Thursday, April 21, 2016
McClatchy News Service
A predator fish in California has lost its White House support
By Michael Doyle
WASHINGTON – A still-controversial 1992 law intended to boost California’s striped-bass population can be scaled back, the Obama administration now believes.
In a modest softening of the state’s polarized water debate, a top Interior Department official voiced sympathy Wednesday for a Republican-authored bill that would end the 1992 law’s stated goal of doubling the number of striped bass living in and around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
“It makes sense to remove the striped bass from the doubling goals,” said Tom Iseman, deputy assistant secretary for water and science, adding that “the striped bass is a predator of native species.”
Maintaining the goal of doubling the predatory striped-bass population potentially undermines the 1992 law’s accompanying goals of doubling the populations of other fish that ascend the Delta and Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. Striped bass forage on juvenile salmon, fisheries expert Charles H. Hanson told lawmakers Wednesday.
“This is bipartisan and common-sense legislation that means less money, time and water wasted,” said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock.
Denham’s striped-bass bill, in turn, marks the latest effort by California lawmakers to reconsider portions of the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act that steered more water from farms toward protection of rivers and the Delta.
Another bill, by Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, to revise a water-recycling grant program established in the 1992 law likewise secured administration support Wednesday. Matsui’s bill would remove a requirement that grant applicants first secure a hard-to-get congressional authorization.
Taken together, the administration’s moves might be interpreted as a greater willingness to reopen deliberations about updating a wide-ranging law that’s been on the books longer than any of the Central Valley’s House members have been in Congress.
“We would be willing to have that discussion,” Iseman said, adding, “it’s appropriate that that conversation include many other stakeholders” as well.
Still, serious obstacles remain, and the prospects for any kind of California water deal, at any level, are uncertain at best.
While Matsui, for instance, said her water recycling grant bill “prioritizes projects in drought-stricken areas, which is critical given the current challenges facing the West,” the Republican chairman of the House water, power and oceans subcommittee, Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana, asserted it would “allow the (grant) program to spiral even further out of control.”
Denham’s striped-bass bill, while it also has the backing of several House Democrats, has raised the hackles of some sport-fishing enthusiasts and was dismissed by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, as an “enormous straw man” that would do little for salmon.
Pressed by Huffman, Iseman said the Interior Department has not implemented any specific programs intended to double the striped-bass population. Iseman also noted the administration wants some “technical changes” in Denham’s bill.
And soon, the full House will wrangle anew over California provisions added by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, to an energy and water appropriations bill for 2017. The House Appropriations Committee approved the $37.4 billion package Tuesday, including language to mandate more Delta water pumping and block spending on San Joaquin River restoration.
“I am continuing to pursue all available avenues until my constituents have the water they so desperately need,” Valadao said Tuesday.
Huffman, the senior Democrat on the House water, power and oceans panel, remains skeptical, as do other Northern California Democrats.
“I don’t know where they come up with these ideas,” Huffman said in an interview. “None of these overreaching, over-the-top tactics have ever worked for these guys.”
Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10
Siskiyou Daily News
Supes ask what constitutes a ‘substantial’ diversion
By Danielle Jester
YREKA – The Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors met with representatives from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife on Tuesday to discuss the agency’s 1602 permitting program.
On March 11, the supervisors sent a letter to Neil Manji, regional manager for CDFW, regarding Fish and Game Code section 1602. The section states that an entity must notify CDFW prior to beginning any activity that may substantially divert or obstruct the natural flow of vert or obstruct the natural flow of any river, stream or lake.
The board’s letter requested that a representative of CDFW attend one of the board’s April meetings to “review how the statute would be interpreted and applied in the upcoming irrigation season.”
Along with Manji, Program Manager Curt Babcock and Lieutenant Warden Steven McDonald also attended Tuesday’s meeting to represent CDFW and to address questions and concerns from the board and public.
Manji began by stating that CDFW believed code section 1602 would be a valuable document in the future to guide program managers in similar situations, not only in northern counties, but throughout the state.
The section, he relayed, requires that anyone diverting water that may have a “substantial impact” would need to notify the CDFW before doing so. Manji acknowlegded a key concern amongst county citizens, saying, “We know there are a lot of questions regarding ‘substantial.’”
It will be up to CDFW “in conjunction with the landowner,” Manji related, to determine a 1602 agreement and subsequent requirements of the landowner to minimize impact to natural resources due to water diversion.
Manji attempted to assure the crowd that CDFW is not after citizens’ water rights, but is trying to integrate a process by which people must adhere to Fish and Game Code. “We are here to work with landowners, and enforcement is never our first option,” Manji emphasized, calling the process one of negotiation.
Throughout the meeting, the question of what constitutes a ‘substantial’ water diversion continued to arise. District 5 Supervisor Ray Haupt addressed what he deemed a “business risk” associated with the term substantial not being strictly defined in context of irrigation, and noted the mental anguish experienced by farmers and irrigators if their water usage was to be in question from season to season.
Manji listed various factors which could affect the amount of water a person would be permitted to divert, including whether it was a “wet or dry year” and “timing issues” such as points when creek beds would typically become dry. Manji reported that his agency made an effort to write different scenarios into diversion agreements.
“One of the things that came up in the farm bureau case,” Manji said, referring to Siskiyou County Farm Bureau v. Department of Fish and Wildlife, “is that we’re not very consistent.” He added that a letter the CDFW had included for the board was written with the goal of establishing consistency in enforcing 1602.
District 1 Supervisior Brandon Criss also noted his frustration with the CDFW for lack of clarity regarding how much diverted water would be considered “substantial.” Criss was clear about his expectation of the agency employees. “You asked for this position,” he said firmly. “You get to define ‘substantial.’”
During the public comment period which followed, numerous people came forward to speak on behalf of irrigators’ interests. Rancher Gail Jenner expressed that many farmers and ranchers had experienced “more about prosecution than cooperation” in dealings with CDFW personnel.
Local Michael Stapleton cautioned the board to “bear in mind, most coho salmon are on private property,” and that if an agency were to “make ranchers mad” they might close their property to restoration projects.
Before the meeting’s end, Kobseff brought up an issue of transparency, mentioning black helicopters that had been flying over the Little Shasta area in recent weeks. Citizens knew the helipcopters were from CDFW, Kobseff remarked, and asked if the angency was monitoring those who were diverting water.
Babcock stated that the helicopters had to do with a flow study being conducted and reported that the state board had requested a field tour of the valley as they were not familiar with the area.
Both Kobseff and Bennett asked that the CDFW pass such pertinent information on to the supervisors so that rumors could be dispelled and landowners did not become concerned due to misinformation.
The discussion ended with a final emphasis on the importance of information provided by farmers and ranchers where water issues are concerned. Babcock agreed that irrigational knowledge presented by locals should be considered when drawing up agreements based on section 1602.
Santa Rosa Press Democrat
California vintners grapple with new state law on worker payments
By Bill Swindell
Vintners are still grappling with a new state law that mandates additional pay provisions if they compensate employees by how much they pick rather than through a straight hourly wage.
The law, sponsored by Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Carpinteria, was the result of a compromise after recent court rulings against employers, some of which carried major monetary penalties. It went into effect on Jan. 1.
Two recent cases found such piece-rate compensation pays solely for productive time, but breaks and other so-called unproductive time — such as training and waiting times — had to be separately compensated.
The law created a procedure to reimburse workers an estimated $200 million for rest and meal periods they had not previously been compensated for, from July 1, 2012 through Dec. 31, 2015.
“It was intended to stop the lawsuits,” said Erica Rosasco, a Sacramento lawyer who has worked on such cases.
The legislation created a legal “safe harbor” for employers who were in violation of the law, provided they make repayments.
It also clarified how employers are supposed to pay workers going forward for rest and recovery periods and other unproductive time, though there was still much confusion over the law during a session Wednesday at a conference sponsored by the California Farm Labor Contractors Association. The event was held at Santa Rosa’s Flamingo Conference Resort and Spa.
“People are still paying piece rate. Some of them are rethinking if they want to continue doing it. Some people may only do it during harvest.
Certain people are willing to do it all year round,” said Peter Nissen, owner of Nissen Vineyard Services Inc. in St. Helena and board member of the association. “The whole idea of how people are going to treat it depends on how much scrutiny they want to be under.”
Some workers also are wary of going to an hourly pay scale over fears that could they make more on a piece-rate basis, said Guadalupe Sandoval, managing director of the association.
“There’s a lot of resistance from workers doing piece rate,” he said.
Armando Elenes, national president of the United Farm Workers of America, said the piece-rate system can pose problems if a worker forgets to take a break, or if precautions aren’t taken for safety reasons, such as heat exposure. “It can blind you,” Elenes said. “You are pursuing that mighty dollar.”
Employers have until July 1 to apply for the safe harbor with the Department of Industrial Relations. Back payments must be paid by Dec. 15.
Many North Coast land owners contract work on their fields out to vineyard management companies. But given the extent of liability involved in the issue, Rosasco said that “lots of growers are contributing (money) to the safe harbor.”
Fresno appeals court hears ALRB mediation access case
By Robert Rodriguez
Lawyers representing Gerawan Farming, media organizations and the Agricultural Labor Relations Board presented their arguments before the 5th District Court of Appeal Wednesday in a case that could give the public access to a previously closed labor mediation process.
After hearing the arguments, the panel of three justices recessed. A decision is expected in the coming weeks.
The case was prompted by the state’s refusal to allow a Gerawan employee, Lupe Garcia, to attend a 2013 hearing as part of the mandatory mediation and conciliation process.
At the time, the Fresno County farming company, one of the state’s largest fruit tree growers, and the United Farm Workers union were trying to hammer out an employee contract using a mediator. But when Garcia attempted to attend the meeting he was told it was closed to the public.
Attorneys argued that the issue is a violation of the First Amendment.
Attorney and law professor Eugene Volokh, who represents a trio of media organizations, including the California Newspaper Publisher’s Association, told the justices that mediation meetings function similar to a bench trial and should be open to the public.
Attorney Paul Bauer, who represents Garcia, said his client wasn’t there to disrupt the process; he just wanted to know what was happening.
“All he wanted to do was to be present for something that was vitally important because it affected his seniority, pay and working conditions,” Bauer said. Gerawan was represented separately by David Schwarz.
But Nelson Richards, deputy attorney general, said it’s been the general practice that these type of mediation meetings have been confidential.
“It has never been a right,” Richards said.
Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ventura County Star
UFW wins election to represent 240 farm workers at local companies
United Farm Workers won an election Wednesday to represent 240 farm workers at Ventura County vegetable and nursery companies, officials said.
Workers at Hiji Bros., Inc. and Seaview Growers Inc., both based in Oxnard, cast ballots to decertify and replace the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 with the UFW.
The vote came down to 111 for the UFW, 61 for UFCW Local 5 and 6 for no-union.
A petition to decertify the UFCW was filed with the farm labor board last week and signed by about 80 percent of the workers who complained about poor representation. A few days later, the UFW qualified for the election ballot after workers signed cards authorizing the UFW to represent them.
The election was conducted by the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board.
Hiji Bros. grows celery, lettuce and cabbage and Seaview Growers is a nursery.
Grim outlook for prune crop
By Andrew Creasey
The string of storms that hit Northern California in March may have seemed a miracle to some. But for prune growers? The heavy rain decimated this year’s crop, potentially costing Yuba-Sutter tens of millions of dollars.
The impacts of the cold temperatures, high winds and heavy rains have only become clear in the last two weeks. The conditions significantly disrupted pollination and could reduce this year’s crop yield by up to 75 percent.
“Up until two or three weeks ago, there were lots of little prunes on the trees. It looked like a great crop,” said Greg Thompson, general manager of the Prune Bargaining Association. “But once we got some warm weather, they started to turn yellow and fall off.”
The outlook now looks bleak.
“A lot of growers are thinking they won’t have enough crops on the tree to bother harvesting,” Thompson said. “I’m still hoping that there are prunes on the tops of trees we haven’t seen, but everyone I’ve talked to says it’s pretty grim.”
By May 1, between 20 percent and 40 percent of the tree blossoms usually pollinate and become developing fruit. This year, that range is closer to 10 percent, said Franz Niederholzer, orchard systems adviser of the Yuba-Sutter University of California Cooperative Extension.
“That’s trouble,” Niederholzer said. “Some orchards are going to have in the range of a quarter to a half of the crop they normally carry.”
In 2014 — the last year data is available — the farm gate value of prunes in Yuba-Sutter was $151 million. It was a strong year for the crop, compared to previous years. Thompson said with the current price of prunes, there would be a $120 million potential for a good crop in 2016. Now, the crop could bring in less than $40 million, Thompson said.
As with all agriculture commodities, the economic impact spreads beyond the growers. Less money for growers means they spend less in local stores. They hire fewer people who would, in turn, spend more in the community, Niederholzer said.
“They don’t just stick money in a mattress,” Niederholzer said. “They spend it, and they spend it locally.”
Another problem for prune growers is they have already invested money in a crop that could fail.
“We pruned them, we sprayed them several times. Most of the expenses have already been spent,” said Kulwant Johl, a Yuba County farmer. “It will affect the workers, too. We won’t be hiring that many people during harvest time. They work on the prune dehydrators, the truckers, the harvesters — everybody gets affected.”
This year’s apparent prune crop shortage comes at a bad time for the California prune industry.
Prunes have declined in recent years while struggling to compete with the powerful prices commanded by walnut and almond crops, said Greg Thompson, general manager of the Prune Bargaining Association.
Growers have ripped out prune orchards to plant nut crops, causing the amount of prune acreage in California to shrink from 67,000 acres in 2005 to 44,000 acres in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Lately, the prune market has shown signs of strengthening, as the prune industry’s investment in researching the benefits of prunes for bone and disgestive health has started to yield positive results. But a reduced supply could undermine those efforts, Thompson said.
“We need more prunes to keep California prunes predominate,” Thompson said. “If you have a really short crop, we won’t have as much prunes as we’d like to build a market. We’d like to see sales expand. We’re finding all these great health benefits for prunes, but now we don’t have the supply.”
A shortage of supply in California prunes means that other international producers of the fruit can seize the opportunity to gain a market share.
“If California doesn’t have prunes to fill the shelves, someone else will come in, and California has to spend time and effort to get that market share back,” said Franz Niederholzer, orchard systems advisor of the Yuba-Sutter University of California Cooperative Extension. “That can take years.”
There are some positives. There are still prunes from the 2015 crop that can fill some of the gaps in supply, and California’s unparalleled advantage in the quality of its product can ease efforts to regain losses in the market, said Donn Zea, executive director of the California Dried Plum Board.
“Our job right now is to reassure people that we’ll do everything we can to bridge through to the next crop,” Zea said. “This short crop comes at a bad time because there’s momentum (for California prunes). But the momentum will get us through this year.”
CONTACT reporter Andrew Creasey at 749-4780 and on Twitter @AD_Creasey., email@example.com