Thursday, March 31, 2016
Growth planning gains momentum in some Stanislaus County cities
By Garth Stapley
After years of stagnation, several cities in Stanislaus County are showing signs of positioning for eventual growth.
Construction still seems scarce nearly a decade after recession began hammering the area. But urban planning – a cerebral exercise required before nails are pounded and saws start whirring – is starting to pick up, ever so slowly.
Modesto and Ceres, for instance, are updating their general plans, a monumental planning effort that cities engage in every decade or so.
Riverbank officially is seeking to expand its sphere of influence, reflecting where it might grow in the next 20 years, by 82 percent, which would more than double its population of 23,485 to nearly 50,000.
And Newman is closest to an actual annexation, the step that officially expands a city limit, to accommodate a 350-acre master plan with lots of stores, houses and a business park.
The Stanislaus Local Agency Formation Commission, tasked with weighing requests when cities want to grow, has seen “steadily increasing” inquiries over the past year, executive officer Sara Lytle-Pinhey said.
Most cities, however, have yet to formalize farmland-preservation strategies. Hughson aggressively requires that 2 acres of farmland somewhere in the county be permanently preserved for every acre developed near that city, and Newman voters approved urban limits.
Riverbank joined the short list last week when its city council adopted a “Sustainable Agricultural Strategy” with 1-acre-to-1-acre mitigation, which will be presented to LAFCo along with that city’s sphere expansion request.
Also last week, Riverbank leaders unanimously agreed to establish “areas of concern” at the city’s southwest and northeast fringes. That’s a little-used land designation encouraged by LAFCo for places of potential conflict. In essence, it means Riverbank wants formal notification if the county considers a potential project in those areas.
“It’s a new way to get them to talk together,” Lytle-Pinhey said, about how the neighboring agencies might share taxes or beef up roads in sensitive areas.
Modesto, for example, is closely watching the northwest corner of Claribel and Oakdale roads, likely the location of Riverbank’s next growth move. Landowners envision an expansion of the bustling Crossroads shopping center across the street, whose traffic demands annoy Modesto.
“Because traffic improvements were not adequately addressed,” Modesto Planning Manager Patrick Kelly wrote in a letter to Riverbank’s contract planner, “Modesto would like assurances that those mistakes do not happen in the future.”
Modesto, by the way, has not chosen to use the “areas of concern” designation in its planning documents.
“Riverbank apparently feels the need to describe an area with those terms,” said Modesto principal planner Brad Wall. “I’m sure Riverbank officials are choosing their words carefully.”
Modesto, meanwhile, began amending its general plan more than two years ago before running into a buzz saw of protests from the Wood Colony area west of Highway 99. Key environmental documents should be made public at year’s end, with a vote expected in summer 2017.
Having removed most of Wood Colony from its planning area, Modesto’s proposed footprint will have shrunk from the 42,852 acres adopted in 2009 to the currently envisioned 40,615 acres. Still, that would represent a 41 percent increase from Modesto’s current size of 28,768 acres.
Modesto’s city limit grew 23 percent in the past decade, compared to no growth in Newman and 64 percent expansion in Patterson.
“With all the activity in Patterson and the economy making a recovery, (Newman) said, ‘Let’s get vested and ready to go,’ ” said city planner Stephanie Ocasio. “A developer could come in a say, ‘I want to build a business park,’ and there would be space for it, so we decided to get ahead of the curve. Time is of the essence.”
Despite the uptick in planning activity, “Everyone is being very cautious” about actual construction, said John Anderson, Riverbank’s contract planner who has other clients up and down the Valley. Tracy, for example, is positioning for thousands of industrial jobs, while new homes and stores are going up in Mountain House, Lathrop and Manteca.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390, email@example.com
Sacramento Business Journal
Brown’s minimum-wage bill passes first hurdle
By Allen Young
Legislation to raise California’s minimum wage cleared its first hurdle on Wednesday as lawmakers in an Assembly appropriations committee advanced the bill to the Assembly floor in a mostly party-line vote.
The Assembly plans to take a floor vote on Thursday. From there, the bill could move straight to a Senate floor vote before heading to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown, who intends to sign the bill.
Passage is still uncertain, however, as a voting bloc of pro-business Democrats could theoretically derail the legislation. Moderate Democrats have said they have questions about the Senate Bill 3 but not yet shown their cards on how they will vote. In the appropriations committee vote on Wednesday, moderate Democratic Assemblyman Tom Daly of Anaheim opposed the bill after saying he did not agree with the automatic inflation adjustment.
Democrats that supported the bill mentioned that a pending ballot initiative for a $15 minimum wage was backed by strong polling that suggested it would win. Several lawmakers said legislation was needed to allow state lawmakers to halt the automatic increases of wages in the advent of a downturn in the economy.
“This bill acknowledges the cries from the business community, the small business community, and there will be times when we have to make adjustments,” said Roger Hernandez, a West Covina Democrat. “We cannot compromise on taking this first step.”
Many Republicans said they supported raising the minimum wage, but opposed this bill because their rural districts didn’t compare to the booming economy of the Bay Area. Republicans also complained that they were caught off-guard by a deal between the Brown administration and organized labor that emerged over the weekend.
“Nobody called us, and I don’t think we should be rushed to go through a policy when we are the ones who should be making this decision,” said Assemblyman James Gallagher, a Nicolaus Republican.
Senate Bill 3 would raise the state minimum wage to $10.50 in January, and to $11 in 2018. Minimum wage would then increase by one dollar every year until it reached $15 in 2022. The scheduled increases would be delayed by one year for businesses with 25 or fewer employees.
The measure would allow the governor to suspend the scheduled increases for up to two years if the state budget entered into a deficit.
If state employment numbers dropped, the governor could delay the scheduled increases for any number of years. Sen. Mark Leno, the San Francisco Democrat authoring the bill, also noted that the Legislature could delay the annual wage increases at any time through a state budget action. If a $15 minimum wage ballot measure passes in November, the Legislature would not have that discretion, he said.
Critical Sierra survey finds healthy snowpack – but no ‘drought buster’
By Phillip Reese and Dale Kasler
After years of drought and months of speculation about how much precipitation a strong El Niño weather pattern would bring, the results are in:
We’ve had a roughly average year.
On about this date last year, Gov. Jerry Brown stood in a dry field near Lake Tahoe and announced that he would require California’s urban water districts to cut use by 25 percent. Snowpack on that day was roughly 5 percent of normal.
On Wednesday, standing atop several feet of snow in the same spot, state officials announced that snow water content at the site is 97 percent of average. Sensors across the Sierra show statewide snow water content at 87 percent of average. Snowpack historically reaches its peak around April 1; the date serves as a benchmark when comparing one year’s snowfall to another.
Three of Northern California’s largest reservoirs – Lake Shasta, Lake Oroville and Folsom Lake – have reached flood control stage, triggering water releases. Statewide, reservoir storage is at 85 percent of the historical average.
State officials previously have cited critical benchmarks, in terms of water storage, that could indicate the state’s five-year drought had finally broken. Among them: The major reservoirs in the Sacramento River Basin hit flood control stage; or statewide reservoir storage is at 90 percent of normal.
But no such official proclamation came Wednesday. Instead, Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program, downplayed the “March miracle” that has bolstered Northern California water supplies but not substantially changed conditions in the south state.
The snowpack, Gerke said, was “not what we had hoped for. Not enough really.”
The catch centers on California’s complex plumbing network. Southern California, even in average precipitation years, is heavily reliant on water shipped from Northern California for irrigation and drinking water needs. So, one year of average precipitation in the north state is not enough to undo the impacts of five dry years statewide.
Historically, California’s significant multi-year droughts have ended when statewide precipitation totaled about 150 percent of average, according to the Department of Water Resources. So far this year, statewide precipitation is close to average.
Several water experts noted that El Niño has not delivered as much precipitation in Southern California as in the north; that most reservoirs in Southern California remain well below historical averages; and that groundwater aquifers in parts of the south remain depleted.
“We’re still going to be having a drought south of the Delta in the San Joaquin Valley,” said Jeffrey Mount, UC Davis professor emeritus and senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California Water Policy Center. “An average year, in a portion of the state, is not a drought buster.”
Still, Mount stressed, “there is no doubt that we’re in much better shape than last year … Folsom will fill, Oroville is likely to fill or come close to it. So is Shasta.”
Thanks to the improved snowpack and reservoir conditions, farmers will receive far more surface water this year than in the recent past. The State Water Project, which pumps billions of gallons of water to farms and cities throughout California, estimated this month it would provide customers with 45 percent of their requested allocations this year. That would be the highest since 2012, and the figure could yet be revised upward.
Even with the higher allocation, many farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere in Southern California will need to pump substantial amounts of groundwater to sustain their crops, several experts said.
The disconnect between conditions in the northern and southern parts of California will be a key issue facing state leaders this year. Cracks in a unified approach to the drought are already apparent.
Earlier this month, the San Juan Water District near Folsom Lake declared its local water supply healthy and said there is no longer a need for its customers to drastically curb water use. Board officials said they no longer would adhere to a mandate from the State Water Resources Control board ordering the district to cut use by 33 percent.
Amy Talbot, water efficiency program manager for the Regional Water Authority, said in a statement Wednesday that current conditions merit relaxing or rescinding emergency conservation mandates in parts of the state with healthy water supplies.
“The reliability of a water provider’s portfolio should be the fundamental element in considering mandatory water conservation during drought,” she said.
Meanwhile, Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said that the “big wish and hope” of a wet winter hadn’t materialized. “We’ve had another drought year in Southern California, even with El Niño,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., speaking to The Sacramento Bee editorial board Wednesday, warned against quickly loosening the mandatory restrictions imposed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year.
“I think it’s premature right now,” she said. “I think we need to see what happens in April … an important month for water.”
The State Water Resources Control Board will revisit its conservation mandates in May. Max Gomberg, climate and conservation manager, said the board likely will move to “a more regional framework” in which different areas face different targets, depending in part on the health of their water supply.
“We’re sensitive to what local water agencies are going through, trying to keep customers conserving when the customers can see how much rain there’s been,” Gomberg said.
But the board is not going to abandon conservation mandates, he said. He noted that when Brown called for voluntary conservation in 2014, “It wasn’t sufficient.”
“We don’t want to tell people to ‘go back to your profligate water use and don’t worry,’” he said. “Part of why we’re being so painstaking about this next set of rules is we do want to acknowledge that the drought has been eased in some places more than others.”
The disparate conditions at state reservoirs underscore the need for improvements in California’s water delivery system, said Maury Roos, chief hydrologist at the Department of Water Resources. He pointed to the San Luis Reservoir in Merced County, the fifth-largest reservoir in the state, which stood at 57 percent of its historical depth Wednesday. If California had better ways of moving water, San Luis would, like the northern reservoirs, be nearly full, he said.
“The state has, generally speaking, an abundance of water in the north, and the large demands are in the southern part of the state,” Roos said. “There is a natural imbalance. You have to find a way to transfer and store it.”
Phillip Reese: 916-321-1137, @PhillipHReese., firstname.lastname@example.org
Christopher Cadelago of The Bee’s Capitol Bureau contributed to this report
Woodland Daily Democrat
Farmers leery of state’s water sustainability regs
By Jim Smith
With the wettest winter in five years having taken the hard edges off the historic drought and a key Sierra snowpack reading Wednesday showing big gains, Californians can look forward to substantial relief from mandatory statewide water restrictions.
But that provides little comfort to Yolo County farmers who are being tasked with forming agencies under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in coming months, implementing local regulations by 2022 and providing stable sources of water by 2046.
Nearly 300 farmers and other water users attended a meeting sponsored by the Water Resources Association of Yolo County and the Yolo county Farm Bureau in Waite Hall of the County Fairgrounds Tuesday to talk about sutainability. And while farmers may not like the idea of state controls on the amount of water they use, the overall consensus was that some means must be found to provide for future sources of water during times of drought.
The meeting was the first of several taking place countywide to provide an overview of the management act, expected responsibilities and benefits for groundwater users and the initial steps being taken to implement state law, which is set up to provide local control. Other meetings are being held throughout the state.
Fundamentally, explained Dave Ceppos of the water association, the state’s plan is a 20-year road map that gives local people a chance to define their own rate of use. And if they don’t, the state will step in and tell them what to do.
While the water basin beneath Yolo County is not considered threatened it is still a high priority, according to Ceppos. Other water basins across the state are considered “critically overdrafted,” meaning that farmers and other water users will be forced to let their lands go fallow or cut back entirely to retain groundwater.
Some farmers, however, said Tuesday they were being put “between a rock and a hard place” and “told to come along quietly or come along and pay.” But Ceppos said the regulations give a local people plenty of local control, and that in the end, there are few unwilling to acknowledge that providing stable sources of water was the right way to go.
“People don’t want to put in a well and then see their neighbor put in a well next to their property,” he explained. Farmers want assurances that they will have water when they need it.
Still, as Zamora farmer Arnold Sargent said, the “seizure of water rights by the state” doesn’t sit well.
“It seems to me we made the mistake of Jerry Brown and the Democrats and the environmental fringe, who have pushed for overkill in terms of our water rights and our access to water,” he said to muttered agreements among the crowd. “This is putting people out of business and impacting lives.”
Another speaker criticized the government for putting too much money into projects like the bullet train instead of providing for adequate water supplies like reservoirs. “Not only do we get to have our monitored, but we get to pay the fees for it,” she said.
But Farm Bureau director Tom Barth — while acknowledging the management act may not be palatable — it is necessary and offers an opportunity to get water control “down to the lowest possible levels; so it’s in the hands of each of you and your closest representatives. And to do that for the least amount of money.
“I think those are attainable goals, but it takes the application of certain resources,” he said, citing people such as Tim O’Halloran, director of the Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District as well as the Yolo County Farm Bureau, who he credited with getting the information out so farmers could be informed.
Barth also said that when he looked around the room he saw a “lot of elder statesmen and elder stateswomen” which was no insult. “I’ve got little hair and gray hair myself,” he noted, “but when you look at the implementation plan that isn’t going to be adopted until 2022, that’s a long process. I ask that each of you bring your sons and daughters and all the young folks (to these meetings) who are actually going to be operating this system.”
The water management act was implemented in 2015 because for decades water has been sucked from aquifers faster than nature has been able to replenish it — and the drought has only intensified the thirst for groundwater. Scientists agree that it will be decades before a future governor can declare California’s groundwater problems solved.
The state has designated 21 groundwater basins throughout the state “critically overdrafted,” including such places like Fresno which is facing major problems in the future.
California was the last Western state to regulate groundwater. And it took the state’s most punishing drought ever to force the Legislature to finally act.
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires local governments and water districts to come up with written plans by 2022 that ensure that basins are kept in balance. It aims to make overdrawn aquifers a relic of the past by the 2040s.
Overpumping groundwater can cause the overlying surface to sink. Last summer, sections of the San Joaquin Valley, for example, were collapsing by two inches a month, threatening roads, pipelines and canal linings.
In coastal locations, seawater intrusion is a bigger menace than land subsidence. The ocean has crept miles inland in parts of the Soquel, Pajaro and Salinas valleys, turning groundwater into unusable brine.
Yolo County doesn’t face these kinds of problems, explained O’Halloran. In fact, he was positive that both the irrigation district as well as the city of Woodland are making efforts to restore the aquifer. Others have to do the same.
“We’ve been engaged for years in sustainability,” O’Halloran explained, using an umbrella to point to a variety of graphs that showed the ebb and flow of groundwater beneath farmlands during specific times of the year. “I assure you we have a good sense of where we have problems and where it’s sustainable.”
O’Halloran pointed out that the district uses unlined canals in an effort to capture water and recharge the aquifer. As an example, the district was able to obtain a permit from the state during the recent storms so it could divert more flood waters into canals and thus infiltrate soils. The amount of water obtained, he said was worth about $6.4 million, and it was all captured in around 20 days.
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Calling bullet train a sham, fraud, City Council goes on record against interim station near Shafter
By Theo Douglas
A united Bakersfield City Council let the state agency in charge of California’s $64 billion bullet train know on no uncertain terms Wednesday it’s not happy with a proposal to build an interim station on farm land north of Shafter.
Admitting the California High Speed Rail Authority would likely pay it no attention, the City Council still voted 7-0 to approve comments opposing the Poplar Avenue interim station northwest of Shafter and to authorize City Manager Alan Tandy to make the agency aware of Bakersfield’s displeasure.
City officials believe Bakersfield needs to go on record opposing the interim station that is mentioned in the CHSRA’s draft 2016 business plan, Community Development Director Doug McIsaac told the council.
McIsaac said Bakersfield believes the CHSRA’s plans to build from San Jose to north of Shafter would delay service to Bakersfield and the corresponding economic boost from 2025 to 2029, as well as eliminating a proposed heavy maintenance facility site in Shafter from consideration.
“It just smacks of politics, because Bakersfield is the best place to put an HMF,” said Councilman Chris Parlier.
CHSRA spokeswoman Lisa Marie Alley said in a statement the agency continues to work with the city and nearby communities “to advance the environmental process for the locally generated alignment,” and the draft business plan doesn’t change its commitment at all. A station “absolutely will be built in Bakersfield,” she said in an interview.
In late 2014, the CHSRA settled a lawsuit from Bakersfield by agreeing to study the so-called ”locally generated alignment” into the city, to a station at F Street and Golden State Highway.
The interim Poplar Avenue station, McIsaac said, would be a “wasted investment,” and fail to comply with state Proposition 1A because it would neither check urban sprawl nor connect to other forms of transit.
It is “directly contrary to a number of planning and environmental objectives that the high-speed rail agency is trying to achieve,” including greenhouse gas reduction, McIsaac added, summarizing the city’s comment letter.
If the train does stop north of Shafter, he said, it could be brought into Bakersfield on Burlington Northern Santa Fe-Amtrak tracks, using either clean diesel or electric engines.
Council members asked no questions but agreed vehemently, accusing the CHSRA of ignoring California voters and perpetrating a fraud.
“I agree 100 percent with everything that is written there,” said downtown Councilman Terry Maxwell. “San Francisco is a lot more important to them than Bakersfield is, but I’m going to be a realist and guess that our efforts will be falling on deaf ears.”
Vice Mayor Harold Hanson observed he and Mayor Harvey L. Hall “will be out at Greenlawn Memorial” Park, a cemetery, by the time the train is operational, getting a chuckle from the audience. But he also called the train “a sham.”
“We should have 10 million people up there telling (Governor) Jerry Brown to take it and drop it in the ocean,” Hanson said. “High-speed rail is a fraud.”
Bakersfield resident Adam Cohen, a research associate in transportation sustainability for the University of California who has been critical of the new, city-identified conceptual alignment, said he too approves of the comment letter to CHSRA Chairman Dan Richard and members of the CHSRA board of directors.
If the train stops in Shafter, transporting riders from the interim station to Bakersfield could be accomplished on BNSF-Amtrak line relatively cheaply, Cohen said.
“I think that this is an outstanding option for the region for multiple reasons. It gives connectivity of downtown Bakersfield to the Silicon Valley direct without changing trains, particularly with the electrification option,” Cohen said.
During its closed session the City Council learned medical marijuana advocates plan to collect enough signatures from city residents to qualify a measure for the November ballot that would legalize dispensaries in parts of Bakersfield.
But with a 7-0 vote in closed session, the City Council authorized City Attorney Ginny Gennaro to contact Philip Ganong, attorney for Kern Citizens for Patient Rights, to request the group withdraw the petition.
Ganong said in an interview the petition’s goal is “to allow Bakersfield residents to enjoy the benefit of state law and to allow state law to assist the city of Bakersfield in regulating presently illegal pot shops that are presently just selling drugs.”
But Gennaro disagreed, citing numerous deficiencies in the petition she said could expose Bakersfield to litigation if approved by voters. Among them, she said it:
In a 7-0 vote during open session, the City Council also approved joining Kern Delta Water District and, likely, the Kern County Water Agency’s Improvement District 4 in forming a groundwater sustainability agency to comply with the state Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
California dairies are committed to sustainability
By Chuck Alhem
A recent op-ed in The Bee focused on the heightened attention that short-lived climate pollutants, including methane, are now receiving in regard to climate change, and on the effort that California is making to curtail these emissions.
While the author rightly noted that this is an important endeavor, making dairy farmers in the San Joaquin Valley a prime target of his criticism for these emissions is misplaced.
It’s hardly news that cows and manure produce methane, an important greenhouse gas. But the author’s contention that dairies have “failed to reduce (methane) emissions voluntarily” simply isn’t true. Since the end of World War II, dairy farmers in California and the rest of the nation have reduced the overall carbon “hoofprint” of a glass of milk by 63 percent (and it also takes about two-thirds less water today for each glass of milk produced in California).
Yet there is an exciting opportunity to do more – not only to capture methane from dairies using anaerobic digesters, but to turn it into a clean transportation fuel that could partially replace diesel and reduce pollution from heavy-duty trucks traveling our busy California highways. That would help clean the Valley’s air and reduce the state’s carbon footprint. And we agree with the author’s suggestion that “policymakers should use financial incentives to help farmers and ranchers to make this transition.”
California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols also envisions significant biomethane potential as well. In her testimony before the Senate Environmental Quality Committee last month, she stressed the need to “unlock a torrent of investment that would create new industries and markets for clean technologies and bring billions of dollars and thousands of jobs to the Central Valley and rural California.”
Dairy digesters not only allow for the production of biogas, but can decrease odors and improve water quality. In addition, the solid byproduct produced by the anaerobic digesters, known as digestate, can be mixed with added nutrients to create compost, or can be used alone as a soil amendment to aid in improving soil quality, help prevent runoff, retain surface water and improve plant growth.
California dairy organizations have been working closely with CARB and the Department of Food and Agriculture on a strategic plan to build and operate more dairy biogas digesters to capture methane and convert it to electricity or fuel, and to use digestate for healthier soils.
Digesters provide great “bang for the buck” for greenhouse reduction, so the draft strategic plan recommends deploying them on as many as several hundred dairies in the state, with an initial investment of $500 million over the next five years. Now the governor and Legislature need to step up and provide this critical investment incentive so that the actual means to reduce short-lived climate pollutants matches the state’s ambitious goals.
In contrast, if dairies in California are regulated under the state’s cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or otherwise mandated to reduce these emissions as some have proposed, the likely result will be a loss of jobs and commerce in an industry that contributes $21 billion and 189,000 jobs annually to the state’s economy.
Numerous dairy operations have already moved to other states, and climate regulations or mandates would no doubt spur this exodus to non-regulated states. Under that scenario, Valley residents lose twice. We lose jobs and the ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, our dairy farms emit about 45 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions per unit of milk produced compared to the global average.
Through wider adoption of existing best practices, such as those used here in the Valley, dairy farmers around the world can begin achieving the greater production efficiencies that California farming families have developed over generations and continue to develop for a sustainable future.
Chuck Alhem is the chairman of Dairy Cares, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that strives to ensure the long-term sustainability of California’s farming families through strong environmental stewardship and responsible animal care.