Thursday, March 24, 2016
Largest California reservoirs releasing water for flood safety
By Dale Kasler
After years of drought, Northern California has so much water that the state’s two largest reservoirs are releasing water to maintain flood-control safety.
The water releases from Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville don’t mean the drought is over. But they represent the latest evidence that drought conditions are easing as El Niño has brought meaningful amounts of rain and snow to Northern California for the first time since 2012.
Yet the free-flowing water remains a significant source of controversy throughout Northern California. Suburban Sacramentans wondered last month why water was being deliberately spilled out of Folsom Lake instead of stored for future use. Similar complaints are popping up in the northern end of the Sacramento Valley after several days of substantial flood releases from Shasta.
In the Redding area, motorists crossing bridges over the Sacramento River “can see a year’s supply of water going by in less than a day,” said David Coxey, general manager of the Bella Vista Water District. “I’m getting customer calls.”
Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir, has been releasing significant amounts of water for several days, the first flood-control releases in five years. Lake Oroville, the No. 2 reservoir in California, is scheduled to begin flood-control releases Thursday for the first time since 2012.
Operators of the state’s reservoirs said they have only limited wiggle room when it comes to flood safety. Although they say they would like to store as much water as possible, they are required by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rules to maintain a certain amount of empty “flood space” in their reservoirs, depending on the time of year.
“We don’t have an option at this point; we’re in flood-control mode,” said Kevin Dossey, a senior engineer at the state Department of Water Resources, which operates Oroville.
Dossey said the releases from Oroville won’t be enormous, clocking in at around 6,000 cubic feet per second. By contrast, he said releases during the flood of early 1997 topped 100,000 cubic feet per second.
Shasta’s releases, meanwhile, are being dialed back as the recent spell of dry weather continues. While the lake was releasing nearly 20,000 cubic feet per second earlier this week, the volume is expected to fall to around 5,000 by next Monday, said spokesman Shane Hunt of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which runs Shasta.
Although the National Weather Service predicted a chance of precipitation for late Sunday, Hunt said Reclamation is adjusting its flood releases with mostly dry weather in mind. “We don’t see a major storm coming on the horizon,” he said.
Shasta and Oroville are the twin anchors of California’s giant water-delivery networks. Shasta is part of the federal government’s Central Valley Project while Oroville serves the State Water Project.
Both facilities, like most of California’s major reservoirs, are governed by the Army Corps’ “rule curves,” which specify how much empty space must be maintained at any given time during winter. The rules generally allow for a certain amount of “encroachment” into the empty space, especially if the forecast calls for dry weather.
Critics, however, have said the rules are outdated and don’t give reservoir operators enough flexibility to take into account state-of-the-art weather forecasting. Army Corps officials say they can’t change their rules without undertaking costly engineering and environmental studies first.
In any event, the rules will soon allow Shasta and other reservoirs to retain more water as March draws to a close. As the end of the rainy season looms, reservoir operators will be able to store water in greater volumes without violating the Army Corps’ directives.
“We become less ‘encroached’ every day just based on the calendar,” Hunt said.
By almost any measure, the releases from Shasta and Oroville illustrate the gobs of precipitation El Niño has delivered to Northern California when compared with the past four winters. Although rain has been spotty at times, the Sierra Nevada snowpack is at 90 percent of average for this time of year, or 10 times as much as in 2015.
Oroville is 83 percent full, or 111 percent of average for this time of year. A year ago, it was around half full.
Shasta is 86 percent full, or 110 percent of average. It was 59 percent full at this time last year.
As the Northern California reservoirs become healthier, pressure builds on state and federal officials to allow farms and cities to use more water.
The state’s top drought regulator, Felicia Marcus of the State Water Resources Control Board, told The Sacramento Bee recently that the urban conservation mandates in effect since last June could be relaxed if wet weather continues through the spring. A decision is likely in May, after officials have more time to gauge the impact of the rainy season on reservoirs, groundwater basins and other key elements of the state’s water supply.
Farm groups also are pushing for relief right away, calling for state and federal officials to pump more water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the south state as water cascades down the Sacramento River. Pump operators have resisted, saying they need to keep more water flowing through the Delta to preserve several endangered fish species and maintain water-quality standards.
Even so, Northern California has received enough precipitation that officials have estimated that customers of the State Water Project, including some major farm districts and the mammoth Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, can expect to receive 45 percent of their demands this year. That’s more than twice as much as last year.
The federal government’s Central Valley Project hasn’t released its estimate yet for this year, but said last week there’s enough snowpack in the southern Sierra to deliver a 30 percent allocation to agricultural customers in the Friant region of the San Joaquin Valley.
Even a partial allocation indicates the effect of El Niño to improve drought conditions. Most Central Valley Project customers, including the Friant farmers, received no water from the project in 2014 and 2015.
Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler, email@example.com
Kings County: Feeling The Pulse
By John Lindt
Central Valley farmers are facing off over a ballot initiative to kill state bond funds for high speed rail that also yanks other bond money earmarked for important water storage projects.
Locals don’t see eye-to-eye on the proposed constitutional amendment. On one side is the Kings County Farm Bureau and on the other are the chair of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors, Steve Worthley, and small farmer advocate Manuel Cunha.
Worthley is also the chair of the new 5-county JPA working with the state Water Commission to secure state funding for Temperance Flats reservoir above Fresno. The Kings County representative on that JPA is Doug Verboon. Worthley has urged Californians not to sign a petition to put the measure on the ballot.
“This will set back water projects in the San Joaquin Valley for another 20 years,” argues Worthley.
But the JPA as a group has taken no position and Verboon says the Kings County Board of Supervisors has yet to weigh in.”I am sure we will be asked to take a position.”
The initiative, requiring a simple majority, would prioritize water projects with domestic uses first and irrigation uses second, over environmental, recreational, and other beneficial uses.It would reallocate eight billion dollars in state Prop 1A funds to be used for rail improvements and $2.7 billion in water storage purposes, to fund water storage projects for domestic and irrigation uses.
The group supporting the measure calls it CA Water 4 All. Major contributors to the initiative include 26 Valley farm entities who are helping to fund signature gathering, most of them to the tune of $25,000. Some 15 farmers have Kings County addresses. Well known farmers from the area include Stone Land, Hansen Ranch,K&M Ag and Harris Ranch. Joining them is the Kings County Farm Bureau and the California Westside Farmers State PAC ($50,000) and California Water Alliance.
Those opposed say not so fast. It’s not that they want to save high-speed rail but they fear progress already being made to fund the Valley’s most important new water projects will be lost.
Worthley says some $2.7 billion was approved by two-thirds of California voters for water projects and the local authority to secure funding from the state early next year is far along that path.State funding of over $1 billion for Temperance Flats could help insure the federal government make up the difference on the estimated $3 billion needed to build the new dam.
Westlands Solar Park Urges Transmission Upgrades
Westlands Solar Park (WSP), a Visalia-based solar development group, is urging regulators build transmission infrastructure to connect the increasing load of solar power projects in and around Westlands Water District. The group is meeting this month with California energy regulators who are discussing how and where to meet the state’s 50 percent goal for renewable energy. Working in partnership with the water district, the landowner-based group says there are pending master plans for 6500MW within the water district and 3000MW in the Central Valley that are in line in the state CAISO interconnection queue.
The Westlands Water District is expecting to sell some 20,000 acres of retired farmland to solar developers.
But “transmission planning in the San Joaquin Valley is lacking“ points out, WSP spokesman Daniel Kim at a March 16 California Energy Commission workshop. He says Kings County alone has 1060MW of pending, as well as approved, utility-size solar projects. They argue the mid-state location and the lack of environmental impacts make it a good place to connect more solar to the state’s grid. Millions of dollars of transmission upgrades could attract more solar to the Central Valley.
Pesticide Use Falls Statewide and In Kings County
The amount of pesticides used statewide declined in 2014 according to data from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. For a second year in a row, there was a drop in the use of various chemical categories including carcinogens, fumigants, and those with the potential to contaminate ground water. Among the findings – The use of carcinogenic pesticides dropped 6.5 percent to 30.01 million pounds, down from about 32.09 million in 2013. In 2012 California used 33.83 million pounds. The use of pesticides with the potential to pollute the air dropped 5.75 percent to 44.1 million pounds, down from 46.79 million in 2013. In 2012 California used 49.22 million pounds. The use of fumigant pesticides dropped to 40.39 million pounds, down 5.44 percent from about 42.71 million in 2013. In 2012 California used 44.96 million pounds.
In Kings County total pounds of pesticide applied fell from 7.4 million to 6.9 million year-over-year.
Report states parasite blinded salmon; virus found in brains
By Will Houston
A fluke can sometimes refer to a stroke of good luck or chance, but not in the context of the animal kingdom.
The flukes that some Eel River chinook salmon experienced this fall were parasites that burrowed into their eyes and caused them to go blind, according to a preliminary report from an ongoing University of California Davis study. The blindness and other strange symptoms were first noted by divers from the local nonprofit organization, Eel River Recovery Project. The project’s Executive Director Patrick Higgins said these symptoms are likely the result of the warm, low-flow conditions that plagued the lower river this past fall.
“Once these (flukes) drill in the eye, they find a permanent medium to reproduce in,” Higgins said. “It was a pretty nasty condition.”
California Department of Fish and Wildlife environmental scientist supervisor Allan Renger said no exact cause for the eye fluke infection in the Eel River has been identified. While the fluke has been known to affect salmon, Renger said that the parasite’s presence is uncommon for adult salmon populations in California. “I don’t have any documentation of eye flukes being detected in the Eel River before,” he said.
The UC Davis study also found a currently unknown virus in the brains of the three tested salmon, which concerned Stillwater Sciences fish biologist Joshua Strange more than the flukes.
Through his studies of fish pathogens and parasites on the Klamath River, Strange said there are many types of serious viral fish diseases.
“It’s not cause for alarm until we know the identification of the virus,” Strange said.
Local kayak guide and Eel River Recovery Project board member Eric Stockwell first discovered the blind Eel River salmon in a holding pool near Fernbridge in October 2015. The pool was only 4 feet deep at the time and filled with algae — a sign of poor river flows.
As Stockwell approached some of the fish, he noticed they had clouded eyes. He also saw that many were acting lethargic and did not swim away as he approached them.
The river’s warm, low-flow conditions were also found at other holding pools along the lower portion of the river near Fortuna, which Higgins said was the result of the ongoing statewide drought.
Higgins said large amounts of algae began to accumulate at the bottom of these shallow pools as the currents weren’t strong enough to wash it away. As more and more fish crowded into the holding pools awaiting rains, Higgins said the algae would reduce the oxygen levels at night and making the water more alkaline, thus stressing the fish immune system.
At the same time, Higgins hypothesized that the algae likely attracted an intermediate host of the eye fluke parasites — snails.
The flukes have a unique life-cycle involving three or more hosts. The eye fluke reproduces in the intestines of fish-eating birds like gulls, and the eggs are deposited in the bird’s feces, Higgins said. The eggs then hatch and reproduce inside snails and are eventually grow into a new form and are released in search of a fish host. When a gull or other bird eats the infected fish, the cycle starts all over again.
While Strange reiterated that the cause of the fluke infestation is still unknown, he said the low-flow conditions may have contributed as fewer flukes were washed away.
Renger said that his department did not observe any of the symptoms on the spawning salmon in the upper reaches of the river.
Of the nearly 5,000 Chinook salmon estimated to have entered the lower Eel River before winter rains ramped up in December, Higgins estimated about 10 percent were afflicted by the flukes.
“We don’t know the degree to which it compromised their ability to reproduce, but it appears there was a substantial loss of reproductive capacity in the first wave,” Higgins said.
Higgins estimates there were about 10,000 to 15,000 Chinook salmon that entered the lower Eel River this season, which he said is lower than the historical average of around 20,000 to 50,000 salmon in the mid-20th century.
“That’s still a lot of fish,” Higgins said of this year’s run. “If they don’t have any place to sit when they come in and the rain doesn’t happen, then there could be greater consequences than the 2015 scenario.”
Higgins said one solution to the shallow pools would be to engineer a stabilized river bank near areas like the Fernbridge pool. He said this type of bank would reduce erosion of the river banks while scouring the bottom of the river bed by bolstering flows. Similar banks have been used on the Russian River, but Higgins said these proposals cause controversy as they involve modifying the natural river bank.
The lead author of the study, UC Davis associate professor of aquatic animal health Esteban Soto, said he did not want to comment on the preliminary study as the study has not been completed. However, he estimated that the study will be finished in about a month with more time needed to prepare a report for the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.
Almond market plummets, looks to recover
By Reed Fujii
A larger than expected almond crop and soft global demand have sent the California nut industry into a tailspin, with prices falling by more than half and unsold nuts mounting in processors’ warehouses.
But industry experts said this week that prices have leveled off and the relative bargains are drawing buyers back.
California, which produces about 80 percent of the world’s almond supply, was expected to harvest about 1.8 billion pounds of the crunchy nuts last fall. But the latest estimates put the 2015 crop closer to 1.9 billion pounds.
In addition, soft demand and buyers pulling back from the market as prices plummeted left about 810 million pounds of almonds unsold at the end of February, about 25 percent, or 165 million pounds, more that at the end of February 2015, according to the Almond Board of California.
The industry was surprised by the size of the crop, said Brad Klump, almond broker and owner of BKI Exports in Escalon.
“We ended up carrying 100 million pounds more than we thought we would,” he said.
And when almond prices rose in anticipation of a light crop, buyers balked, said Bill Morecraft, senior vice president of Blue Diamond, the almond growers’ cooperative.
“Global demand softened in the fourth quarter of 2015 in response to higher pricing from California over the summer,” he said.
That triggered a sharp decline.
Krump said he saw spot market prices for nonpareil, the state’s premier almond variety, fall most recently to $2.15 to $2.20 a pound from $4.50 to $4.60 per pound last fall, while less desirable “pollinator” varieties now go for around $1.80 a pound from $4 a pound.
“That’s a big difference,” he said.
It also triggered turmoil in some major export markets, Morecraft reported.
“The rapid drop in prices generated contract defaults in Dubai and in India when the price of replacement goods fell below older contracts,” he said in a statement.
Those issues are being worked out and there is a turnaround in the making, Morecraft predicted.
“Prevailing prices are more than sufficient to spur demand that had been slowed by the peak prices in the second and third quarters of 2015,” he said.
The price drop had almond buyers sitting on the sidelines, said David Phippen, principal of Travaille & Phippen, an almond grower, processor and handler in the Manteca/Ripon area.
“The buyer has to perceive he’s finally reached the bottom of the market,” he said. “I’m hopeful as a grower and seller that we certainly have hit the bottom and sales will start taking off now.”
There are signs it’s beginning to happen.
The latest Almond Board report shows February shipments totaled 155 million pounds, compared to nearly 140 million pounds shipped in February 2015. That’s a gain of nearly 11 percent, although February was one day longer this year.
“It looks like if you lower the price, people buy more of it,” Phippen said.
Krump said spot prices “have been stable now for three or four weeks,” his feeling is that demand and supply are more balanced.
Morecraft said he expects to see a significant lift in market activity in the next few months and beyond.
“With the most attractive early season prices in recent years, we should see a return to the pattern of strong fall shipments to satisfy holiday demand for (the Hindu festival) Diwali, Christmas and Chinese New Year in markets around the world,” he said.
— Contact reporter Reed Fujii at (209) 546-8253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ReedBiznews.
As prices fall, farmers don’t need government’s ‘help’
By John Michelena
California’s long-standing experiment with high taxation and excessive regulation is reaching a boiling point. Sacramento and their mad political scientists are always cooking up new regulations, and the self-employed are angry and tired of constantly fighting bureaucracy.
Here’s the new red tape being piled on farmers.
We had a March 1 deadline for sending in a Farm Evaluation Survey with sections covering pesticide practices, crop fertility, sediment discharge, irrigation practices, erosion control, field descriptions, well locations, cultural practices and more. Also by March 1, a Nitrogen Summary was required for crops harvested in 2015. On Tax Day, April 15, a Nitrogen Management Plan – which must be certified – is required for every 2016 crop. Then in November, there’s an Erosion and Sediment Control Plan, with the details for submission still pending.
This new paperwork is required by the State Water Resources Control Board; the same regulators who find every environmental excuse not to provide water for agriculture. Many farmers feel doubly persecuted as they will probably not be getting water from these fish-obsessed regulators this year, either. I’m sure more environmental regulations and more taxes are coming, especially for use of groundwater.
All this leaves farmers unsure of what to grow, as all commodity prices have been collapsing. Meanwhile, some believe trade numbers from around the world are pointing to something ominous, like a worldwide economic depression.
California is unlikely to escape any global economic contraction. California’s farm economy hasn’t really performed that well during the drought, despite record income in 2014. High almond prices and large increases in almond acreages have greatly distorted California’s gross farm income. The public thinks California’s man-made drought isn’t affecting overall production because almonds have made major contributions to total revenue and profitability. Almonds have also boosted the value of farmland.
But almond prices have crashed in recent months, falling about 55 to 70 percent. From Europe to Asia, every country that has been buying almonds and other American food products will likely roll back their purchases as their economies and currencies are falling in value. If, as some believe, the American economy is in worse condition than is being reported, demand for luxury food items also will collapse.
This is not the time for California to be doubling down on new environmental regulations, as it will cost jobs, productivity and increase debt for farmers. These regulatory costs will discourage young people from entering farming and older farmers will retire early. Only corporate farms will have the legal and administrative resources to weather the regulatory overload, driving out small farmers.
Farmers don’t need to be micromanaged by bureaucrats. Our state already has the toughest regulations governing air, water, labor and pesticides. Stanislaus County is also proposing increased fees for hazardous materials and wells.
Government should move aside and let us conduct our business.
Michelena is a West Side grower and community columnist. Send comments or questions to email@example.com.
Pot of gold or trouble? Pros and cons draw crowd
By Jeff Jardine
You can be all for legalizing marijuana for so-called recreational use. Or you can be adamantly against it.
What Tuesday night’s Bee-staged marijuana forum at the Gallo Center addressed most starkly is this: Marijuana has been a crop in California, legal or illegal, for a century and legal for medicinal use for the past 19 years. It is everywhere you go.
Your neighbor could be growing in the backyard next door, or in a shed or a basement, for all you know. Its odor wafts through stadiums from John Thurman Field here in Modesto to AT&T Park in San Francisco (though you can always blame it on Dodger fans).
About an hour before the discussion began, a Facebook friend posted, “Just watched two people smoke a marijuana cigarette then pull into (In-N-Out). They must get so much (munchies) business.”
Pot generates billions of dollars in sales in the state annually, the vast majority of which goes untaxed because it is still illegal for recreational use in California.
To pretend legalizing it would somehow generate a brand-new industry, create new jobs or invent new social ills is pure naiveté. The marijuana industry, as third-generation grower, advocate and panelist Hezekiah Allen pointed out, is long established throughout California. The jobs have existed for decades. The impacts have been felt in the mental health care and emergency medical fields for decades, as well.
Come November, one or more propositions could be on the statewide ballot asking voters to legalize marijuana beyond medicinal use, joining Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska as pot-legal states. The vote would fall on the same ballot that ends a presidential campaign so strange and contentious that it might compel even nonsmokers to give weed a try.
If Sacramento media consultant and panelist Jason Kinney’s numbers are correct, more than 60 percent of the voters “support a rational, regulated industry.”
All of which is what made Tuesday’s discussion so interesting for more than 300 mostly pro-pot attendees and the experts on the panel. Two panelists – Allen and Kinney – want to legalize it. Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson opposes legalization. And the fourth panelist, Supervisor Vito Chiesa, said he is spending much of his time planning for the inevitability that, yes, it will become legal. The county and its nine cities, he said, need to be prepared should that happen.
So should Christianson, whose job is to enforce the laws – not make them.
“I’ve seen the powers of addiction,” he said. “It puts young people at risk.”
Over more than two hours, they covered a wide range of impacts from marijuana legalization, from the need for more psychiatric beds to potential tax money the county and cities could receive. They talked about impacts of legalization on jails and courts. They covered the vast amount of pot being grown locally, including small grows within city limits. They discussed the need to keep the pot grows small and local rather than allow corporate farms to run the mom-and-pop operations out.
And they talked about the need to establish statewide rules regarding the use of pesticides on the crop. In fact, Allen promised, California would lead the nation in that area.
They also wondered openly about the responsibilities that could fall on local agencies, including the Sheriff’s Department, county health, environmental health and other departments. And how much of the sales tax collected would the state let slip through its usually sticky fingers and trickle down to the local levels where the real impacts are felt?
Sacramento has a pathetic record when it comes to that, Chiesa pointed out.
Mostly, they talked: lawman, lawmaker, lobbyist and lifelong pot grower. They listened to and learned from one another. They traded ideas instead of barbs in the kind of discussion on marijuana that hasn’t happened until now and perhaps is somewhat late considering November is just eight months away.
Legalize it or not, love it or hate it, the one thing they all agreed upon is the need to be ready should voters approve it come November. Voters will be asked to decide whether this should be a taxing proposition or something left in the shadows for the black market.
Jeff Jardine: 209-578-2383, firstname.lastname@example.org, @JeffJardine57, email@example.com