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Water wars, salmon restoration and more

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The drought's impact on agricultural not as bad as Fox News would tell, salmon return on Battle Creek threatened by upstream logging and more on the legal battles over north state, delta water in this week's news and notes.

Drought had little impact on farms & ag employment. report says

By Mike Taugher/Contra Costa Times

The three-year drought had little effect on California's overall farm production, though some locales were hit harder than others, a new study concludes.

Despite the arguments of tea party-backed activists and their supporters in Congress, the drought and new environmental restrictions in the Delta did not cause widespread economic damage, even in areas dependent on Delta water, the report states.

"Indeed, there were high levels of suffering and unemployment in the region, but this report suggests the causes of the high rate of unemployment and sustained high levels of poverty are more complex and do not appear to be directly related to water supplies," said Juliet Christian-Smith, lead author and a researcher at the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, an environmental research group.

Several thousand farm jobs were lost during the drought, but those losses were dwarfed by the loss of construction, sales and other kinds of jobs, the report says.

The report shows that statewide, revenue from California's farms actually increased during the drought and even increased in Fresno County, the state's richest farm county and the epicenter of staged protests in which the region's woes were blamed on Delta smelt, a 2-inch fish that was protected under additional restrictions on Delta pumping beginning in 2007.

Farm revenues did decline in a couple of neighboring counties, Kings and Kern, and all three of those counties fallowed more land than they had before the drought. But only about 25 percent of the shortages were due to new environmental restrictions, according to the group's research.

A spokesman for a farm group said the impacts were severe in some areas and on some families.

"Attempts now by others to give a broad brush to say the agriculture economy is doing fine is a disservice," said Mike Henry, spokesman for the California Farm Water Coalition. "It's very unfair to characterize individuals losing their jobs and unemployment going up as moderate."

In Fresno County, the nation's largest irrigation district -- the politically powerful Westlands Water District, which serves about 600 large farms -- was able to partially make up for the loss of Delta water by buying water and increasing groundwater pumping nearly twentyfold.

Those strategies are more expensive than buying Delta water -- meaning they cut into profits -- and can only carry farmers so far in a long drought, but the study showed that in the past few years farmers appeared to generate nearly as much in sales as in previous years.

The report noted that many other farms got normal supplies and that water shortages fell particularly hard on Westlands and similar water districts. That is because Westlands is a relatively young district and when the federal government built dams and installed Delta pumps, it promised existing water users their supplies would not be cut. As a result, shortages are not shared equally -- older districts have rights and contracts that trump those of younger ones such as Westlands.

"(The economic impact) is significant, but in the big picture it's relatively small, given the reduction in water supply and the rhetoric surrounding the issue," said Jeff Michael, an economist and director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific who has closely tracked the effect of drought and Delta regulations.

A spokeswoman for Westlands declined to comment because the district has not seen the report, called "Impacts of the 2007-2009 California Drought: What Really Happened?"

During protests and in recent congressional hearings, an oft-cited statistic was that environmental restrictions in the Delta have contributed to 40 percent unemployment in Mendota, a poverty-stricken farm town in a region dependent on Delta water.

While no one disputes the misery in some farm towns such as Mendota, that figure is unreliable, economists say. It is an official state figure but it comes from a U.S. Census Bureau measure in 2000, when water supplies were ample and Mendota had an unemployment rate of 32 percent, California's highest, Michael said. That number was then adjusted upward to account for employment trends in Fresno County.

The increase in unemployment in that county was mostly due to the collapse of the housing market and the recession, Michael said.

Because the economy is still languishing there, it shows unemployment in Mendota continuing to climb last year even though much more Delta water was available than in the previous year.

Henry, who grew up in Mendota, said he believes that there is a connection, because the unemployment figures rose at the same time water supplies were cut.

"How do you not connect the dots?" he said.

The Pacific Institute study noted that Mendota has had chronic unemployment for decades, but that it worsened beginning about the time Delta water started flowing to the area in 1968.

That is because once farms started irrigating in the area, farm workers arrived looking for seasonal work. And since the census workers are in the field in April, many workers have not yet started work for the growing season, said Dave Runsten, an agricultural economist at the Community Alliance for Family Farmers in Davis.

"A lot of farmworkers, people in those towns are unemployed that time of year," Runsten said.


Delta pumpling limits upheld by judge

A federal judge has upheld temporary restrictions on the pumping of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger in Fresno said last Wednesday that federal officials had the right to limit pumping for 14 days to protect migrating fall-run chinook salmon.

Water districts that supply Central Valley farmers argued that the restriction, which went into effect on June 8, was illegal given the high amount of rain and snow California received this year.

The Westlands Water District and the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority also said fall-run salmon were not protected under the Endangered Species Act and thus not eligible for the restriction.

They were seeking a restraining order against the Department of Interior.

Battle Creek rescue may be doomed by upstream logging

By Matt Weiser/Sacramento Bee

Here at Battle Creek, an icy stream that tumbles off Mount Lassen, state and federal agencies are spending $128 million to bring endangered salmon back to 48 miles of water blocked by dams for nearly a century.

At the same time, another arm of state government is allowing clear-cut logging on thousands of acres just upstream, which some scientists say could jeopardize the costly restoration project.

The Battle Creek Salmon and Steelhead Restoration Project is considered the largest of its kind in the nation. It involves removing five dams owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., and modifying four others so steelhead and winter- and spring-run salmon can pass.

Battle Creek may be the last shot at survival for the species, all of which are endangered.

Scientists say the logging, if not managed carefully, could handicap the expensive restoration. The danger: Erosion from clear-cut forest tracts could smother spawning habitat before salmon have a chance to use it.

The apparent conflict in government missions, critics say, points to flaws in the state's management of logging on private land.

"There should be enforcement to protect (Battle Creek) water quality," said Pat Higgins, a fisheries biologist who has consulted on the restoration. "Instead, they're allowing unlimited (tree) cutting, and it's still going on."

The trees are cut by Sierra Pacific Industries, a privately held company based in nearby Anderson and the state's largest property owner.

The company is in the early stages of a strategy to boost lumber production. It includes logging in other watersheds important to salmon, such as the American River, where federal officials face a 2020 deadline to restore salmon above Folsom Dam.

The logging at Battle Creek complies with state law and is overseen by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire. Sierra Pacific says its operations are tightly regulated.

"There is a whole lot of inherent protection in the rules," said Ed Murphy, the company's manager of resource information systems.

Sierra Pacific uses a technique called "even-age management," the California regulatory term for clear-cutting. The goal is to convert a large percentage of its acreage, essentially, to pine plantations.

Sierra Pacific has submitted 16 logging plans over the past 12 years for almost 20,000 acres in the Battle Creek watershed.

In a typical even-age logging plan, all vegetation is removed from multiple 20-acre parcels, leaving a checkerboard pattern of bare ground that may span 1,000 acres or more. One or two oaks and standing dead trees are usually left as "habitat diversity."

Then each parcel is replanted with pine seedlings. Herbicides are sprayed to eliminate competing vegetation before planting.

Marily Woodhouse has lived in Manton for 22 years. She is co-founder of the Battle Creek Alliance, which has filed suit against several Sierra Pacific logging plans.

"We're not telling them not to log their land," she said. "We're saying, don't clear-cut and don't use a ton of herbicides."

Cloudy scrutiny

Clear-cutting, as opposed to selective logging, leaves little vegetation behind to trap erosion. And the state does not require logging companies to monitor water quality.

The primary agency charged with making sure logging doesn't ruin fish habitat is the state Department of Fish and Game, which works in concert with Cal Fire. But Fish and Game has been strained by budget cuts.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year cut $1.5 million from Fish and Game's logging review program. A similar cut remains in Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget for the new fiscal year.

Eight jobs were cut from the Fish and Game staff that monitored logging in the north state, said Curt Babcock, the department's regional habitat conservation program manager. Now, only half the logging projects in the area get a field inspection before approval.

Fish and Game still scrutinizes logging roads, often the source of most erosion. But it gives little attention to wildlife and aquatic habitat threats, Babcock said, and it doesn't monitor logging rules for protecting streams.

"Overall, I'd say there is definitely a potential for the timber harvests there to affect salmon," Babcock said of Battle Creek. "We're spread pretty thin."

With the state role reduced, Woodhouse's group decided to conduct its own water monitoring tests. It began taking samples 18 months ago.

Each week, Woodhouse loads testing gear into her Chevy S-10 pickup and ventures on unpaved county roads to assess the forks and tributaries of Battle Creek.

The results, she said, show an increase in the water's cloudiness, suggesting erosion has increased. "You used to be able to look at the water and it was clear," she said. "Now it's a gray or green color, or it has a soapy appearance."

Erosion is a threat to spawning habitat everywhere, but it is an especially urgent concern at Battle Creek, given the expensive effort to bring back salmon and steelhead.

"It's unlikely we can recover those species in the Central Valley if we don't get viable populations in Battle Creek," said Brian Ellrott, regional salmon and steelhead recovery coordinator at the National Marine Fisheries Service. "It is critically important."

Cold conclusions

After a decade of study and buy-in from PG&E, the restoration began in 2009 and is expected to be finished in 2015. It is overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which was required by the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act to double naturally spawning salmon populations in the region.

The cost, estimated at $43 million in 2004, has swelled to $128 million. That includes $47 million in federal funds, including $9 million from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, and $58 million from various state sources.

The money mostly pays contractors to remove five dams and build new fish ladders on four others. PG&E is giving up $20 million in hydropower to provide more flow for salmon.

"We're opening up streams that have not been accessible to salmon for 90 years," said Paul Moreno, a spokesman for PG&E.

Battle Creek is special because its waters start atop 10,000-foot Mount Lassen, then trickle through underground passages. The meltwater emerges in seeps and springs, keeping the creek cold.

Salmon require cold water to survive and breed. This is especially true of the endangered spring-run chinook, which has the unique habit of migrating upstream from the ocean in spring, then waiting until fall to spawn.

But erosion has already compromised the creek's suitability for spawning, according to a 2004 watershed assessment. It called the spawning habitat "moderately favorable" overall, the equivalent of a "C" grade.

Nearly half the 50 individual stream sites surveyed had too much sediment to be good spawning habitat, earning "D" grades; and 60 percent of pools in the creek got "F" grades because they are too shallow to support spring-run salmon through the summer.

The report suggested 1997 storms likely caused erosion that led to those poor grades. But it did not rule out other problems, including those linked to logging.

The research by Terraqua Inc. was commissioned by the Battle Creek Watershed Conservancy, using federal funds. The conservancy is a local nonprofit that works closely with government agencies on the restoration project. Another study for the project by Kier Associates blamed the erosion largely on logging.

"There was definitely a profound change in habitat in Battle Creek, and it's consistent with extensive upland disturbance," said Higgins, who prepared the report.

The Kier report, however, was excluded from the final study. When the firm published the analysis itself in 2009, it said the work was excluded "at the request of a major private timberland owner" on the conservancy board.

That timberland owner is Sierra Pacific Industries.

Complex science

Sierra Pacific's Murphy denied his company suppressed the report. He said the whole conservancy board decided to exclude it, noting Higgins' methods were more appropriate to coastal forests.

It is a complicated science, one that Cal Fire has been repeatedly criticized for handling poorly.

The State Board of Forestry, a politically appointed panel, sets the rules that Cal Fire enforces to regulate logging on private land. Studies as far back as 1994 have urged the board to overhaul its rules on cumulative analysis, yet it has not done so.

A University of California panel in 2001 said cumulative analysis is so vital that it should be stripped from Cal Fire and given to a new agency with special training.

The panel called many of the state's erosion-related logging rules "demonstrably inadequate."

"The State has apparently never explicitly acknowledged the need to protect the runoff regulating functions of forests," the panel wrote.

The Board of Forestry's executive officer, George Gentry, said the board will likely begin reviewing the cumulative effects rules in 2012.

"People can say, 'Well, you need to do it better'," Gentry said. "We should do it better. But show me how. There's no easy answer to that. It's a very complex science."


Record-Searchlight lauds Herger for stand on water rights

It's a political event rarer than a green-sturgeon sighting: Rep. Wally Herger this week lined up with his usual nemeses at the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups and against a farm-friendly water bill promoted by some of his fellow House Republicans from California.

That bill — the San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act, sponsored by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare — had already drawn widespread opposition from environmentalists and fishing groups. The measure would boost water supplies to San Joaquin Valley farms primarily at the expense of set-asides for California's ailing fisheries, which motivated the environmental outcry. In the process, though, it would also put the north state's senior water rights at risk and generally topple California's tenuously balanced water-priority system. Both of California's Democratic senators — including Dianne Feinstein, no foe of agriculture — also opposed it.

Herger? Until Wednesday, he'd taken no official stand. Loyalty to GOP colleagues and Herger's philosophy that resources should be put to productive use would argue in favor, but his own district's direct interests pulled in the other direction.

In the end, the hometown voters won. Herger announced that even as he shared Nunes' goal of getting more water to farms, Nunes' bill "would negatively impact Northern California water rights and preempt state water law. As I have long stated, California's area of origin protections are clear and unambiguous — our water needs must be met first, before excess water is allowed to flow south."

He added that any bill to address Central and Southern California's problems "must fully protect and respect Northern California's superior water rights." Amen.

In a divided Congress, Nunes' bill is likely to go nowhere, but the larger lesson is that when it comes to water, north state residents share tremendous common interests that transcend our neighborhood squabbles. Farmers who need orchard irrigation, fishing guides who rely on thriving salmon and steelhead, and city dwellers who just want to keep their lawns green — all would lose if misguided laws bumped the Sacramento Valley from its place at the front of the line.



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