Now our drought is official

Submitted: Jan 19, 2014
By: 
Badlands Journal editorial board

 Some environmental groups expressed concern that fine print in Friday’s drought declaration could lead to disruptive changes in how water is distributed. For instance, the drought declaration directs the State Water Resources Control Board to “immediately” consider petitions that would consolidate “places of use” for water diversions now held separately by the State Water Project and the federal government’s Central Valley Project.

Ronald Stork, a senior policy advocate at Friends of the River in Sacramento, said that if “place of use” is consolidated, federal water such as that held in Folsom Reservoir could be sent to Disneyland to keep the roller coasters operating. Currently, most of that water is designated for agriculture.

“That’s a titanic shift of purpose for the federal water project,” Stork said. “I think the water board needs to think this one through very carefully before they give the go-ahead to consolidating these two very different projects.” 

These two separate diversion systems in the Delta require a state permit to combine places of use so they can jointly use the proposed tunnels. Such an action would normally require months, if not years, of careful review and public comment. --Siders, Reese, Weiser, Sacramento Bee, Jan. 17, 2014

Gov. Jerry Brown’s long-expected declaration of drought was managed neatly, permitting the media in the north, central and southern parts of the state to dilate on local drought anxieties in an orderly fashion: ranching/farming for the San Francisco Chronicle; concerns about rivers and the Delta, Sacramento Bee, and concerns about fire in Southern California, the Los Angeles Times.

The most astute critique came from Ron Stork of Friends of the River (above), who exposed at least on of the undoubtedly several little legal tricks that will be played to keep water running toward money in the latest California drought.

The governor mentioned very little about the impact of the drought on the environment in general and we can safely assume that any discussion of the whole natural metabolism of our little slice of the world under this stress will be avoided by almost everybody.  For example, the Sunol rancher laments that a stock pond on land he leases is nothing but a small mud pool this year. Imagine what is happening to the wetlands – already more than 95-percent removed by development – which migratory water fowl on the Pacific Flyway rely on for food, rest, and safety. One Badlands Journal editor who has run a bird rehab center for 30 years explained: as the pools grow smaller, the birds pack in more densely. At some point bird cholera starts.

Who doubts the possibility that hysterical pressure by water exporters will cause the final extinction of the Delta Smelt and may terminate one or more salmon runs on the Delta? Regretfully, since water runs to money, who doubts that there is a strong lobby in Sacramento and Washington pushing well funded campaigns to cause the extirpation of these species.  Imagine: the largest estuary on the West Coast no longer hospitable to anadromous fish because so much of the Delta water is being exported south at government-subsidized rates to irrigate government-subsidized crops like cotton or crops like almonds which have available to them an array of government “programs” for “assistance,” being grown on soil so laden with salts and heavy metals that much of the subsidized water must be used just to wash the dirt clean enough to plant a crop that will not die of poisons.

And what help will the land, the water and air hope to get from a governor who wants: to build gigantic tunnels to transport Sacramento River water around the Delta directly to the agribusiness salt flats, 20 percent or so continuing on down South to fuel more urban development in Southern California; a high speed rail system so the business and political classes won’t have to take Amtrak and rub elbows with their victims; to encourage the development of hydraulic fracturing oil-and-gas drilling to accelerate the pollution of what groundwater is left?

Aside from worries over the direction the state government is taking, however, there are the more esoteric and sublime details of drought. Take "fuel moisture content," for example. This is firefighterspeak for the amount of water content in a tree: if it is too small, the tree will die while standing and go up like torch in a forest fire, inviting bug infestations and reducing the amount of merchantable timber to sell after a fire.

We end with the vision of a firefighter in a small former logging town in the redwood forest who had just driven a hundred miles through hills that are supposed to be green in a season when springs are sujpposed to flow, seasonal creeks are loud with water flowing down river canyons and the usual problem on that road is rockslides caused by frequent winter storms. He said he thought he saw God and Mother Nature leaning on a telephone post, arms crossed, staring at him as he made the turn off the main road to go home.-- blj

 

1-19-14

San Francisco Chronicle

California Drought: Farmers, ranchers face uncertain future

Stacy Finz

http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/California-drought-Farmers-ranchers-face-5156184.php

New troubles

Michael Marsh, CEO of the Western United Dairymen, said family dairies were just starting to recover from a series of financial pressures, including low milk prices and astronomical grain costs due to high demand for corn. Milk prices are up and corn costs have come down considerably.

"But now this," he said, adding that most dairymen grow feed for their cows in addition to pastures. With nothing to water their grass and crops, dairy farmers, like beef ranchers, are forced to buy hay. Those costs will eventually be passed on to consumers, Marsh said.

But no matter how bad things get, farmers are eternal optimists. "We have a saying in the industry: Tomorrow has got to be better than today."

Unfortunately for the San Joaquin Valley, where much of California's food is grown, tomorrow could get much worse if there is no rain. Even before the drought, the Central Valley had water issues and this only exacerbates the situation.

"Annual crops like melons and vegetables may not get planted," Ross said, adding that if that happens, local produce will be at a premium. "Yolo and San Luis Obispo counties (important agricultural producers) are also running very dry."

Wine grape growers in Sonoma County remained circumspect.

"We're concerned, but not at panic stage yet," said Karissa Kruse, a grower and president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission."

Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey Farm Bureau, said that his county is in better shape than much of California because of its two major reservoirs - lakes Nacimiento and San Antonio. The Salinas Valley is the most agriculturally productive region of California, known as the Salad Bowl of the world. Lettuce, spinach, strawberries, artichokes and wine grapes are among its top crops.

"For now, we're OK," Groot said. "But if the drought persists, we may not be. In four months we'll reevaluate, and at that time decide wether to leave fields fallow, specifically the annual crops like leafy greens and other vegetables."

Even with his cattle ranch in jeopardy, Imhof too is trying to take the pressure in stride. His wife, however, is a different story. "She says her next husband is going to be a computer guy."

 

Frank Imhof, a Sunol cattleman is checking the weather constantly. If he doesn't get rain soon, "lots of people are going to be out of a job," he says.

He's considering culling nearly 40 percent of his breeding herd and selling calves that are four to five months short of their market weight, because he doesn't have enough grass in his pastures to feed them.

On Friday, amid California's driest year on record, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in the state. As days pass without snow or rain, dairymen, farmers and other livestock producers are finding themselves in the same predicament as Imhof. Without water to irrigate, produce growers fear they will have to leave some fields fallow.

Ranchers and farmers say that as long as the drought continues, the nation's largest agricultural state will remain in turmoil, with repercussions stretching to consumer pocketbooks in the form of higher prices for such basic staples as meat, milk, fruit and vegetables.

"If it doesn't rain in another month there will be ranchers and farmers going out of business," Imhof said.

For most, there is little to no financial relief or government aid to bail them out. Only 35 of California's 400 crops are eligible for farm insurance, said Karen Ross, secretary of the state Department of Food and Agriculture. Almonds, corn, cotton, citrus and avocados are a few of those crops. Livestock operations are not.

No farm bill

And without the passage of a farm bill, most federal disaster relief programs are not available. Federal lawmakers, still wrangling over a dairy price program, are more than a year overdue passing the bill. The 2008 bill, which included everything from farm subsidies to food stamps, expired in autumn 2012, but was extended until Sept. 30, 2013. The legislation typically carries provisions, offering cash remedies to livestock producers - especially cattle - devastated by natural disasters.

"We're hoping that a bill is passed and those programs are retroactive," Ross said. "But California doesn't have the money to duplicate those federal funds."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is offering low-interest loans of up to $500,000 to growers and ranchers. The agency also administers the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program. Ranchers and farmers participate by paying $250 a year, and in hard times are eligible to receive a small percentage of their losses.

"It's not designed to make people whole," said Val Dolcini, California's executive director of the USDA's Farm Service Agency. "But it's more than a little something."

Luckily for Imhof, the wheat hay he grows to help feed his 200 head of cattle is insured. Without rain, there is little likelihood of a harvest.

"We've never bought crop insurance before," said Imhof. "But for some reason, when we planted, my wife said, 'We're getting insurance.' I guess God was trying to tell her something. I only wish God would tip me off on a horse at Golden Gate Fields."

He needs the winnings for the $5,000 he spent on hay - 24 tons he had trucked in from El Centro (Imperial County).

Some cattle ranchers are going as far as Utah for their hay, but an additional $85 a ton for freight can make that cost prohibitive, said Darrel Sweet, a Livermore cattleman. For now, he's buying feed and holding off on selling stock.

"Hope springs eternal," he said. "When you sell off your breeding heifers it takes three to four years to replace that income. I'll have to think long and hard before I sell them off. The long-term ramifications are too big."

But he knows that paying those feed bills isn't sustainable for long.

Robert Giacomini, a Point Reyes dairyman, said, "We're not ready to jump off the bridge yet, but we're very, very concerned."

He is not just worried for his 800 animals, but he's also wondering whether his farm will have enough drinking water since he relies on a well.

"If we don't get rain in the next two months that could become a problem," he said.

 

1-17-14

Sacramento Bee

Jerry Brown declares California drought emergency, urges 20 percent cut in water use

By David Siders, Phillip Reese and Matt Weiser
http://www.sacbee.com/2014/01/17/6082127/jerry-brown-declares-california.html

  Gov. Jerry Brownannounced a state of emergency Friday that has been all but official for weeks: California is in a drought.

Brown urged Californians to reduce water useby 20 percent, saying “we’re facing perhaps the worst drought that California has ever seen since records began being kept about 100 years ago.”

The emergency declaration comes as the state suffers through dry conditions for a third straight year. It follows weeks of consideration by the Brown administration amid pressure to act from lawmakers and water officials.

The Democratic governor had suggested for days that he was close to declaring the emergency, a measure aimed at focusing the attention of the public as well as federal officials who could accelerate some relief efforts.

Brown directed state agencies to hire more seasonal firefighters, use less water and prepare a water conservation public awareness campaign.

His appeal to residents to reduce water consumption is voluntary, but he suggested at a news conference in San Francisco that the state could impose mandatory restrictions if the drought persists.

“As we go down the road – you know, January, February, March – we will keep our eye on the ball and intensify, even to the point of mandatory conservation,” Brown said. “But we’re not going to do that quite yet.”

California is entering one of the driest winters on record after two dry years already parched the state. Many reservoirs are depleted, and streams and rivers are running low. American River flows are at their lowest level in two decades, while Folsom Lake has receded so dramatically that remnants of a Gold Rush-era mining town, long submerged, have been exposed.

Sacramento has had no rain since Dec. 7 and will likely soon break the record of 44 consecutive days without rain during the “rainy” season of November through March.

The U.S. Climate Prediction Center forecasts below-average precipitation in California for the rest of January and all of February, according to figures released Thursday, while the National Weather Service predicts no precipitation in the Sierra Nevada, which supplies much of the state’s water, during the next seven days.

The dry weather is due to high pressure off the coast that is preventing storm systems from developing, said Brad Pugh, a meteorologist with the U.S. Climate Prediction Center.

“We’re expecting drought conditions across California to intensify over the next few months,” Pugh told The Bee.

About three-quarters of the fresh water used in California goes toward irrigating farms, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and the counties that use the most water – Fresno, Kern, Tulare and Imperial – all are focal points for agriculture in the state. Together, those counties use five times as much water as Los Angeles County.

Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said 200,000 or more acres of farmland could be fallowed this year due to drought.

“That’s a lot of miles of open land,” she said.

Brown, governor before from 1975 to 1983, called for a 25 percent reduction in personal water use when drought gripped the state in 1977, but conservation efforts have picked up in the years since.

Agricultural water use declined by about 23 percent from 1980 to 2005, even as production increased, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Urban residential water use per capita is also declining, though most of the drop has been offset by population growth.

Brown said Friday that weathering the drought will take “a coming together of all the people of California to deal with this serious and prolonged event of nature.”

Yet for generations the limitations of California’s water supply have caused rifts, and the current drought is likely to accentuate debate over a $25 billion water project that Brown has made a priority of his third term.

At his appearance in San Francisco, Brown sought to use the drought to his advantage, arguing long-term water management will be improved by his plan to build two tunnels to divert water around the Delta to the south.

“I think it makes the case that more water can be saved if you have a Delta facility,” he said.

Brown also suggested the state will press the federal government to accelerate environmental reviews of the project.

Restore the Delta, a group opposed of Brown’s plan to build the tunnels, said in a statement that with California now in its third straight dry year, there is no surplus water to export.

The last drought emergency in California was declared by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009 and lifted by Brown in 2011.

Last year, with the state becoming drier once again, Brown issued an executive order directing the State Water Resources Control Board and Department of Water Resources to expedite their processing of voluntary water transfers.

Some environmental groups expressed concern that fine print in Friday’s drought declaration could lead to disruptive changes in how water is distributed. For instance, the drought declaration directs the State Water Resources Control Board to “immediately” consider petitions that would consolidate “places of use” for water diversions now held separately by the State Water Project and the federal government’s Central Valley Project.

These two separate diversion systems in the Delta require a state permit to combine places of use so they can jointly use the proposed tunnels. Such an action would normally require months, if not years, of careful review and public comment.

Ronald Stork, a senior policy advocate at Friends of the River in Sacramento, said that if “place of use” is consolidated, federal water such as that held in Folsom Reservoir could be sent to Disneyland to keep the roller coasters operating. Currently, most of that water is designated for agriculture.

“That’s a titanic shift of purpose for the federal water project,” Stork said. “I think the water board needs to think this one through very carefully before they give the go-ahead to consolidating these two very different projects.”

Others worry about provisions in the declaration that waive the California Environmental Quality Act and direct the water board to set aside Delta water quality provisions that benefit numerous fish species, which are already imperiled.

“It means the focus of the drought-related measures is to expedite water movement and eliminate environmental protections,” said Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. “For an estuary that’s already hemorrhaging from past mismanagement, that’s difficult to accept.”

Brown said that after declaring the drought emergency he doesn’t know how much assistance the state might receive from the federal government, though he said, “We’re going to get some.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday designated parts of 11 states, including California, as primary natural disaster areas due to drought. The designation, which includes Sacramento, Fresno and San Luis Obispo counties, makes certain farmers eligible for low-interest emergency loans to cover losses.

Meanwhile, water districts and local governments throughout the state have enacted conservation measures, including a water rationing order by city officials this week in Sacramento.

 

1-18-14

Los Angeles Times

California drought brings ‘unprecedented’ fire danger

Joe Serna

http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-california-drought-brings-unprecedented-fire-danger-20140118,0,3445118.story#axzz2qsUHhl82

California is bracing for what officials fear could be an unprecedented winter fire season fueled by record dry conditions that show no signs of letting up.

January is typically a time when forest fire camps and air bases are closed and seasonal firefighters go home. But not this year. the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has responded to 150 wildfires so far. During the same period last January, there were none, and the historic average is 25.

Fire officials pointed to coastal fires in Humboldt and San Mateo counties in the last two weeks as examples of the conditions they’re facing. The Humboldt fire spread across 333 acres in four days, shocking firefighters because the region is usually damp with rain at this time of year.

“In the winter when we see a fire…it typically will burn at a slow rate of spread. And take an engine to put it out,” said Calfire spokesman Daniel Berlandt. “This season, it’s taking a much larger response and even some aircraft because the grass and the brush wants to burn.”

Across California, vegetation that typically rehydrates with rain between December and April continues to get dryer and more dangerous. The fires so far this winter have been relatively moderate compared with some of the state’s largest, but officials worry that the fires will get worse as the fuel gets even dryer.

“It’s really is unprecedented. In my career, I’ve not seen this level,” said CalFire Director Ken Pimlott. “It’s the first [weeks] of January and we’re seeing conditions that would normally be occurring in mid-summer. That’s what we’re up against.”

Forecasters say there is little relief in sight. The 
National Weather Service last week released a forecast for the southwestern United States calling for unseasonably dry and hot conditions.

William Patzert, a climatologist with JPL, said California’s historically wet months of February, March and April look bone dry, and that is going to heighten 
the fire danger.

“It’s just explosive,” he said. “The grasses are just, they go up like a match…. Everything is good to go.”

Patzert said this season’s parched conditions are part of a longer-term weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

From the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, the cycle was in a “positive” phase that pushed warm surface water and wet weather to the eastern Pacific. That brought California pockets of plentiful rain, including infamous El Nino storms. But more recently, the oscillation has trended toward a “negative” phase that's pushed the wet climate north and east of California. 

“If you look at tree rings, these kinds of things have been happening for 1,500 years,” Patzert said. “We don't really understand why the [change] happens...but what we do know is that once it happens, it's persistent.”

This week’s Colby fire in Glendora demonstrated the dangers. The fire broke out after days of red-flag conditions that brought hot temperatures and winds to parts of Southern California as much of the rest of the country was in a deep freeze.

The fire started Thursday at 5:51 a.m., quickly consuming 4 to 5 acres. Within half an hour, it had burned 100 to 200 acres. Winds pushed the fire and embers at a rapid rate, ultimately burning more than 1,700 acres.

“I've never seen a fire move that fast,” said Los Angeles County Fire Deputy Chief David Richardson.

It took more than 1,000 firefighters and extensive use of water-dropping aircraft to contain the fire. Five homes were destroyed and more than a dozen damaged.

“It wouldn’t have been so bad, but with the fuel and the winds, it lined up in perfect alignment and ran down the canyon,” U.S. Forest Service spokesman Nathan Judy said. “It would’ve been a small contained fire we would’ve had out in a few hours.”

Shyi-ren Lin, 54, was among the residents caught off guard by the fire’s rapid march. He spent the past month trimming his trees and clearing brush around his Glendora hillside home but hadn’t completed the work.

He figured he had time: He and his neighbors get letters every February with instructions for required brush clearance and tree trimming regulations. The deadline is always May 1.

But as the flames crept down toward his home Thursday, he had to reconsider life in the hillside canyon.

“I’m thinking, ‘Should I move?’” Lin said. “The danger will grow if we get more dry months and hotter weather. …I think when we live in this area, we should expect the fire could be at any time, not just the dry months, but any time.”

 

"Of Thee I Sing--Babel"

by Yip Harburg

Build thee more stately mansions, little man,

     More grandioso--more gargantuanm

But as the towners rise and derricks roar,

     Remember, there was once a dinosaur.


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