and Modesto area almond farmer who spoke at the event, later in the day said his aim was to find common ground within the industry.
“In agriculture, we allow ourselves to be divided up by commodity and region,” he said.
“We shouldn’t be at odds with each other. We need to work together.”
While the state Farm Bureau has lobbied on behalf of agriculture for decades, a greater effort is now needed, Wenger said.
The amount of legislation that would affect farming that is currently pending in the state Capitol “is just ridiculous,” he said.
Wenger said he would encourage farmers and farm-related businesses to join the Farm Bureau, support FarmPAC, the group’s political action committee or other agriculture advocacy groups.
“We all have to support our advocates, whether they’re in the commodity groups or in the larger organization, which is Farm Bureau. We need to do it all,” he said.
Much as growers budget for seed, fertilizer and tractor fuel, they should plan for farm advocacy support, Wenger said.
“We can’t all be in Sacramento and we can’t all be in our county seats,” he said.
But Wayne Zipser, executive manager of Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, which hosted Thursday’s event, would encourage farmers to take a personal hand in advocacy, as well.
“We have to be active,” he said. “If we’re going to send a message to the folks in Sacramento, it has to be the producers themselves.”
“Go up and tell your story,” Zipser said. “Let them know how these regulations are affecting your everyday lives and everyday operations.”
Ag Unite also covered the idea of forming a legal defense fund to help farmers who find themselves in court.
Bruce Blodgett, executive manager of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau, reported that a good number of his members attended the Modesto meeting, and that event resulted in at least four new members.
But he also said the idea of a legal defense fund is something that is probably overdue.
”Unfortunately, what is growing almost more rapidly than the political side is the legal side,” Blodgett said.
Such a fund could help farmers fight unfair legal charges, in cases when it might be cheaper to settle or enter a plea.
One example of that might be the story of Irv Leen, an Oroville farmer who was cited for creating a public nuisance and violating streambed protections after another farmer, who was buying a piece of land from Leen, removed some years’ worth of old junk from a drainage ditch and moved it elsewhere on the property.
Leen, who is one of several northern Sacramento Valley farmers who helped launch Ag Unite and is featured in a video on its website, said he appeared in court 780 times over eight years and spent $250,000 on in attorney fees and environmental studies before winning acquittal.
“Maybe we can help some of those folks who have had those types of issues,” Blodgett said.
— Contact reporter Reed Fujii at (209) 546-8253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ReedBiznews.
Valley tree-fruit farmers expect big crop this season
By Robert Rodriguez
Near-perfect growing weather for San Joaquin Valley tree-fruit farmers has produced a limb-buster of a crop this season.
For several weeks, farm crews have been furiously thinning fruit off peach, plum and nectarine trees in hopes of producing bigger, better quality fruit.
“Last year we had to take what we could get from the trees because the crop set was small,” said Mike Thurlow, owner of Mountain View Fruit Sales & Cold Storage in Reedley. “Now we have a plethora of fruit that we can select from. And it’s awesome.”
Although tree-fruit farmers routinely thin immature fruit, the practice was lightly used during the state’s four-year drought that also saw warmer-than-normal winter temperatures.
This year is different. Cooler days and nights combined with adequate rain have revived the tree-fruit industry in the central San Joaquin Valley, which is the state’s premier tree-fruit growing region. Barring a disastrous hail storm, this year’s tree-fruit crop should produce larger fruit and perhaps more of it.
Thurlow said his company expects to handle 10 percent to 15 percent more fruit than last year.
“And I would hazard a guess that just about everyone else is in the same boat,” he added.
Statewide, the industry has been producing about 40 million boxes a year and tree-fruit officials agree that this year looks promising.
“We know that we had a good fruit set this season and it looks like it is going to be a very good crop,” said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association in Fresno.
Last year, many growers struggled with undersized fruit. Small fruit is a tough sell for retailers that prefer larger sizes.
To maximize production, growers thin trees early in the ripening season. In the Valley, orchard floors are littered with walnut-sized, green-colored pieces of fruit. The immature fruit will be worked back into the ground, where it will break down and enrich the soil.
“The furrows are flooded with fruit,” Thurlow said. “We have had customers come by and their jaws drop.”
Although it may seem like a waste to strip unripened fruit off a tree, farmers say it is necessary.
“If you leave all that fruit on the tree you will end up with lots of small fruit that has a lot of pit but very little flesh,” said Liz Hudson of Hudson Farms in Sanger. “Our goal is to grow desirable fruit that consumers want.”
Too many pieces of fruit on a tree also can cause tree limbs to snap from the added weight.
And while farmers welcome the larger crop, it does hike their labor costs.
Harold McClarty, co-founder of HMC Farms in Kingsburg, estimates his labor costs have gone up by about 15 percent. And he is only done with half the thinning.
“We are stretching our workforce pretty thin,” McClarty said. “Not only do we have thinning to do, but we’ve also been picking since the third week in April.”
McClarty said his crews likely will be thinning through this month and maybe into June for the later varieties.
John Chandler, who farms with his family in Selma, said thinning is one of the more expensive practices in farmwork. What remains to be seen is whether the price for this year’s crop will help offset the higher production costs.
“The general feeling is that this year we will have a good-sized crop and I am being very positive about that,” Chandler said. “Now, whether we get the price to justify that is something we still don’t know.”
Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob
Rain, hail damage orchard crops
Near-summer precipitation wreaks havoc on local staples – but rice farmers welcome the water
By Andrew Creasey
The local prune, peach and cherry crops have been mangled by rain and hail storms leading into the summer months, causing millions of dollars of damage to one of the cornerstones of the regional economy — orchard crops.
High winds, low temperatures and heavy rain devastated the local prune crop, prompting Yuba and Sutter counties to declare a disaster with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, according to the agricultural commissioners of both counties.
Prune losses are pegged between 60 and 90 percent, with a total loss of value estimated at $66 million. Lesser losses were also seen in Yuba County’s cherry crop, which suffered from the same March weather issues that plagued prunes, and Sutter County’s peach crop, which was sporadically pelted by hail in the second week of May.
The cherry crop losses were estimated at 80 percent of the total crop — a value of about $1.7 million, said Stephen Scheer, agricultural commissioner for Yuba County.
A disaster declaration was also submitted for the cherry crop.
In Sutter County, the hail damaged an estimated 2,000 acres of the 5,700 acre crop, said Ajayab Dhaddey, manager of field operations for the California Canning Peach Association.
The damage ranges from minor to severe, and growers are still working to assess it, Dhaddey said.
“I’ve never seen it this bad,” Dhaddiy said.
Losses to crops can have an impact on the local economy. Agricultural is one of the main economic engines of the region, and the dollars spent in the industry multiply throughout the community, according to a study by Eric Houk, an agricultural and natural resources economist and professor at California State University, Chico.
Houk’s study, which utilizes 2013 data, includes 13 counties in Northeastern California, including Colusa, Sutter and Yuba counties.
Houk found agriculture, both directly and indirectly, supports about 60,000 jobs — around 20 percent of the jobs in the private sector.
The labor income from those jobs generated $2.8 billion for a total value added of $4.8 billion — almost 17 percent of the Northeastern California economy.
In Yuba-Sutter in 2014, agriculture had an indirect economic impact of $4 billion, according to the crop reports.
Not all bad
It’s not all bad news, however. After several years of severe crop shortages caused by the drought, the local rice industry will likely bounce back this summer, said Jim Morris, spokesman for the California Rice Commission.
“Indications are we will plant more rice this year,” Morris said. “This year’s increase in acreage will help our regional economy. It will benefit small towns throughout our valley that depend on farming as their foundation.”
Last year’s rice crop was about 130,000 acres less than a normal year.
A Texas A&M study indicates that California rice has an annual economic impact of more than $5 billion and 25,000 jobs on the Sacramento Valley, Morris said.
CONTACT reporter Andrew Creasey at 749-4780 and on Twitter @AD_Creasey.
Pacific trade deal is in choppy seas
By Foon Rhee
The gigantic Pacific trade pact is looking like a political orphan, even as the latest numbers show what’s at stake for California.
Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, calls the Trans-Pacific Partnership a “horrible deal” that will mostly help China. Sen. Bernie Sanders says it’s a job-killer and promises to spike it. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, once more of a free-trader, now opposes it as well.
While the U.S. signed the TPP in February with 11 other Pacific Rim nations after five years of negotiations, what would be the largest regional free-trade agreement ever won’t go into effect unless it’s ratified by 2018. For that to happen, both the U.S. and Japan need to approve it.
But getting it through Congress before he leaves office is going to be a lonely and uphill fight for President Barack Obama, who doesn’t have the backing of many fellow Democrats or many political chips left to use. The handicapping is that he won’t try until the lame-duck session after the November election, when members of Congress might be more inclined to cast a politically tough vote. But Clinton said recently she would object to that if she’s elected.
The fate of the Pacific trade deal means a lot to California, the second-highest exporting state in the nation and the world’s seventh-largest economy.
Three of the state’s top four export markets are in the TPP – Canada, Japan and Mexico. In March, however, California’s exports to all three dropped significantly from a year ago: 10 percent to Canada, 9 percent to Japan and 7 percent to Mexico. Not a good trend.
Overall, California’s total exports dropped by $1.3 billion, or 8 percent, compared to March 2015, continuing a decline that started last May. Of the state’s top 10 export markets, the numbers rose in only two – Taiwan and the United Kingdom, according to federal figures. And of the 10 biggest products, only exports of transportation equipment increased.
Still, California accounted for 11 percent of U.S. exports, behind only Texas with nearly 17 percent.
While California’s agricultural industry hopes that lower tariffs under the TPP will expand markets overseas, the biggest beneficiaries would likely be Silicon Valley software firms, Hollywood studios and others who want to protect their intellectual property from piracy, says international trade economist Jock O’Connell.
The TPP is also crucial to California’s ports, which handled 18 percent of all U.S. imports and exports in March, the most of any state. The ports are key centers of middle-class, blue-collar jobs, as the California Center for Jobs & the Economy points out, and they have spent big bucks on improvements. After spending $400 million to deepen its harbor, the port of Oakland welcomed the largest container ship ever to dock at a U.S. port last December.
TPP promoters say it would boost trade and the U.S. economy by lowering tariffs and other barriers, while protecting foreign workers and the environment. But many are far more worried about workers losing their jobs here.
Like every trade deal, there would be winners and losers. But it’s not looking good for the TPP to be approved, and that makes Obama the big loser.
BY THE NUMBERS
California’s exports to its top 10 markets in March, and the change from March 2015:
Mexico: $2.1 billion, down 6.9%
Canada: $1.4 billion, down 10.3%
China: $1.3 billion, down 3.2%
Japan: $1.0 billion, down 8.6%
South Korea: $800 million, down 19.9%
Hong Kong: $600 million, down 2.5%
Taiwan: $600 million, up 6.4%
United Kingdom: $500 million, up 17.7%
Germany: $500 million, down 2.0%
Netherlands: $400 million, down 31.3%
Source: California Center for Jobs & the Economy