Wednesday, May 11, 2016
Los Angeles Times
Farmworkers win court battle over access to California labor board’s proceedings
By Geoffrey Mohan
A District Court of Appeal panel has revived a constitutional case involving public access to contract mediation proceedings held by the state’s farm labor watchdog.
A farmworker and business owner now can air their case against the Agricultural Labor Relations Board in a Fresno County Superior Court, which had refused to hear it because a state law limited its jurisdiction, the Fresno-based panel ruled Monday.
That limit, part of a 2002 law governing mandatory mediation of collective bargaining agreements, is unconstitutional, the panel held. The larger issue of public access to ALRB proceedings should be considered by the Fresno Superior Court, the panel ruled.
The dispute arose from a prolonged struggle between workers at Gerawan Farming, in the eastern San Joaquin Valley, and the United Farm Workers union, which had been seeking a collective bargaining agreement covering about 3,000 fruit pickers — even as those workers had begun a campaign to oust the union.
Dan Gerawan, president of the company, and one of his workers, Lupe Garcia, sued in Fresno County Superior court over the labor board’s decision to bar them from proceedings on the contract, which had been placed before a mediator in 2013.
Gerawan and Garcia never got to make their case for open access because the Fresno court held that their appeal could only be heard in higher state courts. It cited a 2002 mandatory mediation and conciliation law that had limited where those cases could be heard.
The plaintiffs took their case to the 5th District Court of Appeal, where they argued that the mediation law amounted to an unconstitutional limit on the jurisdiction of the lower court. They also pressed their original argument that barring them from the ALRB’s contract activities violated their right of access to government proceedings.
Several 1st Amendment groups and a state newspaper association filed briefs on behalf of the plaintiffs.
The three-judge 5th District Court of Appeal panel ruled that the limits set by the mediation law were unconstitutional, but deferred to the lower court to consider the broader public-access argument.
“The secret hearing policy is obviously unconstitutional and the ALRB should stop wasting taxpayer dollars defending it,” Gerawan said of the decision.
California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, whose office defended the ALRB, referred questions about the case to the board, which said it does not comment on pending cases.
UFW attorney Mario Martinez said the decision was a minor development that would not affect the union’s bargaining agreement, approved by the ALRB in 2013.
“Neither issue will have on impact on whether the collective bargaining agreement ordered by the ALRB is valid,” Martinez said.
The state Supreme Court is reviewing a decision last year by the 5th District Court of Appeal that declared the entire mandatory mediation law unconstitutional.
Monterey County Herald
Monterey ag leaders announce pilot program to notify schools of pesticide application
By Claudia Meléndez Salinas
SALINAS >> Leaders in the agricultural and farmworking communities announced Tuesday a pilot program to notify schools near agricultural fields when pesticides are about to be applied.
Described as a model that could then be expanded to areas of Monterey County and even the state, the program would notify three Pajaro Valley schools five days before pesticides are scheduled to be sprayed.
Using a $75,000 grant from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, the Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner will develop a website and other mechanisms to notify the schools — Ohlone Elementary, Hall and Pajaro Middle — that pesticides will be applied.
The program “will demonstrate that we can promote children’s health and sustain a healthy agricultural industry, and show that these goals are complementary and not in conflict with one another,” Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner Eric Lauritzen said at a news conference. “This will create an efficient and transparent approach about pesticide use. It’s an important step forward for our community.”
The new notification requirements will be added to other safeguards already in place for pesticide use around the schools. Currently, it’s a voluntary practice of avoiding the use of pesticides within 500 feet around schools when children are present, Lauritzen said.
The deal “is a compromise,” said Cesar Lara, executive director of the Monterey Bay Labor Council, which has been working with a group that wants more stringent requirements about pesticide use in California.
“Our coalition was asking for a one-mile buffer and one-week notification,” Lara said. “We compromised on this and it does not mean the door is closed. There’s a lot of misinformation in the community and this will move us a step forward.”
A report published in 2014 found that Monterey County has the highest percentage of schools in California near the highest concentration of pesticide use. Since then, community advocates have asked the ag commissioner to restrict pesticide application to safeguard children’s health. Activists have repeatedly asked for a mile buffer zone and a ban on certain chemicals considered highly toxic.
In the wake of that report, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation announced it would revise rules for pesticide application. Department representatives held a workshop last month in Spreckels on buffer zones. Some regulations are expected this year.
Lauritzen has been working with community leaders to hammer out the agreement announced Tuesday.
“It was a difficult accord to reach,” said Juan Uranga, executive director of the Center for Community Advocacy, which trains farmworkers to advocate on housing and other issues. “There was a lot of shouting going on and we at CCA were not seeing any movement, any progress.”
Outside of the ag commissioner’s office, where the agreement was announced, members of the Safe Ag Safe Schools coalition held a news conference to publicize a recent study on the dangers of agricultural chemicals in school-age children.
The study, “Kids on the Frontline: How pesticides are undermining the health of rural children,” points to the rise of health hazards for children linked to the use of chemicals in the fields. The study says there are strong links between pesticide exposure and harm to the neurological system and the brain. The study says children living in rural areas, many of whom are Latino, are at greater risk.
“There’s a conclusive link between pesticide exposure with these children’s health issues,” said Ann Lopez, executive director of the Center for Farmworker Families. “Leukemia and brain tumors are the most common and fastest rising type of cancer among children.”
Lara said the pilot program announced by the ag commissioner was a step in the right direction but that more needed to be done.
“Pesticides are a danger and we have to work better and put safeguards in for not just the students but the community at large,” he said. “This community put the first foot forward but it’s a bigger question that needs to be answered at the state level and also at the national level. … We need to make sure we continue pushing on the state to do the right thing.”
Claudia Meléndez Salinas can be reached at 831-726-4370.
Palm Springs Desert Sun
Salton Sea a concern for IID in Colorado River talks
By Ian James
Much of the water that California receives from the Colorado River flows to the Imperial Valley, where canals spread out across fields of hay, wheat and vegetables of all sorts, from carrots to broccoli.
Because the Imperial Irrigation District holds the single largest entitlement to water from the river, its participation would be vital in any agreement for California to share in water cutbacks to avert a looming shortage in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir. But major hurdles remain for the district to support a potential deal, and the reasons begin with the shrinking Salton Sea.
The Salton Sea has been receding as runoff from farms decreases, and its decline is set to accelerate in the next two years as more water is transferred to cities in San Diego County and the Coachella Valley. That will leave growing areas of dry lakebed exposed to the winds, releasing hazardous dust and threatening public health in an area that already has high rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases.
The IID has been pressing for the state to pay for remedies to address the Salton Sea’s complex environmental problems. Without an overarching plan and firm commitments by the state and federal governments, IID General Manager Kevin Kelley said it would be very difficult for the district to support a deal that would temporarily leave more water in Lake Mead at the expense of the levels of the Salton Sea.
“I think that the Salton Sea has always been the elephant in the room in these talks, and I think the other parties recognize it,” Kelley said in an interview.
IID and other water districts in California have been in talks about proposals to share in reductions in the amounts of water they receive from the Colorado River. Those negotiations among the state’s districts are taking place parallel to talks between representatives of Arizona, Nevada, California and the federal government.
“There is no single agency with a greater stake in the river or one that could make a greater impact in propping up that plunging elevation (of Lake Mead) than IID,” Kelley said. “But IID’s participation can only come about if there is a going-forward road map at the Salton Sea.”
The IID submitted a petition in 2014 demanding the state uphold a commitment to pay for Salton Sea projects. The district has also warned that the lack of progress threatens the landmark 2003 water transfer deal under which increasing amounts of water are transferred from Imperial Valley farms to growing cities.
“As much as IID and its water users want to be part of this solution because of the obvious stake it has in the future of the river, we can’t even take a proposal to our board without knowing” that plans are in place to deal with a smaller Salton Sea, Kelley said. It’s not clear whether that will happen soon enough, he said, to allow for IID’s involvement in a Colorado River agreement this year.
Representatives of California, Arizona and Nevada said last month that they hope to have a deal finalized by the end of the year for all three states to accept cutbacks in order to keep more water in Lake Mead, which is nearing critical shortage levels. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said last week that she is optimistic about the talks and there has been “extraordinary collaboration” between the states in working toward an agreement.
The Colorado River is severely overallocated, and climate change is projected to add to the strains.
The levels of Lake Mead have declined during 16 years of drought across the Colorado River Basin. Water managers predict it’s increasingly likely that a shortage will be declared in the coming years.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation could declare a shortage at the reservoir near Las Vegas if it projects the level would sink to an elevation of 1,075 feet or lower at the beginning of next year. The Department of the Interior would take charge of water allocation if the reservoir’s level were to sink to an elevation of 1,025 feet.
Under the proposals being considered, each of the states would accept cuts in water deliveries at different threshold levels as Lake Mead continues to decline. California, which holds the most privileged rights to water from the Colorado River, would accept reductions before it would otherwise be legally required to.
The Arizona Department of Water Resources recently released a presentation describing some of the proposals, including potential cutbacks for each of the states – in California’s case, up to 8 percent of total water deliveries in one hypothetical scenario.
“These recent news reports out of Arizona have not been helpful to the process within California,” Kelley said. “They suggest that there’s a California commitment to specific volumes, and that is not the case.”
Officials in California, Arizona and Nevada say that while they’ve discussed the outlines of proposals, difficult negotiations remain between water districts in each state and between the states.
“Our agreements just are very preliminary at this point, so we’re trying to figure out how to put the pieces together,” said Tanya Trujillo, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California. “We are working on agreements that would be mutually beneficial to all of the parties.”
Kelley said his agency could have a big impact in helping to boost the levels of Lake Mead, and recognizes that the reservoir’s decline poses a threat to all of the districts that depend on the river. He said the district “stands ready to help,” but that the terms of any deal will be key.
For instance, previous agreements limit the amount of water that IID would be able to leave temporarily in Lake Mead. He said those rules would need to be relaxed in order to “unlock Lake Mead.”
The federal government and other parties, he said, would need to remove any uncertainty and guarantee that his district – if it temporarily left water in the reservoir to prop up its level – would be able to get that water back in the future.
“Neither IID nor its water users have any interest in simply taking a haircut,” Kelley said. “IID would have serious concerns about a program that called for California agencies to make voluntary cuts with no assurance that that water would count as durable storage that we could bank on in the future.”
The Upper Colorado River Basin states – which include Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico and Arizona – also have been considering measures aimed at ensuring that the levels of Lake Powell, on the border between Utah and Arizona, don’t reach critical lows.
While discussions about the Colorado River have often focused on divvying up surface water, the pumping of groundwater is also an issue. Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey found in a new study that more than half of the streamflow in the Upper Colorado River Basin – 56 percent on average – originates as groundwater.
The researchers said their findings show how much the river and its tributaries depend on groundwater, and could help in decisions about managing water supplies.
USGS scientist Matthew Miller, the study’s lead author, said in a statement that “there is an urgent need for us all to continue to think of groundwater and surface water as a single resource.”
Ian James writes about water and the environment for The Desert Sun. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @TDSIanJames
Courthouse News Service
Friendly Meeting on Calif. High-Speed Rail
By Rebekah Kearn
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) — After settling an environmental lawsuit challenging the Fresno-Bakersfield segment of California’s bullet train, the High-Speed Rail Authority on Tuesday discussed an alternative route that will have fewer impacts on farmland, environmental resources and Kern County residents.
Diana Gomez, the authority’s regional leader for the Central Valley, gave a PowerPoint presentation detailing the new route, called the locally generated alternative, or LGA. Developed in partnership with Bakersfield and other stakeholders, including resource agencies, landowners and community leaders, the alternative would cross the approved alignment near Shafter, about 20 miles north of Bakersfield, and parallel the Union Pacific rail line east to a terminus at F Street and Golden State Avenue in downtown Bakersfield.
After the authority in May 2014 identified an alternative that extended the route from Poplar Avenue in Shafter to seventh Standard Road, with a station at Truxtun Avenue, a busy Bakersfield thoroughfare, Bakersfield and developer Coffee-Brimhall LLC sued the authority on environmental grounds.
They claimed the 114-mile corridor of tracks, tunnels, and bridges would destroy prime farmland, water resources and hundreds of homes, would congest traffic, pollute the air, annoy residents with noise, and demolish the developer’s business properties.
In a February 2015 settlement, the authority agreed to seek a more environmentally and development-friendly alternative in exchange for a hold on litigation until a final alignment is chosen.
Engineering and maintenance in the new alternative are similar to the 2014 project, but the new one has several advantages, according to the Tuesday presentation. Among other things, the 23-mile-long LGA is 1 mile shorter than the 2014 project, will cost less to operate, and will enable trains to go 220 mph, making it more efficient.
Since it was generated through discussions with city officials, public workshops and technical working groups, there is more local support for the LGA than for the 2014 alignment, Gomez said.
Mark McLoughlin, the authority’s director of environmental services, told the board the LGA will have fewer impacts on water resources and agricultural land. It will destroy 655 acres of important farmland compared to 906 acres in the 2014 plan, causing $1.35 million less in loss. It will affect roughly 16 acres of federal waters versus 17 acres.
Though it will affect 17 more businesses than the 2014 project, the LGA will take out only 94 residential units compared to 258, and no medical facilities compared to two.
Both alignments were found to have disproportionately high impacts to minority and low-income communities, but the LGA has less of an impact than the 2014 project, especially in regard to noise, according to the Gomez’s presentation.
Environmental review will be performed by the authority and the Federal Railroad Administration and be released in a draft environmental impact report this summer, then circulated for a 45-day public comment period.
Though the staff has adopted the LGA as the preliminarily preferred alternative, this does not indicate approval or even tentative approval; it is simply a designation that will help the board commit to public transparency during environmental review in accordance with the 2012 federal Map-21 law, Chairman Dan Richard said.
The Tuesday meeting was the first time the authority has met in Bakersfield. Every board member except Michael Rossi attended.
Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall addressed the board before the meeting, praising the agency for working with the city despite previous adversarial stances, and collaborating to forge a “mutually agreeable path forward.”
“Working together is the preferred path, and I’m happy to see the results,” Hall said. “We must make sure that the high-speed rail puts Bakersfield in a position of advantage.”
City Manager Alan Tandy also thanked the board, noting wryly that meeting at City Hall was “much nicer” than meeting in court. He too urged the board to adopt the LGA as the preferred alternative and hoped that the authority will bring the rail to the ninth-largest city in the state.
He and Mayor Hall left shortly after the meeting got under way.
Before opening public comment, Chairman Richard allowed community leaders to address the board. Fresno Mayor Ashley Searengin went first.
Asking the board to install the heavy maintenance facility in Fresno, she noted the city’s long history of support for the bullet train and its efforts to anticipate the rail line’s needs, such as centering land use around the high-speed rail and rezoning the entire city for mixed-use and transportation.
Rob Terry with the Fresno Council of Governments echoed Searengin’s sentiments.
Scott Broker of Shafter said it was clear the LGA was better for Bakersfield, but that it is still unclear whether the LGA is better for Shafter. He urged the board to analyze environmental impacts to Shafter as thoroughly as it analyzed impacts to Bakersfield.
Pitching Bakersfield as the best site for the heavy maintenance facility, Richard Chapman with the Kern Economic Development Corporation said Bakersfield has a talented workforce due to a downturn in the oil industry, and is ranked number four by Brookings for jobs related to math, science, and engineering and number nine by Forbes for engineering industries.
John Spalding, executive officer of the Building Trades Council, agreed, saying that “stopping in Poplar is not popular.” Poplar is a small town north of Bakersfield and south of Visalia.
Though most commenters supported the LGA and the bullet train, some were hesitant.
Adam Cohen said he’s collected 80 signatures opposing the F Street station because it will affect low-income communities and that it was “unfair, arbitrary, and capricious” to expedite Map-21 proceedings to choose a preferred alignment without properly analyzing emissions impacts and environmental justice concerns.
Holly King, a member of a local farming operation, said she does not oppose the bullet train but took issue with the authority’s failure to contact several farmers whose land would be affected by it. She told the board to do its environmental analysis on the ground rather than by flyover, noting that preliminary flyovers identified wetlands that were not actually there.
Beatrice Sanders with the Kern County Farm Bureau, which represents 1,400 growers, also the authority to study additional alternatives to reduce impacts to farmers.
Louis Gill, director of the Bakersfield Homeless Shelter, told the board to polite laughter that “you guys really know how to stir things up.” Regardless of which alternative is chosen, his 174-bed facility, which houses mostly women and children, will be demolished.
Finding a new site is easier said than done because few neighborhoods would welcome the shelter, he said. Unlike a parallel issue with Fresno’s homeless shelter, the Bakersfield shelter has no adjacent land to which to expand or move. He urged the board to choose an alternative quickly so the shelter could find a new campus and secure funding from donors, who he said are “sitting on the sidelines waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
Kevin Bush asked for work on the entire segment to be tabled until more analysis on community impacts is done.
Patrick Jackson, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said he supports the project in general, but more needs to be done to alleviate the burden on minority communities.
Fresno environmental activist Sheralyn Smith was the most impassioned speaker, criticizing the authority for seizing land through eminent domain for a project that was not even finalized and for not accounting for pollution impacts from construction. She called the relationship between the authority and the state’s cap-and-trade program “parasitic” and condemned the authority as the “spoiled children of [Gov.] Jerry Brown.”
Wasco Mayor Cherylee Wegman urged the board to adopt mitigation measures to protect farmworkers living in her small agriculture town from noise. Since the rail line will be built about 1000 feet from the workers’ community, which was built in the 1940s and was once used as an internment camp during World War II, Wegman asked the rail to consider moving the community, using mitigation money and funds from other programs and agencies.
Other speakers included representatives from Madera County, who thanked the board for including a stop there, and residents of Acton, who blasted the authority for choosing a route that will decimate the community though a below-ground route is feasible and more cost-effective.
Most people were dressed professionally in suits, and the atmosphere seemed relaxed. People talked and laughed before session began.
Kern County supervisors did not attend because as they were meeting elsewhere at the same time.
Argentina’s lemons scare the juice out of some California farmers
By Michael Doyle
WASHINGTON – American consumers will save and some California farmers suffer if lemons from Argentina resume entering the United States, Agriculture Department officials say.
In a crucial round of a long-running and surprisingly tart trade dispute, the Agriculture Department on Tuesday reported that lifting the approximately 15-year-old ban on Argentina’s lemons would slice U.S. consumer prices by about 2 percent.
Though lemon producers and related businesses in California and Arizona would lose an estimated $10.9 million annually because of enhanced competition, the Agriculture Department predicted additional imports would yield a “net welfare benefit” for the United States.
“The majority of businesses that may be affected by the proposed rule are small entities, including lemon producers, packers, wholesalers, and related establishments,” the Agriculture Department said.
Before the proposal goes into effect, however, those same small entities, as well as agricultural giants, lawmakers and consumer advocates, will get their own chance to weigh in, during what’s likely to be an acidic public comment period that runs through July 11.
“We’re disappointed to see it put forth,” said Richard Pidduck, a Sunkist-affiliated lemon grower from Santa Paula, California. “We’ve been fighting pest and disease from overseas for a long time.”
The Obama administration proposal, formally published Tuesday, would allow the importation of lemons from northwest Argentina so long as they are produced and handled in a designated manner. The proposal spells out registration, monitoring, pest control and harvesting requirements, among others, that are intended to prevent pests and disease from hitchhiking into the United States.
An average of 18,000 metric tons of lemons from Argentina would likely enter the United States annually, primarily from April through August, according to the Agriculture Department. Total U.S. lemon production averaged 497,350 metric tons annually from 2008 to 2013.
Argentina’s annual lemon production is far greater, exceeding 1.4 million metric tons.
This fight has deep roots, which run through courthouses and Capitol Hill, and the long history suggests it’s not over yet.
“We’ll be pushing every lever available to us,” Pidduck said.
In 2000, the Clinton administration angered California farmers, and incited resistance from the state’s congressional delegation, by lifting an earlier ban on Argentina’s citrus. Some growers sued, and in 2001 the ban was reimposed.
Frustrated by what they viewed as rank U.S. protectionism, Argentina officials in 2012 filed a dispute with the World Trade Organization.
“The maintenance of this ban . . . lacks scientific justification and constitutes an import prohibition inconsistent with (trade) rules,” Argentina stated at the time.
The World Trade Organization took no action, but negotiations ensued between the United States and Argentina, resulting in the Agriculture Department’s proposal now being served up to the public.
“It’s too bad the Obama administration and USDA acquiesced to a request without a logical foundation,” Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, an association of growers, declared in a statement. “We have no choice but to fight for our survival.”
Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10, email@example.com
Feds project 2 billion pounds of almonds
By John Holland
The state’s almond orchards will yield 2 billion pounds this year, the third most ever, a federal agency projected Tuesday.
Observers said the crop will help meet growing demand around the world while not putting downward pressure on grower prices, which have dropped sharply since last year.
“I think that right now it’s a pretty good number for the almond industry,” said Kevin Fondse, a grower in the Ripon area.
California provides about 80 percent of the world’s almonds, and about a third of the state’s volume is in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service based the estimate on a telephone survey of growers representing 27 percent of the acreage. A second and final projection, based on measurements in orchards, will be released July 6. The harvest will run from August to mid-fall.
The 2016 projection – exactly 2 billion pounds – is up 6 percent from the 1.89 billion pounds harvested in 2015. The highest on record is 2.03 billion pounds in 2011.
The agency reported about 900,000 bearing acres of almonds this year, up from 890,000 in 2015. The average acre is expected to yield 2,220 pounds, the fifth best on record.
The report said water supplies are less of a concern than last year, but California remains in a drought even with the storms of winter and spring.
Grower prices hover around $2 per pound, down from a peak of nearly $5 during part of 2015. Fondse said the prices got too high for some almond buyers, especially in China, a major market. The industry also is contending with the dollar’s strengthening against other currencies, which makes U.S. goods more expensive abroad.
Grower and processor Dave Long, president of Hilltop Ranch Inc. near Ballico, said the crop estimate will likely add 5 to 10 cents to the price.
“I think that these new prices are realistic and will increase demand for almonds,” Long said. He added that this is enough to cover the cost of farming, except for growers with high loan costs for land purchases.
Despite the recent price swings, almonds have a bright outlook over the long term. Consumers are eating them up thanks to publicity about how they can protect against cancer, obesity and other ills. The trees are harvested by machine, much cheaper than the hand labor needed for peaches and other fruit.
The industry has drawn fire over its use of water during the drought to grow a crop that is mostly exported. It has responded by pointing out that the water use is similar to many crops and that almonds generate about 97,000 jobs in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys.
Last week, the Almond Board of California held its annual tour that highlights water conservation, pest management and other practices for regulators and the media. It took place at Travaille and Phippen Inc., which grows and processes nuts near Ripon.
“We are getting a lot more questions about how our almonds are grown,” said tour guide Nick Gatzman, who helps manage the operation.
He displayed a soil moisture probe that assures that the trees get only the water they need. He told how nitrogen fertilizer is delivered through the drip irrigation lines and monitored so it does not taint drinking water underground.
Gatzman described how insect traps in the trees help determine when pesticide spraying is needed. And he told how an especially troublesome pest, the navel orangeworm, is denied places to lay eggs by removal of lingering nuts after harvest.
Travaille and Phippen produces about 30 million pounds of almonds per year from its own 1,500 acres and other California growers. The company employs about 50 people year-round and about 15 more at harvest.
CALIFORNIA ALMOND CROP (POUNDS)
2005: 915 million
2006: 1.12 billion
2007: 1.39 billion
2008: 1.63 billion
2009: 1.41 billion
2010: 1.64 billion
2011: 2.03 billion
2012: 1.89 billion
2013: 2.01 billion
2014: 1.87 billion
2015: 1.89 billion
2016: 2 billion*
AVERAGE PRICE (PER POUND TO GROWERS)
2015: not yet available
2016: not yet available
Source: National Agricultural Statistics Service
John Holland: 209-578-2385, firstname.lastname@example.org