Monday, May 2, 2016
Judge refuses to halt Delta land sale to Southern California agency
By Dale Kasler
A judge has refused to block a Southern California water agency’s controversial purchase of five islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Judge Barbara Kronlund in San Joaquin Superior Court declined to grant a temporary restraining order Friday to officials from San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties, who sued two weeks ago to keep the Metropolitan Water District from completing its $175 million purchase of the five islands.
Kronlund’s ruling doesn’t end the litigation, however. The deal’s opponents, including two environmental groups, will press the judge for a preliminary injunction halting the purchase at a May 19 hearing. Because Metropolitan doesn’t plan to complete the purchase until June, the May 19 hearing will prove pivotal, said Jonas Minton of the Planning and Conservation League, one of the environmental groups that joined the litigation.
While it hasn’t outlined a specific plan, Metropolitan has said it might use part of the property to store dirt and construction equipment for Gov. Jerry Brown’s controversial Delta tunnels project, which would re-engineer the estuary to improve the reliability of water shipments to Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley. Elected officials in the Delta and many environmental groups are opposed to the tunnels, saying they will do little or nothing to help the Delta’s fragile ecosystem.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit say Metropolitan shouldn’t be able to buy the five islands without undergoing a California Environmental Quality Act review, a process that could take months. By purchasing the land, Metropolitan is trying to do “a piecemeal end-around” of the CEQA requirements, Minton said.
Metropolitan has said a land purchase shouldn’t require such a review, and it will comply with all environmental laws once it decides what to do with the land. The big agency, which serves 19 million Southern Californians, is buying the islands from Swiss conglomerate Zurich Insurance Group.
Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler, firstname.lastname@example.org
Oakdale Irrigation District quietly cancels water sale
By Garth Stapley
OAKDALE – Irrigation leaders have privately canceled plans to sell up to 9,000 acre-feet of Stanislaus River water to buyers south of the Delta, court documents say, but intend to pursue an undisclosed variation of the deal.
The unannounced change won’t affect the Oakdale Irrigation District’s much larger sale of 32,500 acre-feet to outside buyers paying $9.75 million. That water is temporarily swelling the now swift-flowing Stanislaus, doing double duty – as requested by state and federal wildlife agencies – in propelling young salmon toward the ocean for a few weeks.
While the larger deal represents a straight cash-for-surplus-water transaction, water in the smaller deal, potentially worth $4 million, would be freed up by OID farmers volunteering to fallow some land. Two critics sued to stop that deal and asked a judge to halt the water transfer.
A pause might have affected both sales because OID initially planned to send the total amount down the Stanislaus in so-called pulse flows benefiting fish.
But Stanislaus Superior Court Judge William Mayhew on April 19 declined to stop the flow, apparently after OID suddenly disclosed that the district no longer plans to sell the smaller amount as originally planned.
“OID reversed its position,” said Sacramento attorney Osha Meserve after the April 19 huddle, held out of public view in the judge’s chamber.
No public explanation
OID General Manager Steve Knell, citing the lawsuit, refused to clarify the change, which has not been explained in board meetings or accompanying reports. Neither did OID – dogged by criticism for lack of transparency – share with the court what it plans to do with water to be freed up in the smaller deal.
Papers filed in court Wednesday by OID attorneys confirm that the larger deal remains in place, while the initial smaller deal fell apart. OID expects to resurrect the smaller deal, the documents say without giving details.
Although the OID board narrowly approved its end of the smaller deal in March on a 3-2 vote, prospective buyers never agreed, according to court declarations. They were signed by representatives of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, a consortium of 29 water buyers, and State Water Contractors, composed of 27 water agencies.
The smaller deal was not consummated “in part because agencies with regulatory authority over transfers indicated they would not approve such a transfer in 2016,” said Frances Mizuno, San Luis & Delta-Mendota assistant executive director, in a declaration.
OID’s briefing says the district decided that shipping water from the smaller deal “was not necessary” and “not viable.” OID still intends to implement the fallowing program, the document says without explaining.
“If there is any confusion regarding the facts, it is due to OID’s extraordinary efforts to obfuscate them,” Meserve said in her Friday briefing.
The initial arrangement for OID’s On-Farm Conservation Program – the smaller deal – would have shipped south 9,000 acre-feet for $400 an acre-foot; participating OID farmers would get 20 percent in cash and would spend 75 percent on efficiency upgrades, with OID keeping the final 5 percent.
That payout formula remains intact, OID’s briefing indicates, although the district expects less participation: As of Tuesday, farmers with only 605 acres total had signed up. OID operations manager Eric Thorburn anticipates eventually enrolling 1,000 acres, or one third the initial expectation, he said in a court declaration.
One of those farmers is OID board member Gary Osmundson, who previously confirmed that he applied to fallow about 105 acres, representing a potential $119,000 profit and one-sixth of the enrolled acreage so far.
Those bringing the lawsuit – farmers Louis Brichetto, an OID board member from 2001-06, and Robert Frobose – contend that Osmundson has a conflict under state law and should not have voted March 15. The lawsuit accuses Osmundson of “impermissible self-dealing”; without his vote, the On-Farm program would have died in a 2-2 tie.
Osmundson has said his attorney and the district’s attorney cleared him to vote because any OID customer was free to sign up. Brichetto and Frobose contend that a small portion of OID’s customer base – less than 1 percent in terms of acreage, as of Tuesday’s count – was selected to participate. Also, the March split vote gave Knell broad freedom to “make the necessary amendments to the agreement to conform to the landowner’s individual necessities.”
OID’s court papers ignored the Osmundson question.
Meserve, representing Brichetto and Frobose, called OID’s environmental document for the On-Farm program “grossly deficient” and asked that a judge order the district to conduct an expansive environmental impact report. It should thoroughly analyze how shipping water elsewhere could harm the groundwater table here, Meserve said in a briefing.
“Once that water is transferred, it is lost,” the document says.
Volume called insignificant
In a reply, OID attorneys said the water to be transferred under the initial plan would deprive local aquifers of only about one-tenth of 1 percent the amount that typically seeps down in the local basin.
“The impact is negligible and does not have a significant effect on the environment,” says the document, signed by Sacramento attorney Valerie Kincaid.
OID asked board members in April – five weeks after signing off on the initial environmental document – to hire an environmental consultant to screen applications to put farmland in the On-Farm program. That proves OID knew its initial document was deficient, opponents charge.
“Mitigation must occur before, not after, adoption of an environmental document,” Meserve said.
Efficiency upgrades funded by water-sale profit would help OID demonstrate that it is making improvements required by state water officials, Knell said in a court declaration. Without that track record, the district could find itself ineligible for state funding, such as a $3 million grant for which OID recently applied, he said.
Knell noted that Brichetto, an OID water customer, also farms about 3,600 acres outside OID’s boundary. In February, Brichetto asked whether he might fallow land under the On-Farm program, and instead of getting money, he would transfer that freed-up water to the outlying farm. OID said “no.”
“The plaintiffs’ request (to halt the On-Farm deal) is an extension of their campaign to improperly manipulate and control OID operations,” Kincaid concluded.
Brichetto, who serves on the Stanislaus Water Advisory Committee, which works on groundwater issues, says he has been consistent with efforts to keep water in this area to benefit locals.
A lawsuit hearing is scheduled for 8 a.m. Wednesday in Department 22 of the City Towers building, 801 10th St., Modesto.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390, email@example.com
Water bank project in southern San Joaquin Valley nearing approval
By Lewis Griswold
It’s too late for the current drought, but an ambitious water bank project in the southern San Joaquin Valley would give farmers a supplemental supply in future dry spells.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation kick-started the water bank with a $6.65 million pledge toward a 560-acre recharge basin between Earlimart and Tulare east of Highway 99.
Water from the Friant-Kern Canal would be piped to the basin and percolate into the soil, and in dry years the water would be pumped out so farmers could irrigate orchards and crops.
Two farmer-controlled irrigation districts – Pixley Irrigation District and Delano-Earlimart Irrigation District – created the South Valley Water Banking Authority to build it.
“It’s important anytime you can diversify your water supply,” said Dale Brogan, general manager of the Delano-Earlimart Irrigation District. “It’s particularly important any year when farmers don’t have adequate groundwater and surface supplies.”
The water bank proposal is nearing the end of an environmental assessment process. The public comment period, originally set to end Thursday, has been extended to May 19 at the request of a property owner, the Bureau of Reclamation said Wednesday.
No significant environmental impacts have been identified. Barring a last-minute problem, it’s expected that the environmental report would be approved in June.
Construction would begin next year and the water bank would be ready to accept water in 2018 and be usable the next year, Brogan said.
Brogan said he and Pixley Irrigation District General Manager Dan Vink have been envisioning the water bank for about 10 years as beneficial to farmers in both districts and elsewhere.
Additionally, the state’s new groundwater law, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act – which farmers expect will make groundwater less available for irrigation – makes the water bank even more useful than originally anticipated, he said.
The entire project will cost an estimated $37 million to $38 million. The bureau would put in a total of $7.5 million.
Irrigation districts would buy shares in the project, giving them the right to put water into the water bank – up to 1 acre-foot per year for each share – and get water out when they need it, up to 1 acre-foot per year per share.
An acre-foot is about 325,850 gallons.
The plan is to sink up to 90,000 acre-feet into the water bank, Brogan said.
When removed from the water bank in drought years, it would be pumped via a 4.5-mile pipeline back into the Friant-Kern for delivery to participating districts.
The soil where the basin would be constructed is well-suited for a water bank because it is relatively sandy, Brogan said.
Almond groves cover most of the area where the water recharge basin would be dug. The land must be purchased and the farmers who own it are aware of the project, Brogan said.
The bureau is helping fund it under the 2006 settlement of the Natural Resources Defense Counsel lawsuit against the Department of the Interior and Friant Division water contractors.
The settlement requires environmental restoration water flows in the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam, leaving less water for east side farmers, so the water bank project helps make up for that, according to the project report.
It does not appear opposition will emerge to the water bank on environmental grounds.
Sequoia Riverlands Trust in Visalia said it does not plan to comment and is not aware of an environmental organization planning to comment.
Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold, firstname.lastname@example.org
San Bernardino Sun
Endangered Santa Ana River fish to get new homes
By Jim Steinberg
The rushing sound of the mountain stream calls from a distance.
After a few dozen yards of boulder scrambling, the clarity of the water is startling as it washes over rocks so clean they look as though they have been scrubbed.
The peaceful, remote canyon along the Upper Santa Ana River is one of eight sites being studied for reintroducing the federally endangered Santa Ana sucker.
“This will be the first time a native fish has been reintroduced in Southern California, said Heather Dyer, water resources manager for the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, who is quarterbacking this historic scientific effort with federal and state wildlife officials, numerous consultants and governmental and non-governmental agencies.
This is a fish story that goes well beyond saving a federally endangered species.
In an effort to save the endangered Santa Ana sucker, in 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doubled the critical habitat area for the sucker, presenting a large hurdle for obtaining permits for new water supply projects in the region — unless the fish population and habitant is restored.
This is a project to allow us to divert more storm water (runoff for recharging underground water levels which are now at historic low levels) and produce recycled waste water,” said Douglas Headrick, general manager of the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District.
Valley District is a water wholesaler whose area covers about 353 square miles in southwestern San Bernardino County. It’s territory spans the eastern two-thirds of the San Bernardino Valley, the Crafton Hills, and a portion of the Yucaipa Valley and includes the cities and communities of San Bernardino, Colton, Loma Linda, Redlands, Rialto, Bloomington, Highland, East Highland, Mentone, Grand Terrace, and Yucaipa.
After years of fighting — all the way to the Supreme Court — what some see as “fish over people” policy, the district and its partners are banking on landmark science to save a fish species some environmentalists say “is hanging on by a thread.”
Dyer said later this month, she plans to ask the San Bernardino valley district board to approve $500,000 to fund the development of two raceways — areas 300 feet long and 20 feet wide – where Santa Ana sucker will be placed to breed and their offspring “translocated” to where many biologists believe was their original home — in nearby mountains.
Most of the known Santa Ana suckers, in this part of the Inland Empire, live along a two-to three-mile stretch of the Santa Ana River between the Rialto Channel in Colton and the Mission Avenue Bridge in Riverside, Dyer said.
There they face many threats, including the non-native catfish, bullfrogs, large-mouth bass and pollution from homeless camps and off-roaders.
A more recent development is rapidly growing red algae, a tropical plant from fish aquariums, that is covering a native green algae which is major part of the sucker fish diet, Dyer said.
And then there is what Dyer calls the “degraded habitat” of water temperatures, which at times soar to 90 degrees.
The Santa Ana sucker in this narrow zone south of the Rialto Channel are not reproducing as rapidly as they might in a cleaner — and cooler — environment, said Dyer, who was a fish biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, prior to joining the San Bernardino Municipal Water District in 2014.
These raceways will as closely as possible mimic the mountain stream environment that will become their new home, said Kerwin Russell, natural resources manager for the Riverside-Corona Resource Conservation District.
Current flow, water temperature, water chemistry, rock formations, and aquatic life are among the habitat characteristics that Russell said will be created in the raceways.
The Riveside-Corona Resource Conservation District has been working with the Santa Ana sucker for 16 years at its Riverside location, he said.
The plan calls for 75 Santa Ana sucker to be placed in each raceway this fall.
“To minimize the risk of disease, we don’t want to overcrowd them,” Russell said.
In fall 2017, it’s believed 1,000 young fish, or more, will be translocated from Riverside to their new homes in the San Bernardino Mountains, where Dyer said they can be expected to reproduce rapidly.
Among the eight sites being analyzed are:
“Of these possibilities, we are hoping to find three to five that would meet the suitability criteria… perennial flow, appropriate habitat for all life stages, and a reliable food source,” Dyer said.
Other factors include predatory fish presence, land ownership and existing uses of the stream, she said.
The Translocation Team started meeting in January and meets monthly. A draft plan should be ready for review in June, she said.
At the April translocation meeting last week, there were 15 scientists in the board room of the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District and five on a conference call.
During part of the meeting, Jonathan Richmond, a United States Geological Survey wildlife geneticist, discussed some of the genetic variations of Santa Ana sucker in other parts of Southern California as well as risks of genetic inbreeding should the translocated fish become isolated in water pools.
Later in the meeting, the conversation moved to potential catastrophic events, such as fire and mud slides, which could threaten the fish in their new location.
In an interview, Dyer said the entire populations of Santa Ana sucker south of the Rialto Channel are vulnerable to a catastrophic event like a diesel fuel spill.
When completed, the Translocation Plan will be added to the larger and still evolving Upper Santa Ana River Watershed Habitat Conservation Plan which will also include habitat restoration in the valley below the San Bernardino mountains and other measures.
The HCP partners include: the Valley District, the city of San Bernardino Municipal Water Department, city of Riverside Public Utilities, San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District, the city of Rialto, East Valley Water District, West Valley Water District, Western Municipal Water District, Inland Empire Utility Agency, and the county of San Bernardino Department of Public Works.
San Jose Mercury News
Los Vaqueros Reservoir expansion can be part of a real California water fix
The $17 billion Delta twin tunnels project is a dud, and even if it wasn’t, it will be tied up in courts for years to come as environmentalists fight Southern California and Central Valley interests for control of one of the state’s most important water sources. The Bay Area has to find alternatives to secure its water supply, particularly if drought conditions persist.
The proposal to dramatically expand the Los Vaqueros Reservoir in eastern Contra Costa County, as reported by the Mercury News’ Paul Rogers on Tuesday, represents a huge opportunity. The Santa Clara Valley Water District should continue talks with the Contra Costa Water District, East Bay Municipal Utility District and Alameda County Water District to determine whether the expansion could provide a steady source of water for a reasonable cost.
The beauty of the project is that drawing water from Los Vaqueros would not require using the massive federal and state pumps near Tracy that divert water from the Delta and damage the estuary’s environment. The reservoir located in Eastern Contra Costa County instead draws its water from two intakes at Old River near Discovery Bay and Victoria Island in the Delta.
The Contra Costa Water District is looking for partners to pay the estimated $800 million cost for enlarging the reservoir. Water agencies believe the project may also be eligible for matching funds from the $7.5 billion in Proposition 1 bond funding approved by California voters in 2014.
In sharp contrast to the Delta digging project, this plan is amazingly simple. The height of the earthen dam would be raised by 51 feet to 269 feet. That would enable Los Vaqueros Reservoir to expand its capacity from 160,000 acre-feet of water to hold 275,000 acre-feet, enough to serve 1.4 million residents on an annual basis.
In order to transfer water to the Bay Area, the project would need to include a pipeline from Los Vaqueros to the existing South Bay Aqueduct, which carries water from Bethany Reservoir near Livermore to the South Bay. Contra Costa officials are looking at environmental concerns and expect to complete a study next year.
Gov. Jerry Brown and other proponents of the massive twin tunnels preach that there are no serious alternatives to solve California’s long-term water infrastructure problems. They are wrong.
The state can strengthen the Delta levee system, increase recycling and conservation and help farmers convert to more efficient irrigation systems. And it can increase storage by expanding existing reservoirs, such as Los Vaqueros, where it’s environmentally and fiscally feasible. All of this together will be a cheaper and simpler strategy to sustain California in dry years.
California almond acreage continues to grow
By Robert Rodriguez
California almonds, one of the state’s largest crops, increased in acreage by 6 percent last year.
Statewide, a recent federal survey estimates the acreage to be 1.1 million acres. Of that, 890,000 acres of trees are producing nuts and 220,000 acres are young trees.
The leading almond growing counties include Kern, Fresno, Stanislaus, Merced and Madera. The five counties represent 73 percent of the producing acreage in the state.
In 2015, Fresno County had 110,995 acres of trees in production and 15,552 acres of non-bearing trees. Madera had 79,092 bearing acres and 10,039 non-bearing acres.
Almond industry officials say the growth represents strong demand from domestic and overseas consumers. But that red-hot market began to cool last year as the industry’s major export markets, including China and India, bought less. A strong U.S. dollar also hurt sales.
Fresno County farmer George Goshgarian estimates the price of a pound of almonds has tumbled at least 60 percent since September.
“Right now, we may be averaging about $2,” Goshgarian said. “And some guys are getting really close to being in the negative.”
And it remains to be seen if the decline in prices will significantly slow the planting of new acreage.
The preliminary acreage estimate for 2016 is 900,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Goshgarian hopes the foreign markets will rebound, and he isn’t convinced prices have stabilized.
Many in the industry are waiting for the USDA’s “subjective” estimate of the 2016 crop. That report, expected May 10, will help dictate the direction of the market.
Later in the season, the government will issue a more thorough estimate known as the “objective” estimate. That is due in June.
One factor that could slow almond expansion is the availability of water. The state recently emerged from four consecutive dry years that cost farmers deeply. With a lack of surface water, farmers spent millions to dig new wells or repair old ones. The industry also suffered from a public backlash for how much water it used to grow nuts.
Industry officials have tried to combat the bad publicity with figures showing that the shift to higher value crops, like almonds, has not led to a rise in agricultural water use.
According to figures from the California Department of Water Resources, water used by agriculture has held steady since 2000 and declined over a longer period of time because of higher efficiency irrigation systems.
“Because of the industry’s commitment to research and efficiency, growers use 33 percent less water to grow a pound of almonds than they did two decades ago,” said Richard Waycott, chief executive officer of the Almond Board of California.
Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob, email@example.com