Wednesday, January 27, 2016
Los Angeles Times
California’s snowpack is deepest in five years after recent storms
By Veronica Rocha
California’s current snowpack is the deepest it has been in five years — a modest, yet encouraging milestone in a period of prolonged drought.
Readings of the Sierra Nevada snowpack on Tuesday showed water content statewide was 18.7 inches, or 115% of the historical average for that date, according to the California Department of Water Resources.
Water officials say the good news is that California’s snowpack and reservoirs have benefited from El Niño rainstorms. But they warned that it was too soon to determine whether winter rains were enough to make any major dent on the California’s drought.
The snowpack’s water content must be significantly greater than the April 1 average of 28 inches to have any considerable effect on the drought, according to the department.
Water levels in the state’s reservoirs have increased since Dec. 1, but storage is still far below historical averages.
Water officials will take manual measurements at dozens of snow courses in a 10-day period next month to determine just how much water is in the state’s snowpack.
In an average year, melting snowpack provides roughly one third of the water used by California cities and farms.
2015 was a brutal snowpack year, officials said.
Above-average temperatures and below-normal precipitation resulted in a historically meager snowpack, according to the department. The snowpack measured at only 23% of average last February. Snow water content levels dipped further in March 2015, measuring at only 19% of average.
The snowpack reached an all-time low on April 1, when water content readings came in at 5% of average. That milestone prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to order mandatory reductions in urban water use.
“The scant snowpack and subsequent drop in snowmelt runoff were large contributors to confirming California’s fourth consecutive year of drought,” the department said in a statement.
The last time the snowpack was higher was in 2011 when it reached 129% of average.
For breaking news in California, follow @VeronicaRochaLA
California raises 2016 water allocation to 15 percent
By Dale Kasler
The farmers and cities that rely on the California State Water Project got some slightly encouraging news Tuesday – the state is raising their water allocation to 15 percent of what they requested.
Reflecting the stormy weather California has seen so far this winter, the Department of Water Resources said it was increasing the allocation to 15 percent, up from the previously announced 10 percent. That’s still lower than the 20 percent the State Water Project delivered last year.
Deliveries could further increase if El Niño continues to deliver rain and snow, the state said. The National Weather Service said wet weather is expected to hit the Sacramento area late Thursday and continue through the weekend.
“Our modest increase underscores the fact that we still have a critical water shortage after four-plus years of drought that we don’t know when will end,” said Mark Cowin, director of the Department of Water Resources, in a prepared statement. “One look at our low reservoirs tells us that we need a lot more wet weather before summer.”
Lake Oroville, the principal State Water Project reservoir, is just 39 percent full. That’s 60 percent of average for this time of year. Lake Shasta, the main reservoir for the federal government’s Central Valley Project, is 47 percent full, or 71 percent of its historical average.
The State Water Project delivers water to 1 million acres of farmland and 25 million urban Californians. Its largest customer is the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler, email@example.com
Redding Record Searchlight
Siskiyou residents debate Klamath River dams
By Damon Arthur
YREKA — The debate about whether four Klamath River dams should be removed raged on Tuesday evening.
State Water Resources Control Board officials came to Yreka on Tuesday to hear comments about what they need to include in an environmental impact report for issuing water quality permits for the dams.
Instead, they mostly heard arguments from the public about whether four dams on the river should stay or be removed.
Erin Ragazzi, an environmental program manager with the water board, said she and other officials are not for or against removing dams.
“We are not advocating any position at this point in time,” Ragazzi said.
However, the state believes the dams contribute to poor water quality in the river, harming fish and limiting the stream’s use for recreation.
While removing dams on the Klamath River has been a divisive issue, PacifiCorp, which owns the dams, supports taking them out.
A Klamath Hyrdroelectric Settlement Agreement signed by PacifiCorp, the U.S. Department of the Interior, as well as state agencies and Indian tribes, expired at the end of 2015 when Congress failed to pass a law approving the agreement.
But Bob Gravely, a spokesman for PacifiCorp, said his company is working to implement key portions of the agreement without congressional approval.
The most controversial portions of the agreement propose removing the J.C. Boyle, Copco No. 1 and No. 2, and Iron Gate dams.
“The settlement parties, including the company, have not completely given up on getting the settlement enacted,” Gravely said.
Whether or not the agreements are implemented, PacifiCorp has to get permits from the state giving it approval to continue to operate the dams. The state’s permit is part of their relicensing process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The state’s approval hinges on whether PacifiCorp can ensure the water in the river will meet water quality standards while the dams continue to operate, Ragazzi said.
The river is on the state’s list of impaired water bodies due to low levels of oxygen, high water temperature in the summer and fall, and high levels of mercury and microcystin, a liver toxin produced by blue-green algae.
The high water temperatures and other problems were blamed for the deaths of some 35,000 fish in 2002.
However, many at Tuesday’s meeting contended the dams do not contribute to water pollution.
Rick Costales, a retired natural resources adviser to Siskiyou County, said removing the dams would hurt the county’s economy by eliminating jobs associated with the facilities.
“I think short shrift has been given to the socioeconomic impacts of taking the dams out,” Costales said.
But others who argued for the dams’ removal, noted the economic benefits of taking them out.
Regina Chichizola of the Hoopa Valley Tribe said the dams have hurt the commercial salmon fisheries by lowering the number of fish in the river.
Removing the dams would help the industry, she said.
“These dams are causing a giant impact,” Chichizola said. “Commercial salmon fishermen want to see their way of life continue, just as the people in this room want to see their way of life continue.”
But Mark Baird, who lives in the Scott Valley and has been a leader in the State of Jefferson movement, said much of the claims by state officials are untrue. He said the relicensing process is also illegal and unconstitutional.
“This whole process has been filled with so many lies and cheating it’s hard to describe,” he told state water board officials during the public comment period.
Ragazzi said dam removal is one of several alternatives evaluated in the environmental report.
Some of the other options include improving fish ladders on the J.C. Boyle Dam and installing fish ladders on two other creeks.
Other proposals include adding oxygen to Iron Gate Reservoir, altering river flows, removing only two of the dams, increasing fish and disease research, and doing habitat restoration on the river.
Ragazzi said comments from the public Tuesday, as well as those from other public hearings on the issue, will be used to help guide what issues are considered when writing the environmental impact report.
On water, let’s stop pointing fingers and start solving problems
By Suzanne Redfern-West
I am responding to “California’s farmers try political force to open taps in drought,” a New York Times story that appeared in The Bee on Jan. 17.
A a farmer in the region spotlighted, I was disheartened to find another rehashing of old water grudges masquerading as news. My family has farmed in the area since 1927. We grow almonds, tomatoes, prunes and dairy-grade alfalfa hay in five different water districts, one of which is Westlands, the focus of the article.
The Central Valley Project created grudges from the beginning. It was built by the federal government in the 1930s to bring our semi-arid region to life, but detractors who would have done something else with that water protested against both the project and its users. The language on both sides was fiery, accusations became personal and deep resentments were born.
Today California is in a water crisis. Seemingly insurmountable problems include an aging and overtaxed storage/delivery system, tangled layers of water law, overlapping jurisdictions of state and federal agencies, and a diverse constituency of stakeholders each vying for a share of the annual pot.
Drought exacerbates the stalemate, but does not create it. Any hopes for finding solutions to these challenges will rely on bringing the best creative minds together in a fact-based, realistic, problem-solving setting. Finger pointing and misrepresentations of fact have no place in the debate.
In making up their own minds on the issues, decision-makers and the reading public deserve accurate data. The reporters make several misleading claims:
▪ 1. California agriculture consumes about 80% of the state’s water. Fact: Farms use some 45%, environmental projects another 45%, and the urban sector 10% of the state’s developed water.
▪ 2. We are wasteful water users. Fact: 90% of Westlands’ crops are grown with drip or micro-sprinkler technology.
▪ 3. Our water is cheap and plentiful. Fact: In the last four years water, when we can find it, has risen from an average of $150 an acre-foot to $500 to $600 an acre-foot. A recent Westlands purchase cost $1,500 per acre-foot. As for plentiful, for the last two years our water allocation from the Central Valley Project was zero.
Such misinformation and the pettiness that underlies it are frustrating because they drag us all back into old ways of thinking that muddy the waters and delay forward movement.
Do people really care whether farmers in a California water district contribute to political campaigns like anyone else or hire lobbyists to represent them? I’d guess not.
They will, however, be interested in the fact that California grows one-third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts, much of it in the beautiful region I know firsthand.
And faced with living in a nation under threat, they will put near the top of any list of national security concerns the protection of a safe, dependable, and affordable food supply.
Suzanne Redfern-West of Redfern Ranches resides in Dos Palos.
Farmers push for flexibility on enforcement of diesel tank rules
By John Cox
Diesel fuel tanks have become a major source of headaches for local farmers.
Thousands of above-ground storage facilities used to supply tractors and other agriculture equipment with fuel are suddenly the focus of urgent talks between the Kern County Farm Bureau and local government agencies charged with carrying out California safety and environmental regulations.
At issue in discussions earlier this month, and on the agenda for a meeting next Wednesday, is what kind of tanks may be used in local farming operations — and perhaps more importantly, how much time growers will have to come into compliance if their facilities are deemed to be a problem.
The reason the talks have taken on such importance is that upgrading from one tank to another can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
With as many as 3,000 containers in danger of being declared unsafe countywide, there are industry estimates that the county’s ag community could face bills totaling up to $50 million, all at a time of drought and the financial uncertainty that comes with any water shortage.
From the perspective of regulators, fuel storage tanks can present several problems. Leaky containers can contaminate the land beneath them, and tanks with improperly wired pumps, or those without sufficient protection, may be prone to fire or explosion.
But while farmers and their safety consultants acknowledge some tanks are in need of replacement, they say the vast majority of tanks in the county work fine, and that the state’s safety standards are excessive and unworkable.
“My feeling is this is a demand for a 747 pilot license for someone flying a 152 Cessna. Way overboard,” said Ben Laverty II, a farm bureau member and president and founder of Bakersfield’s California Safety Training Corp.
One person representing the county in recent talks, Director of Environmental Health Donna Fenton, says the recent attention on diesel storage originated with a state decision in 2008 to give local authorities responsibility for enforcing tank standards.
Farmers say the switch has meant that only very recently has there been any vigorous effort to inspect tanks in ag fields. They have proposed what they consider a reasonable list of priorities for immediate enforcement, beginning, for example, with leaking tanks and those without secondary containment systems.
Local grower Steve Murray, a member of the county farm bureau’s executive board, said the group is pushing for a 10-year “grace period” to come into compliance with state rules many see as abrupt.
The reason for the request for extra time, he said: Any big surge in local demand for the double-walled, insulated tanks required by the state would surely drive up prices.
“First off, there’s not enough tanks out there to replace the tanks that are out there in the field,” he said.
People involved with the talks between the farm bureau and representatives of Kern’s environmental health services and the county fire department say there is some agreement to extend a grace period, but that this tentative accord would have to be approved by state officials.
The farm bureau’s executive director, Beatris Sanders, said the county has demonstrated a willingness to help growers transition to upgraded tanks.
“Both county departments have been understanding and flexible with us as we educate our growers on these regulations that we have to comply with,” she said in an email.
It’s back to the negotiating table for transportation funding, threat of cuts
By David Siders
When the California Transportation Commission said last week that it planned to sharply reduce funding for transportation projects due to declining gas tax revenue, the resulting publicity served to reinforce Gov. Jerry Brown’s appeal for new taxes and fees to pay for road and highway work.
The announcement, issued one day after Brown renewed his pitch in the State of the State speech, followed a year in which Brown and the Legislature failed to agree on a multibillion-dollar road funding package. The commission’s estimated spending reduction, $754 million over five years, cut deep.
By early this week, state officials were compiling lists of affected projects, and local project managers were sounding alarms. The commission’s executive director, Will Kempton, prepared to go on the road Tuesday to discuss the shortfall, among other issues, with business leaders in Silicon Valley.
“We have to call attention to this,” Kempton said. “This is very serious.”
Yet as Brown and lawmakers prepare to enter another spate of transportation funding talks – this time with the commission’s threatened cuts looming – there is little to suggest a change in air at the Capitol that would make this year more conducive to agreement.
In fact, the timing appears less favorable. Enacting a tax increase would require the support of at least some legislative Republicans, always difficult but likely more so amid the rancor of an election year. Nor is it clear that every Democrat in the Legislature will vote for a tax.
“The discouraging thing is the election year,” said Michael Penrose, director of the Sacramento County Department of Transportation. “I’m not a politician, but when you come into an election year, I’ve noticed more hesitancy in terms of dealing with taxes and dealing with things that may be a little bit more controversial – or significantly more controversial.”
He said, “It has us very concerned.”
Much of California’s highway system was built before the 1970s, and with more people traveling more miles on increasingly dilapidated roads, the transportation network has suffered. Motorists feel the effects. A majority of California voters want more money spent maintaining existing infrastructure, according to a Field Poll last year, and a plurality of voters favor spending on new construction. But there is no public consensus about how to pay for it.
The Brown administration estimates deferred maintenance in state infrastructure at $77 billion, most of which is for highways, bridges and roads.
“Ideology and politics stand in the way,” Brown said last week, “but one way or another the roads must be fixed.”
In the Sacramento region, the Transportation Commission said reduced funding estimates could affect plans to widen Hazel Avenue from Sunset Avenue north to Madison Avenue, as well as a track construction project to increase service on intercity rail between Sacramento and Roseville. Plans to widen or improve other roads, to install ramp meters along various roadways and to make streetscape improvements are also targeted.
The state’s gas tax last went up in 1994, and more recent efforts to increase transportation funding have faltered. In 2014, transportation advocates proposed – then abandoned – a ballot initiative to more than double the vehicle license fee for road improvements. The last statewide transportation bond was approved during Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration, in 2006.
Mike Genest, who was Schwarzenegger’s finance director, said the bond “had a lot of benefit” for California roads but was “absolutely terrible” for the state budget.
“Putting the general fund on the hook, no matter how important an issue, was insane,” he said. “Why did we do it? Because, quite frankly, politicians love free money. In other words, if you don’t have to raise a tax, if you don’t have to vote to cut social programs, you’re going to get a lot of people to vote ‘yes’ on that deal.”
With Brown suggesting last year that he is unwilling to entertain another bond measure, Genest said, “We have to actually solve the problem. It comes down to either you make things way more efficient by changing regulatory structure – and even that wouldn’t be enough, but it would help – or you take a bunch of money away from something else, or you increase the revenue stream from user fees.”
Brown has proposed a 10-year, $36 billion funding package that includes a mix of taxes, fees and other revenue sources, including a restructuring of the gasoline excise tax. A portion of that tax, based on the price of gas, has fallen in recent years, and the Transportation Commission’s reduced funding estimates are based on an expectation that revenue will continue to decline.
On Tuesday, Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, said he and Sen. Jim Beall, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, are meeting to negotiate a common road funding proposal to advance in the Legislature.
“Anytime you get close to an election, obviously there’s the anticipation that people will be a little bit squishy, right?” Frazier said. “But the longer we wait, the worse this situation gets … I think common sense will prevail. I really do.”
Funding for road projects has traditionally benefited from support not only from Democrats and their construction union allies, but also from Republicans sensitive to commercial interests in transportation.
Yet Republicans in the Legislature have objected to new taxes or fees for roads, arguing money is available elsewhere in a state budget currently running a surplus.
Following Brown’s State of the State address last week, Senate Republican leader Jean Fuller of Bakersfield said that with the amount of revenue the state government is collecting, “it seems a little premature to fix the newest problems with new taxes.”
Celia McAdam, executive director of the Placer County Transportation Planning Agency, which is working on the Capitol Corridor project, said the amount of attention transportation funding has gained at the Capitol in recent months leaves her hopeful that “stars might align and things might come together” on an agreement.
But McAdam said area officials are also conducting polling to determine the viability of passing a local transportation tax. Many agencies are hoping for funding from other, growing sources of state revenue, such as cap-and-trade, money polluters pay to offset carbon emissions.
Of the prospects of an agreement on the broader transportation package, McAdam said, “We’re not planning on it. I’ll put it that way.”
THREATENED ROAD FUNDING
Some of the projects in the six-county Sacramento region that could be delayed after the California Transportation Commission reduced state funding last week:
39 replacement compressed natural gas buses. $18.5 million
Add ramp meters on Capital City Freeway, Interstate 80, Highway 99. $11.5 million
Widening of Hazel Avenue between Sunset and Madison avenues. $7 million
14th Avenue extension to Florin Perkins Road. $4 million
Widening of Grant Line Road in Elk Grove. $3.8 million
Green Valley Road widening in Folsom. $3 million
El Dorado County
Eastbound Highway 50 offramp to Ray Lawyer Drive. $5.5 million
Replace Fifth Street bridge over Feather River between Marysville and Yuba City. $17.4 million
Track improvements to allow increased Capitol Corridor train service to Sacramento. $3 million
Improvements to Third Street in Davis. $3.3 million
Source: Sacramento Area Council of Governments
David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders, firstname.lastname@example.org