Tuesday, December 15, 2015
New York Times
E.P.A. Broke Law With Social Media Push for Water Rule, Auditor Finds
By Eric Lipton and Michael D. Shear
WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency engaged in “covert propaganda” and violated federal law when it blitzed social media to urge the public to back an Obama administration rule intended to better protect the nation’s streams and surface waters, congressional auditors have concluded.
The ruling by the Government Accountability Office, which opened its investigation after a report on the agency’s practices in The New York Times, drew a bright line for federal agencies experimenting with social media about the perils of going too far to push a cause. Federal laws prohibit agencies from engaging in lobbying and propaganda.
“I can guarantee you that general counsels across the federal government are reading this report,” said Michael Eric Hertz, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York who has written on social media and the government.
An E.P.A. official on Tuesday disputed the finding. “We use social media tools just like all organizations to stay connected and inform people across the country about our activities,” Liz Purchia, an agency spokeswoman, said in a statement. “At no point did the E.P.A. encourage the public to contact Congress or any state legislature.”
But the legal opinion emerged just as Republican leaders moved to block the so-called Waters of the United States clean-water rule through an amendment to the enormous spending bill expected to pass in Congress this week. While the G.A.O.’s findings are unlikely to lead to civil or criminal penalties, they do offer Republicans a cudgel for this week’s showdown.
“G.A.O.’s finding confirms what I have long suspected, that E.P.A. will go to extreme lengths and even violate the law to promote its activist environmental agenda,” Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, who is chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and is pressing to block the rule, said in a statement Monday. He decried “E.P.A.’s illegal attempts to manufacture public support for its Waters of the United States rule and sway congressional opinion.”
The E.P.A. rolled out a social media campaign on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and even on more innovative tools such as Thunderclap, to counter opposition to its water rule, which effectively restricts how land near certain surface waters can be used. The agency said the rule would prevent pollution in drinking water sources. Farmers, business groups and Republicans have called the rule a flagrant case of government overreach.
The publicity campaign was part of a broader effort by the Obama administration to counter critics of its policies through social media tools, communicating directly with Americans and bypassing traditional news organizations.
At the White House, top aides to President Obama have formed the Office of Digital Strategy, which promotes his agenda on Twitter, Facebook, Medium and other social sites. Shailagh Murray, a senior adviser to the president, is charged in part with expanding Mr. Obama’s presence in that online world.
Thomas Reynolds, who as E.P.A. communications director directed many of the tactics decried by the G.A.O., recently moved to the White House to push the president’s global warming message with many of the same tools he deployed at his former agency.
White House officials declined to say if they think Mr. Reynolds or other agency officials did anything wrong.
Federal agencies are allowed to promote their own policies, but are not allowed to engage in propaganda, defined as covert activity intended to influence the American public. They also are not allowed to use federal resources to conduct so-called grass-roots lobbying — urging the American public to contact Congress to take a certain kind of action on pending legislation.
As it promoted the Waters of the United States rule, also known as the Clean Water Rule, the E.P.A. violated both of those prohibitions, a 26-page legal opinion signed by Susan A. Poling, the general counsel to the G.A.O., concluded in an investigation requested by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
“E.P.A. appealed to the public to contact Congress in opposition to pending legislation in violation of the grass-roots lobbying prohibition,” the report says.
In a letter to the G.A.O. as the review was underway, Avi S. Garbow, the E.P.A.’s general counsel, said the agency had looked back at its social media campaign and concluded that it had complied with all federal laws, calling it “an appropriately far-reaching effort to educate the American public about an important part of E.P.A.’s mission: protecting clean water.”
The rule in question has been adopted by the agency, but its implementation was suspended nationally in October by a federal appeals court after opponents of the plan challenged it.
The G.A.O. report details two specific violations that took place as the E.P.A. was preparing to issue the final rule. The first involved the Thunderclap campaign in September 2014, in which the E.P.A. used a new type of social media tool to quickly reach out to 1.8 million people to urge them to support the clean-water proposal. Thunderclap, described as an online flash mob, allows large groups of people to share a single message at once.
“Clean water is important to me,” the Thunderclap message said. “I support E.P.A.’s efforts to protect it for my health, my family and my community.”
The effort violated federal law, the G.A.O. said, because as it ricocheted around the Internet, many people who received the message would not have known that it was written by the E.P.A., making it covert propaganda. The E.P.A. disputes this finding, noting that it sent out the original Thunderclap message and was hardly hiding its role.
The agency is also said to have violated the anti-lobbying law when one of its public affairs officers, Travis Loop, wrote a blog post saying he was a surfer and did not “want to get sick from pollution.” That post included a link button to an advocacy group that discussed the danger that polluted water posed to surfers and, at least at one point, also included text that said “Take Action,” telling the public to “tell Congress to stop interfering with your right to clean water.”
Such findings by the G.A.O. are infrequent but not without precedent. During George W. Bush’s administration, the G.A.O. concluded similarly that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services violated the anti-propaganda act in 2004 when it covertly paid for news videos distributed to television stations without disclosing that the government had financed the work. In 2005, the Department of Education was found to have violated the same law when it hired a public relations firm to covertly promote the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
The entire amount spent on the social media campaign in question is likely trivial. But whatever the cost, the G.A.O. asserted that it violated a federal Antideficiency Act, which prohibits federal agencies from spending money without authorization. Penalties include fines and even possible jail time. But even Republicans on Capitol Hill say it will not be enforced that way.
The G.A.O. has instead instructed the E.P.A. to find out how much money was spent by staff involved in these violations, then write a report to Mr. Obama and Congress acknowledging the violation.
The E.P.A. has not yet decided if it will agree to take such a step, said Ms. Purchia, the E.P.A. spokeswoman.
A version of this article appears in print on December 15, 2015, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: E.P.A. Faulted for Online Blitz on Water Rule.
Valadao talks water agenda, potential political opponents in 2016 election
By Charmaine Cleveland
Congressman David Valadao talked politics and water wars Monday morning.
The Hanford Republican talked about the challenges he and other Republicans faced in trying to pass legislation aimed at easing the effect of drought on California, in a radio appearance and followup interview at The Californian’s offices Monday.
He also chatted about his 2016 re-election bid and his potential opponents, including Bakersfield attorney Emilio Huerta, a Democrat.
Huerta isn’t alone.
Fowler Mayor Pro-Tem Daniel Parra committed to challenging Valadao months ago but has faced roadblocks trying to pull together the necessary funds to create a true contest. Democratic challenger Connie Perez, of Pasadena, also launched a run in October for the 21st District seat, but dropped out less than a month after announcing her candidacy.
Other potential candidates have opted out of the fight.
Valadao has faced serious opposition in the past — specifically, Democrat Amanda Renteria, who, he stated, was the best-connected person he has run against. But he beat Renteria in 2014 by the same strong margin he’d enjoyed over poorly funded John Hernandez in 2012.
Huerta, in contrast, has a strong political resume through his mother, United Farm Worker co-founder Dolores Huerta. But the attorney has not yet announced an official run.
Valadao said that he can’t get distracted by those who hope to challenge him.
“At the end of the day there’s not much I can do except do my job,” Valadao told The Californian.
And Valadao still has plenty to do before the end of his term. The congressman has represented California’s 21st Congressional District since 2013 and has quickly gained a reputation as one of the Republican Party’s leading advocates of comprehensive immigration reform. But this year, negotiations on California’s water legislation has kept Valadao and fellow Republicans Kevin McCarthy and Devin Nunes busy.
During an interview with hosts on Monday’s “First Look with Scott Cox,” TBC Media’s daily simulcast with Newstalk 1180 KERN, the congressman said Republicans have been in informal negotiations with Democrats on H. R. 2898 since the bill passed the House in July. The bill, called The Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015, establishes procedures for the federal government to address drought conditions in California.
Valadao said Republicans are hoping that some provisions of the bill will eventually be incorporated into an omnibus spending package that must pass by the end of the year, but nuances have both challenged and slowed the process of the bill.
“There’s always someone who’s going to vote no, there are no home runs in anything,” Valadao said during the show. “At the end of the day, again, the most important thing is delivering to our constituents.”
— James Burger contributed to this story.
Los Angeles Times
Environmental group gives California mixed marks for drought management
By Matt Stevens
More than four years into a drought, California’s efforts to manage the crisis have produced mixed results, according to a report card issued Monday by a leading environmental nonprofit organization.
The state received high marks from the Natural Resources Defense Council for its urban conservation and water recycling but performed poorly in areas such as stormwater capture and restoring the San Francisco Bay Delta.
“The state is making decent strides in some areas, while completely falling down on the job in others,” said Kate Poole, the report card’s lead author and senior attorney for the council’s water program. “The bottom line is that we can take steps to create enough water for the residential, business and agricultural needs of California, while protecting the healthy environment that Californians deserve.”
The council used a point system to issue the state letter grades across five categories. Each category, they said, represents a strategy the state can use to “achieve a sustainable and drought-resilient water future.” The group gave California a B, B-minus, two Ds and an F.
Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, called the grades “a little disappointing.”
“We’ve done more in the past two or three years than we have in the past two or three decades on water in California,” she said. “It’s nothing to sneeze at.”
California got its highest mark in urban water conservation. Since June, people living in cities and towns across the state have cumulatively reduced their water usage more than 25% compared with 2013, meeting a requirement set by Gov. Jerry Brown.
The state received a B-minus for its efforts to recycle and reuse water. The report praised the state for increasing funding for water recycling and adopting regulations to help ensure that groundwater can be safely replenished with recycled water.
But the state got Ds for water conservation in the agricultural sector and for stormwater capture and reuse. It got its lowest grade — an F — for what the Natural Resources Defense Council said was poor management of the delta ecosystem.
“We’re looking at how the state did and hoping this can serve as a sort of interim progress report,” Poole said. “If my kids come home with two Ds and an F, they’re going to be spending a lot more time on those subjects going forward. That’s what we hope the state will do here.”
Although agricultural water usage is about four times greater than urban use, the state “has not set goals or mandatory requirements” for agricultural conservation, the report said, and has not enforced existing laws that could improve the savings.
Meanwhile, capturing runoff from storms could simultaneously increase water supply and reduce water pollution, the report said. The state is not on track to meet its stormwater capture goals, and the process of developing a long-term vision for stormwater management has been slow and short on specifics, according to the report’s authors.
Marcus said many farmers have been “feeling the brunt of the drought for … years,” and would argue that the water board has been “hurling water at fish.”
State regulators “totally agree with importance of stormwater,” Marcus added, but there is a disagreement over which “tactics” to use to improve the situation.
The council was most alarmed, though, by the condition of the San Francisco Bay Delta. It called the current proposal for two new water diversion tunnels “environmentally harmful” and pointed to the ongoing struggle of the delta smelt as an indicator of the watershed’s poor health.
“Rather than taking steps to ease the impacts of the drought on the estuary and its imperiled fisheries, the state has repeatedly implemented actions during the drought that have made conditions worse,” the report said.
Marcus said she could not comment on some aspects of the criticism, such as the tunnels, because she reviews related appeals and permits. But she said “a lot of things are easier said than done.”
As for what grade she would give state water regulators, Marcus said: “I’d give us an A for effort and I’d probably give us a B for the drought…. My grandmother would say never give yourself an A — it’s bad luck.”
email@example.com, Twitter: @bymattstevens
Walnut prices on a downward trend
By Heather Hacking
The good times are not over for walnut farmers. However, the really, really good times for walnut farmers have come and gone.
Once upon a time, walnuts could be lumped into the category of “winter nuts,” a commodity without a strong year-round market.
People bought a bag for cracking near the fireplace. The nuts also remained a mainstay in Grandma’s favorite brownie recipe.
Then things changed. China became a big importer of the nuts. The industry learned more about the heart-healthy benefits and spread the word. Nuts became popular in the Mediterranean diet. Mega fast food chains even offered walnuts with single-serve salads.
Northern California was an especially logical place to plant more walnuts. Last year, the Butte County walnut crop reached $232 million.
Almonds have done well in the northern Sacramento Valley for a century. Walnuts may be even more suited to the climate. Almonds bloom in February. A strong storm at that time can knock off flowers and keep the bees in their hives instead of buzzing around flowers.
Walnuts, on the other hand, bloom later and do not need bees.
In 2008, a nasty windstorm blew through the valley and toppled almond trees in a big way. When growers made decisions to plant anew, walnuts were at the top of the list. Walnut trees have stronger roots, the leaves emerge later, the trees do not blow over as often and they produce for many more years than almonds.
Over the next several years, when growers made decisions about replacing older almond orchards, walnuts became a good choice for replacement.
Walnuts were on such a roll that walnuts went into the ground when prunes were pulled out. Row crops were converted to walnuts if the soil was suitable.
In 1995 about 16,000 acres were planted in walnuts in Butte County. Today there are about 44,000 acres.
By 2012, nurseries had a two-year waiting list for young walnut trees, former Agricultural Commissioner Richard Price said at the time. (See 2012 story here: http://tinyurl.com/o35n563)
Meanwhile, people were eating walnuts like never before.
Walnuts were sold in nut snack packs, and there was even a walnut commercial during the Super Bowl.
Former Ag Commissioner Price said 2011 buyers were asking for any walnuts they could buy for new orchards.
Farming often runs in cycles, and the big run for walnuts appears to be on a downward slide.
China is the biggest importer of walnuts from California, and economic problems in China exploded this summer. A stronger dollar also has made California walnuts more expensive for buyers in other countries.
China also has significant acreage in young walnut trees. These trees are producing more nuts each year, lessening China’s need for imports.
China can’t match California’s irrigation system or nut quality, said Tod Kimmelshue, regional vice president of Golden State Farm Credit.
However, the nuts produced throughout the world impact the bottom line for California growers.
Also, there are simply more walnut trees in California when compared to less than 10 years ago. More supply means lower prices.
Kimmelshue said growers are receiving half the price they were not long ago.
“No walnut growers are going broke,” Kimmelshue said, who watches farming from a banker’s perspective. “Ninety cents a pound in the shell is still profitable.”
But the returns aren’t the kind that Kimmelshue described as “unprecedented” over the past several years.
Lorin Amsberry, a field representative for Duarte Trees and Vines near Modesto, said there had been a waiting list for new walnut rootstock every year since 2008.
This is the first year that a grower could sign this year and have new walnut trees by spring, Amsberry said.
Walnuts are not alone in up-and-down pricing over the years. In 1999 almond prices had dropped to 60-70 cents a pound, which meant almond growers were losing money by farming.
In 2001, almond prices were at about 85 cents a pound and up to $2 in 2004, according to Butte County crop reports. The averages for 2014 were about $3.30 received by growers for raw almonds.
Trends in commodity prices will also impact the price of land.
Right now, interest rates are low and investors see farming as profitable, especially in Northern California where the water supply is more dependable, Kimmelshue explained.
Today, farming looks like a good investment.
Kimmelshue said he expects these changes could mean larger farms owned by investors.
When growers decide to plant trees, they’re making a long-term commitment. Almonds may be good producers for 20 years, and walnuts for 30, Amsberry said. Both take several years to grow before the trees are profitable.
When comparing prices for almonds and walnuts, it’s important to note that an acre of walnuts produces 1.5 to 2 tons of nuts, while almond orchards produce about one or fewer ton per acre.
2014 $1.65 44,219
2013 $1.73 43,419
2012 $1.45 37.970
2011 $1.40 37,770
2005 $.73 27,080
2000 $.68 18,398
1995 $.68 16,444
Almonds in Butte County
2014 $3.38 39,241
2013 $2.81 37,512
2012 $2.30 39,756
2011 $1.87 38,051
2005 $2.75 40,084
2000 $1.06 36,095
1995 $2.50 35,983
Prices are per pound. Numbers from Butte County crop reports
Contact reporter Heather Hacking at 896-7758.
New York Times
Drone Registration Rules Are Announced by F.A.A.
By Cecilia Kang
WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration on Monday announced new rules that will require nearly all owners of remote-controlled recreational drones to register the machines in a national database, an attempt by the agency to address safety fears.
Federal officials have rushed to issue new rules on drones before the holidays, when an estimated 700,000 new drones are expected to be bought. Drone owners will be required to submit their names, home addresses and email addresses to the F.A.A., disclosures meant to encourage users to be more responsible, officials said.
“Unmanned aircraft enthusiast are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility,” Anthony Foxx, the secretary of the Transportation Department, said in a conference call. “Registration gives us an opportunity to work with these users to operate their unmanned aircraft safely.”
The federal rules are the first of their kind for users of recreational drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems. The prices for the machines have fallen sharply in recent years, making them popular tools for aerial photography and videography, among other uses.
In recent months, though, drones have been flown more frequently over parks, sports stadiums and backyards, and lawmakers and the public have grown more vocal about the need for new regulations.
The agency’s effort is limited by practical realities. A drone that collides with an aircraft would be destroyed, including the registration markings required by the new rules. And drone users who plan to use the machines for nefarious purposes may avoid registering at all.
“In practice, the F.A.A. doesn’t have the resources to police all illegal activity,” said Lisa Ellman, a partner at the Hogan Lovells law firm in Washington. “But the broader hope is that it will create a culture of accountability, and people will willingly participate.”
The F.A.A.’s registration rules, outlined in a 211-page document, generally follow recommendations submitted by a task force last month. The group included drone makers, aviation experts and hobbyist groups.
The rule applies to owners of drones weighing between half a pound and 55 pounds, and only American citizens will be allowed to register. The F.A.A. said it would introduce the website for registration, faa.gov/uas/registration, on Dec. 21; registering will be free for the first 30 days. After that period, the fee for each individual drone user will be $5 for a three-year certificate of registration.
Anyone who owned a drone before Dec. 21 will be required to register a machine by Feb. 19, 2016. People who get a drone after Dec. 21, which includes anyone who receives a drone over Christmas, will be required to register before their first flight. There will be an option for owners to register by mail or in person, and the rules apply only to people over the age of 13, though children are permitted to fly under a parent’s registration.
The users are then required to put their registration numbers on any drone they own and have their registration card on them when they take a drone out for a flight.
Many questions remain on how the rules will be enforced and how consumers will be informed, though the F.A.A. said it would promote the new rules online and work with retailers and hobby groups to inform the public.
“I’m sure retailers and others are scrambling right now,” Ms. Ellman said.
Drone manufacturers and hobby groups have warned that the $5 for registration in the United States will harm their businesses and discourage new users. But the F.A.A. said it was necessary to charge a fee to cover the costs of running the database.
Critics of the registration said the minimum weight of half a pound — the equivalent of two sticks of butter — would include too many small toy drones that are most popular with children and are generally harmless.
Failure to comply with the rules could result in criminal penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment, or $27,000 in fines. The F.A.A. said it would work with local law enforcement to enforce its rules. The agency already has guidelines that restrict drones to be flown above 400 feet, at night and within five miles of an airport.
Experts said they doubted the agency would impose heavy penalties on first-time hobbyists.
“In reality, they aren’t going to go after the uninformed innocent new user,” said Michael E. Sievers, a lawyer at the Hunton & Williams firm.
Regulators in Europe are also trying to figure out how best to guarantee the safe operation of remotely piloted aircraft.
But unlike in the United States, where Congress and the F.A.A. have the power to regulate the types of vehicles that are allowed to fly and where, the reach of Brussels has been limited.
The European Parliament passed a resolution in October calling on the European Commission to draft European-wide guidelines that address not only safety, but also the privacy concerns raised by the use of drones that are able to collect and store photo or video images. The resolution also called for drones to be equipped with unique identity chips and for user registration requirements.
Nicola Clark contributed reporting from Paris.
Palm Springs Desert Sun
Coachella Valley agriculture industry continues growing
By Denise Goolsby
Ocean Mist Farms has completed a major expansion and remodel of its produce processing and distribution facility in Coachella, illustrating just one example of the Coachella Valley’s growing $626 million agriculture business.
Ocean Mist showed off its 94,000-square-foot masterpiece during a ribbon cutting ceremony Tuesday. The company expanded its produce cooler by 40 percent and made other improvements to accommodate increasing quantities of 30 different types of winter vegetables brought in from the fields of the eastern Coachella Valley, Imperial Valley and southern Arizona.
“It’s a new, state-of-the-art facility we bring our produce to – from harvest to cooling to store level – everything we harvest goes through here,” said Mike Way, managing partner for Coachella-based grower Prime Time International. “It’s state-of-the-art all the way through. This is something to be proud of.”
Ocean Mist Farms, a 91-year-old business headquartered in Castroville – a fourth generation family-owned company and the largest grower of fresh artichokes in North America – has been operating in the Coachella Valley for nearly 30 years. It cooled, handled and shipped 9.2 million cases of produce, including red bell peppers, cauliflower, eggplant, sweet corn and just about every green vegetable imaginable, at its Coachella facility in the fiscal year that ended in June.
“In general, we have nearly doubled our cooling, storage and shipping capabilities with the expansion and remodel,” Joe Pezzini, CEO of Ocean Mist Farms, said in a press release issued prior to the ribbon cutting. “The expansion will potentially allow us to handle 14 to 15 million units (cases).”
The increased storage capacity could mean a boon to local growers.
“It’s going to give us an opportunity to expand our farming operations,” said Adrian Zendejas, general manager, Desert Mist Farms. “We’re going to have more cooling space, so we’ll be able to grow more products out here in the Coachella Valley.”
Renovations included the demolition of a 65,688-square-foot facility, construction of an 18,000-square-foot covered sorting area, a 1,122-square-foot ice-storage facility and a 2,600-square-foot administration building.
The facility now boasts 25 docks, thanks to the addition of eight new bays, which will allow for more truck-transfers of produce into and out of Ocean Mist Farms.
The expansion also includes development of 3.95 acres of a 12-acre site for additional truck and employee parking on property located across from the Ocean Mist Farms facility.
Agribusiness across the Coachella Valley has seen a 29 percent increase in revenue in the past six years, skyrocketing from $484.8 million in 2009 to $625.6 million in 2014, according to the latest figures available from the Riverside County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office.
The growth in this sector has spurred other new investment and development in the local agriculture industry.
“In this two-square-mile area, in the last three months, you’ve got major expansion,” Way said.
Anthony Vineyards, located just across the street from Ocean Mist Farms, and nearby Double Date Packing recently expanded their facilities by 60,000 and 30,000-square-feet respectively.
Woodspur Farms, a Coachella-based date grower, is also expanding its operations with a large processing and packaging facility.
The Nampa, Idaho-based contractor Hansen-Rice had a small window of time in which to complete the project, which included demolition, remodeling and construction.
All the while – from April until November – the plant had to keep operating.
“We felt very comfortable that we could keep our business working all the time,” said Jeff Percy, vice president of production for Ocean Mist Farms. “In the produce business, there’s nowhere else to go, the plants keep growing – we never stop. We still have product running through here through July.”
The plan was to have everything finished before the fall crops were harvested.
Valley launches a new veggie
Despite the drought, Coachella Valley’s agriculture industry is thriving, its fields producing a bounty – in volume and revenue – and in just a few weeks, a relatively new vegetable – the first new hybrid in about a decade – will be ready for harvest.
It’s called the Kalette – a cross between Brussels sprouts and kale – its taste described as a “fresh fusion of sweet and nutty,” said Diana McClean, director of marketing for Ocean Mist Farms.
The cute new “super veggie” – it looks like a Brussels sprout with kale leaves – a colorful combination of green and purple – is packaged by Ocean Mist Farms and featured in its “Season & Steam” line of vegetables.
“It’s been well-received by shoppers – it’s fresh – a marriage of popular vegetables,” McClean said.
Ocean Mist Farms was one of the five fresh produce companies named a packaging innovator by the Produce Marketing Association at the organization’s international convention and exposition in Atlanta in October.
The company received the PMA Impact Award: Excellence in Packaging, which recognizes and encourages excellence in fresh produce packaging. PMA received more than 71 entries from 57 countries that were narrowed down to 20 finalists and submitted to a panel of judges who selected the five winners based on the following attributes: Marketing, sustainability, food safety, and convenience and supply chain efficiency/functionality.
Ag, by the numbers
California – the top agricultural producing state in the U.S. – boasts 76,400 farms that generated nearly $54 billion in revenue in 2014.
The top revenue-generating crops in the Coachella Valley in 2014:
Table grapes – $128.3 million
Lemons – $88.2 million
Bell peppers – $75.5 million
Dates – $35.8 million