Ag Today Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Ag Today

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

 

San Francisco Chronicle

Just like city folk, water rights holders will have to track usage

By Kurtis Alexander

Even as California has marched out unprecedented water restrictions during the drought, the spigots at thousands of farms and ranches have gone largely unmonitored — a vestige of the state’s Gold Rush-era water policy.

On Tuesday, state water officials did away with this historical oversight. Acknowledging they can’t manage what they can’t measure, regulators in Sacramento passed rules to require holders of longtime water rights to track and report what they draw from rivers and creeks.

Unlike residential water customers in virtually every city in the state, 12,000 longtime water-rights holders — mostly farmers, ranchers and utilities — are governed by laws written when water was plentiful and still in many cases don’t have to report their usage regularly. That has made it difficult for the state to tell just how much water is being consumed and to stretch supplies efficiently during dry times.

“In a water system as large as California’s, the more information you have and the more timely you have it allows you to manage that system better,” said Tim Moran, spokesman for the State Water Resources Control Board.

However, state officials found that no change in century-old water practices comes easily.

“We do understand and appreciate the need to have more timely and accurate data, especially during times of drought,” Danny Merkley, director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation, told water board members Tuesday. “However, we still believe you may have overestimated the feasibility of compliance here. It’s going to be very difficult for the thousands and thousands of (water) diverters.”

Cost complaints

Merkley said measuring consumption would be a burden for many small farmers and ranchers. Metering technology isn’t cheap, he said, and running electricity for new equipment to remote locations will be a challenge.

One engineer told the board that his client on the North Coast had spent $15,000 buying and installing gauges.

Paul Marchini, 70, whose family has been farming wine grapes, alfalfa and wheat on Union Island in the delta since the 1940s, said he doesn’t see the point of purchasing new gadgets when he has been able to track his water usage with older equipment and estimates.

Marchini doesn’t yet know what the proposed regulation will require of him, but as a senior water-rights holder, he said, he doesn’t want to be weighed down. California landowners living along waterways have been able to pump freely since statehood in 1850, but Marchini having that ability doesn’t mean he’s rich.

“I don’t have an extra $10,000 to spend on something,” he said. “I have riparian rights. I should be able to get as much water as I need, to do what I need to do.”

The new state rules, most of which will begin to be phased in at the end of the year, require those who draw at least 10 acre-feet of water from a river or creek annually — the equivalent of what about 15 households use in a year — to install a meter. The type of meter and the measurement protocols vary with how much water a user draws.

The regulation eliminates a loophole that now allows water-rights holders to cite economic hardship and forgo metering, something 70 percent have historically done, according to state estimates.

The rules also require rights holders to report their usage more frequently — in many cases each year instead of every three years.

Proposal dropped

However, state officials dropped a proposal to compel the biggest users to post their water draws in real time on a public website.

The new regulation comes as the state water board, facing a possible fifth year of drought, considers new conservation mandates for cities and towns as well as potential cutbacks for the water-rights holders drawing from rivers and creeks.

While urban residents have faced mandatory reductions of up to 36 percent, holders of about 10,000 water rights — mostly in agricultural areas — had their supplies cut off last year because of the drought.

State regulators have not yet said whether water-rights holders will face cutbacks this year. But they say better accounting will allow them to tailor reductions more precisely and perhaps to limit them.

The reporting requirements are the result of legislation that Gov. Jerry Brown signed last year, to the applause of many fighting for more sustainable water policy.

“These regulations will help improve water planning and enhance decision-making,” said Rickey Russell, policy analyst with California Coastkeeper Alliance.

Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: kalexander@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @kurtisalexander

 

 

San Jose Mercury News

Stormwater floods Modesto almond orchard in experiment to restore aquifer

By Lisa M. Krieger

MODESTO — In an effort to restore California’s desperately depleted ancient aquifers, scientists are testing an approach that seizes surplus winter rain and delivers it to where it’s most useful: idle farms and fields.

On Tuesday, roiling, muddy water from the storm drains of the city of Modesto flooded an almond orchard, where UC Davis researchers will track its progress as it slowly percolates — over weeks, months, even years — into a 45-foot-deep underground reservoir.

“If we can recharge our basin during the wet years, that’s water we have banked away for dry years,” said farmer Nick Blom, who authorized the experiment on his orchards southwest of Modesto, where hundreds of trees are in winter slumber.

The UC Davis team seeks to answer some hard questions: Is the water clean enough? Will it drown the valuable trees? Could it introduce waterborne diseases or make trees more vulnerable to insect pests?

If the technique is proven safe and effective, the scientists will encourage its broader use on California’s 3.5 million to 5.6 million acres of suitable soils.

The approach replicates Mother Nature’s eons-old pattern, with wet winter storms restoring the state’s depleted aquifers. But this balance has been upset by excess agricultural and urban “overdrafting” of this water supply. In short, we’re taking more than we’re giving.

Both farmers and state water experts urgently need a solution to the problem, which has stressed 21 of the state’s aquifers, especially in Tulare County, in the southern San Joaquin Valley. In some areas, it is so severe that the land is subsiding — permanently in some cases.

The state’s first-ever groundwater protection law, passed by the Legislature in 2014, calls for “sustainable” aquifer management, said Helen Dahlke, assistant professor of UC Davis’ department of land, air and water resources.

To achieve the necessary balance between supply and demand, it’s not enough for farmers to simply reduce how much water they pump; they also need to return the water to its source, she said.

That’s a tall order for many agriculturally rich parts of the state, especially the most arid regions.

If this experiment works, scientists envision pulling floodwaters off rivers such as the Sacramento and diverting them to dry regions via the state’s vast network of canals. This would not only ease the risk of flooding but could also deliver water to drought-ravaged parts of the state.

Meanwhile, farmers elsewhere are enlisting other approaches. In the Pajaro Valley, farmers have dug small “percolation ponds” on the edges of their fields. Along the Consumnes River and Yolo Bypass, there are newly widened levee setbacks, giving river water more time to drain and recede.

“Hopefully, we can come up with a system so we can at least maintain the water table where it is right now,” Dahlke said.

Such recharge strategies could face political, legal and economic challenges, the UC Davis team says.

Many people claim rights to the state’s water the moment it lands from the sky. And the delivery canals aren’t historically available in the winter. This is the time when they are cleaned and maintained.

Tuesday’s experiment — flooding a 5-acre field with 6 inches of water — was possible only because the Modesto Irrigation District provides water to both the city of Modesto and surrounding farms. So it has control over water use and also has access to the intricate web of delivery canals.

If not diverted to the Blom farm, the storm drain water would have flowed into the nearby Tuolumne River. The experiment is funded by the Almond Board of California.

Scientists will monitor any root damage with underground cameras, inserted 3 feet deep through plastic tubes. They will also watch next spring to see if the trees bloom and leaf normally. And they will measure the orchard’s almond production to see if yields decline.

To track water flow rates, they use temperature sensors; water retains heat more than the surrounding soil.

And they will test the loamy soil to make sure the water isn’t delivering nitrates, salts or dangerous pollutants.

This Modesto basin could be quick to recover because it’s shallow and relatively healthy. But other basins, such as those in the southern San Joaquin Valley, may need 20 years before the surface water gets to where it’s needed — and flows may need to be repeated annually, said Ken Shackel, a professor in the department of plant sciences at UC Davis.

If successful, “there is enough acreage in almonds and similar crops that it could make a huge different to the state water balance,” Shackel said. “And it is a lot cheaper than building a reservoir.

“We are thinking about this as the first step in a very long-term strategy.”

Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098. Follow her at Twitter.com/LisaMKrieger and Facebook.com/LisaMKrieger. lkrieger@mercurynews.com

 

 

Modesto Bee

Internal open-market MID water sales gaining in popularity

By Garth Stapley

Modesto-area farmers sold each other double the amount of water in 2015 as they did the year before, with a little more than 10 percent of customers participating in so-called farmer-to-farmer transfers, according to updated Modesto Irrigation District numbers.

Two other drought-coping programs drew less participation, and a fourth bombed.

Open-market “farmer-to-farmer (sales) remains our most popular program,” irrigation operations manager John Davids told board members. Of the district’s 3,100 grower accounts – some farms have multiple accounts – 324 participated in 2015, up from 194 in 2014. Nearly 7,000 acre-feet of water changed hands in 2015, compared to 3,300 acre-feet the year before.

The 7,000 acre-feet amounts to 7.3 percent of the total amount (96,000) MID delivered to farms that year. An acre-foot would cover a football field with one foot of water.

Ripon attorney Stacy Henderson said the growers she represents were grateful for the flexibility offered in the program.

Although water is considered a public resource, MID has refused to identify participants. The district accommodated sales without regard to price, which was worked out among buyers and sellers.

A second innovation, which MID called its “allocation return program,” paid participants $400 an acre to forgo water deliveries, which were then sold to other farmers paying $300 an acre-foot. MID brokered 44 such fixed-price transfers involving 1,000 acre-feet in 2015. That’s an improvement over 2014, when some farmers indicated interest but ultimately backed out, costing MID $350,000 before settlements were negotiated.

A third program, called the “water management alternative,” had private well owners pumping water into MID canals in exchange for a share of Tuolumne River water, which is purer than groundwater. Only three growers participated in 2014, but 15 signed on in 2015, and most ended up selling their river-water credits in the farmer-to-farmer plan.

The only new drought program introduced in 2015, which MID called “supply augmentation,” sought farmers who would turn over private wells to MID, which would pump untold amounts in exchange for 12 inches of better-quality river water. Some farmers and board members were skeptical and predicted low interest – and they were right. No one signed up.

Farmers not participating in MID’s 2015 drought programs got only 16 inches of water per parcel, the lowest amount in history. They get 42 inches in normal years, but received only 36 inches in 2013 and 24 in 2014.

Davids said a dozen growers will be selected to provide feedback on how well the drought programs worked, in small-group focus sessions. Others can submit comments to the district.

“It’s too soon to tell,” MID spokeswoman Melissa Williams said, whether drought programs might be revived this year. Coming days should bring an abundance of winter weather, but four years of drought have taken a toll on land and reservoirs.

Meanwhile, growers are bracing for expected water-rate increases to be unveiled at the board’s Feb. 9 meeting starting at 9 a.m. in the chamber at 1231 11th St., Modesto.

Water prices could go up again a few weeks later to cover high-tech delivery meters required in state rules mandating more accurate measuring. MID wants to install such meters at 300 canal points for about $4.5 million. Costs might have been covered by selling water to San Francisco, but a groundswell of opposition killed that proposal in 2012.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390, gstapley@modbee.com

 

 

Los Angeles Times

State Senate committee chairman plans oversight hearings on California’s bullet train

By Ralph Vartabedian

The Democratic chairman of the state Senate transportation committee said he plans to hold oversight hearings on the bullet train to examine its management performance, construction schedules and cost estimates.

The hearings, chaired by Sen. James Beall Jr. of San Jose, would provide the first significant legislative oversight of the project in four years, during which it has fallen far behind schedule and concerns have mounted over its costs and other uncertainties.

Beall said his objective is to find a way to accelerate the construction schedule to reduce costs. The lawmaker said the hearings will be called soon after the state rail authority issues its 2016 business plan, which is expected in coming weeks.

“The oversight will be much more extensive,” said Beall, who has been involved in state transportation issues for decades. “Don’t doubt that we will instill some fiscal oversight of the high-speed rail.”

The business plan will lay out the state’s latest vision for how it will fund, build and eventually operate the 220-mph trains. It will be crucial to answering concerns that have grown in the last two years as expected construction in the Central Valley fell well short of plans owing to the state’s failure to obtain adequate parcels of land. At the same time, the state has not yet attracted private investors as it had hoped.

The delays and funding shortfalls pose major obstacles to its existing plan, adopted in 2014, to complete an initial operating segment from Burbank to Merced by 2022. That link will require boring about 36 miles of tunnels through geologically complex mountains, building as many as six stations, erecting new high-voltage electrical lines and constructing a heavy maintenance facility.

The initial operating segment is the proposed foundation block that would enable the state to attract private investors and complete the 500-mile system.

The hearings will mark a sharp increase in the political oversight in Sacramento. Gov. Jerry Brown and Democrats have not scrutinized the project despite mounting questions from construction and rail experts and Republicans in Sacramento and Washington.

A joint state legislative committee last week rejected a proposal to authorize an audit by the California state auditor, who has not examined the project for four years. The last audit raised warnings about a wide range of potential risks and recommended the project needed additional oversight.

A new audit was requested by Sen. Andy Vidak (R-Hanford), who says the Legislature’s refusal has been the direct result of enormous pressure on Democrats from Brown and the party’s leadership, afraid that negative findings would jeopardize the project.

“It is the biggest program in the United States, and the refusal to have an audit is ridiculous,” Vidak said. “We wanted this audit to show the waste and abuse of this program. The inflated costs are outrageous.”

Spokesmen for Brown did not respond directly to Vidak’s assertion, but said in an email, “We remain strongly committed to this project…and support the Authority’s effort to modernize transportation, and do so transparently and with continued public input.”

Jeff Morales, chief executive of the rail authority, said last week in a letter to Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson), chairman of the audit committee, that the project is already subject to strong oversight. The committee denied the audit request on a straight party line vote. Gipson declined a request to be interviewed.

Despite the rejection of an independent audit, lawmakers are taking steps to increase their own attention to the project.

In addition to Beall’s hearing, an Assembly budget subcommittee on transportation will hold a hearing next week, an apparent follow-up to a pledge by Speaker Toni Atkins to hold a hearing in response to an unpublished cost estimate that showed the cost of building an initial operating segment had jumped from $31 billion to $40 billion.

The Times disclosed the cost estimate in October, noting that it was the product of two years of study by a team of engineers from the state’s principal contractor, Parsons Brinckerhoff. The estimate was not adopted in the 2014 business plan, however. Instead, the state stuck with a lower cost estimate from 2012. California High Speed Rail Authority officials have dismissed the cost estimate as only a “draft.”

The Assembly hearing is scheduled to include testimony by Morales and rail authority Chairman Dan Richard.

Also testifying will be Louis Thompson, chairman of a peer review panel mandated under the 2008 bullet train bond act. Thompson has recommended that the Legislature “consider the creation of a special unit in the Legislative Analysts Office or elsewhere with the resources and continuity to keep an eye on the project continuously.”

He said he would reiterate that recommendation next week.

Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno), a member of the transportation budget subcommittee, said he intends to question whether the entire project can be completed for the advertised $68 billion. So far, the Democratic leadership has blocked any serious examination of the project’s challenges, he said.

“It has been a white wash and a rubber-stamp look,” Patterson said. “I want to drill down on the limits of the state’s authority. It needs to be put through a significant wringer.”

In Washington, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), chairman of the House rail subcommittee, said he plans to convene hearings this year, though a date has not been set. After The Times disclosed the Parsons Brinckerhoff cost estimate, a dozen members of Congress wrote a letter to the company demanding that it release the document.

“We have long warned that the authority is not being honest with the public about the true costs of constructing high speed rail in California,” Denham and the other Republicans said. “It is alarming that the authority’s lead consultant would raise warnings with the authority that would subsequently be hidden from the public.”

California voters in 2008 approved initial bond funding for the high speed system. At the time, the costs were estimated at $33 billion, less than half the current estimate. Since then, as costs rose the project was scaled back at both ends, with planners sharply reducing train speeds from Anaheim to Los Angeles in the south and San Jose to San Francisco in the north.

Public opinion polls over the last three years have found that support has flagged as costs have risen.

A new poll by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, released last week, found that 53% of voters want the opportunity to stop the bullet train and redirect funds to water projects.

Despite the public concern, Brown has held his ranks together to support the biggest program of his administration. But some divisions have appeared among Democrats in recent months.

Sen. Richard Roth (D-Riverside) is now opposed to the project, said Charles Dalldorf, Roth’s chief of staff.

“There is no direct benefit to his district,” Dalldorf said. “He hears about it almost every time he makes an appearance in the district.”

Assemblywoman Patty Lopez, responding to an outpouring of anger over the train’s possible route through her low-income minority community in the San Fernando Valley, said last month that she was no longer supporting the project.

Patterson said he suspects that Democratic members have lost faith in the project and are just biding time until Brown leaves office in 2018, a view that some legislative staffers say may accurately represent the views of some members.

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

 

 

Klamath Falls Herald and News

Ranchers, hunters support predator control district

By Stephen Floyd

Supporters of a predatory animal control district stressed the value of the county trapper program when speaking during a hearing before Klamath County commissioners Tuesday.

The hearing was one of two required for commissioners to consider placing the district on the ballot, with the second hearing scheduled for Feb. 9 at 9:15 a.m. If approved, voters would be asked to consider creating the district during the May 17 election.

The majority of residents who spoke during Tuesday’s hearing were from a committee of citizens formed three years ago to seek funding for the trapper program. At the time, commissioners were struggling to fund various services from their general budget and asked program heads to seek out alternative revenue where available.

Since the committee was formed, they have raised roughly half the funding needed each year to support the trapper, formally known was the county wildlife specialist, while the county provides the other half with support from state and federal programs.

Livestock losses

“We want to avoid here in Klamath County what Lake County ranchers have had over the past few years with coyotes causing major losses,” said rancher and committee member David Hill. “Lake County does not have a wildlife agent which we are fortunate enough to have.”

Hill spoke on behalf of local livestock producers, which he said bring in as much as $186 million in revenue to the county each year and provide around 2,200 jobs. Hill said livestock numbers are being threatened by local increases in predator populations, such as cougars which have grown statewide from around 3,000 to 6,000 in the last decade.

“These lions, some of them are being relocated from southern and central California to the Devil’s Garden area, and it’s a pretty short hike from there to Klamath County,” he said.

Also concerned for local wild game numbers was Ken Hand of the Mule Deer Foundation. He said sharp increases in predators have brought mule deer populations to 60 percent below where they should be, while the bighorn sheep on Hart Mountain have declined from 600 to 150 in the last 10 years.

“That is a tribute to the cougar population,” said Hand, who also mentioned hunting and wildlife viewing bring an estimated $18 million in revenue to Klamath County each year.

Managing coyotes

Other supporters shared experiences of how the trapper program has personally helped them, including Paul Lewis, who raises sheep in Langell Valley. Lewis said he called on Wildlife Specialist Chuck Cleland to help manage some coyotes attacking his herds and, in one morning, Cleland found 10 coyotes near Lewis’ property and was able to thin their numbers.

“It took enough pressure off that the (sheep) dogs finally got things under control and the killing stopped,” said Lewis.

Cleland himself spoke in favor of district formation, and said his position responds to much more than predators attacking livestock.

“Basically I protect agriculture, livestock, property and human health and safety from wildlife-related damage,” said Cleland.

Cleland said, last year, he responded to more than 50 private properties for direct wildlife control as well as 36 public properties. He also takes calls from residents’ questions about local wildlife and can advise residents on how to handle predators and other problems.

“I think this service would be missed if it is lost,” said Cleland.

Taxing district

But not all residents favored a new taxing district, including Vince Belleci, who said he believes the state and federal government ought to be responsible for predator control.

“It shouldn’t have to be a tax on the property forever because, once the tax goes on there, that tax is going be on the property for year after year after year,” said Belleci.

Belleci said he was not against the trapper program, and said he is even in favor of bringing in a second trapper to support Cleland. But he said a predatory animal control district is not what residents need, especially when other groups need to contribute funding.

“I don’t think it’s fair, especially when the feds and everybody, the state is trying to, little by little, get away from their responsibility.”

Second hearing

Those who wish to contribute their own testimony can do so during the second hearing Feb. 9 at 9:15 a.m. in the commissioners’ meeting room. Written testimony may also be submitted for those unable to attend the hearing or who anticipate speaking longer than three minutes. Submissions are accepted at BOCC@KlamathCounty.org or 305 Main St. Klamath Falls, OR 97601.

The proposed predatory animal control district would cover the majority of Klamath County, including areas south of the northern foothills of Crater Lake, but excluding areas north of that limit and urban areas including Klamath Falls and its urban growth boundary, Keno and suburbs near Running Y Ranch.

Organizers said this was to prevent residents unlikely to benefit from the services of a trapper from paying into the district, though the trapper would still be expected to respond to human health and safety threats in those areas.

If You Go

What: Second public hearing to discuss formation of a special taxing district to fund predatory animal control

When: 9:15 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 9

Where: Commissioners’ meeting room in the Klamath County Government Center, 305 Main St.

Can’t attend? Written testimony is accepted by email at BOCC@KlamathCounty.org or by post at 305 Main St. Klamath Falls, OR 97601.

 

 

Redding Record Searchlight

Meeting set on wolf conservation plan

By Damon Arthur

California wildlife officials are holding a workshop in Yreka on Thursday to take comment on a draft gray wolf conservation plan.

In December, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife released a Draft Gray Wolf Conservation Plan that attempts to manage where the wolves live, wolf-livestock conflicts and how wolves affect other wildlife in the state.

The state began working on the plan after it became clear that wolves would eventually be re-established in the state. Wolves were exterminated in California in the 1920s but OR-7 became the first gray wolf to return to the state when he migrated from Oregon in 2011.

OR-7 has gone back to Oregon, but other wolves have moved into the state, and a pack has taken up residence in Siskiyou County.

Karen Kovacs, a Department of Fish and Wildlife program manager who worked on the conservation plan, said wolves have been highly controversial since OR-7 wandered into the state.

Ranchers and farmers have been concerned about wolves preying on their livestock, while hunting groups are worried wolves will decimate elk and deer herds.

Kovacs said she hopes the department receives comments focused on changes needed in the conservation plan rather than issues such as the wolves’ endangered species status. Wolves are considered endangered in California under federal and state law.

“Tell us what in the plan we need or what we missed,” Kovacs said.

The California Cattlemen’s Association says the plan does not give livestock owners the opportunity to, as a last resort, kill wolves that chronically feed on livestock. A Center for Biological Diversity representative said in December that the plan does not go far enough in protecting wolves and limits their number to too few.

Mike Ford, regional director for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, said Tuesday the plan would allow up to 125 wolves in the state. He said about 80 percent of a wolf’s diet consists of elk. Allowing 125 wolves would wipe out the estimated 7,000 elk living in Northern California, he said.

“We’re not going to jump up and down and say there shouldn’t be any wolves. The department has got to do what the department has got to do,” Ford said. However, the department should plan to allow fewer wolves in the state so both wolves and elk can flourish, he said.

“I think there has got to be a balance,” Ford said.

The meeting is from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Miner’s Inn Convention Center, 122 E. Miner St. in Yreka.

In addition to taking comment at the Yreka workshop, the state is also holding workshops in other parts of the state.

There is another workshop from 5 to 8 p.m. Feb. 1 at the Double Tree Hotel, 2001 Point West Way, Sacramento. Another workshop is planned Tuesday in Long Beach.

The state is also taking written comments on the plan until Feb. 15. Comments can be sent by email to wolfplan@wildlife.ca.gov or by U.S. mail to Wolf Plan Comments, P.O. Box 26750, San Francisco, CA 94126.

@damonarthur_RS damon.arthur@redding.com 530-225-8226