Wall Street Journal
EPA Water Rules Withstand Senate Repeal Effort
Critics say new regulations amount to government overreach; EPA says they clarify which waterways fall under Clean Water Act
By Amy Harder
WASHINGTON—The Senate on Tuesday fell short of advancing legislation to repeal environmental regulations that bring more waterways and wetlands under federal protection, a victory for the Obama administration on rules that have faced a series of legal and political setbacks over the past few months.
With 57 senators—all the Republicans and four Democrats—supporting the measure and 41 senators voting no, the measure failed to meet a 60-vote requirement to begin debate on the bill.
The regulations, written by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, were set to go into effect earlier this year, but a federal court blocked them temporarily in early October while a group of states mount legal challenges.
The Senate bill, which had 46 co-sponsors, including three Democrats, would have required the agencies to withdraw the current final rules and rewrite them. The House passed similar legislation in May, which prompted a veto threat from President Barack Obama. The White House on Tuesday again suggested Mr. Obama would veto the bill.
On the Senate floor, the bill’s supporters said the EPA regulations would greatly expand the government’s reach, impose difficulties on farmers and ranchers, and create uncertainty for all concerned.
Sen. John Barrasso (R., Wyo.), the bill’s lead sponsor, called the regulations “the poster child of EPA overreach.”
Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, dismissed the administration’s assurances that it took farmers’ concerns into account. “EPA not only stacked the deck against farmers and ranchers, it deliberately ignored them,” Mr. Roberts said.
But supporters of the regulations said they were needed to protect the drinking supply of 117 million Americans, and that farming activity would be exempt.
“You don’t want to be frightened when your child swims in a stream or drinks water that makes him or her sick,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.), who is a ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “What this [bill] would do today is takes us back…to the day when rivers caught on fire.”
The water rules, issued in May, would put about 3% more waterways under federal jurisdiction. That means a federal permit would be required to release pollutant substances into those waters, and access could be restricted altogether.
Major waterways, including most rivers and lakes, are already under the protection of the Clean Water Act and wouldn’t be affected.
The EPA says the rules are necessary to clarify which waters fall under the Clean Water Act after two Supreme Court rulings, in 2001 and 2006, called into question whether and to what extent 60% of U.S. waterways, especially smaller streams and wetlands, fall under federal jurisdiction.
Critics, including lawmakers and business and farming groups, say the new regulations amounts to federal intrusion on states’ rights.
A federal appeals court in early October temporarily blocked the rules, saying that the challengers—18 states—had demonstrated “a substantial possibility of success” in winning the case. The ruling didn’t evaluate the legal merits of the regulations, but it put the EPA’s plans on hold while the case continues.
Companies apply for permits under the Clean Water Act for a host of industrial activities, such as building roads and bridges and discharging waste material like sewage.
The Corps of Engineers, which issues Clean Water Act permits along with the EPA, says it approves tens of thousands of such permits a year. EPA officials say farming activity wouldn’t need a permit based on an existing exemption.
Write to Amy Harder at email@example.com
Corrections & Amplifications
Sen. Barbara Boxer is a ranking member of the Senate Environmental and Public Works committee. An earlier version of this article misstated her title.
A Few California Farmers Have Lots of Water. Can They Keep It?
Irrigation canals still flow full in the Imperial Valley, and the farmers know California’s thirsty cities will someday come to claim that treasure.
By John Lippert
“You’ve been to the Grand Canyon, right?” Craig Elmore asks as he pulls his Chevrolet Tahoe to the edge of a field plowed into tidy, straight-as-an-arrow furrows, a section of the 6,000 acres that he farms—land his father and grandfather farmed before him. “Basically, right now, you’re driving over the Grand Canyon.”
Elmore speaks of the Imperial Valley with obvious pride, right down to the origins of the dirt, carried here over millions of years by the Colorado River as it carved the Grand Canyon ever deeper. These fields turn lush green every fall with the lettuce, broccoli, carrots, melons, and other fruits and vegetables that fill U.S. supermarkets all winter. It’s a scorching 109 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius) outside his air-conditioned SUV on this August day, but from November through March, temperatures moderate, and this small section of the Sonoran Desert in California’s southeast corner becomes a perfect spot to grow food.
Perfect, if you have water. And the farmers of the Imperial Valley have a wealth of water. A handful of landowners—about 500 farms in all—control the rights to 3.1 million acre-feet a year from the Colorado River. That’s equal to about a third of the water used by California’s cities, with 37 million people, where a four-year drought means neighbors report you if your lawn is green. Or, to measure another way, it’s half again as much water as Governor Jerry Brown aims to save under his April executive order, which set a February 2016 deadline for a 25 percent reduction in urban use. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons (1.2 million liters) and can supply the household needs of about 10 people for a year, though actual water use rates vary widely.
Imperial Valley farmers know their water is precious and understand that to preserve a way of life that runs back a century they have to grapple with the needs of a drought-stricken state. Politicians, regulators, and lawyers have squeezed the valley before to get at its water. In 2003, the Imperial Irrigation District, under pressure from Senator Dianne Feinstein and other federal and state officials, controversially agreed to sell as much as 280,000 acre-feet a year to San Diego. Farmers here still discuss that episode at length, and emotions are still raw, because they believe similar water transfers are likely in the valley’s future.
With so much water controlled by so few people, the farmers are a target for criticism. “The Imperial Valley belongs to a plutocracy of corporate agricultural and real estate interests that hoard water,” says Carolee Krieger, president of the California Water Impact Network, a nonprofit group in Santa Barbara. “They’re fighting to control water that California needs to preserve its environment.”
Bennett Raley, who was the U.S. Department of the Interior’s top water official when the San Diego agreement was negotiated, bluntly warned the farmers not to fool themselves into thinking they could block such transfers. “The economic pressures associated with urban growth in the West are extremely strong,” he said at a community forum in the valley in 2002, according to press accounts. Since that time, the pressures have only ratcheted up, as severe drought has drained the state’s reservoirs. And the issues California faces are being seen worldwide as the climate warms and population rises. From São Paulo to Shanghai, politicians and citizens alike worry and fight over who will get limited water resources.
In the Imperial Valley, some farmers are getting used to the idea, central to the 2003 agreement, that they can sell water and use the proceeds to pay for conservation measures that free up more water to sell—potentially a virtuous cycle. Some remain defiant.
Elmore, whose grandfather John arrived in the valley from Missouri in 1908, says he spends about $600 an acre to level his fields and dig ditches for maximum irrigation efficiency. “People think transferring water out of the valley is a great sin,” he says. “Wasting water can be an even greater sin.” The neatly prepared field he’s inspecting is perfectly level—he uses lasers to make sure—and slightly lower than adjacent sections so water moves by gravity at an optimal speed. He uses electronic sensors that measure the flow of moisture in the soil and says he has cut his water use by at least 10 percent.
Another Imperial Valley farmer, Ronnie Leimgruber, whose grandfather immigrated here from Switzerland in 1918, is skeptical that anyone else deserves his water. “Do we really need 127 golf courses in Palm Springs for Obama and the Hollywood elite?” He raises alfalfa, the most water-intensive crop that’s grown in California, but has taken steps to cut his irrigation use.
Jack Vessey, whose ancestors arrived during the Depression, joined a lawsuit that tried to block the 2003 San Diego agreement and failed in the end. He touts the importance of the fresh winter produce the valley’s water makes possible. “We serve 1.2 billion salads a year from my farm,” he says. “What are we going to do, take this away and feed our kids candy bars?”
Mike Morgan, Craig Elmore’s cousin, who farms another section of the property their grandfather assembled decades ago, led the landowners’ court fight against the San Diego water sale. After his long, losing legal battle, he’s convinced that powerful forces are arrayed against the valley’s landowners and determined to take more water. “The only defense is to wake up every day recognizing that this threat exists and do everything you can to justify your use of water.”
These days, any water available at $624 an acre-foot would be snapped up fast.
The most basic principle governing water use in the western U.S. is this: first in time, first in right. That’s why Imperial Valley farmers have so much water. They arrived early, building the first canal to withdraw Colorado River water and ship it to the valley in 1901. When John Elmore came to the valley more than a century ago, he worked for a time digging canals with something called a Fresno Scraper, an innovative tool for its era, with a blade something like that of a modern bulldozer but pulled by mules. In the 1930s, the federal government built the All-American Canal, which flows along the Mexican border from the Colorado River about 80 miles (130 kilometers) to the Imperial Valley. It’s the highest-capacity irrigation canal in the world (and still full).
Elsewhere in California, many conflicting water rights have never been adjudicated, but the Imperial Valley’s allotment has been defined and affirmed in court. Krieger of the Water Impact Network says all the claims on Colorado River water actually exceed the entire flow and should be re-examined. She wants government regulators to audit these allotments. But for now the valley is in a privileged position. If the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation declares the first-ever shortage of Colorado River supplies in 2017, as agency officials say could happen, Arizona would take an 11 percent cut and the Imperial Valley wouldn’t lose a drop.
The federal government charges nothing for the water. The Imperial Irrigation District, a public agency, maintains the canals and other infrastructure and charges $20 an acre-foot to cover costs. San Diego, by contrast, pays $624 an acre-foot, according to a pricing formula in the 2003 agreement. These days, any water available at $624 an acre-foot would be snapped up fast.
State and federal agencies that oversee California rivers and reservoirs have reduced allocations to farms in the Central Valley, the much larger agricultural district in the middle of the state, in some cases to zero. Farmers desperate to replace lost supplies are drilling new wells and pumping so much groundwater that aquifers are being drained and the land is sinking. The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which feeds most existing reservoirs, is at a 500-year low and may never fully recover as the climate warms. Meteorologists caution that even the current El Niño weather pattern, characterized by warmer-than-normal sea-surface temperatures in a section of the Pacific Ocean, may do little to alleviate the drought, even as it pushes moisture-laden storms toward California. If precipitation comes as rain instead of snow, or all at once, the help to depleted reservoirs may be minimal.
In the Imperial Valley, there have been no supply cuts, and farmers’ concerns are longer term. The key threat to their allotment, the counterbalance to those first-in-time rights, is a requirement in a 1928 amendment to California’s constitution and in federal law that water be used reasonably and beneficially. That was the lever that opened the door to the San Diego water deal and another agreement, 14 years earlier, that sends a smaller amount of water to Los Angeles. It’s a doctrine officials can invoke to challenge wasteful practices, such as sprinklered lawns in cities or flood irrigation on desert farmland.
“Agriculture accounts for 2 percent of the state’s gross domestic product and 80 percent of the water consumed by humans,” says Stephen Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto. So there’s a tension between city dwellers and farmers, Levy says. “Who do you think’s going to win that fight?” His view is that urban areas should and will get the water they need if it’s being wasted on the farms—a stance many politicians and regulators echo.
Felicia Marcus, as head of the State Water Resources Control Board, has delivered a lot of bad news to California’s farmers in the past year, notifying holders of water rights more than a century old that they have to stop withdrawing supplies from low-running rivers. But she’s also pushing cities to conserve. “Agriculture is important,” she says, more important than the 2-percent-of-GDP figure might suggest. “It’s the lion’s share of the economy for a huge area of the state.” She’s wary of playing cities off against farm communities. “It’s not a competition. We need both. And both can be more efficient and resilient.”
The first real crack in the Imperial Valley’s water rights started, oddly enough, with one of the clans that has the deepest roots in the place—Craig Elmore’s family. In 1980, the Elmores filed a complaint accusing their neighbors of wasting water and, as a result, causing flooding on their land.
Some background is necessary to understand how this came to pass. The farms here stretch about 35 miles from east to west and the same distance from the Mexico border on the south to the Salton Sea, a salty inland lake with no outlet, to the north. John Elmore assembled his tract along the edge of the deep-blue Salton Sea.
Craig Elmore explains that his grandfather bought some of this land from the Southern Pacific railroad and other parcels from early homesteaders. Maps still mark a spot nearby as Elmore Desert Ranch. “A lot of people called this Elmore’s Folly,” he says, but it worked out fine. John Elmore ended up wealthy enough to retire to a beachfront estate in San Clemente on the Pacific Ocean, where he became one of the state’s biggest thoroughbred horse breeders. Richard Nixon was a neighbor.
Although the Imperial Valley looks pancake flat, it actually slopes down ever so gently to the north. Irrigation canals cut the landscape into neat squares and rectangles in quarter-mile increments, with water flowing by gravity from the All-American Canal in the south to every section. Water is such a part of the landscape that in decades past teenagers would sometimes water-ski on the canals, pulled by a pickup truck driving along the edge. There’s also an unusual drain network built beneath the fields because Colorado River water contains significant trace amounts of salt that must be flushed from the soil. The drainage pipes flow south to north as well, and the runoff ends up in the Salton Sea.
The Elmores started their case after tropical storms from the Pacific roared through in 1976 and 1977, dumping a deluge on the Imperial Valley each time. The Salton Sea rose and kept rising, threatening the dikes that protect their land, Elmore says. The complaint, before the state water board, blamed the sloppy irrigation habits of farmers in the valley.
“If you were done irrigating at night, you might send someone to turn it off the next day,” Elmore says, recalling how water was taken for granted in that era. “You didn’t have to be a good steward.”
The case wound on for years, and it grew to involve Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, an umbrella utility that represents municipalities in the southern part of the state and is constantly on the hunt for new supplies. The board eventually ruled that Imperial Valley farmers were wasting water—violating the reasonable and beneficial standard. The Imperial Irrigation District had failed to line enough of its canals with cement to prevent leaks. It hadn’t built enough reservoirs to capture storm surges. The end result was an agreement signed in 1989 that the irrigation agency, rather than forfeit water, would send 160,110 acre-feet a year to Los Angeles in return for payments that would fund irrigation improvements in the valley.
Elmore says he never doubted his family was right. He also says that, to this day, there are farmers who won’t speak to him if they see him on the street. Elmore lives in a brown, three-bedroom ranch house in Brawley, a town of 25,000 in the heart of the valley. His mother, sister, uncle, and two cousins live within a few blocks of his house. Brawley is where Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers union led a violence-scarred strike in 1979, seeking higher wages and benefits for fieldworkers. The population of Imperial County includes many farmworkers with strong ties to laborers who commute across the border every day from Mexico, and it’s poor. A third of the children live in poverty.
The valley’s farm owners, though, do well. Many have decamped to the coast, as John Elmore did in his day, and lease out their property. More than half the people who own land in the valley today live elsewhere. Craig Elmore is staying put. He’s 58 years old but looks 20 years older after a ruptured stomach ulcer five years ago landed him in intensive care for 102 days, and he farms full time. The San Clemente property was sold after his grandfather died in 1976. “Farming is almost like a disease,” Elmore says. “It’s in our blood.”
The events leading up to the San Diego water deal got rolling in 2000. Arizona, with fast urban growth boosting water needs, for the first time used its full Colorado River allotment under a multistate agreement. The Imperial Valley had routinely captured surplus water that Arizona water supply agencies had let flow by. Now, the Interior Department demanded the valley live within its allotment. As negotiations dragged on, the agency lost patience, made a unilateral finding that the irrigation district was wasting water, and threatened to withhold 200,000 acre-feet a year. Senator Feinstein, a Democrat, took the cities’ side and warned the Imperial Irrigation District in a 2002 letter that the Interior Department could take the water without any compensation. “Time is rapidly running out,” she wrote.
The agency’s directors capitulated. In 2003, by a 3-to-2 vote, they agreed to sell up to 280,000 acre-feet a year to San Diego. The district also agreed to pump an average 53,000 acre-feet annually for 15 years into the Salton Sea, which by this time was shrinking, not flooding, as changing practices reduced the farm runoff reaching the lake.
Once a destination for recreation, with resorts along its shores in the 1950s, the Salton Sea has become a thorny issue in any water discussion. Its gradual disappearance threatens wildlife—and people. The lake bed that’s exposed as the shoreline recedes is laced with pesticides and fertilizers. When it turns to dust and gets kicked up by the wind, it can be hazardous to breathe. In the valley, children’s emergency room visits for asthma occur at twice the rate for California as a whole.
Upon approval of the San Diego deal, bureaucratically known as the Quantification Settlement Agreement, the valley exploded with recriminations and litigation. Voters swept from office the directors who supported the deal. Imperial County sued the irrigation district for failing to do more to protect the Salton Sea. Morgan, Vessey, and other landowners started their suit to block the agreement in federal court. They argued, unsuccessfully, that the irrigation agency lacked authority to sell water without a vote by the farmers who own the land to which the water rights are attached.
Vessey is still unhappy about the outcome. He complains that the $624 an acre-foot that San Diego pays is half of the going rate in the Central Valley. He hates fallowing land, which is part of the plan to supply water for the Salton Sea. Like other valley farmers, though, he adopts conservation measures.
In mid-August, when it’s time to plant 10 acres in red cabbage, Vessey’s crew of 18 people moves through the field on a new mechanized planter. Workers riding on the back drop seedlings into chutes so robot arms, rattling and clacking, can thrust them one at a time into the dirt. The work is done at night to escape the daytime heat. One man runs behind the machine with a measuring rod to make sure the seedlings are exactly 15½ inches apart, which is ideal for efficient irrigation. Vessey is also squeezing the rows together and using sprinklers instead of flood irrigation. He’s getting 20 percent more produce with 25 percent less water.
The Quantification Settlement Agreement is succeeding with some of its goals. Jennifer Gimbel, the Interior Department’s chief water officer, says it has created a legal framework for farm-to-city transfers of water that could be used as a model elsewhere in the West.
Where it’s failing, so far, is the Salton Sea.
This unique body of water was created by accident in 1905, when the Colorado River overwhelmed the irrigation system then being built, allowing the entire flow of the river to rush down into the valley, flooding what had been a dry lake bed. But it has become an important wildlife habitat. The sea is stocked with saltwater fish and even has barnacles, which probably arrived from the ocean on floatplanes. It’s a haven for 430 species of migrating birds.
The 53,000 acre-feet a year that’s being pumped in to stabilize the Salton Sea is supposed to end in 2018. In 30 years, the surface could drop 25 feet, says Michael Cohen, a researcher at the Pacific Institute in Boulder, Colorado. That could result in an additional 100 tons of pesticide-laden dust going into the air each day unless work begins soon on mitigation measures such as creating shallow wetlands where the shoreline recedes.
Imperial Irrigation District general manager Kevin Kelley says the state has failed to live up to commitments it made to fix the Salton Sea. The agency’s directors have notified the state that they may sue, seeking court permission to cut off San Diego’s water. “We can’t keep transferring water if it means turning the Salton Sea into an environmental ghetto,” he says.
If the Salton Sea is addressed, even Kelley won’t rule out more water transfers in the years ahead. He says the valley is getting used to the new era of conservation. “It may be that, here, the heavy emotional lift is behind us.”
Craig Elmore says the basic idea of more conservation and more water sales to cities gets support from most of his neighbors these days—a complete change in attitude since the 1980s, when his family pursued its case. “I’d much rather come to an agreement that’s good for all parties than have the water just taken,” he says.
It’s not clear that any agency has the right to simply take water, but it’s also hard to predict what might happen if California’s drought persists.
Jeff Kightlinger is head of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He expects his backup reservoirs to have about 780,000 acre-feet of water at year’s end, down from 2.7 million acre-feet in 2012. With 10 years’ time, it might be possible to resolve a lot of protests and prepare for another water deal, he says. But California may not have that much time. “If we have four more years of drought, all kinds of things will be on the table that are not on the table yet.”
Los Angeles Times
At lawmakers’ urging, agency reveals report on growing bullet train costs
By Ralph Vartabedian
The California high-speed rail authority bowed to pressure from California legislators and members of Congress late Tuesday and released a copy of a 2013 report showing a large estimated increase in the cost of building the initial segment of the bullet train project.
The report, disclosed by the Times in a story Oct. 25, said Parsons Brinckerhoff had briefed state officials in October 2013 that the projected cost of the first phase of the bullet train system had risen 31%. The state did not use the increase, however, in its 2014 business plan four months later.
A dozen members of Congress and four members of the California assembly had written to the state and to Parsons Brinckerhoff asking for disclosure of the report.
Rail authority chairman Dan Richard and CEO Jeff Morales released the document and said the cost estimates it contained are part of an iterative process and that the numbers were “preliminary, still in development and subject to review clarification and refinement.” They say initial contracts have come in below budget.
“The authority under the present leadership has always been forthcoming about the costs and risks of the program,” Richard said.
Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins said rail authority officials have agreed to appear at an upcoming hearing.
Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), chairman of the House rail subcommittee, wrote to Parsons Brinckerhoff on Tuesday asking for the document. “Given the magnitude of the project, we have questions regarding the stewardship of federal funds by the California High Speed Rail Authority,” said the letter, co-signed by 11 Republicans from districts across the state.
The report shows that the cost of building the first segment from Burbank to Merced had grown from $27.3 billion to $35.7 billion, not including future inflation. The state publishes most of its public cost figures with future inflation included, which would translate the cost of the initial segment from the current $31 billion to about $40 billion, based on the Parsons Brinckerhoff estimates.
The document also shows the cost of the entire project would increase by about 5%, going from $54.4 billion to $56.9 billion without inflation. If future inflation is included, based on the Parsons Brinckerhoff inflation estimates, the total project cost would go from $68 billion to more than $71 billion.
The Parsons Brinckerhoff cost estimate projected that some of the initial cost increases would be offset by later savings, though that may come too late to help the program.
The authority asserted that the Times misrepresented the nature of the document, because it was a PowerPoint that was marked draft. The 22-page document, however, contains a vast amount of specific cost data, broken down by geographic segments, specific type of construction activities and phases of the project.
The Richard letter also disputes The Times’ analysis of tunneling challenges through the San Gabriel and Tehachapi mountains, saying that the authority has some of the world’s best tunneling experts and that their consultants “have reiterated their comfort level with our schedule and our approach.”
The Times quoted geologists and engineers who said the plan to complete about 36 miles of mountain tunnels by a 2022 deadline for starting rail operations was unrealistic.
The Times requested the Parsons Brinckerhoff report under the California Public Records Act, but was turned down under a provision of the law that exempts disclosures that are not in the public interest. A senior rail authority executive, Dennis Trujillo, signed the denial letter.
The Times subsequently obtained the report from an individual close to the project.
The letter from the House Republicans was addressed to Gregory Kelly, chief executive of Parsons Brinckerhoff. Asked for a response, a company spokeswoman said, “We are proud of the service Parsons Brinckerhoff has delivered on the California High-Speed Rail project. Please contact the media relations office at the Rail Authority directly for a response to your inquiry.”
Members of the California Assembly had asked the speaker to subpoena the cost document. Assemblyman Jim Patterson, whose district includes Fresno, took the lead in a letter to Atkins. Patterson said he has lost confidence in the project.
“They have failed to disclose huge cost overruns and after they boasted private firms were interested in funding this project, we now know these firms are unwilling to put up any private money,” Patterson said. “What’s worse, we have learned that the [rail authority] ordered its own experts to keep their findings secret from the public.”
Richard, speaking on a Fresno radio talk show Tuesday, said the state is working to reduce the cost of the project below the current $68-billion estimate and that it has not withheld critical information from the public.
“The thing that offended me most about the [Times] article is that we have the most transparency of any agency,” Richard said.
Denham, however, said on the show that the state “continues to hide the facts.”
Denham has evolved into a potent critic of the project, as the Republican Party gained control of the House and then the Senate. He has vowed to cut any future funding for the project, which is facing at least a $16.3-billion shortfall to complete the initial operating segment by 2022.
firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @rvartabedian
California rice takes top spot in international competition
By Edward Ortiz
A rice variety developed and grown in California has won the top award in a worldwide competition, and the state’s drought may have had something to do with it.
The Calrose variety – widely grown in the Sacramento Valley – was picked Oct. 30 as the world’s best rice variety among a field of 25 at the seventh annual World Rice Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It’s the first time California has been the sole winner of the top award, which judges rice based on flavor and grain texture.
Calrose is a medium-grain variety that was put into production in 1948 and is highly regarded in the international rice industry. This year, a panel of international experts and chefs chose the variety over the previous three-time winner from Cambodia, a Thai Fragrant variety.
Ninety-seven percent of California rice is grown in the Sacramento Valley, with about 80 percent of the regional crop consisting of Calrose rice.
“It feels good to have a major win,” said Greg Van Dyke, who represented California at the conference. Van Dyke is a fifth-generation farmer who grows rice on 2,500 acres in Pleasant Grove 20 miles north of Sacramento.
“It feels good to win because we live in the highest cost production part of the world to grow rice in – plus we’ve had to deal with a lot of challenges,” he said.
The win comes amid a multiyear drought in California that has shrunk the number of acres devoted to rice cultivation, from 567,000 acres harvested in 2013 to 434,000 in 2014. This year’s total harvested rice acreage will fall further to 411,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture says the state exported $704 million worth of rice in 2013, the last year for which figures are available. The top countries buying California rice were Japan, South Korea and Jordan. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates California exported $644 million worth of rice in 2014, about a third of total national exports.
Van Dyke said he was forced to fallow 30 percent of his acreage this year after the South Sutter Water District told him his allocations from the Far West Reservoir would be cut in half.
However, the drought, and the dry weather that came with it, could have helped the California rice variety win the top award, Van Dyke said.
Dry weather let farmers start their work in the fields earlier during the spring and also diminished moisture in the air, which Van Dyke said improves the overall texture of the rice grain.
“I believe this is why we finally beat the Cambodians this year,” Van Dyke said.
James Morris, spokesman for the California Rice Commission, said other farmers have also credited the drought with helping to produce great rice.
“I’ve heard really good things about the crop this year,” Morris said. “Several growers have had good yields this year, and I have heard from several growers that the rice they were able to plant was of very good quality.”
Moderate growing temperatures over the season without harvest rainfall or dry north winds have also helped the Calrose crop, said Kent McKenzie, director of the nonprofit industry group the Rice Experiment Station, where the Calrose variety was created.
“Extra attention by growers may also be a factor, but that is more of a side effect of the drought,” McKenzie said.
The station, based in Biggs in Butte County, has developed different rice varieties for the industry, with many of them grown in the clay-like soils north of Sacramento.
Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz, email@example.com
Salmon belong where they can truly thrive
Global warming is real. The Arctic is melting, and temperatures are rising. Last year was the hottest on record for our planet, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; 2015 has been even hotter.
This is old news, and the climate-change deniers will, as usual, trot out their conspiracy theories to refute what is obvious to thousands of scientists and casual observers around the globe.
It’s also becoming obvious to another species: Chinook salmon. It’s time that we recognize that despite our best efforts, salmon might not be a viable species on the San Joaquin River and its tributaries.
Though considered a hardy fish by biologists, salmon have been decimated by the drought and hot temperatures. The Sacramento Bee reported Oct. 28 that for “the second straight year, huge numbers of juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon appear to have baked to death in the Sacramento River because of California’s drought-stretched water supplies, bringing the endangered species a step closer to extinction.”
This decimation has occurred despite the best efforts of federal officials to save salmon – and at the expense of irrigation water for farmers. Officials, in fact, sharply curtailed water flows out of Lake Shasta last spring in an attempt to keep sufficient cold water in the system to support the fish.
The Sacramento is California’s biggest river, at least four times greater than the San Joaquin. What if the “new normal” is higher temperatures and more frequent drought? If the Sacramento can’t sustain healthy salmon runs without crippling farmers, what are the prospects that the San Joaquin River – with so much less water and far higher temperatures – can support spring-run salmon again?
Don’t misunderstand us. The San Joaquin – with its myriad dams, channels, pumps and levees – is one of the most fractured and developed rivers in the world. It was pillaged by the federal government to expand the Valley’s agriculture-based economy, to the point that it ceased to flow. The river deserves to be restored – for the good of residents and the environment.
But the herculean effort to get water flowing through dried-up sections of California’s second-longest river has been tied completely to bringing back salmon. That is a colossal mistake. Salmon do not thrive in water above 70 degrees; they do not survive in water above 74. The focus instead should be on the river’s overall health, not the viability of a single species.
The same is true for the San Joaquin’s tributaries. The Tuolumne’s fall run in 2014 had 438 salmon; on the Merced it was just over 1,700, while the Stanislaus had 3,060 salmon. While those numbers are better than some previous years, they hardly signal a healthy fishery.
Since beginning in 2009, the restoration project has been plagued by missed deadlines, a failure to fulfill coequal goals that include returning restoration water to farmers and a price tag that is now $1.5 billion. And we have yet to save the salmon on the San Joaquin.
If we are going to save California’s salmon, our resources must be focused on rivers where the fish has the best chance to thrive. This isn’t new thinking; fish biologists have been saying it for two decades. It is the environmental community, not the scientific, that insists the fish must be returned to the San Joaquin.
Before Friant Dam was built north of Fresno in the 1940s, the San Joaquin had North America’s southern-most salmon run. If it isn’t already a warm-water fishery, it will be soon. In the midst of global warming, trying to expand the range of salmon – instead of saving them where they are – is a fool’s errand.
This drought just isn’t giving up, but farmers aren’t quitters
By Todd Snider
California’s central valley has been called America’s salad bowl, but honestly in the last four years, it looks more like a dust bowl than a vegetable garden. The historic drought has caused many California farmers to pay prices for water – just to keep their orchards alive – that most Americans would find unfathomable.
Almond, stone fruit, grape and citrus owners once paid roughly $70 per acre foot to ensure that their long term investments had enough water to remain healthy and productive. That cost is now as much as $1,300 per acre foot – about an 1800 percent increase – all while the retail value of their crops has risen very little in comparison.
Estimates are that 170,000 jobs in Kern County alone are directly connected to farming and harvesting. But the number of jobs connected to supporting those farmers, growers and harvesters is around eight times that amount. Crop insurance acts as an underpinning for all of these important jobs and productivity that represent a sizable portion of our economy.
In the past, a wide scale disaster of this magnitude would have triggered a series of very expensive ad hoc disaster bills paid for exclusively by taxpayers. But there has not been a single disaster bill passed even though this drought refuses to release its grip. And that’s because nowadays, farmers are able to purchase the protection and peace of mind of crop insurance.
Crop insurance is a public private partnership whereby farmers purchase policies with their own money, and the policies are sold and serviced by participating companies and agents.
Clearly, the success behind crop insurance is that it’s affordable, viable, and available. Unlike other forms of insurance, any farmer who wishes to purchase crop insurance can do so, regardless of the size of their farming operation or how many years they may have under their belts farming.
Farmers prefer crop insurance because it allows them to pay a premium to help remove some degree of risk from a very volatile business. Twenty years ago, many farmers had never heard of crop insurance. Today, crop insurance protects more than 90 percent of planted acres nationally.
A crop insurance check will never come close to what a farmer can get from a good harvest. But it does offer farmers some peace of mind so that they know that if Mother Nature gets ugly, they can bounce back and be in business again next year. That’s good for consumers, who don’t want their food supply disrupted, and good for the rural economy as well.
When I began this career 13 years ago, I was surprised that bankers were making loans without the guarantee of crop insurance. Obviously, that doesn’t happen much anymore. In fact, it’s very difficult for farmers to get a loan at all without a crop insurance policy in hand.
Of course, crop insurance has its critics who try and make the program sound like another federal handout. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, when farmers purchase crop insurance, they receive a bill, not a check. And only receive a payment if they incur a loss greater than a deductible amount chosen a year in advance. Just like homeowners insurance, farmers buy crop insurance hoping they won’t have to use it, but rest better at night knowing they are more secure.
Yes, this drought has been historic and is about as stubborn as a drought can be. But farmers are hardworking, honest and smart businessmen and women who have armed themselves with the best tools possible to weather this storm. And crop insurance has ensured that California’s central valley will remain America’s fruit and vegetable garden for generations to come.
Todd Snider is a crop insurance agent, Kern County Farm Bureau director, Bakersfield Homeless Center director, and resides in Bakersfield.