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Water Bill Could Speed Pumping South, Right Away

December 14,2016-

Screen Shot 2014-12-13 at 9.11.42 AMThe water picture looks brighter this week with the Congressional passage a few days ago of the bipartisan Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act (WIIN) on a strong 78 to 21 vote in the US Senate. Friant Water Authority CEO Jason Phillips say he anticipates President Obama will sign the compromise measure that offers assistance to Flint Michigan as well as relief for the Golden State.

Phillips point to some immediate benefits to drought stricken Central California.

“We believe this could mean additional pumped water from storms already in the  forecast” thanks to the so-called “short term provisions” in the bill to “maximize winter water pumping when there is no harm to fish.”

Farmers don’t need the water now, it’s planting time, but they, and their bankers, need some assurance it will be there next summer.

Local Congressman David Valadao,who backed the bill in the House, points to the need for immediate relief as well. “As we head into the winter rainy season, including these temporary provisions” in the water act to “strengthen California water infrastructure and increase water deliveries is both dire and extremely judicious. These provisions will not solve California’s water crisis, but they will provide interim relief, which my constituents desperately need.”

Phillips says federal officials will allow more pumped water south of the delta into San Luis Reservoir, a key off-stream storage facility for Westside farmers, the Exchange Contractors and cities in the Southland. Already, water storage in California is far better this year than last with San Luis Reservoir at 1 million acre-feet and climbing and Shasta at 3 million acre-feet.  The Northern California  Precipitation Index (22.9 in) is currently ahead of the wettest it has ever been for this time of the year with more big storms on tap for late this week.

The bill provides funding for long term projects but the buzz right now is over the immediate benefits for a more flexible pumping policy.

Senator Diane Feinstein says“The goal of the short-term provisions in the bill—which will sunset after five years—is to run California’s water system based on good science, not intuition. The provisions include daily monitoring of fish in turbid water, ending the winter storm payback requirement, requiring agencies to explain when they pump less than biological opinions allow, maximize water supplies consistent with law, a pilot project to see if the Delta Cross-Channel Gates can be opened for longer, extend the time period for voluntary water transfers, allow 1:1 transfer ratios in certain conditions and allow expedited reviews for projects to improve water quality.

Ending the winter storm “payback” requirement will allow agencies to capture additional water during winter storms. Agencies may increase pumping during winter storms so long as they do not violate the environmental protection mandate. Once storms end, agencies would no longer be required to “pay back” water already pumped unless there was an environmental reason to do so.
The measure also requires agencies explain why pumping occurs at lower levels than allowed by the biological opinions. The requirement is about transparency: agencies must provide reasons for why pumping was reduced.”

Record Nut Crops Challenge Industry

The harvests for all the big nut crops in Valley are bin-busters this fall – coming in at record levels this year including locally. In Kings County, almonds are our number 4 crop at $173.1 million with pistachios at number 6 –  $85.7 million and walnuts number 9 at $55.4 million. Together, they cover some 57,000 acres here. All this bounty – despite the 5 year drought.

Particularly jolting this year are numbers from the pistachio harvest indicating a 905 million pound crop – about triple last year. The record 905 million pounds estimate compares to 272 million pounds harvested in 2015 and 513 million pounds the year before. So the jump amounts to a quantum leap for this industry that must now gear up its marketing efforts to clear the bulging storage bins and plan how to handle larger crops as more trees come into production.

What about walnuts? One estimate for walnuts suggests the harvest this year could yield a total 673,000 tons –  some 12 percent larger than 2015’s record 603,000 ton crop.

As for almonds the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service forecasts that California will have 900,000 acres of bearing almond trees that will produce 2.05 billion pounds of nuts this year, almost an 8% increase from last year. About two thirds are exported at a value that was $4.5 billion in 2014.

Almonds are the top ag export in the state with pistachios third and walnuts the number 5 crop that is exported. Exports are critical, but the rising value of the dollar and concerns over trade policy are weighing on the industry awash in nuts.

The prospect of bigger harvests to come is pushing the number two producer, Setton Pistachios, to hire more people and expand their facilities says plant manager Lee Cohen. Setton handles the crop from 4 million South Valley pistachio trees.
“With numbers like this we need to make plans to handle more product permanently.”

That includes hiring more people at their sprawling Terra Bella plant. “We are at 650 permanent employees now – the highest it has ever been.” They are building a new 60,000sf warehouse and adding a new pasteurization process.

As for marketing – the number one producer – Wonderful Pistachios – with farms in Kings County, is funding a $55 million “Get Crackin” media blitz that includes  the offer of lower prices for the popular nut. They say its their biggest campaign ever.

Long term the big harvests are “one more reason to automate” says Lee Cohen. The company looks to help their employees get more education for the more automated jobs of the future.

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