Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Valley in crisis as drought, restrictions take toll

Recently I spent a week in the San Joaquin Valley, where I took these photos as growers have been denied surface water have had to take citrus groves and fields out of production.

In the photos, from the top: A bulldozer rips out an orange grove south of Fresno; Dinuba grower and packer Jay Gillette takes stock in his retired orchard; a dry irrigation canal meanders past a citrus packing plant; Mendota area grower Mark Turmon holds an irrigation line being taken out of a fallowed field; Roger Isom of Western Agricultural Processors Association looks at the diminished nut set on a water-starved almond tree; and a field is dragged at a dairy just south of Merced.

A special thanks should go to Roger Isom and to Joel Nelsen and Bob Blakely of California Citrus Mutual, who arranged and facilitated my interviews with more than a dozen growers, packers, processors and other industry reps.

A pall hovers over the San Joaquin as water shutoffs and sinking aquifers threaten to turn what has long been the nation's most productive agricultural region into a hodgepodge of veritable ghost towns and abandoned fields.

The crisis has been worsened by the drought, which has forced more than 2.8 million acres statewide -- a large portion of which is in the Central Valley -- to go without surface water again this year, according to the California Farm Water Coalition.

But growers and industry groups trace the decline of ag in the San Joaquin back to more than two decades ago, as the Central Valley Project Improvement Act and subsequent environmental policies greatly restricted pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

My centerpiece story, along with a companion piece on ag's role in the economies of the Central Valley and California as a whole, will lead this week's issue of Capital Press. Watch for them online at within a matter of hours.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

State to install saltwater intrusion barrier in Delta

The much-talked-about temporary rock barrier to keep saltwater out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is becoming a reality, the state Department of Water Resources has just announced.

From the DWR:
Faced with potentially insufficient water supplies to repel salinity in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), in consultation with federal and state water and wildlife agencies, is moving to install an emergency, temporary rock barrier across a Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta channel.

DWR seeks to install a single emergency salinity barrier across West False River in May, to be removed six months later in November. State and federal water and wildlife officials, working as a Real-Time Drought Operations Management Team, have determined that the barrier would help deter the tidal push of saltwater from San Francisco Bay into the central Delta. The barrier would be essentially a pile of basketball-size rocks across the 750-foot-wide channel that still allows limited water flow upstream and downstream, depending upon tides. DWR, operator of the State Water Project, is seeking multiple permits from various agencies to accelerate installation.

Keeping saltwater from the central Delta is a priority, as a large portion of the state’s freshwater supplies travel through this part of the Delta. The barrier would help prevent saltwater contamination of water supplies used by people who live in the Delta; Contra Costa, Alameda, and Santa Clara counties; and the 25 million people who rely on the Delta-based federal and state water projects for at least some of their supplies.

Typically when saltwater threatens to encroach deeper into the Delta, water project operators try to repel it either by slowing the pumping of water from the Delta or increasing the amount of water flowing into the Delta from upstream reservoirs.

In this fourth year of drought, Delta pumping by the state and federal water projects is already negligible. It takes three to five days for fresh water released from Lake Oroville or Shasta Lake to reach the Delta. An emergency barrier would provide an additional tool to help limit salinity intrusion prior to arrival of fresh water from upstream reservoirs.

“We had hoped not to have to install any temporary emergency barriers in the Delta this year,” said California Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin. “But conditions stayed dry through March and April. The West False River emergency barrier would provide a buffer that otherwise would have come from reduced Delta pumping. This summer, there is no Delta pumping to reduce. The barrier would help afford us time to move water from Oroville and Shasta should we need to push back saltwater intruding into the Delta.”

The emergency barrier also would help mitigate a worst-case circumstance this summer in which upstream reservoirs lack sufficient water to meet the minimum outflow requirements to limit Delta salinity intrusion.

Emergency barrier removal would finish no later than November 1 to avoid flood season and potential harm to migratory fish. Removal is expected to take 45 days to 60 days.

Multiple Permits Needed

For the past year, DWR has worked closely on the issue of emergency salinity barriers with multiple agencies, including the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, operator of the Central Valley Project. DWR must obtain permits and a Temporary Urgency Change Permit renewal from the State Water Resources Control Board, a permit for levee modification from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and a California Endangered Species Act permit from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. In addition, DWR must consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service on protections for Delta smelt, Chinook salmon and other listed species. All of these agencies have worked cooperatively on the Real-Time Drought Operations Management Team for the past year.

The permit application process is underway, and DWR hopes to begin installation of the emergency barrier on May 8.

It would be erected across West False River about 0.4 miles east of its confluence with the San Joaquin River, between Jersey and Bradford Islands in Contra Costa County. The location is about 4.8 miles northeast of Oakley.

Construction, monitoring, mitigation and removal are estimated to cost roughly $28 million, to be paid for with a mix of funding from Proposition 50, a $3.4 billion water bond approved by voters in November 2002, and general fund dollars.

The trapezoid-shaped barrier, about 12 feet wide at the top, will temporarily block boat passage on West False River and be marked by warning signs, lights, and buoys. Alternative routes between the San Joaquin River and interior Delta, including Bethel Island marinas, are available (see attached map). The West False River site raises fewer concerns for threatened and endangered fish than other potential barrier sites considered by DWR.

Earlier Consideration of Emergency Barriers

Last year DWR studied the potential impacts of potential temporary barriers at three locations: Steamboat Slough, Sutter Slough, and West False River. The analysis found anticipated impacts could be mitigated to a less-than-significant level. DWR received and reviewed considerable public comments on the Initial Study and Proposed Mitigated Negative Declaration, available at

At this time, DWR is not pursuing installation of temporary emergency barriers at Sutter Slough or Steamboat Slough. Although DWR is seeking permits from various agencies, the April 1 Executive Order by Governor Brown helps expedite installation of the West False River barrier in time to address emergency drought conditions. The Governor’s Executive Order declared existence of conditions of extreme peril to public safety and directed DWR to implement emergency drought barriers if necessary.

The Executive Order suspends some California Environmental Quality Act requirements for certain drought relief actions, including installation of emergency drought barriers.

DWR last used emergency drought barriers to reduce salinity intrusion in 1976-77. DWR considered the installation of emergency drought barriers in 2014 but determined in late May of last year that they would not be needed, in part because February and March storms improved water supply conditions. Planning for future emergency drought barriers continued after last year’s decision, with a focus on West False River, Steamboat Slough, and Sutter Slough. Earlier this year, based on the input of Delta residents, the Department also considered the feasibility and effectiveness of barriers on Miner Slough in the western Delta and on Steamboat Slough downstream of its confluence with Sutter Slough.

Emergency drought barriers on Miner Slough and Steamboat Sloughs were eliminated from consideration because of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concerns about potential effects on threatened Delta smelt.

Current Drought Emergency

The three-year period from 2012 through 2014 was the driest three-year period on record in California, and 2015 opened with the driest January in the state’s weather record history. The Sierra Nevada snowpack typically peaks by April 1; this year, the snowpack was measured at five percent of historic average, the lowest measurement in recorded history.

Governor Brown declared a drought State of Emergency on January 17, 2014 and directed state officials to take all necessary actions to prepare for water shortages. The State Water Resources Control Board on March 17, 2015 announced new restrictions on water use, including limiting outdoor watering to two days per week and prohibiting lawn watering during rainfall and during the next two days. Earlier this month, the governor directed the State Water Resources Control Board to implement mandatory water reductions in cities and towns across California to reduce water usage by 25 percent.

Conservation – the wise, sparing use of water – remains California’s most reliable drought management tool. Each individual act of conservation -- such as letting the lawn go brown or replacing a washer in a faucet to stop a leak – makes a difference over time.

Visit to find out how everyone can do their part, and visit to learn more about how California is dealing with the effects of the drought.

Caucus hails demise of USFS groundwater directive

From the Congressional Western Caucus:
Yesterday during a Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans hearing, U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Leslie Weldon announced the decision to halt work on the controversial Proposed Directive on Groundwater Management released last year by the Forest Service.

In response, Western Caucus Chairman Cynthia Lummis (WY-At large), Vice Chairmen Mark Amodei (NV-02) and Paul Gosar (AZ-04), and Chairman Emeritus Steve Pearce (NM-02) issued the following statements:

“The U.S. Forest Service’s decision to give up on the proposed groundwater directive is a critical victory for state primacy over groundwater and private water rights,” said Chairman Lummis. “I am pleased that the Forest Service has finally recognized what we’ve known all along: this directive was doomed from the start because of the lack of consultation with the states who have primacy over groundwater. To the contrary, the directive held the potential to erode state water authority and harm local economies. I commend Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop for his successful campaign to stop this directive. This is a win for the west, and for any American community home to a National Forest. I encourage Forest Service to stand by its commitment today to go back to the drawing board with the states that should be in the driver’s seat in developing any policy changes when it comes to groundwater.”

“Chief Tidwell, atta boy,” said Vice-Chairman Amodei. “You’re the man. Thank you very much.”

“Attempted water grabs by federal agencies during the Obama Administration have been atrocious,” said Vice-Chairman Gosar. “Whether it is Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS), the Ground Water Service Directive, or the ski area water rights permitting conditions, the federal government has attempted an all-out assault to take control of precious water resources that have traditionally been managed by states or private ownership. While I am pleased to see the U.S. Forest Service back away from its unnecessary and overreaching groundwater directive, I will remain vigilant against any further attempts to override state water laws and extort private water rights.”

“I would like to commend all of those who voiced their concerns over the Forest Service’s Groundwater Directive including my Western Caucus colleagues,” said Chairman Emeritus Pearce. “This directive was unnecessary from the beginning and was introduced without input from states or local communities. While I appreciate the fact that the Forest Service came to this commonsense conclusion, I am dismayed that they plan on issuing a new rule down the road. I recommend the Forest Service focus on effectively managing the resources they currently control and stop trying to federalize state and private water.”

On March 12, House Committee on Natural Resources leadership sent a letter to Forest Service Chief Tidwell, urging the agency to permanently withdraw the proposed directive.

Last year, the leadership of the Congressional and Senate Western Caucuses led a bicameral letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warning that the U.S. Forest Service’s proposed Groundwater Directive would restrict access to public lands and interfere with state and private water rights.
Tony Francois, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, recently detailed the organization's objections to the directive in a guest op-ed in the Capital Press. You can read it here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Winegrapes dominate grape crop in California

Winegrapes accounted for about two-thirds of the grapes grown in California in 2014, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service office in Sacramento.

From their report:
California’s 2014 grape acreage totaled 928,000 acres, according to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, California Field Office. Of the total grape acreage, 865,000 were bearing while 63,000 were non-bearing. The wine-type grape acreage is estimated at 615,000 acres. Of the total acres, 565,000 were bearing and 50,000 were non-bearing. Table-type grape acreage totaled 121,000 acres with 110,000 bearing and 11,000 non-bearing. Acreage of raisin-type grapes totaled 192,000 acres, of which 190,000 were bearing and 2,000 were non-bearing.

The leading wine-type varieties continued to be Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Flame Seedless was the leading table-type grape variety. Thompson Seedless continued to be the leading raisin-type variety and was utilized for raisins, fresh market, concentrate, and wine.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Feds reopen comment period on West Coast fisher

From the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Yreka:
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has reopened the comment period on a proposal to list the West Coast population of fisher as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Service has also extended its deadline to make a final decision whether to list the species to April 7, 2016.

The Service is opening a 30-day public comment period to solicit additional information to more fully inform the final listing decision. Specifically, the agency is seeking additional information on threats to the fisher population. The deadline for submitting comments is May 14, 2014 at 11:59 p.m. EDT.

During the reopened comment period, the Service seeks information related to toxicants and rodenticides used at marijuana grow sites, including law enforcement information on the scope and severity of this problem, and trend data related to the use of toxicants/rodenticides. Previously submitted comments are in the record and they do not need to be resubmitted.

The Service is also seeking additional information for West Coast fisher population surveys, which will help assess fisher distribution and population trends. The Service is particularly interested in the surveys in which no fishers were found.

Additional guidance on submitting public comments can be found in the Federal Register notice at (search for key word “fisher”), or on the agency website at:
Comments and information can be submitted by one of the following methods:

• Electronically at In the Search box, enter FWS–R8–ES–2014–0041. You may submit information by clicking on “Comment Now.”

• Paper copy, via the U.S. mail or hand delivery, to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS–R8–ES–2014–0041. Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MS: BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041–3803.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

NASS still bullish on Calif. navel orange crop

The federal agency that keeps track of crop production isn't backing down from its prediction of a bigger navel orange crop this season, which had industry representatives raising their eyebrows last fall.

Here are the latest updated fruit crop estimates from the National Agricultural Statistics Service in Sacramento:
The USDA-NASS, California Field Office today released the crop production forecast for April. The latest survey, conducted during the last week of March and the first week of April, included the following commodities:

Navel Oranges -- The 2014-15 Navel orange forecast is 80.0 million cartons, unchanged from January, but up 3 percent from last season. The Navel orange harvest remains active in California.

Valencia Oranges -- The 2014-15 Valencia orange forecast is 20.0 million cartons, unchanged from the March objective measurement forecast, but down 7 percent from last season. The Valencia orange crop continued to develop. The harvest is expected to pick up in the coming months.

Grapefruit -- The 2014-15 California grapefruit forecast is 7.6 million cartons, down 5 percent from the January forecast and down 1 percent from last season’s crop.

Lemons -- The 2014-15 lemon forecast is 40.0 million cartons, unchanged from the January forecast and up 6 percent from last season. In California, lemon harvest was progressing at a steady pace.

Tangerines -- The 2014-15 tangerine forecast is 32.0 million cartons, up 3 percent from the January forecast and up 9 percent from last season. Mandarins were being packed in both the Central Valley and Fillmore areas.

Production forecasts are released on a monthly basis and do not reflect final production estimates. The next production forecast will be issued May 12, 2015.
Even with the drought, it probably wouldn't be too hard to beat last year's navel orange production, though. A serious freeze in the winter of 2013-2014 cost navel orange producers a large portion of their crop and about $260 million in revenue, according to California Citrus Mutual.

State official blasts newspaper over editorial

California's top natural resources official criticized the Sacramento Bee during a water forum with other state leaders this morning, accusing the paper of putting a misleading headline on a guest editorial written by Department of Water Resources director Mark Cowin.

In the column, Cowin wrote that farmers have already seen drastic water cutbacks and that a 25 percent reduction in urban water use "is less a hardship on California residents than an adjustment to a new reality."

He wrote:
Some question why the mandated water reductions did not extend to agriculture, which uses a larger share of the state’s developed water supply than homes and businesses.

Millions of acre-feet of surface water will not go to farms this year. The roughly half-million acres of farmland not planted last year (of roughly 9 million irrigated acres in the state) will likely expand this year. The state’s two biggest water projects already have cut deliveries by between 50 percent and 100 percent.

Thousands of other farmers with long-standing water rights and good supplies even in dry years are on notice from the State Water Resources Control Board that water may be left in streams and rivers to meet the most basic needs for people and native fish – and that they should think hard before planting crops in this fourth year of drought.

If this drought deepens so that it becomes difficult to provide water for essential human needs, the state ultimately could use its authority to further limit agricultural water use. But we should stretch urban supplies as far as possible before we take that drastic action.

Agriculture is the economic engine of rural California, and the entire state enjoys the variety of safe, nutritious food that California farmers produce. There are many gallons of water, applied by a farmer, behind each of our meals.

Some argue that California agriculture uses too much water to grow crops for export such as almonds and pistachios, and suggest the state ban such crops.

Where should the state draw that line? Should the state judge the worthiness of crops based on water use? Nutritional value? Profit per acre-foot of water used? Is broccoli acceptable, but not wine grapes? How do we account for the tremendous waterfowl habitat created by rice fields?
Later, he concluded:
This drought has the power to divide us, but it may also bring us together. A 25 percent cutback is not too much to ask in a state where overwatering is often the biggest problem plaguing lawns.

We don’t use the same kinds of phones or drive the same kinds of cars as we did a generation ago. Why shouldn’t we also modernize our landscapes?
However, the headline reads, "California should stretch urban supplies before cutting water to farms," which makes it appear that water to farms has yet to be cut at all. This didn't sit well with state Natural Resources Agency secretary John Laird, who asserted the headline didn't reflect the spirit of what Cowin wrote.

"That wasn't the message at all," Laird told about 300 people in a Sacramento auditorium. The forum was also watched online by an estimated 1,000 people, including me.

Laird cited the headline as an example of finger-pointing that's gone on since Gov. Jerry Brown issued his drought-related executive order last week.

"Unfortunately, some of the first blushes from some people have been to look at somebody else," said Laird, who also mentioned comments on Facebook and other social media.

Much of the finger-pointing has been coming from a traditional news media whose duty in a crisis is to disseminate accurate information that people can rely on to help them withstand the crisis. Some outlets have instead used the drought to advance an agenda of punishing farmers, who tend to be more conservative and vote differently than their urban brethren. And they wonder why the public's trust in the traditional news media is at an all-time low.