- Associated Press - Thursday, September 3, 2015

Aug. 28

The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin on groundwater management:

At Whole Foods stores around Southern California, fancy-produce shoppers are being offered a new, drought-conscious option: “dry-farmed” tomatoes.

Dry farming simply means growing vegetables without the benefit of introduced irrigation, the way that most edible plants were produced over thousands of years during all early agrarian eras of human history.

And just this week, The New York Times Food section reported that winemakers in California’s Napa Valley and Paso Robles have been led by the four-year drought in our state into rethinking the way they irrigate their vineyards, and some of them have become committed to going with the non-flow and dry-farming their grapes as well.



In France, the south of which has historically dry regions, many wine-growing appellations actually forbid irrigation in the production of grapes. It leads to less uniformity in each vintage, but those differences have long been prized. There are healthful side benefits as well. Less introduced water means less moisture to sustain weeds and bugs, leading to lower or no use of dangerous chemical herbicides and pesticides.

This is all to say that the drought may lead to teachable moments for California farmers who up until now often have reacted to the drastic lack of Sierra snowmelt and local rainfall in one, entirely non-sustainable way: drilling deeper wells, depleting the groundwater not only on their own properties but for everyone who lives and works around them.

In an interview aired Sunday on “Meet the Press,” Gov. Jerry Brown acknowledged that his administration hasn’t been tough enough about overseeing rampant new well-drilling that NASA satellites monitored from JPL in La Canada Flintridge show is rapidly lowering the ground level in the state’s Central Valley at the same time it is taking out water at a far faster level than it can be replenished even in a rainy winter season.

Formerly loose rules that made California’s agriculture water the least-regulated in the West have been tightened since Brown declared a drought emergency in January, “but of course I don’t rule by decree,” Brown said. “I work through the Legislature. California now has groundwater management for the first time in its entire history, so we are much more aggressive. But … we’re not aggressive enough. And we will be stepping it up year by year.”

As in other Western states, local agencies are being created with the ability to police what farmers can take out of aquifers, whose underground boundaries go far beyond their own surface real estate. But the three-bill package passed by the Legislature has a very slow schedule, with oversight plans not set to be finalized until 2022 toward a goal of sustainability by 2040. Patient roll-outs are fine in theory, but new JPL data released this month shows that the ground level in the San Joaquin Valley is sinking faster than ever before, up to two inches a month in some places, putting homes and businesses at risk for damage. The report also shows that groundwater in the valley is up to 100 feet lower than previous record lows.

Colorado has been divided into water districts since 1878, overseen by local commissioners with the power to apportion flow from rivers and wells during dry times. California can’t afford to go slow and rely on arguments about historic water rights. Sustaining our agrarian future calls for action now.

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Aug. 28

The Sacramento Bee on raising the tobacco tax:

There are lots of good reasons to raise California’s tax on tobacco, not the least of which is that when cigarettes are more expensive, fewer kids smoke.

California’s existing tobacco tax hasn’t been raised since a voter-approved initiative in 1998. California is a high-tax state. But because of the influence of the tobacco industry, our tobacco tax is among America’s lowest, at 87 cents per pack.

That places it 35th among the states, and below the national average of $1.60. According to a new Field Poll, 67 percent of Californians think it’s high time we changed that.

Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, introduced legislation earlier this week to raise the tobacco tax by $2 per pack, which would place the state’s tobacco tax rate at No. 8. The increase would require a two-thirds vote to pass, which means bipartisan support will be needed. But two other good reasons for passing it are that it would increase the state’s anti-tobacco efforts and perhaps free up more money to deliver more health care to California’s poor.

Although they are averse to taxes, Republicans should make an exception in the interest of public health, and follow the lead of Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican. He signed legislation earlier this year raising Nevada’s tobacco tax by $1 to $1.80 per pack.

Less than 12 percent of Californians now smoke, thanks to the state’s ongoing public health efforts. Indeed, at least a half-dozen new anti-smoking initiatives will be considered in the final two weeks of the legislative session.

The current tax doesn’t deal at all with e-cigarettes, the one segment of the nicotine delivery market that’s booming. More than 470 brands of electronic cigarettes now crowd the market in more than 7,700 flavors from Captain Crunch to Atomic Fireball to cotton candy. With names like that, it’s not hard to guess the target demographic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, e-cigarette use among middle and high school students tripled between 2013 and 2014.

While researchers are still determining the health impact of inhaling nicotine vapor, taxing one nicotine delivery system and not another creates an effective discount that makes vaping even more attractive to adolescents. To the extent that e-cigarettes are acting as a gateway drug to carcinogenic, conventional smoking, that’s just bad policy.

So the tax needs updating, and in a hurry. Medi-Cal is consuming tens of billions of dollars a year and its costs are rising, with too few doctors serving too many Medi-Cal patients. It’s a serious problem, and strategically targeted tobacco tax revenue would help.

The tobacco industry has pulled out all the stops to protect its investment in the e-cig market and to prevent the law from treating e-cigarettes like other tobacco products. As the tobacco tax proceeds, there surely will be pressure to leave e-cigarettes untaxed or to dial back on other proposals to address them.

Lawmakers should resist the temptation to cut such a deal. And they should pass this tax increase themselves, thoughtfully, rather than let its supporters put it on the 2016 ballot. Tobacco industry money has beaten back too many well-meaning initiatives in California. Public health should take precedence.

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Aug. 28

The San Francisco Chronicle on California’s clean energy efforts:

By any clean-and-green measure, California zooms past the rest of the nation, requiring cleaner fuels, more alternative energy and cars that use less gas. As these policies have taken root, the state economy has strengthened, creating more jobs in a forward-looking marketplace.

The connection should be clear. California is not only plotting a new energy course, but it’s also prospering. The state law that set emission goals nearly a decade ago hasn’t harmed livelihoods or sent business fleeing.

This experience should teach Sacramento an important lesson as lawmakers face a decision on doing more about climate change. The state Legislature is on the verge of approving a sweeping measure, SB350, that would cut gas and diesel use by half, boost renewable sources of electricity from a third to 50 percent, and double energy efficiency in buildings, all within 15 years. A second measure, SB32, would widen a state cap-and-trade program that cuts other sources of emissions blamed for rising global temperatures.

These targets will put California far beyond President Obama’s plans to curb pollution from power plants and boost solar, wind and biofuels in the nation’s mix of energy sources. But SB350, which has passed the state Senate, could falter in the Assembly where more moderate, business-friendly Democrats hold power.

The forces are building to block the bill, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, a Los Angeles Democrat. The oil industry, a steady source of campaign funds, is putting pressure on Assembly Democrats to stop the bill or water it down. These foes predict gas rationing, extra fees and arbitrary directives from state bureaucrats if the law kicks in.

Walking away from the bill would be a mistake, a step backward that will deny California cleaner air, greener energy and an opportunity to lead a timid nation on an essential issue. Wavering lawmakers should consider a recent poll showing that two-thirds of the state believes a deepening drought is linked to climate change and supports Gov. Jerry Brown’s directives that match up with SB350.

Along with California’s welcoming politics on the topic, there is direct experience to consider. Tech breakthroughs ranging from cleaner-burning engines to cheaper solar panels are helping this state move forward. Growing numbers of high-mileage cars, including electric and hybrid models, are expected to provide nearly half of the gas savings needed to hit the 50 percent drop by 2030.

There are reasons to be cautious. Energy improvements often come with steep startup costs such as solar panels on the roof or the purchase of a gas-thrifty car. Low-income residents will need a break in tapping technology available only to well-off consumers. State regulators should be flexible in designing new programs to advance conservation.

But California has shown it can adapt and thrive as it heads in this direction. Climate change is a provable and genuine threat to the state’s future. It’s time to adopt genuine changes that guide the state in the right direction and serve as a model for the rest of the country.

How far should California go?

A sweeping bill would change the way residents drive, live and work. Here are the major ingredients of SB350, which has passed the state Senate and is up for a vote in the Assembly:

On the road: Cut petroleum use in half by 2030. Tailpipe emissions are a top source of carbon dioxide, the main factor behind climate change. Oil companies are lobbying heavily against the limit, saying it will bring angry lines at gas pumps in a car-crazy state. Higher-mileage cars including electric and hybrids will be key in making this directive work.

On the grid: Half of the state’s electricity would come from renewables, up from a one-third level in five years. Utilities have qualms but are not actively opposed.

In the home: Doubling the efficiency in buildings to conserve heating and cooling costs. No major opposition.

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Aug. 28

The Santa Maria Times on fixing California’s highways :

If not for historical evidence that America’s population moved from east to west, it could be argued that California invented the highway system. Where else but in a car-crazy culture would a sophisticated, complicated network of roadways be constructed?

And in a way, that perception is correct. As that population mass shifted from the East Coast to the West Coast, and because our weather is just so much more conducive to putting the top down and driving around, California embarked on a momentous road-building venture after the end of World War II. The product was, without doubt, the envy of the industrialized world.

Now, several generations later, that marvel of concrete innovation has fallen into disrepair, due in part to political ennui and neglect.

In a piece last weekend, columnist Dan Walters posed this important question:

“How is it that California motorists are paying some of the nation’s highest fuel taxes, but the highways they use are among the nation’s worst?”

State officials might take issue which such a claim about California highways being the pits, but the Federal Highway Administration insists California’s highways are among the worst. Coupled with the fact that California motorists pay the fourth-highest fuel costs in the nation, and you have more than enough support for Walters’ question.

And all this is taking place while the California Legislature does its usual avoidance two-step around resolving the issue. Lawmakers are more than two months into a special session on transportation problems, and have yet to resolve anything.

Gov. Jerry Brown points out that the state needs a minimum of just under $60 billion over the next decade to do basic highway maintenance and repair. Meanwhile, Caltrans plans to spend just less than $4 billion this budget cycle on repairs, too much of it to support a bloated bureaucracy.

Caltrans officials might take issue with our characterization of it as bloated, but the Legislature’s own budget analyst has surveyed the department, and claims new construction units are overstaffed by more than 3,000 employees - spending tax money in the wrong places.

There are two main reasons this problem exists. One, our highways are old and in poor shape. Two, the not-so-benign political neglect fostered by lawmakers’ general lack of enthusiasm for raising taxes. Piling new taxes onto California’s existing taxes is not politically palatable. Lawmakers who vote for higher taxes are at risk of becoming unemployed at the next available election.

But it is abundantly clear that something needs to be done to solve the problem of bad roads. And the only “something” that makes sense is for the California Legislature to find the funds necessary to get our highways back into decent shape.

A lot is riding on the resolution of this problem, literally. Bad roads cost motorists millions of dollars in repair bills from damage caused by potholes and poor roadway surfaces. While that may be good news for auto repair shops and tire retailers, it drains money from those who might be spending on other consumer products. So, some of the billions that would be spent repairing roads would come back to the economy in other sectors.

It’s also important to remember that California has the planet’s eighth-largest economy, far ahead of many nations. Without viable transportation routes, that economy is at great risk.

Lawmakers need to somehow shake off the lethargy that envelopes Sacramento when the Legislature is in special session. They are there to solve a specific problem, and they should do it

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Aug. 30

The Santa Rosa Press-Democrat on the drought threatening native fish:

California’s prolonged drought is taking a toll on lawns and farms and forests. It’s also a threat to wildlife, especially fish, which must have cold water to survive.

“We’re going to be losing most of our salmon and steelhead if things continue,” Peter Moyle, an authority on California’s native fish, warned the Los Angeles Times recently.

In 2014, nearly all of the winter-run Chinook salmon in the upper Sacramento River and its tributaries died because low flows allowed water temperatures to rise as high as 62 degrees, too warm for the hatchlings to survive.

This year isn’t looking any more promising.

And if the drought persists for even two or three more years, the outlook is truly bleak.

As many as 18 native fish species, including most salmon runs and several breeds of trout, “face likelihood of near-term extinction,” according to a new report from the Public Policy Institute of California that concludes cities and farms are adapting better to drought conditions than are wetlands, forests or wildlife.

Central Valley ag interests and their allies in Congress seem to see the drought as an excuse to relax environmental protection for fisheries.

For now, however, federal water managers do not. They’re trying to prevent a repeat of last year, when just 5 percent of the Sacramento River brood stock survived, by better managing releases of cold water from Shasta Dam.

Fearing another disaster on the Klamath River, the site of a catastrophic fish kill in 2002, the federal Bureau of Reclamation started releasing cool water into the Klamath last week from a dam on its primary tributary, the Trinity River.

State water officials also are factoring fish into drought policy.

Here in Sonoma County, as Staff Writer Guy Kovner reported this past week, landowners in four watersheds are receiving orders to report their use to state regulators as part of an emergency effort to save juvenile coho salmon and steelhead trout, some of them stuck in dwindling pools until rain restores water levels in area streams.

To stop some of those small pools from drying up, Camp Meeker’s water district is releasing 2,700 gallons an hour into Dutch Bill Creek, and one west county property owner is releasing 1,320 gallons an hour into Green Valley Creek.

Meanwhile, 68 grape growers agreed to cut their water use by 25 percent from 2013 levels - matching the state’s mandatory cutbacks for non-farm users - and a wine industry group is trying to enlist the help of 62 more vineyards.

The cooperative approach is welcome, laudable and, regrettably, it stands in contrast to a lawsuit filed by Central Valley water districts seeking to halt relief for the Klamath River.

After years of fighting efforts to assist the endangered Delta smelt, the Westlands Water District and others are now arguing that federal water regulators have no authority to assist Klamath salmon because they aren’t on the endangered species list.

A federal judge rejected that argument last year, and a judge refused last week to grant an injunction while this year’s suit is litigated. Salmon support coastal communities in California and the Pacific Northwest as well as the subsistence and ceremonial needs of Native American tribes. These prized fish are a unique and valuable resource that can’t be replanted like row crops if they’re abandoned during the drought.

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