False Data Abounds

California Drought Information Game:

False Data Out-Markets Ag

By Laurie Greene, Editor and Producer


At “The Truth About the Drought” forum, organized by Assemblymember Jim Patterson recently in Clovis, CA, moderator John Broeske, executive director of Families Protecting The Valley, said he thinks Ag is doing really badly on the information game.

“I think that we are getting out-marketed in messaging in the state of California,” said Broeske. “I think a lot of the people in the Central Valley know things that the people in Southern California and in the Bay Area, don’t know.”

Broeske continued, “I don’t blame those people for not knowing because they’re being told over and over again about the ‘80% number’ for Ag water use; and the ‘2%’ Ag contributes to the economy’. These are not real numbers, but people hear them repeatedly, so it’s not hard to understand they believe it.”

“I think the environmentalists want people to believe the 80% figure,” Broeske stated, “because it’s a lot easier to demand water from us if it appears we are using it all. But we’re not, and it’s hard for us to get the message out that these numbers aren’t true.”

Broeske did not know the best way to get the message out, but said he tries to correct people when they get it wrong. He suggested correcting online articles in the comment section to empower more people with the right numbers as ammunition for when they get into conversations. “You’ve got to fight back; if you let people use these false numbers over and over again, nothing is ever going to change.”

As false data out-markets ag in messaging, Broeske said water usage accountability is unequivalent. “Farmers are getting blasted for raising almonds and using too many gallons per almond,” said Broeske. “But, there’s no article about how many gallons it takes to raise a smelt. How many acre-feet for salmon? How many is too many? I think those questions have to be asked.”

“California is spending four million dollars of water per salmon!” Broeske declared. “Should there be some accountability there? How much water are we going to spend on one salmon? At least we get almonds at the end of the farming process. That’s what accountability means; we’ve got to create some rules about how much water is too much to save one fish.”

“I think the only way the public can demand accountability from the government and the scientists is to win elections,” he conjectured. “We are not winning the marketing war on these water usage numbers, so voters keep electing the same people who tell them the wrong numbers, and there’s nothing we can do if they keep getting elected. It’s a tough battle.”

“We are outnumbered,” Broeske said, “and I don’t know how we can overcome their marketing. They’re not even buying marketing, like billboards or advertising—just newspaper articles and news stories they are quoted in—so their marketing costs them nothing.”

“For us to win the market,” Broeske concluded, “we have to buy billboards and ads, and have enough money to do so.”

Tree-killing bug invades Southern California

Source: Amina Khan; Los Angeles Times 

Akif Eskalen steps through the dense, damp leaves in a wooded neighborhood, scrutinizing the branches around him. He’s looking for evidence of an attack: tiny wounds piercing the bark and sap dried around them like bloodstains.

The victims are box elders, sycamores and coast live oaks, all in some state of suffering. Eskalen approaches a tree riddled with 1-millimeter holes, as if someone used it for miniature target practice. It’s time to nab a perp. He selects a hole, pulls out a large knife and expertly levers out a chunk of wood.

There, in his hand, is a glossy beetle no larger than a sesame seed: the polyphagous shot hole borer.

Though small and sluggish, its appetites are wide and its spread is relentless. It attacks forest trees, city trees and key agricultural trees. It has defied all conventional and chemical weapons. No one seems to have a way to stop it.

This cul-de-sac, in the foothill community of Pasadena Glen, has been particularly hard-hit. One giant tree was so weak that one of its trunks toppled from one resident’s yard across a creek and crashed into a neighbor’s. Another tree was filled with green jelly, its insides completely digested.

Anxious residents cluster around as Eskalen examines a wounded sycamore.

“We’ve got a canyon full of highly educated people who want answers,” said longtime resident Linda Williams, a retired business owner.

Eskalen, a plant pathologist at UC Riverside, wants to contain this invasive bug before it spreads throughout Southern California. Already the beetle has been sighted as far south as San Diego, as far west as Santa Monica, as far east as the Riverside County city of Eastvale.

Eskalen tips the beetle into a glass vial. He detaches a pink spray bottle from his backpack and administers a few lethal squirts of ethanol before twisting the vial shut.

These beetles have a strange M.O. They don’t eat wood, like termites; instead, they drill circular tunnels toward the heart of the tree. They carry fungal spores in their mouths and sow them like seeds as they go.

Then they harvest the fungus to feed their larvae. It’s a deadly partnership: The beetles attack, but the fungus also helps to kill, colonizing the wood tissue and spreading through the plant.

The beetles have easily evaded the authorities. Inside the tree, they’re well protected from pesticide sprays. The incestuous offspring mate with their siblings inside the trunk, so sex pheromones do not lure them out.

“If we can’t control them,” Eskalen said, “they are going to wipe out all our trees.”

Eskalen’s first contact with these devious bugs was in 2012, triggered by a desperate email from South Gate resident Chelo Ghaly. The real estate closer’s avocado tree had been oozing white spots all over its trunk.

Local gardening authorities were of no use. Suggestions to try fungal sprays failed. Frustrated, she scoured the UC Riverside website and found Eskalen, who studies avocado diseases. She sent him pictures of the damage.

Eskalen said he looked at the strange symptoms and grabbed his car keys.

After examining the fungus in Ghaly’s tree, he took his findings to the California Avocado Commission. To date, they’ve given UC Riverside scientists a total of $800,000 to broaden his investigation into this mysterious species of ambrosia beetle.

His survey came to a head when he reached the Los Angeles County Arboretum and the Huntington Botanical Gardens — two repositories of healthy, well-kept trees.

They’re not so healthy anymore.

At the Huntington in San Marino, Eskalen spied a diseased specimen. He hopped up, grabbed a high branch with both hands and bounced until it snapped off.

“Ach, Akif, really?” said Tim Thibault, the Huntington’s curator of woody collections. It didn’t matter: The plant was probably a goner.

Such pests typically feast on a small group of plants. But this one doesn’t seem to discriminate.

When Eskalen and his colleagues surveyed the 335 species at the Huntington and the Arboretum, in Arcadia, they found the beetle had attacked 207 of them and 54% of these victims were infected with fungus. Nearly two dozen of the trees were being used as reproductive hosts — places where the beetles can raise their brood.

The consequences of a wide-ranging infestation could be enormous. Common city trees, such as American sweetgum and maple, would become public branch-dropping hazards. Native trees such as the California sycamore and the coast live oak have started to succumb, creating a fire risk in the form of dead, dry tinder. Avocados and other crops could face huge financial losses.

Like any good forensic investigator, Eskalen is using DNA to crack the case. He started by sequencing the fungi from diseased trees and found there were three different species — two that may serve as food and one that may act as protection by fighting off competing plant pathogens.

He also enlisted UC Riverside entomologist Richard Stouthamer to examine the DNA of the beetles themselves. Stouthamer’s genetic analysis traced the bugs to Vietnam.

Experts aren’t sure how the beetle made its way to the U.S. Invasive species around the world are moved on human cargo, in clothes, in wooden shipping pallets and in boats’ ballast water.

The beetles are not as much of a pest in Asia — perhaps because some other critter keeps them in check. Maybe that natural enemy could be brought to California to fight the infestation, a practice known as biological control.

In March, Eskalen, Stouthamer and Thibault spent two weeks in Vietnam, searching forests and fields for these natural vigilantes. They collected a host of possible allies, whose DNA is being analyzed in the lab.

Thus far, what little is known about the polyphagous shot hole borer doesn’t place it in the alarm-raising category of the Mediterranean fruit fly or the Japanese beetle, which some say spread more quickly. The U.S. Department of Agriculture hasn’t imposed any restrictions to contain this beetle.

Still, Eskalen and others fear a worst-case scenario if not enough is done to contain the pest. The number of tree species attacked by the beetle now stands at 286.

Even as the Vietnam-related infestation spreads, Stouthamer’s genetic fingerprinting linked the incursion in San Diego to a different population in Taiwan.

While scientists try to get a handle on the situation, residents like Ghaly are struggling with the pest on their own.

Ghaly had been keeping the tree alive at Eskalen’s request. But as her tree worsened, she thought about her elderly mother cleaning up after the failing plant. There were also signs that the infestation in her neighborhood was spreading.