Tuesday, May 24, 2016
McClatchy News Service
California water bill has three possible paths for passage
By Michael Doyle
WASHINGTON – House Republicans this week are adding a controversial California water bill to an unrelated Senate energy package, opening a new front in a fight that’s already put Democrats on the defensive.
The unexpected energy bill maneuver gives San Joaquin Valley lawmakers a third vehicle they might propel all the way to the White House. At the least, it builds up steam for the GOP drive to boost California water storage and divert more irrigation deliveries to Valley farms.
“Farmers, families and entire communities are suffering, and unnecessarily so,” Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, Calif., said Monday.
On Tuesday, the leadership-controlled House Rules Committee is scheduled to pack the California water bill and about three dozen other bills onto the Senate energy legislation. The full House will then take up the massive package, spanning more than 1,000 pages, later this week.
Many of the House add-ons are narrowly focused. Several extend deadlines for specific hydroelectric projects. One, by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, Calif., would rename a Sierra National Forest mountain feature as “Sky Point” in honor of the late Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Sky Mote.
Spanning some 174 pages, the California water legislation introduced by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, Calif., has a much broader reach and has been stuck on Capitol Hill for several years. The Obama administration, Northern California Democrats and the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown have all raised concerns about it.
Valadao’s bill would repeal an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program, and replace it with something smaller. It directs sale of the New Melones Dam on the Stanislaus River to local water districts and speeds studies of five potential storage projects, including a new dam on the Upper San Joaquin River. It mandates pumping water to farms south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
It previously passed the House as a stand-alone measure and then stalled.
“The House has passed a bill that I don’t believe, candidly, can pass the Senate,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said last week.
Tactical decisions could now determine its fate.
One approach involves the Senate passing a multistate Western water package that could include California-oriented language authored by Feinstein. House and Senate negotiators would then try to work out their differences on what would amount to a huge water bill.
“Senator Feinstein will review whatever action Republicans take in the House,” Feinstein’s communications director, Tom Mentzer, said Monday. “In the meantime she’s working on securing a markup of her bill in the Senate.”
A number of Northern California Democrats oppose the Feinstein legislation, and they fear even more what it might become amid further negotiations dominated by Republicans.
A second approach exploits the annual must-pass appropriations bills. The House version of the Fiscal 2017 energy and water bill includes language that mandates more Delta water pumping and blocks spending on San Joaquin River restoration. Negotiations with the Senate will ensue following House passage.
The House is scheduled to debate and pass the $37.4 billion energy and water bill this week.
The newly unveiled third approach uses the broader energy policy bill, where members of the House and Senate must again work out their differences.
A lot of this work takes place behind closed doors, although teams of negotiators are named to a formal conference committee.
“The two bills that will be on the House floor and voted on this week give Congress a new opportunity to get various provisions passed into law that will help relieve California of the drought crisis it faces in the short- and long-term,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, one of the few House Democrats to support the GOP bill.
Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10, firstname.lastname@example.org
Court blocks Oakdale Irrigation District fallowing program
By Garth Stapley
A judge reversed course and decided that the Oakdale Irrigation District must address environmental concerns before implementing a new fallowing program.
“We’re pleased with the ruling,” said Sacramento attorney Osha Meserve, representing two OID customers who sued to stop the program. “We think the judge’s ruling shows just how bad OID’s management has been.”
It’s unclear whether the water freed up by fallowing already has been moved. OID attorneys had told two judges that the water had not been sold to buyers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, while OID General Manager Steve Knell had told his board members the water would be gone before a court hearing last week.
Stanislaus Superior Court Judge William Mayhew had started Wednesday’s hearing by saying he was inclined to stick with a tentative ruling favoring OID. “Make it quick,” he told Meserve when she requested to be heard, and she spent several minutes laying out case law and arguing that the district’s stance – that shipping water elsewhere would cause no harm to aquifers – was off base.
Attorney Tim O’Laughlin, representing OID, declined to rebut, apparently assuming Mayhew was unmoved by Meserve’s presentation. She accused OID of playing a “shell game” by refusing to disclose what would happen with the water and where money would come from to pay about 59 farmers willing to idle 1,343 acres in exchange for money.
Mayhew kept his cards close to the vest. The next day, he granted a preliminary injunction – halting the program – and it became public Monday.
“I’m glad to see the court recognizes that selling all this water has the potential for a negative effect on our groundwater,” said Robert Frobose, one of those suing.
The Bee was unable to reach O’Laughlin or an associate representing the district.
In his ruling, Mayhew noted that OID “failed to respond to the concerns of the (California) Department of Fish and Wildlife.” The agency had warned that OID didn’t analyze how fallowing might affect endangered and threatened species.
“In addition, there is a substantial issue as to whether groundwater levels within Oakdale Irrigation District will be substantially and adversely impacted,” Mayhew added. Plaintiffs had argued that water shipped elsewhere could not seep down here, replenishing the local water table.
Louis Brichetto, the other plaintiff, said the groundwater level in one of his wells has dropped 42 feet since 2007.
OID has drawn criticism for shopping Stanislaus River water to wealthy outsiders while pumping groundwater to augment its total supply; before a tentative deal fell apart, the district had hoped to sell about 9,000 acre feet of water for about $4 million.
Its attorneys had contended that the amount of water freed up in the fallowing program is comparatively small. In a parallel but separate deal, the district reaped $9.75 million selling 32,500 acre-feet of river water down south; those “pulse flows” swelling the Stanislaus the past few weeks were designed to push young salmon toward the ocean, although critics question how well that works.
Mayhew’s preliminary injunction puts fallowing on hold while the lawsuit is litigated, perhaps over the next few months. The lawsuit also asks Mayhew to order that OID pay plaintiffs’ attorney fees, and to throw Gary Osmundson off the OID board.
Osmundson, also a grower, had applied to fallow about 105 acres a couple of days before voting to adopt the fallowing program. That amounts to illegal “self-dealing” because he hoped to put $119,700 in his own pocket, the lawsuit said; without his vote, the program would have died in a 2-2 tie.
Osmundson had said attorneys cleared him to vote because terms of the program would favor him no more than other applicants. In its latest court papers, OID said he is not among the 59 participants. They were to receive 20 percent of proceeds in cash and spend 75 percent upgrading water equipment while the district would keep 5 percent.
Board members Gail Altieri and Linda Santos said in court papers that they were kept in the dark as aspects of the fallowing program changed. Both were elected in November after campaigning against OID’s water deals.
Selling water must be accompanied by “in-depth public discussions, complete candor by OID’s management and total transparency so that everyone understands exactly what is being proposed and precisely who would financially benefit from selling our community’s water,” Santos said in a news statement Friday. “Unfortunately, that has not been the case with (the fallowing) program.”
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390, email@example.com
Monterey County Herald
Bid to reinstate Salinas River water permit advisory committee stalls
By Jim Johnson
Salinas >> A request by two influential Salinas Valley agricultural interest groups to reinstate a regional advisory committee to receive an update on the county Water Resources Agency’s efforts to secure an extension of the Salinas River water diversion permit deadline with the state water board remains in limbo.
On Monday, the county water agency board cited concerns about the potential cost of staff time and hiring experts if the request from the Monterey County Farm Bureau and the Salinas Valley Water Coalition were granted. Board chairman Dave Hart said perhaps a special meeting of the advisory committee could be held in the “next few months.” Assistant General Manager Rob Johnson promised to begin offering regular updates to the agency board on the progress of talks between agency and state water board staff.
Farm Bureau executive director Norm Groot, who missed the meeting but sent a letter, and Coalition president Nancy Isakson argued that so little information had emerged about the county water agency’s efforts on behalf of a proposed four-year extension for the highly prized 58-year-old river water permit that the advisory committee and its roster of Salinas Valley water users should be reconvened to receive an update directly from agency staff.
Groot and Isakson both suggested Monday the committee could even help the agency with its efforts to retain the permit and extend the deadline at the state water board. Engaging the community would “send a positive message” they said. If the agency board chose not to reinstate the committee, Isakson said the Coalition board might send a “very different” message to the state water board, suggesting the Coalition might not support the agency’s efforts.
“It’s like deja vu,” Isakson said, noting how few details have emerged since the agency submitted the extension application to the state water board last year. She compared it to the veiled talks between agency staff and the state water board over a threatened revocation of the permit three years ago. Those talks resulted in a conditional extension of the permit that required the county meet a series of milestones en route to completing a proposal to put the river water to beneficial use by 2026. The agency is now seeking to extend those milestones again.
Isakson noted that the state water board is considering the permit on two tracks, including the proposed extension and under enforcement for missing the current deadlines. She said the board’s response on Monday was “not adequate.” She argued that merely providing updates to a revived advisory committee would not be that expensive or time-consuming.
Johnson acknowledged Monday that staff had not done a good job of updating the board and public about the back-and-forth with the state over the permit, which offers access to up to 135,000 acre feet of water per year from the river for use in the valley. He said there’s simply nothing new to report for now. He told the board he had been told by the agency’s legal counsel Downey-Brand that state water board staff has a heavy backlog of similar cases and it could be some time before the local permit extension is addressed. Johnson said the hope is the state water board would start the clock ticking on the new permit deadlines when the extension is granted, rather than making it retroactive to the previous deadline, allowing the agency even more time to make progress.
Johnson noted that the Board of Supervisors initially declared retaining the river permit a priority after the state water board threatened to revoke it following years of delay by the agency in tapping the water source. The supervisors dedicated up to $3 million over three years as part of the effort to keep it.
After the advisory committee spent a year devising a suite of projects capable of using the river water and issued a notice of preparation by the summer 2014 deadline under the permit, however, the supervisors reversed course. They rejected the agency’s $1 million request to complete the river permit project environmental impact report by the following summer’s deadline, and chose instead to focus on the Interlake Tunnel project and the county’s response to the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act legislation requiring overdrafted groundwater basins, including the Salinas Valley’s, produce a plan to balance usage and recharge by 2020.
Jim Johnson covers Monterey County government and water issues for the Monterey Herald. Reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow Jim on Twitter: @JimJohnson_MCH. 831-726-4348.
Bayer’s $62 billion proposed takeover of Monsanto would create world’s largest agribusiness
By Renae Merle
The German pharmaceutical giant Bayer announced on Monday that it had offered $62 billion to acquire Monsanto, potentially pushing the iconic maker of aspirin and Alka-Seltzer further into the world of genetically modified seeds and agricultural chemicals.
The unsolicited offer, if accepted by St. Louis-based Monsanto, would create the world’s largest agrochemicals company. The 115-year-old Monsanto would be absorbed into the overseas giant, Bayer, bringing with it the herbicide Roundup and a controversial history as one of the first companies to create a genetically engineered seed.
Better known for its pharmaceutical’s business, Bayer has also built a large agricultural business. It already sells seeds as well as chemicals that kill weeds and bugs. And company officials said Monday that Monsanto would be a good fit for that business.
“Together we would draw on the collective expertise of both companies to build a leading agriculture player with exceptional innovation capabilities to the benefit of farmers, consumers, our employees and the communities in which we operate,” Werner Baumann, chief executive of Bayer, said in a statement.
It is unclear whether Monsanto would accept the offer or whether U.S. regulators would balk at the creation of such a large industry competitor. Bayer only made its proposal public after Monsanto issued a statement late last week in response to speculation and media reports that it had received an offer, which it declined to describe. Bayer sought to quell speculation about the terms of its deal, saying it was making an all-cash bid.
In a statement, Monsanto said it was reviewing the proposal.
Bayer said the combined company would be able to achieve cost savings of about $1.5 billion over three years. It is offering $122 a share for Monsanto, a 37 percent premium over Monsanto’s closing price on May 9, the day before it submitted its offer.
The offer comes amid a consolidation boom in the chemicals market. Late last year, Dow Chemical and DuPont agreed to merge into a $130 billion behemoth, then split again into three companies. And Chinese state-owned China National Chemical plans to buy Syngenta for $43 billion. Monsanto had made a failed attempt to buy Syngenta.
Sales at seeds companies have suffered recently. U.S. farmers are not spending as much amid falling commodity prices, and a strong U.S. dollar has made overseas sales tougher.
“We’re intrigued by the deal,” said James Zoldy, president of Halsey Associates, which owns more than 100,000 Monsanto shares. “You have a company that was the hunter, Monsanto . . . that has become the hunted here.”
If Monsanto decides to negotiate with Bayer, the company’s board is likely to push to raise the price of the deal, he said.
Regulators may also object to the creation of such a large market competitor, analysts said.
“What complicates this is the whole regulatory backdrop is potentially problematic,” said Zoldy. “There has been a significant shake-up in industry structure here. The entire industry structure has become more concentrated. . . . Regulators are always quite sensitive to that.”
The Obama administration has become increasingly aggressive at enforcing antitrust rules over the past year. The Justice Department has blocked a combination of media goliaths Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and the Federal Trade Commission stymied Staples’s $6.3 billion acquisition of Office Depot.
Perhaps in anticipation of such scrutiny, Bayer said in a statement that the combination would be “truly complementary from a geographic perspective.”
In a May 10 letter to Monsanto’s CEO Hugh Grant, Bayer said it has a “successful track record” in working with regulators. “We have analyzed the potential regulatory aspects and are very confident that we will be able to obtain all necessary approvals in a timely manner,” the letter said.
Bayer said it planned to finance the deal with a combination of debt and equity to be repaid quickly by the “strong cash flow” generated by the combined business. The Associated Press reported that some Bayer shareholders expressed concerns about the new shares and whether it would dilute their holdings. Others worried about an expansion away from Bayer’s core pharmaceutical business, especially into the world of genetically modified crops. Some countries have blocked such seeds, and the business had been a target of environmental activists.
Bayer’s stock fell about 5.7 percent Monday. Monsanto’s rose about 4.4 percent.
Farm workers concerned about overtime bill
By John Bartell
SACRAMENTO, Calif. – A new assembly bill aims to put more money in farm workers pockets, but some farm workers fear it may actually reduce their earnings.
Assembly Bill 2757 is up for a vote this week. If passed it would require farmers to pay their workers overtime if they work 40 hours a week.
Under current law, farmers do not have to pay their workers overtime until they work over 60 hours a week or work over 10 hours a day.
“Our job is hard. It’s not fair that I don’t get overtime like everyone else,” said Jose Sanchez, a farm worker and a member of labor rights group United Farm Workers.
Sanchez said he works more than 60 hours a week and has a tough time paying his bills. If passed, Assembly Bill 2757 would reduce overtime wage limits slowly. Starting in 2017 limits would be 55 hours a weeks and 9.5 hours per day. By 2020 overtime limits decrease to 40 hours a week and eight hours a day.
“Farmers like the machines. They are looking at the easiest way to pick the fruit,” said farm worker Ralph Ochoa. He believes the Assembly bill will actually reduce his hours.
Right now, he gets paid for 60 hours a week with no overtime. Ochoa’s boss told him he can’t pay overtime. He fears his hours will drop from 60 hours a week to 40 hours.
“If you go out to the field and ask the people if they want to work 40 hours or 60 hours … most people will say 60 hours,” said Ochoa.
Many farmers are already using automated harvesters that do the work of 30 to 40 people. Sanchez said he knows some people may lose their job to machines but a majority of farm work must be done by humans. He believes if farm workers put in the overtime hours … they should be paid for them.
“We need money for our families,” said Sanchez.
Assembly Bill 2757 goes before the Appropriations Committee on Friday.
McClatchy News Service
Why the USDA is putting a new warning label on beef, starting this week
Here’s the newest reason to read the label when buying beef at the local grocery store: mechanically tenderized beef.
A new USDA-mandated label will start appearing on cuts of beef this week, noting whether the meat was run through a machine that uses blades or needles to pierce and break down the muscle fibers and make it easier to chew. But it also means the meat has a greater chance of being contaminated and making you sick.
The process, which has been used for years, increases the chances of pathogens such as E. coli or salmonella from being passes from one piece of meat to the next. Plus, because the machine digs into the meat, the bacteria can be pushed further inside the meat — meaning it has to be cooked to a higher internal temperature, 145 degrees, to kill it.
“Blade tenderized,” that label might read, followed by safe cooking instructions: “Cook until steak reaches an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit as measured by a food thermometer and allow to rest for 3 minutes.”
Here’s how it can make you sick: If pathogens like E. coli or salmonella happen to be on the surface of the steak, tenderizing transfers those bacteria from the surface to the inside. Since the inside takes longer to cook and is more likely to be undercooked, bacteria have a higher chance for survival there.
And without a label, you can’t tell if you need to be especially careful with your steak.
“It doesn’t look any different,” said a spokesperson for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. “It’s not filled with holes from the needle piercings.”
Mechanical tenderizing is not an unusual occurrence. FSIS estimates that 2.7 billion pounds, or about 11 percent, of the beef labeled for sale has been mechanically tenderized. The new labels will affect an estimated 6.2 billion servings of steaks and roasts every year, according to FSIS.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tracked six outbreaks of foodborne illness since 2000 that were attributable to mechanically tenderized beef products prepared in restaurants and consumers’ homes.
In 2009, 21 people in 16 states were infected with the most common strain of dangerous E. coli called O157. Nine had to be hospitalized, and one victim developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a potentially fatal kidney disease. USDA food safety officials connected the illnesses to blade-tenderized steaks from National Steak and Poultry, and the company recalled 248,000 pounds of beef products.
“We need to improve how we tell consumers and the food service workers about the particular risks that would be involved in cooking it so that they can reduce the risk of illness,” said Patricia Buck, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Buck, who has been pushing for the labeling rule since 2009, said she’s “very excited” to see it happening. “I think it’s an important step in the direction we need to go.”
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association “worked closely” with USDA on the label, said spokesman Chase Adams. “We will continue to work with them to provide helpful guidance for our members.”
Before the label became a requirement, Costco had been voluntarily labeling its meat. According to Consumer Reports, the grocery giant began labeling its mechanically tenderized beef in 2012 after an E. coli outbreak in Canada was linked to their blade-tenderized steaks.
Buck lost her toddler grandson to an E. coli O157 infection in 2001. “I don’t like scaring people,” she said, “but on the other hand, people don’t really know that these can be really deadly pathogens.”