Tuesday, April 26, 2016
California water board denies bias claims in Delta tunnels dispute
By Ryan Sabalow
Two members of the state board that will play a crucial role in the fate of Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build two giant tunnels through the heart of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta rebuffed demands from a south state water agency that they disqualify themselves from upcoming hearings on the issue.
On Monday, State Water Resources Control Board Chair Felicia Marcus and board member Tam Doduc said there was no merit to a claim filed last month by the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority that accused them of having already made up their minds about a critical issue that could translate into less water delivered to south state water agencies that depend on water pumped from the Delta.
The influential water authority, made up mostly of San Joaquin farm-water contractors, and other south-of-Delta water customers like the concept of the tunnels. But so far most have voiced only tepid support for the project because the Brown administration can’t predict how much water the tunnels would deliver. Those south state interests would be on the hook for the $15.5 billion cost.
The protest over Marcus and Doduc revolves around a crucial decision before the state water board. Currently, water flows down the Sacramento River to the Tracy area, where it’s pumped by the federal and state governments to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. To build the tunnels, the state Department of Water Resources and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation need permission from the water board to divert water from the river at a point north of Tracy, near Clarksburg, where the tunnels would begin. Without that right, the project can’t move ahead.
In a procedural ruling earlier this year, Marcus and Doduc said the board intends to require that, once the tunnels are built, water flows through the Delta would “be more stringent” than what is currently mandated. That prompted outcry among some south-of-Delta contractors. If more water is required to flow naturally through the Delta, that potentially would leave less water available to be sent through the tunnels.
In a ruling filed Monday, Marcus and Docuc said their comments merely reflected statements that the architects of the tunnels proposal have made in presentations and environmental documents. They stressed that the board would objectively listen to presentations during the upcoming hearings before making final decisions on water flow and quality issues.
The pair also responded to allegations of bias lodged by the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority, made up of four San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts and the city and county of San Francisco. That agency accused Marcus of being unable to give the tunnels a fair hearing because she previously worked as western director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that has blamed Delta habitat decline on excessive water consumption.
Marcus and Doduc noted that Marcus also once headed the Los Angeles Department of Public Works, and was a member of the Delta Stewardship Council, a state agency that helps monitor the estuary’s ecosystem. “Her varied experience is evidence of her substantial qualification to serve as chair of the State Water Board and hearing officer in this proceeding, not bias,” they wrote.
Jon Rubin, general counsel for the San Luis agency, said he didn’t know whether he would appeal, which could send the matter to court.
On Monday, the board also agreed to delay the start of its marathon hearings on the tunnels, at the request of the Department of Water Resources and Bureau of Reclamation, which said the extra time could help resolve protests from a slew of environmental groups and Northern California water agencies. The hearings are set to begin July 26 and continue into January.
Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow., email@example.com
Palm Springs Desert Sun
California weighs sharing ‘pain’ of Colorado River cuts
By Ian James
With the Colorado River tapped beyond its limits and the level of Lake Mead in decline, representatives of California, Arizona and Nevada say they’ve been making progress in negotiating an agreement for all three states to share in water cutbacks in order to stave off a more severe shortage.
Officials who have been involved in the talks over the past several months cautioned that the details have yet to be finalized, and said difficult negotiations remain between water districts and among the states. But they expressed optimism in interviews on Monday that the three states and the federal government will be able to reach a deal to keep more water in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir.
“We are looking for an agreement that will be beneficial to all three Lower Basin states,” said Tanya Trujillo, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California. “That’s in the context of recognizing that there are still significant issues that we need to keep working through. So we’re going to keep at it, and it may take several months. It may take another year.”
Under the proposals being considered, each of the states would accept cuts in water deliveries at different threshold levels as Lake Mead continues to decline. California, which holds the most privileged rights to water from the Colorado River, would accept reductions before it would otherwise be legally required to.
“It’s kind of a hypothetical scenario that we’ve been walking through,” Trujillo said. She said the talks between water managers have focused on sharing cutbacks due to a recognition that “we may need to plan for some very, very, very dire hydrologic conditions.”
Officials from the three states and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation have been meeting regularly since last summer to discuss ways of preventing Lake Mead’s levels from falling to critical levels.
The water level in Lake Mead stood above 1,077 feet elevation on Monday. But water managers predict that a shortage is increasingly likely in the coming years. The Bureau of Reclamation could declare a shortage during the summer if it projects Lake Mead’s elevation would sink to 1,075 feet or lower at the beginning of next year. The U.S. Department of the Interior would take charge of water allocation if the reservoir’s level were to sink to an elevation of 1,025 feet.
“We’re trying to reduce the probabilities that those critical elevations will be hit or even exceeded by putting this plan in place,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. He said that by working collaboratively, the three states can “control our own destiny.”
He said they have put together the outlines of a potential plan that “while it might have some pain for all of us, it’s pain that we perhaps can live with and deal with.”
The Arizona Department of Water Resources presented elements of the proposed plan to the Southern Arizona Water Users Association last week. The agency’s presentation included potential cutbacks for each of the states and the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Lake Mead.
Among the details, Arizona would lose 512,000 acre-feet of its total of 2.8 million acre-feet per year if a first-level shortage is declared, compared with the 320,000 acre-feet it had previously agreed to at that level. Nevada would sacrifice 21,000 acre-feet of its 300,000 acre-feet, up from its original 13,000.
If the shortage worsens and the level of Lake Mead falls between 1,045 feet and 1,025, the plan calls for California to take a cut of between 200,000 acre-feet and 350,000 acre-feet – up to about 8 percent of its total of 4.4 million acre-feet per year.
“I think there’s going to be some back and forth and refinement of several drafts before we come to hopefully some sort of closure on this,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which has been involved in the talks.
“It’s in nobody’s interest to have the Colorado River system get pushed so hard that it reaches some sort of breaking point,” Kightlinger said. “It’s our goal to make sure the Colorado River is a big sustainable supply of water for California for decades to come, so to do that, as we reach lower and lower elevations, it makes sense for all of us to be proactive and not wait for trouble to come.”
The Metropolitan Water District supplies water to more than 19 million people in Southern California. Kightlinger said the talks have focused in part on the terms of the cutbacks, including allowing water districts that voluntarily leave water in Lake Mead to access those supplies in later years.
“Internally within California, we’re discussing how do we share that pain amongst ourselves,” Kightlinger said. Those negotiations involve his districts and others including the Coachella Valley Water District, the Imperial Irrigation District and the Palo Verde Irrigation District. He said he hopes to have something finalized by the end of the year, but added that a deal is by no means certain.
Jim Barrett, general manager of the Coachella Valley Water District, said the parties involved in the discussions “have not yet agreed to any specifics so it would be premature at this point to provide additional details.”
“CVWD’s imported water supply is obviously an important issue for the Coachella Valley and residents can be confident that their interests are being represented during the discussions,” Barrett said in an email.
Lake Mead’s levels have declined during a 16-year drought, and climate change is projected to add significantly to the strains on a river that is already severely overallocated.
John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said the three states have come up with a “tentative framework” and much could change before any agreement is finalized. He said he, too, hopes to have an agreement in place by the end of the year, and certainly before the next president is sworn in next year.
“I think it’s in the best interests of the people of all three states if we can get something done this year,” Entsminger said. “What you’re seeing here is a recognition of the increasing risk of Lake Mead going below pretty critical elevations and everybody realizing it’s going to take everybody on the river to solve the problem.”
In Arizona, exactly how the proposed cutbacks would be absorbed has yet to be determined. Farms will likely not be alone in facing reductions. The state will ask cities and towns to volunteer to help, said Theodore Cooke of the Central Arizona Project.
“Our hope is that we have some sharing of the burden,” Cooke said, “so it doesn’t just fall on the backs of some.”
The negotiations follow a previous 2014 agreement among users of the river that helped conserve water and prevent larger declines in the levels of Lake Mead.
“We recognize that there are risks to the flow of the river and we know that the possibility of Lake Mead falling to unacceptably low levels keeps increasing as the drought continues,” Buschatzke said. “We are going to proactively find ways to lower the risk of that happening.”
He called it a “landmark” that California officials have expressed willingness to potentially take less than the state’s full entitlement.
“They stepped up to the plate big-time,” Buschatzke said. He said Arizona’s representatives have also stepped up in a big way by being willing to reduce the state’s use more than they previously agreed to do during 2007 negotiations.
Praising the cooperative steps in the negotiations, he said the proposed cuts may evolve further based on the talks in each state.
The boards of water districts in California and Nevada would need to sign off on any agreement. In Arizona, approval by the Legislature would be required.
Buschatzke said he said he hopes to have a deal finalized later this year in order to present it to the Arizona Legislature in January.
Ian James writes about water and the environment for The Desert Sun. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @TDSIanJames.
Caitlin McGlade of The Arizona Republic contributed to this report.
Santa Cruz Sentinel
Santa Cruz County water experts take cue from solar industry
By Samantha Clark
WATSONVILLE >> Water customers in the Pajaro Valley have a chance to receive rebates for helping replenish parched aquifers.
“Net metering” allows consumers to benefit financially from the extra solar energy their rooftop systems may generate that’s given to the grid. It’s one incentive that’s been a big boost for the solar industry while helping fight climate change.
Now water experts working in the Pajaro Valley hope to take the concept of net metering and use it to address the region’s and the state’s groundwater problems with a new pilot program. Californians have been guzzling water from aquifers faster than rainfall could replenish them for decades. This unprecedented drought exacerbated the problem.
But it also forced the state to take action. A landmark law signed in 2014 requires water agencies to bring basins back into balance by 2040.
To help get there, the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency teamed up with UC Santa Cruz and the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County to try “recharge net metering.” The partners will offer financial incentives to landowners who participate in the program, which they hope can also be a model for other parts of the state.
“When you have a really intense rain, a lot of the water goes into the river and goes out into the ocean,” said UC Santa Cruz hydrologist Andrew Fisher, who’s leading the research team. “So if you can find places where a lot of runoff is being generated, where water could be infiltrated into the ground, then those might be good locations to install projects.”
He and the project partners plan to work with about 10 willing landowners to dig ditches, or other systems specific to each property, that capture runoff and carry it to basins where it can refill the aquifers below.
A formula will be used to calculate the rebate, which will be 50 percent of the cost that PV Water charges to customers for pumping water.
There will be meetings later this year at which interested landowners can request to have their properties evaluated for inclusion in the pilot program, which is schedule to begin in October. The initial program will be limited in scope, as each project requires funding for design, construction, instrumentation and evaluation, PV Water stated.
“Over the next five years, we hope the projects will generate 1,000 acre feet per year,” Fisher said.
That would be a decent dent. The Pajaro Valley needs an average of 12,100 acre feet of water returning back into it each year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. An acre foot of water is 326,000 gallons — enough to irrigate a half-acre of strawberries or to supply water to two families of four for a year.
The program is expensive, however, so the partners are actively seeking grants and working out the kinks that might be barriers for other water agencies that could adopt a similar program, said Brian Lockwood, senior hydrologist with PV Water.
“The three of us working together have the ability to see this become a successful project,” he said. “But the key ingredient is the landowner.”
Recharge Net Metering Program
The Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency’s Recharge Net Metering pilot program will offer rebates to landowners who work with a team that will install systems on their properties that capture storm runoff and use the water to replenish underlying aquifers. For more information: pvwma.dst.ca.us.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Reach the author at email@example.com or follow Samantha on Twitter: @samanthabclark.
Stormy weather causes damage to local orchards
By John Cox
Gusty winds and rain over the weekend brought scattered reports of losses in Kern County orchards as local growers braced for the possibility even more damage later this week.
People working in local agriculture said an undetermined number of almond trees — mostly older ones weighed down by what has been a healthy 2016 nut crop — toppled Sunday night.
The executive director of the Kern County Farm Bureau, Beatris Espericueta Sanders, said by email one large grower experienced fallen trees “but nothing too damaging.” Tomato growers were hit hard northwest of Wasco, she said, and pistachio trees suffered torn leaves.
She and others said it was too early to assess how widespread the damage may have been to local orchards.
It’s not unusual for mature almond trees to fall over, given their relatively shallow root systems. In fact, Rosedale almond grower Richard Jelmini said, unusually heavy rains combined with winds have cause substantial losses in local orchards this year.
“I’m hoping the weather straightens itself out, is all I can say,” he said.
Gusts reached almost 30 mph in some areas around Kern County Sunday night, said Cindy Bean, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Hanford.
“That can blow some things down, especially drought-stressed trees or weakened trees,” she said.
Meanwhile, a total of 0.17 inches of rain fell Sunday at Meadows Field Airport, Bean said, adding there were reports that Wasco received as much as 0.4 inches of rain.
With that same storm came thunderstorms and hail as large as an inch in diameter near Bakersfield, Bean said.
While Tuesday is expected to be less windy and drier, another storm coming Wednesday might bring additional rain and thunderstorms, Bean said. She estimated the chance of precipitation in the Bakersfield area at 30 percent Wednesday.
The changing weather, from warm to cold and back again, creates a separate concern for local growers, Sanders said.
“A major increase in temperatures often doesn’t turn out well for some crops,” she said.
Santa Rosa Press Democrat
Rep. Mike Thompson introduces tax bill to benefit U.S. wine industry
By Bill Swindell
North Coast Rep. Mike Thompson proposed a series of federal tax breaks Monday for the U.S. wine industry, including a proposal to slash a tax on sparkling wine that has lingered since the aftermath of Prohibition.
The St. Helena Democrat, who owns a vineyard in Lake County, teamed up with Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., to propose a sweeping overhaul of the laws that brought in $1.07 billion in federal excise taxes from the U.S. wine industry during the last fiscal year.
Thompson and Reichert contend the bipartisan legislation will help spur new and innovative products by modernizing federal excise taxes on wine. While the cost of their bill has not yet been calculated, it would provide a major benefit for the North Coast wine industry, which harvested $1.1 billion in wine grapes for the 2015 vintage.
“The tax code should not be an impediment to growth and innovation,” Thompson said in a statement.
The legislation would be especially helpful to producers of sparkling wine. Thompson’s bill would reduce federal excise taxes on sparkling wine to $1.07 a gallon, the tax rate for still wine, down from $3.40 a gallon, where it has stood since 1955.
“We are being taxed at three times the rate. … The only reason is that we have bubbles in the wine,” said Gary Heck, owner of Korbel Champagne Cellars in Guerneville. “It hits your bottom line pretty hard.”
The disparity has been traced back to Congress in the aftermath of Prohibition as lawmakers looked to tax French Champagne, according to proponents of the bill. It was perceived as an imported luxury item; there was very little sparkling wine made in the United States.
But sparkling wine sales have continued to grow, especially in recent years, and represented more than 5 percent of the U.S. wine market in 2014, according to the Wine Institute, the trade group for California vintners. More than 80 U.S. vintners make sparklers, including local producers such as Iron Horse Vineyards in Sebastopol, J Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg and Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards in Sonoma.
The tax has become more anachronistic as the average sparkling wine today sells for around $10 a bottle, hardly a luxury, said Charles Jefferson, vice president of federal relations for the Wine Institute.
“It was basically created as a luxury tax at the time, as most of the sparkling wine was Champagne and tended to be fairly expensive,” Jefferson said. “You can’t say that about today.”
Even in the premium North Coast wine sector, sparkling wines have tended to range from $20 to $24 a bottle, noted industry consultant Jon Moramarco.
Sparkling wine also has gone from a drink for special occasions to one used more frequently, especially as more consumers use it in cocktails.
“It’s really become an everyday product,” said Heck, whose company has long been sensitive to its pricing. In 2014, Korbel raised its retail price for all brands by $1, the first hike in nine years.
Taxes also are not the only cost these vintners face. Sparkling producers also bear higher production costs because the wine must undergo a double fermentation process to obtain its carbonation.
In addition, many states follow the federal rate when imposing their own taxes on sparkling wines, Moramarco said. For example, Florida tags a $3.50 per gallon tax on sparklers, while Louisiana’s tax is at $2.08. California adds 30 cents per gallon for sparkling wine compared to 20 cents for still wine.
“It’s part of the cost of doing business,” Moramarco said.
The bill also would increase the allowable carbonation level for still wines to be taxed at the lower rate. The limit would increase from 0.39 grams of carbon dioxide per 100 milliliters to 0.64 grams. That change would help winemakers who want to experiment with still wines that have more effervescence. Currently, they generally abandon such attempts because of cost considerations, Jefferson said.
“It’s one of the things that have kept a lot of products out of the marketplace,” he said.
The bill would expand the alcohol-by-volume level that is taxed at the lowest rate, from 14 percent to 16 percent. The limit was originally established to differentiate still wines from fortified wines. But it has inhibited winemakers, given the progress that has been made in viticulture in recent decades, Jefferson said.
The change would benefit certain wines whose grapes are higher in sugars such as zinfandel, which is the flagship fruit of the Dry Creek Valley.
The legislation also would change a tax credit that small wineries now receive, one which currently phases out at 250,000 gallons per year. The change would allow wineries to receive the credit regardless of size, but its value would decline as more gallons are produced.
Maureen Cottingham, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance, said in a statement the bill “makes common-sense changes to our outdated tax code that will help advance growth and innovation in our wine community.”
The cost of the bill has not yet been calculated by the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, according to Thompson spokeswoman Megan Rabbitt.
The bill comes as other lawmakers have offered legislation to reduce taxes for alcoholic beverages. For example, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, has legislation that would lower taxes on craft beer, cider, wine and spirits.
“Policymakers have really started to view these producers as real contributors to local economies,” Jefferson said.
Thompson and Reichert serve on the powerful tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, giving both men a key role in trying to influence tax legislation.
House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, has not signaled support for the Thompson bill. Thompson, however, wants to set a marker so any future movement of tax bills this year will include items that would benefit the local industry, Rabbitt said in an email.
You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @BillSwindell.
Pesticide ban near schools would devastate farms
By Pete Aiello
The California Department of Pesticide Regulation is developing new rules that would restrict pesticide use near schools. Anti-pesticide activists are calling for a ban on pesticides within one mile of any public school.
Who can argue with that? No one wants farmers indiscriminately spraying chemicals around our kids.
But here is the plain truth, from someone who is both a farmer and a parent. Pesticides are just one tool that we use to protect the food we grow from harmful insects and plant and soil diseases. We work hard to limit their use with other methods of pest control, such as frequently rotating crops, mechanical tillage and timing planting properly.
However, these methods aren’t always enough. From time to time, we do find it absolutely necessary to apply pesticides. I can promise you that when we do spray or fumigate, we do so judiciously and precisely. Our motto is the right protection, in the right amount, in the right place, at the right time.
The notion that this type of limited, targeted pesticide use is dangerous to children a mile away is founded purely on fear. Science tells us otherwise.
California has the strictest agricultural chemical application regulations in the country. We are proud that we can comply with these rules while still producing healthy, quality food for consumers here and around the world.
Did you know all pesticides registered in California undergo as many as 120 health, safety and environmental tests by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before they can be used? Given the scrutiny pesticides face during the approval process, shouldn’t similar scientific rigor be applied to any new rules adopted by the state?
I can assure you the data do not justify the one-mile buffer.
My family has been farming in California since the early 1970s. I am proud to say that we have not experienced a single pesticide-related illness in any of our workers or neighbors living near our fields. Safety is our No. 1 priority and we would never overuse pesticides or apply them in a manner that poses a health risk to our employees, communities or the consumers who eat our food. I know my fellow farmers agree.
As a parent, I am concerned about where the fresh produce I feed my kids will come from if the department acquiesces to the activists’ demands because it won’t come from California.
Roughly 85 percent of the land my family farms is within one mile of a school. This proposal would effectively put us and many other California family farmers out of business. Before further restricting the already-cautious and meticulous application of pesticides on many farms around the state, the department must do its due diligence and examine the science where it exists, or commission new science where it does not.
The success and viability of farming in our state depend on it.
Pete Aiello owns and operates Uesugi Farms in Gilroy and is a member of the Western Growers Association’s Future Leaders Program. He can be contacted at email@example.com.