Peterangelo Vallis is California Ag Today’s Ambassador for Agriculture. He’s also the executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Wine Growers Association. He spoke recently on the need for increased water conservation by growers and cities in a multi-year drought. He also noted the need for a food narrative.
“That’s what we have done. We had to do that over the last few years. I mean, it’s not uncommon for there to be a wet year in the middle of a multi-year drought,” Vallis said. “Let’s face it. We’re clearly in a multi-year drought, and fortunately, there are water supplies, so it’s probably not going to be as bad this year as it was a couple years ago, but that’s not going to feel great especially with permanent crop agriculture. You got make sure you have a consistent supply of water going year-round at a time.”
Vallis said the Delta area water situation needs to be reframed with a food narrative.
“Let’s stop blaming a small fish and let’s start putting the blame where it really belongs with the inability for all of us to come together and come up with some sort of solution,” Vallis said.
“I mean fish is a nice scapegoat, and it’s a great talking point, but it clearly hasn’t been doing better with water restrictions to growers. The problem is that we haven’t been framing the conversation in a way that really puts us in the best light, and we’ve got to do that because nobody is going to say that fish is more important than farmers,” Vallis said. “Realistically when someone insinuates that, they just look silly because everybody knows that we need to eat and we need to be able to provide food for people.”
“What the problem is when we start adding things to the conversation, yawn on facts and we start appealing to emotion. Everybody can figure out something that’s more important than something else. It’s just a form of what needs to happen in a normal society,” he said.
New technology helps farmers use water to maximum effectiveness
By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director
At the recent big Almond Conference in Sacramento, there were a lot of discussions on water use in almonds. And while growers are doing a great job in conserving, there’s always ways to improve, according to Larry Schwankl, UC Cooperative Extension Irrigation Specialist Emeritus. He shared with California Ag Today the take-home points of his talk in front of several hundred growers.
“We have been researching, ‘How much do growers need to irrigate?’ We want to make sure that their irrigation system are effective and that they know how long to operate it and then ways of checking to make sure that they’re doing a good job and utilizing soil moisture sensors and devices,” Schwankl said.
Schwankl also suggested that growers use pressure bomb to accurately measure the pressure of water inside a leaf. When used, it’s possible to measure the approximate water status of plant tissues.
In using a pressure bomb, the stem of a leaf is placed in a sealed chamber, and pressurized gas is added to the chamber slowly. The device has been calibrated to indicate whether or not that leaf is stressed for water.
“We can predict how much water the tree’s going to need, and we can predict how much an irrigation system is going to put on, but there’s errors in all predictions,” Schwankl said. “We need to go back and check and make sure that we’re staying on target. That’s where knowing the soil moisture and the plant water status really helps.”
In Face of Water Diversion Threat, Ag Industry Experts are Speaking Out
By Laurie Greene, Editor
California Ag Today has been reporting on the California State Water Resources Control Board’s (SWRCB) proposed plan to divert 40 percent of the surface water from the Tuolumne River and two additional tributaries of the San Joaquin River between February 1st and June 30th every year. The SWRCB plan is designed to increase flows in the Delta in an effort to help the declining smelt and salmon populations. Yet, these water diversions would severely impact not only the farm industry, but communities in the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts as well.
Ag officials say this is yet another threat to family farms in an attempt to protect the smelt and salmon. Farmers would lose a major portion of their surface water and be forced to pump more groundwater.
“Farming is not just a job; it’s a way of life for many of these families. And that livelihood, that way of life, is being threatened,” said Michael Boccadoro, president of West Coast Advisors, an independent, nonpartisan public affairs and advocacy firm that specializes in complex and often controversial public issues in Sacramento.
Boccadoro said the farm industry in the region is not sitting still while all of this is happening. There is a website, worthyourfight.org, that addresses this new assault on agriculture.
“It is worth fighting for,”said Boccadoro. “I was born and raised in agriculture, and I still think it’s a wonderful lifestyle. We need to protect it at all costs. This is starting to border on the ridiculous in terms of just one issue after another. . . This is not a “Mother Nature” issue; this is government putting these obstacles and these problems in front of agriculture, and that’s troubling.”
“We produce much of the fruits and vegetables and nearly all the nut crops for the entire nation. So, of course, we would expect to see significant amounts of water being used by farming in California,” Boccadoro said.
“It’s just reality, and for whatever reason, I think people have been misled and don’t understand this is just part of growing food. Like I have said, if you are concerned about it, all you’ve got to do is quit eating. It’s that simple.”
New Aerial Survey Identifies More Than 100 Million Dead Trees in California
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced the U.S. Forest Service has identified an additional 36 million dead trees across California since its last aerial survey in May 2016. This brings the total number of dead trees since 2010 to over 102 million on 7.7 million acres of California’s drought-stricken forests. In 2016 alone, 62 million trees have died, representing more than a 100 percent increase in dead trees across the state from 2015. Millions of additional trees are weakened and expected to die in the coming months and years.
With public safety as its most pressing concern, the U.S. Forest Service has committed significant resources to help impacted forests, including reprioritizing $43 million in California in fiscal year 2016 to conduct safety-focused restoration along roads, trails and recreation sites. However, limited resources and a changing climate hamper the Forest Service’s ability to address tree mortality in California. USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Forest Service officials are seriously hampered not only by short-term budgets passed by Congress, but also a broken budget for the Forest Service that sees an increasing amount of resources going to firefighting while less is invested in restoration and forest health, Vilsack said.
“These dead and dying trees continue to elevate the risk of wildfire, complicate our efforts to respond safely and effectively to fires when they do occur, and pose a host of threats to life and property across California,” Vilsack said. “USDA has made restoration work and the removal of excess fuels a top priority, but until Congress passes a permanent fix to the fire budget, we can’t break this cycle of diverting funds away from restoration work to fight the immediate threat of the large unpredictable fires caused by the fuel buildups themselves.”
The majority of the 102 million dead trees are located in ten counties in the southern and central Sierra Nevada region. The Forest Service also identified increasing mortality in the northern part of the state, including Siskiyou, Modoc, Plumas and Lassen counties.
Five consecutive years of severe drought in California, a dramatic rise in bark beetle infestation and warmer temperatures are leading to these historic levels of tree die-off. As a result, in October 2015, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency on the unprecedented tree die-off and formed a Tree Mortality Task Force to help mobilize additional resources for the safe removal of dead and dying trees.
This year, California had a record-setting wildfire season, with the Blue Cut fire alone scorching over 30,000 acres and triggering the evacuation of 80,000 people. In the southeastern United States, wildfires have burned more than 120,000 acres this fall. The southeast region of the Forest Service is operating at the highest preparedness level, PL 5, reflecting the high level of physical resources and funding devoted to the region. Extreme drought conditions persist, and many areas have not seen rain for as many as 95 days.
Longer, hotter fire seasons where extreme fire behavior has become the new norm,] – as well as increased development in forested areas – is dramatically driving up the cost of fighting fires and squeezing funding for the very efforts that would protect watersheds and restore forests to make them more resilient to fire. Last year, fire management alone consumed 56 percent of the Forest Service’s budget and is expected to rise to 67 percent in by 2025.
As the situation in the southeast demonstrates, the problem of shrinking budget capacity is felt across the U.S., not only in the western states. The health of our forests and landscapes are at risk across the nation, and the tree mortality crisis could be better addressed if not for the increasing percentage of the Forest Service budget going to fight wildfire. “We must fund wildfire suppression like other natural disasters in the country,” Vilsack said.
Forest Service scientists expect elevated levels of tree mortality to continue during 2017 in dense forest stands; stands impacted by root diseases or other stress agents; and in areas with higher levels of bark beetle activity. Photos and video of the surveys are available on the Forest Service multimedia webpage.
Learn more about tree mortality and the work to restore our forests in California at the Forest Service’s web page by clicking here.
Michael Boccadoro a spokesperson for the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, commented on the SWRCB: “They need to be pushed back. They need to be told no.” Boccadoro explained the water in question represents about 400,000 acre-feet taken from communities, businesses and farms. Ironically 400,000 acre-feet is roughly equivalent to the capacity of Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir (360,400 acre-feet) that funnels water, unabated, to San Francisco.
“This is only Phase One of the Boards’ decision,” said Boccadoro. “This is going to eventually encompass the Sacramento River; this is just the beginning. This isn’t by any stretch of the imagination the only potential impact agriculture would feel,” he said.
Boccadoro, like other people in the industry, cannot fathom why the SWRCB needs to take this water when it doesn’t seem to be doing anything beneficial for the endangered fish species. “This issue of continuing to take water that is providing no benefit—or no clear benefit—for fish, while we do nothing [to mitigate] the other stressors that are having a huge impact on the fish, has to stop,” Boccadoro said.
Boccadoro noted, “It looks like Governor Brown has it in for farmers. We have problems with groundwater and increasing water scarcity in the state, and the result of this [plan] would be increased groundwater pumping—until they tell us we can’t pump groundwater. At that point, they are basically telling us, ‘You can’t farm any more.'”
“It’s a huge problem, said Boccadoro. “For whatever reason, it appears that the Brown administration has declared war on California agriculture. Enough is enough. We need to push back hard against the Water Board’s decisions,” noted Boccadoro.
“This is as good a place to fight as any as I can think of,” Boccadoro explained. “We need to start the fight and continue the fight, which is the only way it’s ever going to be turned back. The regulators and environmental groups must address the other stressors [to the endangered species]. Taking water from agriculture has not corrected the problem.
In the meantime Boccadoro hopes the farmers are taking notice. “I sure hope they’re willing to come up here [to Sacramento] and demand that the state not take their water,” he said.
Tulare County’s top ten crops [crop value] in 2015 were:
Cattle & Calves
Oranges- Navels & Valencias
Almonds Meats & Hulls
Tangerines – Fresh
Corn – Grain & Silage
Silage – Small Grain
Kinoshita explained, “Dairy is our number one industry here. Our milk production was off a little bit. We have fewer dairies in business now because of the low milk prices. Anytime your fresh market milk is off, that’s going to affect our overall value. A good 2/3 of that billion-dollar decrease came from the dairy industry. The price was low the entire year, as opposed to the year before.”
Thus far, the reported 2015 county crop reports in the Central Valley are down this year. “Fresno County, for instance, was down 6.5% off its record $7 billion in 2014,” Kinoshita said.
“It has a lot to do with low water deliveries in Fresno and Tulare Counties,” she continued. “The smaller the water deliveries, the more efficient those growers have to be with that water. Anytime you’re pumping water out of the ground, it’s terribly expensive,” she noted.
“Some of our growers have had to decide, ‘All right, I’ve got this much water; I’m going to keep those blocks alive and I’m going to push an older block that isn’t producing as well.’ The returns aren’t as good as some of the newer plantings,” said Kinoshita.
Despite all of that, Kinoshita said agriculture does sit at the head of the table in Tulare County. “Yes, and we need a successful Ag industry to thrive here,” she said.
Tricia Stever Blattler, executive director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau, noted the crop report demonstrates the strength of the agricultural industry. “I think every year when this crop report comes out, it is always a testament to the resiliency of this industry. This industry takes hard knocks, gets knocked down, then steps right back up to the plate and keeps swinging,” Blattler said. “The agricultural sector has a lot of outside challenges that impact the number that we see reported every year.”
Blattler acknowledged the crop value numbers do not reflect net revenue for growers. “It’s always really important for our listeners to know that the crop value is a gross revenue number. When our Ag Commissioner steps to the microphone and speaks to our Board of Supervisors about this report each year, she’s reflecting values that are attributed to all of the gross revenue, and it’s not only the field value,” Blattler said.
“That gross number reported each year also represents our packing houses, our milk processing facilities—the creameries, the butter plants—the packing sheds, all those other parts of our industry that [create] value in our industry,” said Blattler.
Blattler noted up or down, it’s all about the resiliency of farmers. “The industry has its years that are really blockbuster and it has its years when it falls back and we see a reduction acreage. We see reductions in surface water deliveries. The drought is still certainly playing a significant role in the numbers we’re seeing,” she explained.
With regard to surface water, Tulare County is in a bit of a unique position. “As an Eastside county, some of our water deliveries are not as subject to the situation that the Westside is in. In the same sense, we have some significant cutbacks that have been attributed to the San Joaquin River’s restoration and the biological opinions in the Delta—all have had an impact on the Central San Joaquin Valley [water] deliveries regardless of whether you’re Eastside or Westside.
“Also, as the exchange contractors either take greater deliveries of water or give up water, that also impacts the amount available to Eastside growers here in Tulare County,” she said.
In summary, 2015 Tulare Crop Report covers more than 120 different commodities, 45 of which have a gross value in excess of $1 million. Although individual commodities may experience difficulties from year to year, Tulare County continues to produce high quality crops that provide food and fiber to more than 90 countries worldwide.
“It raises this question,” Peltier asked, “When do we get honest and start talking about the regulatory drought—the man-made drought, the policy-induced drought, the policy-directed drought? We can’t even have an honest conversation about that.”
“That our opponents want to deflect and obscure that whole conversation is telling,” he continued, “because we have a tremendous story of adverse economic impact as a result of failed policies. When they tried to protect the fish, they took our water away and they made the supply unreliable. ‘Just a huge failure and they don’t want to address it; they don’t want to deal with it. The same agencies are fixated with their false confidence or their false certainty, their false precision, in terms of how to help the fish.”
Peltier explained the regulators failed to deliver all of the 5% allocation [née water delivery reduced by 95%] to growers in the federal water districts south of the Delta. “It’s nonsense,” he reiterated, that part of the insufficient 5% was never delivered this season. “It’s avoidance of the reality that the regulators have constricted the heck out of the water projects and made it so—even in wet years, and like this year, a normal to wet year—we’ve got huge amounts of land out of production,” Peltier said, adding that almond growers in the federal water districts are not getting a late, post-harvest irrigation, which can hurt next year’s production.
¹Inscription on the James Farley Post Office in New York City
Delta Smelt Among Many Reasons for Pumping Constraints
By Emily McKay Johnson, Associate Editor
Farmers in the federal water districts of Fresno and Kings Counties were granted only five percent of their contracted water this year; yet they are at risk of getting even less due to pumping constraints. Jason Peltier, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, a Los Banos-based federal water district explained, “The original forecast had full pumping in June, July, August, and September.
“Because of the temperature constraints and because of the water quality standards,” Peltier stated, “we’ve been operating only one or two pumps. There’s just not enough water flowing south to meet the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s(Reclamation) obligations to the exchange contractors, the [wildlife] refuges and the urban agencies, along with the 5% allocation to the ag services contractors,” he noted.
Peltier is concerned for those in the Central Valley, and water agencies are working frantically to find answers. “We’re working on it,” Peltier affirmed. “We’ve got a lot of engineers and operators preparing spreadsheets and analyzing both the variables and what changes could be made to avoid lower water levels at San Luis Reservoir.”
Commenting on this year’s deliveries, Peltier stated, “No doubt we’re in an unprecedented operating environment. Here we are, eight months into the water year, and we just got a temperature plan for Lake Shasta—that is driving the whole operation—the project. Limiting releases like they are in the temperature plan [designed keep the water cold to protect winter-run salmon eggs]—at least we thought—would allow Reclamation to hold the commitments they made. But we’re on razor’s edge right now,” Peltier explained.
Peltier described how the process is holding up water release, “The National Marine Fisheries Service wants to keep as much water in storage as possible, in order to keep the cold water cool as long as they can. This is all to protect the winter-run salmon eggs that are in the gravel right now, protect them until the weather turns cool and things naturally cool down. Then they can release water. Shasta’s been effectively trumped by another million-acre feed because of this temperature plan.”
Peltier further noted that the Lake Shasta temperature plan has not allowed water to flow into the Sacramento River. It has severely impacted growers in Northern California on a year when the northern part of the state received above average rain and snowfall during the winter.
“People diverting off the river in the Sacramento Valley have had their own water level issues. There hasn’t been enough water coming down the river to get elevation enough adequate for their pumps. There’s been a lot of ground water pumping,” he said.
The nearly extinct Delta Smelt has been a longstanding issue for those affected by California’s drought. After the past five years of sacrifice, even more water is being taken from agriculture and cities to help save the fish from extinction.
“We’ve got the California Department of Fish and Wildlife wanting significant increases in delta outflow over the summer, supposedly for the benefit of delta smelt, another operational complexity that is sadly not based on any science that we could see. The agencies have their beliefs, and they have the power,” said Peltier.
Featured photo: Jason Peltier, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority.
California Ag Today will update readers on Bureau of Reclamation announcements about the 5% contracted water delivery federal water district growers were expecting.
North Valley Regional Recycled Water Program: A New Water Source for Valley Farmers
Part One of a Five-Part Series
By Brian German, Associate Editor
Anthea Hansen, general manager of the Patterson, Calif.-based Del Puerto Water District, described the exciting work to bring more water stability in the form of recycled water to multiple Central Valley cities—in our five-part series on the North Valley Regional Recycled Water Program(NVRRWP).
“After six and a half years of effort,” Hansen said, “we have fully completed all of our environmental documentation, and most of the permitting is in hand.” Recently, the partners have interviewed and selected the preferred firm to construct the Modesto component of the project, so that process is underway.”
NVRRWP is a collaborative partnership that includes the cities of Modesto, Turlock and Ceres along with the Del Puerto Water District and Stanislaus County to solve the region’s water supply and reliability problems. The program will provide a new source of water for agricultural customers in the Del Puerto Water District (DPWD), whose supplies have been severely impacted by drought and by environmental restrictions on pumping water from the Delta. Hansen noted the collaboration was the largest obstacle they were able to overcome.
“One of the biggest things that happened recently, a day we were all looking forward to,” noted Hansen, “is when the United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation(Reclamation) executed the record of decision for our project, a document that supports not only the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) documentation but also the signing of a long-term contract. It will allow us to convey and store the recycled water in federal facilities,” she said, “and it will also support the sharing of a portion of the water with the wildlife refugees south of the Delta. That was a big milestone for our project.”
The cities of Turlock and Modesto will provide treated, recycled water to the Del Puerto Water District through a direct pipeline into the Delta-Mendota Canal. The district will then distribute that water to the agricultural customers within its service area.
After so many years already invested in the project, Hansen is excited the plan is coming together. “We worked lockstep with Reclamation for over three years,” Hansen said, “and we did some very extensive and thorough analysis. We had a great team and a good working relationship, and it looks like we are nearing the end of assembling all of the different pieces of this very complicated puzzle.”
Jim Costa, Congressman for the 16th Congressional District of California that covers all of Merced County and parts of Fresno and Madera Counties and includes vast areas of agricultural land, is not happy with the water situation in California. Costa stated, “To be sure, we are still in a water crisis even though we have had some good [wet] months.”
“Sadly those good months have seen too much of that water going out to sea—as opposed to getting into the San Luis Reservoir and providing water for our Valley—whether for the East side or the Westside. It is a fight that I have been engaged in for years, but most recently, I have been trying to ensure that we are pumping at the maximum levels even under the flawed biological opinions that we are having to contend with.”
Costa explained that while the pumps have been turned up over the past month, sometimes to the maximum level, “the San Luis Reservoir is only 51% full, and now we are are still looking at a 5 percent water allocation for Federal water users. This has been avoidable, and it is unconscionable and immoral. Let me repeat that, it has been avoidable, and it is immoral and unconscionable that we, in fact, are in this predicament. It is largely because we have failed to take advantage of the El Niño months of December and January.”
Assessing our winter water losses,Costa remarked, “Since January 1st, we estimate that we have lost over 440,000 acre-feet of water. This freshwater—440,000 acre-feet—would make a big difference to our Valley, which has been water-starved from a combination of 4 years of drought, plus the flawed biological operations of the Federal and State Water Projects. So, we have to fix this broken water system, bottom line.”