Thursday, April 14, 2016
Monterey County Herald
Concern runs high about fumigant use
By D. Lee Taylor
Spreckels >> What state pesticide regulators wanted Tuesday night in Spreckels was input on three specific points they would use to craft a new rule on fumigant use. What they got instead was an emotional debate on whether pesticides and fumigants should be used at all.
The workshop, held at the Spreckels Veterans Memorial Building, drew well over 150 area residents. It was designed to solicit comments on three areas the Department of Pesticide Regulation is considering before moving forward with drafting new rules governing fumigant application.
Simply, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation wanted comments on the following questions:
“The DPR realizes some people don’t want pesticides used in agriculture at all, but this is not a forum to debate that,” said Tonia Carlone, who was facilitating the workshop for the department.
Few heeded Carlone’s words. Most of the several dozen speakers used the opportunity to decry the health risks to children and farm workers, or to defend pesticide use based on the agriculture industry’s ability to provide jobs and other economic arguments.
At issue was a subset of pesticides called fumigants. Unlike pesticides that can be sprayed in liquid or powder form, fumigants are gaseous and are pumped into the soil to kill soil-borne pathogens such as Verticillium or insects like nematodes that can badly damage crops. Plastic tarps are placed over the soil during and immediately after injecting fumigants to prevent the compounds from drifting in the air.
Monterey and Santa Cruz counties’ $1 billion strawberry crop are the biggest users of fumigants.
The DPR is targeting three types of fumigants: 1,3-Dicholoropropene (commonly known as Telone II or 1,3-D), Chloropicrin and three forms of MITC (methyl isothiocyanate). A fourth, methyl bromide, is not being considered because it already has stringent restrictions and its use is being phased out by international treaty.
All of these chemicals have varying health effects. The fumigant 1,3-Dicholoropropene causes respiratory irritation with an acute exposure. Long term, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists 1,3-Dicholoropropene as “a probable human carcinogen.” But questions such as how much exposure and over what duration of time would cause cancer are still being researched.
Mild to moderate exposure to Chloropicrin can cause severe respiratory irritation leading to coughing, choking, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Severe exposure can lead to a lung ailment called pulmonary edema that can cause fatal fluid buildup in the lungs. It was used in high concentrations as poison gas in World War I.
MITC is also an acute lung irritant. In 1984, in Bhopal, India, an accidental Union Carbide gas leak of methyl isocyanate resulted in the deaths of more than 2,000 people and adverse health effects in greater than 170,000 survivors. Pulmonary edema was the cause of death in most cases, according to the EPA.
“Our job is to provide strong protections from these pesticides,” said George Farnsworth, the assistant director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation, during Tuesday’s workshop.
But roughly 20 teachers from schools between Salinas and Watsonville used the public input portion of the workshop to deliver stinging rebukes that children cannot be protected from the poisons using today’s safeguards.
“Drifts happen all the time,” said Justin Matlow, a teacher who lives about 300 feet from a working strawberry field in North Monterey County. “The concerns seem to be money and industry, not human health.”
Growers and other defenders of the need for pesticides argued that school districts in the county have continually allowed schools to be constructed right next to working fields.
Mike Scattini, a fourth-generation farmer in the Salinas Valley, told the Department of Pesticide Regulation that regulators continue to pile up more regulations on farmers.
“California farmers are at an economic disadvantage” because of regulations governing applications of pesticides, Scattini said.
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McClatchy News Service
California drought and drainage bills could collide on Capitol Hill
By Michael Doyle
WASHINGTON – The politics of California water is becoming three-dimensional chess in Congress as lawmakers balance competing anti-drought ideas with a proposed San Joaquin Valley irrigation drainage settlement that’s going to get bigger.
In a fresh gambit, a key House subcommittee on Wednesday approved controversial California water provisions that would steer more water to farmers. Soon, some of these same farmers will be seeking additional legislation to settle a long-running drainage dispute.
While the California drought and drainage proposals are distinct, they involve many of the same lawmakers, incite similar regional tensions and in the end could become entangled in each other’s fate.
“A lot of dots begin to connect here,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said Wednesday.
The initial moves involve California provisions folded into an 82-page bill that funds federal energy and water programs for the 2017 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives energy and water appropriations subcommittee unanimously approved the $37.4 billion package Wednesday.
The California provisions modify proposals that have previously failed in Congress over the past four years. They include mandated pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and a freeze on an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program.
“It moves the ball in the right direction,” said Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “I wish it would have happened last December, (but) we’re going to take every opportunity possible.”
Valadao wrote the original House bills from which the California provisions were taken.
Northern California Democrats, including those representing parts of the Delta, oppose the familiar-sounding measures. While all but certain to pass the House, parts of the energy and water package will inevitably face resistance in the Senate and the White House.
“Same old, same old,” Huffman said. “This is another highly partisan, overreaching play on the same lousy bill.”
Huffman has proposed his own California water bill that includes a variety of recycling grants, watershed protection programs and desalination studies. It doesn’t stand a chance in a House where Republicans command a 246-188 majority, though individual items might survive.
The Senate’s version of the 2017 energy and water bill, also approved by subcommittee Wednesday, includes $100 million for assorted drought-relief programs but omits the California measures preferred by House Republicans.
In theory, this conflict sets the stage for a negotiating conference where House and Senate appropriators work out their differences. Some GOP lawmakers have long believed their best shot at a California water win will come in just such a conference committee on a must-pass bill.
The irrigation drainage settlement, so far, occupies a different board level in the chess game, but that could change.
In January, Valadao introduced a bill to implement a settlement between the Westlands Water District and the federal government over the Bureau of Reclamation’s environmentally damaging failure to provide irrigation drainage.
The bill mirrors a legal settlement announced last September, relieving the federal government of the obligation to provide drainage. In return, the 600,000-acre Westlands district will retire at least 100,000 acres of farmland and have its own remaining debt of roughly $375 million forgiven, among other changes.
Three smaller San Joaquin Valley water districts, sometimes dubbed the “Northerly Districts,” have now neared an agreement on their own irrigation drainage settlement. Like the Westlands agreement, the tentative deal with the San Luis, Panoche and Pacheco water districts relieves the government of drainage responsibilities and forgives the water districts’ remaining debts.
“It appears they are very close,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said Wednesday.
Costa noted that the boards of the districts have agreed to a proposed settlement, which would also include some $70 million in federal payments for anti-salinity efforts. The deal still needs sign-off by the federal Office of Management and Budget, which can seem sluggish and opaque to outsiders.
Once final, perhaps later this spring, the Northerly Districts’ drainage settlement will also be translated into legislation, putting one more piece into play in a Congress where nothing comes easy.
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GOP should drop effort to gut Endangered Species Act
Once again, House Republicans have proposed to weaken the Endangered Species Act at the expense of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a day after the Metropolitan Water District committed to spending $175 million to buy five Delta islands.
The combination is enough to give some Northern California environmentalists the willies.
The seller, a partnership led by Swiss-based Zurich Insurance Group that owned the islands, long sought to make money off the islands, perhaps by turning them into reservoirs. The buyer, MWD, has designs related to its responsibility to supply water to 19 million Southern Californians.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed $15.5 billion, 30-mile-long twin tunnels project to move water around the Delta to the Bay Area, Southern California and San Joaquin Valley farms would cross some of the islands. Metropolitan Water District is Brown’s ally in support of the tunnels. Although escrow won’t close for 60 days, having the water district control the islands would help remove some hurdles to the project.
Even if the tunnels don’t get built – and it’s unclear whether they will – MWD says owning the islands also could speed emergency water diversions if Delta island levees fail in an earthquake, a disaster in waiting that would allow salt water to rush further inland and foul freshwater supplies for farms and urban users.
Major beneficiaries of the tunnels, including some Bay Area cities and agricultural interests south of the Delta such as Westlands Water District, have not committed to supporting the project, much less paying their share. That ambivalence ought to give others pause.
Against that indecision, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, together with other San Joaquin Valley Republicans this week began moving appropriations legislation that would increase pumping of Delta water, even if it might further damage the Delta ecosystem.
McCarthy contends his goal is to get House and Senate water bills into a conference committee to strike a compromise that President Barack Obama would sign. But his press release took swipes at Democrats including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has offered a thoughtful water measure that would not weaken environmental protections.
McCarthy’s political potshot suggests he is less interested in policy and too interested in playing to San Joaquin Valley interests who say the water shortage is “man-made,” rather than the result of drought, a weak El Niño and unrealistic demands placed on an aging water delivery system in a largely dry state.
We hope reality sets in. Obama will not – and should not – sign a bill to weaken the Endangered Species Act. If anything, the president could opt to take stronger action to protect the Delta smelt, a native species that faces extinction.
The $15.5 billion tunnels may or may not get built. MWD may or may not have been shrewd to buy five Delta islands for $175 million. But while all Californians ought to have reliable supplies of water, the Delta ecosystem should not be damaged further, and species should not be driven to extinction.
Deal avoids water war
By Dennis Wyatt
A deal hammered out by South San Joaquin Irrigation District, Oakdale Irrigation District and the State Water Resource Control Board avoids a major fight over water on the Stanislaus River in the coming months.
It is in sharp contrast to the animosity that flared up last spring when Sacramento officials were implying they would commandeer water that SSJID and OID holds legal and superior rights to in order to meet fish flow needs.
And while it doesn’t address long-range proposals by the state to increase unimpaired water flows on the Stanislaus River that in most years can only be accomplished by dipping into OID and SSJID water, it does lay out the an agreement between three agencies for managing New Melones Reservoir through the end of the year.
The deal assures water for farmers and fish as well as the cities of Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy for the next eight months. The operations plan, part of a Temporary Use Change Petition being considered by the state board, will benefit the districts, the river conditions, and salmon migrating toward the ocean this spring and returning to spawn this fall. The complex plan was crafted in conjunction with state and federal agencies and the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages New Melones.
The key points are:
This year’s proposed plan would ensure there is more water in New Melones to meet fish needs in October, November and December.
The plan also would alleviate any demands on Tulloch Reservoir, a popular late downstream of New Melones, thereby allowing it to have normal operational and recreational water levels throughout the summer season.
Uses fish flow water from SSJID and OID holdings amounting to 65,000 acre feet to be sold to the San Luis & Delta Mendota Water Authority after it flows out of the Stanislaus River for $300 per acre foot. SSJID and OID each will receive $9.75 million. Farmers in the OID program will receive $3 million for another 10,000 acre feet from that district’s farmers’ conservation program.
Last year, the state was threatening to take the water for fish flows and not pay for it while SSJID and OID countered they would sue and possible seek criminal charges for the unlawful taking of property.
“In addition to benefits for fish and farms, this proposal also allows New Melones to make positive storage gains for the first time in four years,” said SSJID General Manager Peter Rietkerk. “This not only preserves water supply for next year, but also provides water temperature benefits in the Stanislaus River for this summer and fall.”
Thanks to water rights that were established between 1853 and 1909, and an operating agreement between SSJID, OID and the Bureau of Reclamation, the districts are guaranteed the first 600,000 acre feet of runoff into New Melones. They also are entitled to a “conservation account” of up to 200,000 acre feet.
New Melones has been drawn down to record low levels because of the four-year California drought. New Melones has room for 2.4 million acre-feet of water. As of April 11, it had 629,355 acre feet or about 26% of capacity.
This year, for the first time since 2011, snowmelt and other runoff into New Melones is projected to be near the historic average – about 1 million acre-feet. But as one federal official acknowledged at Tuesday’s hearing, the reservoir is “over-allocated” – meaning there is more water promised than is expected to flow in this year.
Given the current level of New Melones, all the water behind the dam is owned by the districts. In recognition of their responsibility to balance competing water needs, SSJID and OID recently agreed to provide 75,000 acre feet to state and federal authorities. Beginning mid-April, the releases will be timed to provide so-called “pulse flows” in the Stanislaus River to help young salmon move downstream. Once the water reaches the Delta, it will be diverted to state and federal water contractors on the parched West Side of the San Joaquin Valley.
Last fall, New Melones dropped to about 267,000 acre feet and river temperatures were a concern. Conservation by SSJID’s and OID’s ag customers enabled 23,000 acre feet to be sent down the Stanislaus to benefit fish then.
“This is a balanced operations plan,” said OID General Manager Steve Knell. “The districts are making water available to assist with pulse flow operations that are important to federal and state regulators. At the same time, ag interests on the West Side are going to be able pick up and benefit from that water.”
The plan is a collaborative effort of the Bureau of Reclamation, SSJID and OID, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the state Department of Water Resources and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
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San Francisco Chronicle
Obsolete California water system lets farmers grow hay in drought
By Christopher Thornberg
El Niño has brought much-needed rain back to California, but this doesn’t mean we should stop talking about water policy as the state can quickly veer back into drier conditions. Dealing with the problem that lies at the heart of the water crisis now will help ensure the state is able to prosper through the toughest times, because the state has plenty of water — it just uses it in very wasteful ways.
There has been a lot of finger-pointing over the water shortage. Blaming luxurious lawns in the south, rapidly growing acres of nut trees in the Central Valley, or environmental protections that govern wilderness areas and rivers. But blaming users misses the point. It is the broken allocation system itself that is to blame.
Right now, agriculture uses the vast majority of water in the state. As often noted, the sector makes up less than 2 percent of the California economy but uses 80 percent of the consumed water (or 40 percent of all water resources once necessary environmental uses are taken into account, such as the billions of gallons that flow out through San Francisco Bay annually to prevent the encroachment of salt water into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta).
Despite this enormous imbalance, last year Gov. Jerry Brown decided to impose the vast majority of emergency water cutbacks on urban areas — a 25 percent mandatory reduction for 90 percent of the state’s population. It seems odd to force such draconian cuts on such a small fraction of the usage. A similar reduction would represent only a 5 percent reduction for agricultural users.
That decision should raise even more eyebrows now that it has become increasingly clear that the state’s agriculture industry not only managed its way through the drought, but prospered throughout. Recent data from the California Department of Food and Agriculture show that 2014 was a record year for farm revenue in the state. When the data for 2015 are released early next year, they will probably show even better results. More recent data from the California Employment Development Department show that farm employment grew to a record high in 2015, and early reads on state farm income from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis suggest earnings are up by another 5.5 percent.
The issue isn’t that farmers are making money in a drought, it’s how they are making that money. According to the most recent crop report from the Department of Food and Agriculture, in 2014 California farmers grew 1.3 million acres of hay or other grasses for animal feed. This crop is as water intensive as it is cheap. Roughly 7 million acre-feet of water — 70 percent of total urban consumption — was used to irrigate this one crop in the midst of a record drought.
And despite all the water and land used, this crop represents only 3 percent of total agricultural revenue. In other words, had the state eliminated the growing of hay not only would we have saved vast quantities of water, aggregate agricultural revenues would still have increased from 2013 to 2014.
The standard response by the industry is that this crop — while low value — is a necessary input to the far higher valued dairy and meat industries. This argument is logically and factually incorrect. According to trade data from the U.S. Census Bureau, one-quarter of the crop is not consumed locally but rather exported to foreign buyers. This means that California functionally exported 1.5 million acre-feet of water at discount prices in the middle of a drought.
More significantly, even if hay weren’t being exported, the additional cost to dairy and meat farms for bringing hay supplies in from other parts of the nation would be significantly less expensive than the billions being spent in urban areas for reuse, conservation and development of new water sources, not to mention the billions of dollars in lost consumption value.
In fact, the savings to urban areas from eliminating such efforts would be large enough to not only compensate dairy and meat farmers for the additional cost of importing hay, it would also compensate state hay producers for allowing their fields to fallow in order to use the water in urban areas.
How do we know this? Because urban areas are willing to invest in desalination — which costs $2,000 per acre-foot of water produced. Yet hay sells for $200 per acre-foot of water used to produce it, and the hay farmer earns a profit of barely $50 per acre-foot.
Transferring water from growing hay — or other cheap water-intensive crops such as cotton or feed corn — to urban and environmental uses, recreational uses and storage would create enough savings to restore fallowed land to other uses and fund efforts to help agriculture-heavy regions develop other parts of their economies. In other words, pretty much everyone would win.
Why doesn’t it happen?
First, the hay or cotton farmer isn’t allowed to sell his or her water to urban areas. Farmers don’t really own the rights to the water they use, but are allocated water by their local water district, which hold the rights to this public resource. A farmer who chooses not to use the water for growing hay would receive no benefit, meaning there is little choice for the owners of farmland to do anything but grow these wasteful crops.
California’s water districts are an incredibly complex variety of public agencies that have formed over the years and divvy up and distribute the state’s water supply within the confines of their initial charter. According to a report from the state Legislative Analyst’s Office, in 2002 there were 1,286 water districts in California — in charge of everything from irrigation to sewer systems.
They all have different bylaws, charters and control structures. Of these organizations, 935 are independent — the people who run them are either elected or appointed by other elected officials. The system is so byzantine that in some cases private business interests have been able to functionally purchase districts. The districts often have overlapping interests and competing claims. It’s also widely acknowledged that the aggregate number of rights held by these districts is greater than the actual supply of water in the state.
Most of these water districts were formed in the early years of the state, when the lion’s share of the local economy was in agriculture. Today, these specific districts continue to control large portions of the state’s limited water supply — despite the fact that California now has a predominately urban and industrial economy.
Critically, because they are public agencies by definition (even if under the control of a business interest), district officials operating in their official capacity who choose to sell their district’s water for some other use wouldn’t be allowed to personally benefit. Doing so could actually violate the charter they are sworn to uphold.
Shifting California’s water away from low-value, water-intensive crops to other uses (urban, storage, environmental) could be a winning proposition for everyone involved with one major exception: the people running the water districts who control what happens to the water. The result is that the state continues to grow hay in the desert in the middle of a drought, even as reservoirs dry up, streams run dry, and draconian reductions in consumption are levied upon the vast majority of the state’s economy and population.
The solution to California’s water problem is clear. Instead of pointing fingers at various users, we should be pointing fingers at the system itself. The state’s water district system has proven itself unable to properly manage this scarce state resource. The best path forward would be to completely dispose of these antiquated agencies and instead move toward regional water markets. A partial solution would involve dramatically reducing the number of water districts with the remaining districts sharing a general goal to maximize the use of the water supply for the overall public good rather than one specific purpose.
But the first step is recognizing that it is the system that is to blame, not the users.
Christopher Thornberg is founding partner of Beacon Economics and director of the UC Riverside Center for Economic Forecasting and Development. To comment, submit your letter to the editor at http://bit.ly/SFChronicleletters.
Thieves targeting California almonds, walnuts
By Scott Smith
FRESNO, CALIF. – International crime rings targeting California’s booming agriculture industry are increasingly stealing truckloads of high-value nuts, prompting authorities and the firms falling victim to ramp up efforts to break the spree costing millions.
The sophisticated organizations in many cases use high-tech tactics, hacking into trucking companies to steal their identities. Armed with false shipping papers, they pose as legitimate truckers, driving off with loads of nuts such as almonds, walnuts or pistachios valued at $150,000, and some worth $500,000 each.
Days later, when a shipment fails to arrive to its intended destination, the nuts may already be in another state or on a ship destined for Europe or Asia, where they fetch top dollar on the black market, authorities say.
Nut thefts hit an all-time high in California last year — with losses totaling $4.6 million from 31 reported cases, more than the three previous years combined, according to CargoNet, an alliance of cargo shipping firms and law enforcement agencies aimed at preventing losses.
Losses for all four years combined reached nearly $7.6 million, the group said.
“It’s made my life miserable,” said Todd Crosswell, general manager of Caro Nut Co.
Caro was victimized six times last year for a total loss of $1.2 million. In each case, thieves stole cashews imported from Vietnam and Africa that were roasted, salted and packaged in Fresno.
“You get hit with that kind of loss — it hurts,” Crosswell said.
The value of nuts grown and processed in California, the nation’s leading agricultural state, have soared in recent years as global demand for the health-food snack grows in places such as China and emerging economies.
California produces more almonds, walnuts and pistachios than any other state, with a combined value of $9.3 billion in 2014. Almonds alone were valued at $5.9 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The high value of nuts grabbed the attention of criminal organizations, who are exploiting weaknesses in the cargo shipping industry to reap big profits, said Dan Bryant, supervisory special agent for the violent and organized crimes programs of the FBI Sacramento office.
Bryant declined to identify any organizations under suspicion, citing an ongoing criminal investigation.
“It’s not just some teenage kids ripping off nuts,” he said. “These are sophisticated people.”
Local authorities also are taking action. One state lawmaker has introduced a bill to fund a statewide taskforce targeting all types of cargo thefts. And law enforcement officials and nut processors met Thursday to share information to help prevent more nut thefts.
Alarmed by a spike in large-scale nut thefts, Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux last year beefed up his agriculture crimes unit from two to six detectives.
In 2013, his office investigated a pistachio theft worth $189,000. No cases were reported the next year, but in 2015, six loads of almonds and pistachios were stolen at a combined loss of $1.6 million.
Investigators tracked at least one load to Los Angeles and made one arrest. Boudreaux declined to name the suspect due to the ongoing investigation.
“They do tend to have some overseas connections,” said Scott Cornell, an investigator for Travelers Insurance and an expert on cargo thefts. “Wherever they can sell it and move it, they’re going to.”
Food and drinks are the most frequently stolen cargo items, Cornell said. Nuts are an easier target than other products, such as electronics, because there is no serial number and the evidence is gone once it is eaten, he said.
Crosswell, of Caro Nut Co., said he’s put in place new safeguards with hopes he doesn’t fall victim once more, taking photographs and fingerprints of the roughly 25 truck drivers each day who pull up to the shipping docks.
Despite these efforts, Crosswell said he fears the criminals will strike again.
“Whoever they are, they’re watching,” Crosswell said. “They’ll try it again. They’ll figure out how to beat the system. We just have to stay one step ahead of them.”