Something about 40 roosters...Badlands Journal editorial board
We were curious about an agenda item for the Merced County Planning Commission that appeared in late February: "To permit (legalize) the raising of up to 40 roosters as a hobby and occasional sales, on a 9.7 acre parcel."
When we read further, we realized we'd passed this rooster ranch in Stevinson not long before and had commented that someone must be raising fighting cocks on the site. There seemed no other explanation for a field full of little pens holding individual roosters that did not look like White Leghorns or Plymouth Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Araucanas, Banties or any other typical barnyard variety of chicken. They looked like gamecocks. It was our general impression that cockfighting is supposed to be illegal in California, although it is a law widely disobeyed since its passage. We were also aware of something of a campaign against raising gamefowl in the county in recent years and a number of cockfight busts. So, we, the perpetually ignorant public, wondered what this agenda item could be doing in front of the planning commission rather than on the Sheriff's blotter. We asked someone at a county office about it, but she just rolled her eyes and said she didn't always read the documents she distributed.
Members of the public called the editorial board and suggested they watch the video of the planning commission meeting. They said it was one of the most mysterious moments they had ever witnessed in local government.
We watched the videotape of the planning commission and took notes, but when we reviewed our notes they didn't make much sense. Eventually, we decided to transcribe both the planning commission hearing and the appeal hearing before the Board of Supervisors. We confess that after transcribing and rereading the two hearings several times, we aren't sure that we gained much more understanding.
However, we became fascinated with this story about the raising of gamefowl roosters in the United States. In fact, it doesn't take much research into the issue to discover that cock fighting is a significant, consistent theme in the history of US sporting and gaming life, and that any theory that this is strictly a "problem" limited to the cultures of recent immigrants is as ludicrous as most such claims.
Searching the Internet for several hours, we found that the vast majority of websites concerning gamefowl are about cock fights, breeds and their various characteristics in the pits. When one tries to find some mention of a show champion -- as in an exhibit at a county fair or other venue where chickens are shown, not pitted -- he will be steered to stories of fabled roosters, their records, their bloodlines, etc. We found no pictures of 4-H or FFA youthful exhibitors standing proudly before gamefowl roosters, with or without dubbed combs and wattles. We are not denying such records exist, only that we couldn't find any on the Internet.
One editorial board member, who has spent most of his life in rural California, has seen fighting cocks in several counties and heard about cockfights in every county he's ever worked in. Polling the members of the public, we found universal cynical humor regarding participants at cockfights. No member admitted to ever having been to a cockfight, but all assured us that prominent (unnamed) members of the community attended them, sometimes creating a delicate, political problem for law enforcement. We thought one member's remark, "half the (undesignated) city council," might have been hyperbolic. The editorial board could only remember one Valley district attorney, one lettuce grower and a lone labor contractor that it could affirm with confidence bred and/or fought gamecocks.
Cockfighting today in the Valley appears to be of interest to law enforcement primarily because of illegal drug and firearm sales and violence that occur at meets. Beyond that, in the center of the state's poultry industry, there are concerns about the spread of avian diseases because gamecocks are brought across state and national lines to compete.
Any ideas about the content of the two public hearings transcribed below or why they were held at all would be pure speculation.
Badlands Journal editorial board
I. The gamecock queen
Merced County Planning Commission Public Hearing on Administrative Permit Application No. AA08-054
February 25, 2009
Present: Chairman Lynn Tanner, commissioners Cynthia Lashbrook, Jack Mobley, Rudy Buendia; Absent: Commissioner Mark Erreca.
The Planning Department staff report for the February 25 planning commission meeting was prepared by Jeff Fugelsang. The property owner who applied for the administrative permit was Ernesto Manarrez, who describes himself in a letter to the Planning Department as "a Spanish speaking and a deaf individual."
The application for the permit arose from a complaint filed with the County.
The County Planning Department Code Compliance Division Request for Code Enforcement complaint against "Monarrez Merced, 24220 W. third, Stevinson CA," filed on June 16, 2008, stated: "This property has probably 600-1,000 chickens, at least 100 rooster pens, and goats. There are two houses on this property and one of the houses is being rented to a (illegible) relative. The renters have 12 bull calfs (Holsteins) approx. (either 300 or 800, illegible handwriting) lb per animal in a 60 ft. x 30 ft. area. They also have 15 goats in the same area. The fly's and the smell is overwhelming. There is also a lot of traffic that comes from this property. The roosters are fighing cocks but do not know if they are fighting on the property." The form notes that the zoning is A-1 (agricultural) and that it is in the 4th supervisorial district (Kelsey).
The complainant's name and other particulars are redacted from the form.
The request, again, was to:
"To permit (legalize) the raising of up to 40 roosters as a hobby and occasional sales, on a 9.7 acre parcel." The parcel is located on Third Ave. in Stevinson in the supervisorial district of Deidre Kelsey.
The Planning staff report recommended denial on three bases:
1. Forty roosters in open air pens are inconsistent with the agricultural chapter of the General Plan.
2. The project is incompatible with adjacent rural residental land uses.
3. Three letters from adjacent landowners strongly opposed the permit application.
The applicant had been raising over 100 roosters and owned more than 200 rooster pens. When confronted by the county code enforcement officer, brought there by a neighbor's formal, signed complaint, the owner stated that the purpose of his activity was for hobby shows/exhibitions, family consumption, and periodic offsite sales. Code-enforcement staff reported:
"Staff asked family to produce sales receipts, membership to associations, breeding certificates, showmanship or exihibitor awards," the staff report continued. "The applicants state they could not produce such evidence for the record. Therefore, staff has no evidentiary basis to support the applicants explanation that the project is merely for hobby purposes and family consumption ..."
After this February 25, 2009 hearing, however, the applicant procured a "Certificate of Award" on March 7, 2009 in Ceres. (see Appendix A.)
At the hearing, Planning Department staff reported that Monarrez's facility is not a business and has no employees. "They say they are in no way related to cocking fighting." It consists of a number of open-air rooster pens behind 6' chainlink fence. There are four residences less than 450 feet from roosters.
Agricultural-1 zoning permits up to two roosters per parcel, any more are subject to the animal confinement ordinance -- therefore this is an incompatible use. The planning department found that there were an excessive number of roosters, they are aggressive, and there is excessive traffic to the place. Individuals other than the owner may be raising the roosters.
Hilmar Municipal Advisory Council voted unanimously against it.
Staff recommended three alternatives:
1. No more than two roosters, remove the rest in 30 days.
2. Aplicants prepare and Initial Study under CEQA.
3. Commission could decide to grant a "common sense" exemption under CEQA and approve permit.
The public hearing begins: (editorial board comments in italics)...
...Lashbrook: I'm understanding the recommendation pretty much... First, that many roosters, hard to believe no relation to cockfighting, but uh, I know some people just love their critturs. I know somebody who raises goats and never eats them ..uh... on his farm too.
People have different reasons. I am just having a hard time that the country can't be the country anymore.
(A chicken in every pot and a cockfight in every barn? -- ed.)
To me looking at the second alternative where we're really making sure they understand what would be OK and not OK and possibly having to respond -- it sounded like there would be fewer roosters and less of a problem and more managed and less going on...their neighbors... I'm just having a hard time with your bad (unintelligible)... This is the country. This is ten acres. I'm sure when they bought this there wasn't this kind of issues ... that's just what everybody did and there's going to be no reason not to plant subdivisions if you can't have a rural-like property and do rural ag...What would kick in the CAPO sort of thing, the confined animal ...?...
...Lashbrook: And the other thing I'm having trouble with is if they had a half an acre cut off they could have two roosters and they have ten acres and can only have two roosters...to me that's not dealing with the reality of what the holding capacity of that land is, without raising ... and you could easily raise 40-100 chickens on a property that large especially if you were moving them around and not having much in the way of environmental degradation...putting them all in one place all the time, manure and things like that would be a problem ...mmmm, I'm just...we're probably going to have to deny this I imagine but I just...I'm hoping the maybe with the General Plan, uh, we can come up with something that is a little more realistic (a category for commercial production of fighting cocks, perhaps) for rural living ... that we're not just turning these into, uh,large subdivision lots with all that ... those kinds of restrictions. It would be great for me if somebody in the family would come up and talk about what's going on. I was hoping we would get a little bit more of that .... board ... (Note: the family did not come up when the public comment period was open.)...
...Tanner: OK. I have a motion and a second to deny administrative application (numbers) with our inability to make the findings and subject to the conditions of the application.
All those in favor say Aye. Chair also votes Aye. All those opposed, say Nay.
Lashbrook: I'm opposed.
Tanner: Three-to-one. This has been denied.
Lashbrook: Again, I'm just hoping, again, just having two roosters no matter what the size of the lot I don't think that's well thought out and again, I'm just hoping that whoever is working on this ordinance we have a chance to, uh, to bring people with mixed views into creating it...
II. Round Two -- The Board of Supervisors
Merced County Board of Supervisors Public Hearing on Appeal of the Planning Commission's denial of Administrative Permit Application No. AA08-054 -- Merced and Ernesto Monarrez -- April 14, 2009
Present: Chairwoman Deidre Kelsey, supervisors John Pedrozo, Hub Walsh, Gerry O'Banion; Absent: Supervisor Mike Nelson
Chairman Kelsey: OK.
Planning Department Director Bobby Lewis: This item came before the Planning Commission and staff did recommend denial for the administrative permit for the 40 roosters. The planning commission voted in favor of that recommendation of planning staff to deny the project...
Lewis: Subsequently, the applicant has appealed. We're here today. We have Jeff Wilson, the co-compliance manager. I just wanted to say that this actually came to us originally from a co-compliance complaint that we responded to. The applicants did meet with our co-compliance staff and did make the application. Uh, so with that I will turn it over to Mr. Wilson who will give you a brief presentation. Also, Jeff Fugelsang is here to offer support. He did write the actual staff report. If you have any questions we'll be available to answer any questions you have...
Walsh: I'll make a motion if there's no more discussion that we deny the appeal and uphold the planning commission's denial of the administrative application number AA08-054...
Kelsey: Thank you and just a comment before I call for the question, you know I don't have a problem with raising chickens at all for hobbies, if it's chickens, even if it's a mixed flock of roosters and hens. But, when it's all roosters and they all have their individual houses, like the picture showed, and their combs are cut and their wattles are cut ... I don't want to put a shingle out on Merced County that says, "Bring on down fighting cocks and raise them here." ... We went through a long battle to not allow that in the county. And, it can get out of hand. I know there's disease issues with roosters, and there's also gambling and other illicit activities. Again, I don't have a problem with hobby raising of a mixed flock. But, that's not what this is in front of us.
At this time I will call for the question. All those in favor, please signify by saying Aye. Any opposition. Vote carried. We're going to take a break ...
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Commencement commotion at UC Merced...Cyndee Fontana
MERCED -- UC Merced's commencement might have been a modest event with plenty of room for mom, dad and everyone else.
But a band of student leaders changed that by persuading first lady Michelle Obama to speak at the May 16 ceremony. Now, the newest school in the UC system is the envy of its sister campuses, and local city officials are in planning frenzy -- bracing for an influx of up to 25,000 people.
"Amgen on steroids" one city spokesman quipped about commencement, comparing it to the Tour of California cycling race that blew through Merced in February and attracted about 15,000 spectators.
University officials believe the Obama visit marks the first time a first lady will speak at a UC commencement. The University of California at Berkeley newspaper reacted to the news with this editorial headline: "Put to shame by Merced."
UC Merced, which opened in fall 2005 with 875 students, graduates its first full class next month. The pioneering Class of 2009 helped set up student government, founded clubs, dreamed up activities and won over Obama with little more than exuberance and less than $1,000 in cards and postage stamps.
"We like to see students create something out of nothing," said senior Megan Machado, 21, of San Francisco, who will graduate with a degree in biological sciences. "We're really good at that."
Their latest success has yielded a logistical and financial challenge. Both the city and university are still putting together budgets and looking for sponsors to help with the cost.
What would have been a relatively small commencement in the campus quad now is a ticketed, hours-long event expected to lure thousands of people to a campus bordered by pastures and fed by a two-lane road.
UC Merced, with about 2,700 students, doesn't have enough parking spaces -- or even enough seats -- to accommodate the expected crowd. Officials are developing off-site parking plans that rely on shuttle buses; they're also securing bids on everything from chairs to mobile bathroom trailers.
Last week, crews installed nearly 2 acres of sod in "the bowl," a low-lying spot on campus where commencement is scheduled. Authorities still are figuring out how best to use the space to maximize seating.
"It's fair to say there's been a real outpouring of interest" since Obama accepted the invitation, said Janet Young, associate chancellor and chief of staff at UC Merced.
That includes the pool of graduates. UC Merced holds only one commencement annually, so students who finished degrees last fall or are on track to finish next fall also can walk in the ceremony. About 500 are expected to take part.
"Suddenly, everybody's ready to graduate," said campus spokeswoman Patti Waid Istas.
The university has created a ticket policy to manage requests and accommodate as many visitors as possible. Graduation candidates are eligible for up to nine tickets and can appeal for more.
UC Merced officials believe they'll have room for about 12,500 people. Checkpoints along the way to parking areas are expected to weed out people who don't have tickets.
City officials are preparing to manage the overflow and broadcast the first lady's speech on big screens around town. They also plan to distribute a map showing the locations of restaurants, gas stations and other services.
A two-day "Cap & Town" street fair and festival -- featuring bands, food booths and other activities -- kicks off in downtown Merced on May 15, the day before commencement.
City spokesman Mike Conway said the food booths are particularly important because "we know we don't have the restaurant capacity" to handle crowds leaving the ceremony.
The UC campus identifies with Merced but is situated northeast of town. The city of about 80,000 people has been in the news most recently for its high home foreclosure rate.
Mayor Ellie Wooten was happy to field questions on another topic. Commencement is likely to bring the biggest-ever crowd of people to Merced.
"Those kids were something else," she said of the students who landed the Obama visit. "I'm very proud of them."
So, how did they do it?
By aiming high, student leaders say. Michelle Obama's name was thrown out in late January as a few seniors brainstormed about potential speakers just after inauguration day, said senior Yaasha Sabba, 22, of San Francisco. He is president of Associated Students, the campus student government.
Out of deference to the president's schedule -- and "because we wanted him to fix the economy" -- students decided against inviting him, Sabba said.
Soon, student leaders cobbled together a "Dear Michelle" campaign that included a YouTube video, Facebook page and personal letters. They tapped into a Valentine's Day theme by printing up cards and asking students, staff and others to write personal messages.
Each of the roughly 970 cards was addressed by hand.
"Why can't we use labels?" someone asked.
"Because that would be too easy for us," Sabba answered.
Obama accepted the commencement invitation during the university's spring break; White House officials said she was touched by the campaign.
Also speaking will be Jason Castillo, who already had auditioned and won the student speaker job before Obama committed to UC Merced. Castillo, a Clovis High graduate and human biology major, said he feels humbled to be chosen but isn't intimidated by what promises to be a big audience.
Castillo, 21, has five minutes to speak. While he hopes to sit near Obama, he said, "I'm just happy to be somewhere on the stage."
University officials made one key concession to suit Obama's schedule -- they agreed to move commencement from the evening to the afternoon. Wooten said the first lady may only be on campus or in town for a few hours.
The switch upset some travel plans and peeved some students who worry that Obama -- and not graduates -- will be the center of attention.
"It's cool that she's coming, but it kind of sucks for the graduates," said UC Merced student Kailey Horton, 19, of Truckee. She added that some graduates now must limit the number of family members invited.
Both administrators and student leaders say they're working to ensure that the graduating class remains the focus of commencement.
Ironically, many of the student leaders who wooed Obama didn't plan to attend UC Merced. Back in 2005, the campus launched with little more than student housing and the library.
Sabba, for example, first was overcome by the emptiness. Then he saw the possibilities and the chance to build the foundation of a new university.
Now, future classes will have a tough time topping this commencement speaker.
And, said Sabba: "It was the students who got her ... that's what is going to be in our hearts forever."
Water controversies boil over...Matt Weiser
Any doubt that California is hip-deep in an epic struggle for water was put to rest earlier this month when an estimated 10,000 farmers and farmworkers marched 50 miles across the gasping San Joaquin Valley.
The goal was to heighten awareness about their water shortage, brought about by a third year of drought in California and environmental problems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Their alliance is surprising, given a long history of acrimony between farm owners and laborers. It demonstrates the shifting alliances and simmering tensions that emerge when people fight over water.
We're likely to see more struggles over water, both locally and worldwide. The next big conflict in California is a proposal for a canal built around the Delta, designed to secure a water supply for Central Valley farms and Southern California cities while also improving the environment of the West Coast's largest estuary. Critics worry that it's simply a tool to drain the Sacramento River.
Preventing a water grab paradoxically requires us to set aside turf battles and focus instead on how the so-called peripheral canal will be managed. Who will be in charge of turning the water valves on and off? When and why? These questions, more than how much water is transferred south, hold the solution to managing future shortages.
In coming years, 46 nations risk violent conflict over water and climate-related crises, and 56 other countries face political instability, according to a study by International Alert, a British advocacy group. The United Nations says water wars may be more likely in the future than wars over oil.
"Water will … become one of the defining limits to human development and a compounding factor in human misery," Achim Steiner, director of the U.N. Environment Programme, said during the World Water Forum, attended by more than 30,000 government officials and nonprofit leaders last month in Istanbul, Turkey.
A key message at the forum: There is probably enough fresh water available to meet human needs, despite climate change and population growth. However, the problem is poor management of water, which results in scarcity and conflict.
Fights over water – some small, others as large as California – are occurring across the globe. I recently visited a rural area in Ethiopia, where a breach of trust left two villages without a secure water future.
Near the mountainous town of Ticho, about three hours south of Addis Ababa, a group of villagers washed clothes and gathered water at a natural spring. Many filled ubiquitous "jerry cans" – 6-gallon yellow plastic jugs used to fetch water from creeks or public taps.
As we approached, an older man ran up shouting and gesturing for us to leave. He accused us of coming to steal the springwater, we learned through our translator.
The banks of the spring, deeply shaded by trees, were littered with animal feces, the water cloudy and gray. A half-finished wall surrounded the spring – an effort to cap the source and pipe the water to two villages. A contractor had been hired by the state government to develop the spring to serve his nearby village and another, 37 miles away.
Once construction began, the locals learned that all the water would go to the distant village. They would get none. So they kicked out the contractor, halted the project and drove away a state official who later tried to negotiate a compromise. They told us the spring was holy and refused to let us take pictures or talk to anyone from the village.
"If I were them, I would too," said Shibabaw Tadesse, a local coordinator with WaterAid, a British charity that funds projects in Ethiopia. "Such kind of resource cannot be capped. It's amazing, really. Amazing."
An apparent bungling of the construction contract – a case of mismanagement – sowed the seeds of distrust.
In the San Joaquin Valley, where 40 percent of America's produce is grown, farmers have been told they'll get only 10 percent of their contracted federal water supply this year. Cities in the Bay Area and Southern California, which receive water from the state, expect only 30 percent of normal deliveries. UC Davis economist Richard Howitt predicts losses of at least 40,000 farm-related jobs and $1.15 billion in income. Thousands of acres of crops have already been fallowed.
It's too simple to call this a water shortage problem. Shortage and conflict exist, at least in part, because of numerous complex water management problems in California, where the seeds of mistrust have grown for decades.
The most recent case in point is the proposal to build a canal around the Delta. The canal would divert a portion of the Sacramento River directly to state and federal water export pumps near Tracy. It is hoped this will eliminate environmental problems caused by pumping directly from the estuary.
The controversial plan has shifted some alliances. The Nature Conservancy, for instance, recently announced its conditional support for the canal amid groans from other environmental groups. Other groups have joined with Delta farmers who oppose the canal, which, in turn, puts them in conflict with farmers in the San Joaquin Valley.
Many environmentalists oppose the canal because California does not manage its water judiciously. Other conservationists are reluctant to support the canal and new reservoirs without guarantees that the water will be used more efficiently.
Graywater is one example of how California doesn't do a good job of managing its water. Neighboring states allow homeowners to use water from sinks, showers, bathtubs and washers to irrigate landscaping without special permits or regulations.
In California, however, you're breaking the law if you apply graywater to landscaping without a permit from your local health department or building inspector. The plumbing industry still views graywater as a sewage disposal issue. This outdated perspective appears to be dominating a process under way at the Department of Housing and Community Development to update graywater rules. As a result, it seems unlikely California will fully embrace graywater as a resource that could prevent wasting fresh water.
California could save 140,000 acre-feet of water – enough to serve 300,000 homes for a year – if just one in 10 households irrigated with graywater.
Another example of inefficient water management: California reservoirs must follow flood-control rules written, in some cases, 50 years ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The rules require dam operators to release water for flood control as late as May 31 – regardless of actual flood risk.
This is largely why we see so much water flowing in the American River and other rivers today. Reservoir managers must maintain space for water behind a dam in case they need to store floodwater. Hot weather last week means even more crucial snowmelt was released from dams.
In the future, Sierra snowpack is expected to shrink due to climate change, which will force California to find ways to store more winter rainfall. If the state is required to follow 50-year-old rules on managing water, that's another battle lost.
A program called "forecast-based operations" has been discussed for years as a means to guide the operation of reservoirs according to the weather. Simply put, if forecasters say floods are likely next week, dam managers would release water. Otherwise, they retain water.
But forecast-based operations have not replaced the old rules at a single California dam.
"From the standpoint of new surface storage, it is the easiest thing to do," said Ron Stork, a senior policy advocate at Friends of the River, a Sacramento-based environmental group.
Another example: Half of California farmland is irrigated by flooding fields, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It's a cheap but crude practice that is increasingly difficult to justify in a dry state.
The Pacific Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Oakland, estimates that shifting California farms to more efficient irrigation could save 5 million acre-feet of water annually. That's about equal to all the Delta water pumped in a typical year.
Solutions range from microsprinklers and drip irrigation to computerized soil sensors and weather triggers to deliver optimum supply for a given crop.
Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, attacked the Pacific Institute study, saying only farmers should decide how to use their water. But when pressed, he said water savings are possible if farmers had help and agreed with the Pacific Institute that tax credits would help farms adopt efficient irrigation.
In California and worldwide, there reigns a cultural fixation that water is ours to use as we please. Magnified across the globe, this notion breeds poor water management and conflict, whether in California or rural Ethiopia.
Kidanemariam Jembere, of the Ethiopian Country Water Partnership, has mediated water disputes in the headwaters of the Blue Nile, where conflicts have flared between families, religions, farmers and villages. Solving these conflicts, he says, requires us to accept that water doesn't belong to anyone. It belongs to all.
"We can use conflict as an opportunity to create partnership. That's my belief," Jembere said. "But we have a very big problem raising that issue of water as a shared resource."
Daniel Weintraub: River restoration project offers a sprinkling of hope...Daniel Weintraub
When the chinook salmon come back to the San Joaquin River, it will be a miracle. But the wonder of the river's restoration won't be in the biology involved, which is well established. Or the engineering needed to bring the river back to life. Most of what is required has been done before.
It's the politics that make this project so remarkable.
Few issues in California, or anywhere in the West, cause as much bitter division as water. Yet in the foothills east of Fresno and the flatlands stretching toward the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the warring parties have finally put down their arms and are working together on a project that should benefit the environment, the fishing industry and the local economy. Even the farmers at the heart of it all have signed on to the deal, though many of them still wish they could remain set in their ways.
Thanks to recent changes in federal law and a commitment of federal money to the project, the San Joaquin River restoration, debated for nearly 20 years, is about to begin in earnest. The first water for the newly re-created river will flow through Friant Dam in October, if all goes according to plan, and it will then flow into parts of the river that have been dry for decades. Within a few years, thousands of salmon should be swimming upstream through what is now a parched valley landscape.
"When we're done, we'll have a river that can safely convey the flows necessary to restore salmon and other native fish to the river," Monty Schmitt, a biologist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, who has been working on the project for nine years, told me last week. "It means the San Joaquin River is providing fresh water downstream, to the lower San Joaquin and the Delta, stretches of the Central Valley that have water quality issues. We'll actually have a living, connected river.
"In these years when the salmon populations have been crashing throughout California, when the commercial fishery is closed again, restoring salmon to the San Joaquin River is one of the greatest steps we can take to hopefully revive the commercial salmon industry," Schmitt said.
Much of what used to be a wild, scenic river has been transformed over the years into a series of channels and canals, with water moving this way and that to irrigate some of the most productive cropland in the country. Citrus, stone fruit, grapes and nuts are grown there now, along with forage crops for the cows that make Tulare County the No. 1 dairy county in the nation.
Those farms stand to lose as much as 20 percent of their water as the river is restored. But the restoration plan makes it a priority to help them get most of that water back in one way or another. The water district will be allowed to capture more water in flood years and save it for dry years. Canals will be improved and new levies built. New land and new techniques will be employed to store reserves as groundwater that can be pulled back to the surface with wells and pumps.
There is even a plan to recycle water by taking it back out of the California aqueduct south of Fresno after it flows down the river, through the Delta and becomes part of the state's water system. The same water that restores the salmon could then be pumped back uphill and used again, this time for irrigation.
"We hope to get double duty out of that water by taking it the long way around," said Ron Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Authority. "We really need to focus on getting that water back. The project has been in operation for over half a century, and the whole fabric of the community here has been built on having those reliable water supplies."
There's a lesson here for combatants on other contentious issues large and small: It's usually better for everyone involved to settle their differences rather than fight to the death.
At first the farmers fought the lawsuit that sought the river's restoration. After all, it challenged their right to use the water they had been claiming for decades. But once the courts ruled that the river's diversion had endangered the salmon, it became clear that a decision would be issued at some point ordering the restoration. Facing that prospect, the users eventually decided it would be better for them to help shape the plan than to merely suffer its consequences.
"Our folks needed some certainty," Jacobsma said. "The settlement provides water-supply certainty. It provides financial certainty. They'll be paying no more than what they would have otherwise paid. That would not have been the case if a judge had decided it. And we get an opportunity to get our water back, which we did not think we would get out of a federal court ruling."
The environmentalists who brought the lawsuit, once having gained the legal momentum, could have refused to concede any points. But Schmitt said they wanted a settlement that the farmers could believe in.
"We did it because we felt that a settlement that had everyone on board would be an agreement that everybody could live with, and we could go forward working together," he said. "A court-ordered judgment forcing them to release water would have continued an atmosphere of hostility and anger. It's always better to have a situation where everybody works together."
Although the agreement was formally placed into federal law when President Barack Obama signed the Omnibus Public Lands Bill in March, the parties had been working on the restoration plan for more than two years, laying the groundwork for the physical changes to come. The next step is for scientists to study those first water releases planned for October to see how the water flows, how wildlife reacts and what engineering changes will be necessary to accommodate the amount of water needed to create the salmon fishery.
The river will not necessarily be restored to its full, natural path along its entire length. Too much has changed in the decades since it was dammed. Along some stretches, canals might still be used to carry the water short distances and to ferry the salmon upstream.
"We've never done anything on this scale," said Peter Moyle, a UC Davis professor and consultant on the project. "You've got 150 miles of river where roughly half of it was drying up every year. The lower-most section has essentially been treated as an agricultural drain."
One example: A section of the riverbed near Fresno after the river flows under Highway 99 has a sandy, rocky bottom and has the reputation of being a big sink for water. Nobody knows at this point what is going to happen once the water starts flowing into that sink. Much of it will simply disappear into the ground. And no one knows how long it will take to recharge the groundwater basin so that the earth no longer absorbs all the water put into the river.
"Some of the initial flows will answer that question," Moyle said.
Once that problem and many others are overcome, California's second longest river will be alive again.
"That's going to be an enormous asset for the people who live in the San Joaquin Valley," Moyle said. "It's more than just for fish. It's going to be good for recreation, for all kinds of other endangered species. We're doing more than just bringing back a few fish into the system. We're recreating a river, and that's going to be an amazing thing."
Lester Snow and Timothy Quinn: Conservation is best, easiest water policy...Lester Snow and Timothy Quinn
It's easy to see why so many people call California home. We are blessed with stunning mountains and coastlines, the most productive agricultural land in the world, and innovative industries that drive technology and entertainment trends all over the globe.
But one of our most important resources is in trouble. Our state is facing severe water challenges, and many communities and ecosystems are suffering as a result.
Environmental problems, the pressures of a growing population and the effects of climate change are making it extremely difficult to keep water flowing reliably. On top of that, we are facing our third consecutive year of drought, and we can't assume the dry conditions will end anytime soon.
One look at Australia, which is in the midst of a 10-year drought, offers a glimpse at what our future could be if multiyear droughts and extreme weather patterns become the norm for California. We have to not only prepare for more dry years but also think strategically about our water use and take every action possible to ensure a reliable water supply in the future.
California's leaders are working hard to develop long-term solutions, including investments to improve the state's water infrastructure and environment protections. But in the meantime, we need a survival strategy. The biggest tool in our toolbox right now is water conservation. Doing everything we can to save water will go a long way toward stretching water supplies today and into the future while we move ahead with the necessary long-term fixes.
The good news is that it's not difficult to save water in our daily lives. Just as Californians have embraced compact fluorescent light bulbs and recycling, it's easy to get in the habit of reducing our water use every day. As our efforts on energy conservation have shown, small changes in our daily habits can add up to a big difference for California.
This is why the California Department of Water Resources has joined with the Association of California Water Agencies – 450 public water agencies throughout the state – to kick off a new statewide conservation and education program called "Save Our Water." This new effort will educate Californians about the state's ongoing water supply challenges and promote conservation at home and in the workplace.
There are many ways to save water with very little inconvenience. Taking shorter showers, turning off the faucet while brushing your teeth and watering your lawn two or three times a week are just a few examples.
The Save Our Water effort comes at a critical time. Water is in short supply for many cities, farms and businesses. More than 20 water agencies have imposed some form of mandatory water rationing. Farmers are fallowing crops, and unemployment in rural areas is on the rise. The ongoing water shortage threatens our agricultural industry, which produces food for our state, the nation and the world.
In February Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed a statewide emergency due to drought and asked all Californians to reduce their individual water use by 20 percent. But even when normal rains return, California's water problems will not go away. As our population grows, water conservation must be a way of life.
Indications are that Californians are overwhelmingly willing to conserve if you tell them why it's needed and how to do it. A recent public opinion poll showed that 85 percent of Californians are willing to do significantly more to save water because they recognize our water supply reliability as one of the most pressing issues we face.
The public appears ready and willing to help. The Save Our Water program is here to give Californians the tools and information they need.
We encourage everyone to join us. Plant water-wise landscaping, install a "smart" irrigation controller, and take shorter showers. Look at how you use water inside and outside your home, and do what you can to save. Together, we can make a difference.
Meadow restoration may be inexpensive method for water storage...Dana M. Nichols
SAN ANDREAS - Millions of dollars in federal money will begin flowing into high Sierra meadows this year in hopes that those meadows can be restored so they will store more water until late summer, when thirsty farms and cities downstream need it most.
The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation - a quasi-private foundation created by Congress that channels both federal and private dollars to habitat work - recently decided to make restoration of eroded meadows in California's Sierra Nevada mountains one of its priorities.
Although various species of birds, fish and animals would benefit, that isn't the biggest news. The big news is that such work may be a less expensive way to expand water storage in some cases than building new dams and reservoirs.
According to a Sierra Nevada Meadow Restoration draft business plan completed by the foundation in March, repairing all of the degraded Sierra meadows in California could increase late-summer water storage by the equivalent of 50,000 to 500,000 acre-feet per year.
At the high end, that's the equivalent of building a medium-large reservoir larger than Camanche Reservoir on the Mokelumne River. And the foundation said that based on recent restoration projects, the additional water would cost $100 to $250 per acre-foot over the first 10 years, significantly less than the $330 to $685 per acre-foot cost of water from a reservoir proposed in Colusa County.
An acre-foot is enough water to cover one acre one foot deep, and is generally considered about enough water to supply two typical California homes for a year.
The Foundation plans to spend $10 million to $15 million in the next decade on such projects, and has set a goal of improving water storage in Sierra Nevada meadows by at least 20,000 acre-feet by 2014.
"I am going to do all that I can to get even more federal dollars directed toward this," said Timothy Male, director of wildlife and habitat conservation for the foundation.
Ultimately, the foundation hopes to leverage $200 million for meadow restoration. That's because a variety of other interests, including ranchers whose cattle graze in the meadows and water agencies downstream, also would benefit from healthier meadows. Meadow restoration is called for by California's State Water Plan, for example.
And that, in turn, could mean jobs as heavy equipment operators and work crews move soil and repair vegetation and stream beds.
"Certainly up in the Stanislaus National forest and surrounding areas there are a large number of meadows that would be eligible for that kind of funding," said Barry Hill, regional hydrologist for the Forest Service's regional office in Vallejo.
"The idea would be to store more water in the meadows so it doesn't run off right away in the winter and the springtime," Hill said. Hill added that his office has a grant right now to pay for a detailed study to calculate more precisely how much additional water could be stored statewide through such work.
One likely project here is known as Leland Gully, which runs through a meadow area near Leland Creek and Herring Creek northeast of Strawberry in the Stanislaus National Forest. Leland Gully is on a short list of 27 sites that the foundation's draft plan deems "ready-to-proceed meadow restoration projects."
"We are going to be completing the design this summer," said Tracy Weddle, hydrologist for the Summit Ranger District of the Stanislaus National Forest.
Weddle said Leland Gully is 1,700 feet long and averages 10 feet in depth and 35 feet in width. She said restoration techniques could include transporting massive amounts of soil and wood to fill the gully, or creating a series of "plugs" in the gully that would form ponds behind them.
Either way, the water table in the meadow would rise to its old level, invasive weeds would be discouraged, and the area would stay wet until late in the summer. Weddle said she is applying for a variety of grants to fund the roughly $150,000 project and hopes to do the restoration work in 2010.
Wildlife also benefits from meadow restoration. In the past, groups such as the California Deer Association and the Mule Deer Foundation have provided both money and volunteers for meadow restoration work in the Stanislaus National Forest, Weddle said.
And research done recently on Stanislaus confirms other benefits, Weddle said. "That research showed that functioning meadows stored more water and stored more organic carbon than nonfunctioning meadows."
Learn more about the plan to restore mountain meadows in California atwww.nfwf.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Home&TEMPLATE=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm&CO- NTENTID=12335.