UC Berkeley to lead study of crop drought tolerance

orghum at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center, where field testing will take place next year. (Photo by Peggy Lemaux)

Sorghum at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center, where field testing will take place next year. (Photo by Peggy Lemaux)

By Sarah Yang

UC Berkeley is leading a $12.3 million project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to examine the role of epigenetics in allowing plants to survive in drought conditions, an increasing concern for agriculture as the effects of climate change are felt in California and globally.

UC Berkeley researchers will partner with scientists at UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, the Energy Department’s Joint Genome Institute and that agency’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory on the five-year project, called Epigenetic Control of Drought Response in Sorghum, or EPICON.

The grant comes in the midst of a historic drought in California. Over three years of field testing, researchers will dissect mechanisms by which sorghum, a close relative of corn, is able to survive water deprivation.

Peggy Lemaux, cooperative extension specialist at UC Berkeley’s Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, is heading the entire project. Co-investigators are Devin Coleman-Derr, Elizabeth Purdom and John Taylor from UC Berkeley; Jeffrey Dahlberg and Robert Hutmacher from UC Agriculture and Natural Resources; Chia-Lin Wei from the DOE Joint Genome Institute; and Christer Jansson from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

“Historically, the genetic manipulation of crops, which has been critical to increasing agricultural productivity, has concentrated on altering the plant’s genetic sequence, encoded in its DNA,” said Lemaux. “However, recent studies have shown that environmental stresses – in our case drought – can lead to epigenetic changes in a plant’s genetic information. Because epigenetic changes occur without altering the underlying DNA sequence, they allow plants to respond to a changing environment more quickly.”

Over the next three years, a variety of observable plant traits will be followed, such as plant height and grain yield. In addition, leaf and root samples will be taken to investigate responses to drought at the molecular level, including how gene expression changes and which proteins and metabolites are altered.

Researchers will also be tracking changes in the sorghum-associated microbial communities to determine whether they correlate with changes that directly contribute to the crop’s drought tolerance. It is now well known that associations of specific bacteria and fungi with plants and animals have positive effects on host fitness. For example, microbes in both plants and humans are known to help fight disease and, in the soil, can help deliver nutrients and other resources to plants.

EPICON efforts will generate a variety of large datasets, which will be shared via an open, online platform that will include methods and results.

“Availability of this data in an open forum will enable comparative genomic studies by other scientists,” said Coleman-Derr, a UC Berkeley adjunct assistant professor in plant and microbial biology. “Being able to analyze the large datasets in an integrated fashion will enable a more thorough understanding of the complex and interconnected processes responsible for sorghum’s ability to respond positively to drought.”

The researchers expect that the project will allow better predictions of how sorghum and other cereal crops are affected by future climate scenarios, and will lead to approaches to improve growth and production of sorghum and other crops under water-limiting conditions in commercial fields and on marginal lands.

The Energy Department’s Genomic Science Program is funding this project through its Office of Biological and Environmental Research.

Link to item at UC Berkeley web site

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USDA seeks nominations for National Organic Standards Board

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is seeking nominations to fill a vacancy on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) for an environmentalist or resource conservationist.  The board positions are specifically designated to represent various sectors of the organic community, including those who have expertise in areas of environmental protection and resource conservation, own or operate an organic production or handling operation, or own or operate a retail establishment with significant trade in organic products.

The NOSB, established under the Organic Foods Production Act and operating in accordance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act, is responsible for reviewing materials and/or recommending changes to the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, and advising the Secretary of Agriculture on other aspects of the USDA organic regulations.

The environmentalist or resource conservationist selected to fill the current vacancy (created by a recent resignation) will serve from January 24, 2016 to January 23, 2020, the remainder of the former board member’s term.  On April 8, 2015, USDA invited nominations for an additional five vacancies on the NOSB.  All six board appointments will serve terms beginning on January 24, 2016, and will be announced in the near future.

Written nominations, with cover letters, resumes, and a required form (available on the USDA website), must be postmarked on or before October 29, 2015.  All applicable information should be sent to Michelle Arsenault, National Organic Program, USDA–AMS–NOP, 1400 Independence Avenue, SW., Room 2648, Ag Stop 0268, Washington, D.C. 20250.

To learn more about the NOSB and the nomination process, visit the AMS website.  For more information, contact Michelle Arsenault at (202) 997-0115 or via email at Michelle.Arsenault@ams.usda.gov.


Link to news release

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Assessments underway for USDA post-fire assistance in California

Firefighters monitor a backfire as they try to contain the Butte fire near San Andreas

In the wake of the Valley and Butte fires, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Farm Service Agency (FSA) staffs in California are meeting with landowners and Agencies to assess damages and offer technical and financial assistance where possible.

Assistance programs through NRCS include the Emergency Watershed Protection Program (EWP), and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program’s (EQIP) Catastrophic Fire Recovery assistance; FSA provides the Environmental Conservation Program (ECP).

Watershed Assistance

“EWP allows us to provide immediate assistance to communities to mitigate potential hazards to life and property resulting from the fires,” said Carlos Suarez, NRCS California state conservationist.“It is work we can do with a local sponsor to help a damaged watershed channel water and mitigate erosion so that lives and property are protected and additional hardships are not heaped upon the devastated community.”

With the high potential for winter rains, burned areas are at greater risk for erosion and mudflows and EWP-type services are key to preventing further damage. The program requires local government bodies or others to sponsor on-the-ground work including concrete barriers and debris basins, mulching, straw wattles and other damage control measures. Potential sponsors are encouraged to contact NRCS for more information.

Farmer/Rancher Assistance

EQIP and ECP programs can provide long-term support to repair livestock fencing, remove dead or dying trees, clear dense brush, install new livestock water facilities, and other agricultural services. Both NRCS and FSA are taking applications and encourage interested landowners to contact their local offices for more information.

The Valley Fire was centered in Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties and the Butte Fire was centered in Amador and Calaveras counties. While support to impacted landowners in these areas are an immediate focus for USDA, farmers and ranchers elsewhere in the state are also eligible for post-fire assistance within 18 months of the fire.

“FSA has a number of programs to help wildfire-impacted producers get back on their feet,” said Oscar Gonzales, FSA executive director in California. “I want to encourage farmers and ranchers to contact their local FSA office to find out about resources available to them.”

For more information on available NRCS or FSA assistance, contact a local field office, or visit www.usda.gov.


Link to news release

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2015 water year hottest and driest on record – from the California Department of Water Resources


The turn of the calendar from September to October each year goes without fanfare in most of California, but for the Department of Water Resources’ (DWR) State Water Project (SWP), each October 1 is the start of a new water year. Water Year 2015 has been noteworthy for much less precipitation than normal in California, temperatures much warmer than normal and a growing El Niño in the Eastern Pacific that many Californians hope will end the state’s drought. Most of all, Water Year 2015 will be remembered as the fourth year of one of the state’s most severe dry periods on record.

Water year 2015 continued the trend of surface water shortages for many urban and agricultural agencies. Most notably, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project again had record low deliveries of zero project water to its north-of-Delta and south-of-Delta agricultural contractors and to agricultural contractors in its Friant Division. The SWP provided only 20 percent of its urban and agricultural contractors’ requested amounts. Statewide, the only bright picture was the Colorado River service area, where contractors for this interstate supply continued to receive their full allotments.

A look back at the water year would not be complete without noting the water conservation efforts undertaken in earnest by Californians following Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.’s April 1 executive order mandating a statewide 25-percent reduction in potable urban water use. Save Our Water, DWR’s partnership with the Association of California Water Agencies, ramped up its conservation messaging, as did water agencies and municipalities. Many of them encouraged residents to conserve by offering turf and appliance rebate programs. In August, DWR launched its own program with rebates up to $2,000 for turf replacement and $100 for households that replace an inefficient toilet (details here). By late summer, statewide urban water consumption was about 30 percent lower than during the same months in 2013, according to the State Water Resources Control Board.

The statewide snowpack on April 1 held only 5 percent of the average water content on that date in records dating to 1950. The previous low record of 25 percent of average was set in 1977 during one of California’s most significant droughts and was tied in 2014. Of the nine April 1 snowpack values below 50 percent of average since 1950, three have occurred in the past three years of drought.

Lower-than-average precipitation and record warm temperatures during the traditional winter wet season produced the diminished snowpack. According to the California Climate Tracker, the winter average minimum temperature for the Sierra Nevada region was 32.1 degrees Fahrenheit, the first time this value was above water’s freezing point in 120 years of record-keeping. The few winter storms of the past two years were warmer than average and tended to produce rain, not snow.

Most of the rainfall in Northern California, the SWP’s primary water supply region, occurs from November through March, but with virtually no snow in the mountains to melt, storage in the state’s reservoirs also has been much lower than average. DWR continuously tracks storage in 154 reservoirs around the state, and as Water Year 2015 ends, they hold only 54 percent of their historic average. Storage in Northern California’s major reservoirs (as percentages of their historic averages for this time of year) also is far below normal: Lake Shasta (59%), Lake Oroville (48%), Trinity Lake (33%), Folsom Lake (32%) and New Melones (20%).

As the reservoirs’ storage continued to decline, DWR determined that a temporary emergency drought barrier was needed on West False River to block salt water intrusion into the central Delta. The barrier was an essential part of DWR’s strategy to maintain good water quality in the Delta and preserve water in upstream reservoirs to help keep young salmon cool enough to stay alive downstream of dams. The barrier was in place by June, and dismantling began in early September. Removal will be complete by mid-November.

Water Year 2016 – the El Niño Question

The periodic warming of surface waters in the equatorial Eastern Pacific Ocean, known as El Niño, was first observed in the 1800s and has been studied intensely for its observable effect on weather patterns around the world – including, on occasion, heavy precipitation in California. El Niños are categorized as weak, moderate or strong depending on how much the surface temperatures increase and on certain atmospheric measurements. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center, there is about a 95 percent chance of a strong El Niño during the coming winter, meaning the water temperature will be 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit or more warmer than normal.

Six strong El Niño events since 1950 produced wet conditions in Southern California, but only the strongest ones in water years 1983 and 1998 brought significant precipitation throughout the state. In the four other strong El Niño years, the critical up-state water-collecting regions received far less rainfall. As Water Year 2015 draws to a close, it is still too soon to know whether the building El Niño will be a drought-buster or simply a bust.

As it does during every water year, DWR will continuously monitor precipitation totals and reservoir storage as California enters its traditional wet season. The first media-oriented manual snow survey of the winter will be conducted in the Sierra Nevada east of Sacramento around January 1. That survey may provide an indication of whether Water Year 2016 will see enough precipitation and enough snowpack to move California closer to the end of the drought. A fifth year of drought certainly is a possibility. California has experienced two six-year droughts in the past nine decades – 1929-34 and 1987-92.

California has been dealing with the effects of drought for four years. To learn about all the actions the state has taken to manage our water system and cope with the impacts of the drought, visit Drought.CA.Gov. Every Californian should take steps to conserve water; find out how at SaveOurWater.com.

Link to DWR News Release

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Exports suffer as California rice crop takes hit in drought – from the Sacramento Bee

Photo by Lezlie Sterling - Sacramento Bee

Photo by Lezlie Sterling – Sacramento Bee

By Ryan Lillis

It’s harvest time in Sacramento Valley rice country, and like a lot of farmers in the state, rice grower Fritz Durst loves the idea that California agriculture helps feed the world.

It’s more than an idle boast. Traditionally, nearly half of the state’s agricultural output is shipped each year to international destinations, from Mexico to the Middle East, yielding $20 billion annually in sales.

This year is shaping up differently, however. A fourth debilitating year of drought has put California’s role in the global food chain to a test. Some commodities are coming up short, and exports are beginning to suffer.

Anxiety about the shift runs high in the Sacramento Valley. The rice crop is likely to run at least 30 percent smaller than normal because of water shortages. As a result, Northern California growers have lost customers in traditionally strong markets in the Mediterranean and Middle East.

Rice grown in Arkansas and other Southern states has filled much of the void, along with rice from Europe and Australia. It’s likely just a temporary shift. But after back-to-back years of weak crops, some Sacramento Valley growers are starting to worry about their long-term international prospects even if El Niño packs a serious punch this winter, as some forecasters predict.

“I’m concerned because once you lose a market … people get accustomed to someone else’s product,” said Durst, a fifth-generation Knights Landing farmer, as he trudged through one of his fallowed fields. Durst, who grows rice and other commodities in Yolo and Colusa counties, planted just 300 acres of rice this year, half the normal amount.

Many trade experts say California should be able to recapture the lost overseas markets once the drought ends, water supplies improve and the rice crop bounces back. Sacramento Valley rice, widely found in sushi restaurants, is considered superior in quality to what’s grown in the South. Even California’s competitors say so.

“We’re not a threat to California,” said Bobby Coats, a farm economist and trade expert at the University of Arkansas. “Any market share we gain from California will not be sustained in the future, end of story, until we come up with a better product.”

Nevertheless, some doubts have crept in among California rice exporters. Along with the effects of the drought, they’re also getting clobbered by the strength of the dollar, which makes U.S. goods more expensive overseas. Southern farmers obviously have to deal with a strong dollar, too, but they have lower growing costs and can sell their rice for about one-third less than their California counterparts.

Eager to capitalize on California’s drought, Southern farmers last year doubled their production of medium-grain rice, the variety that’s often exported. Figures for this year aren’t yet available, but it’s clear the Southern growers are making inroads in countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, Libya and Jordan.

“Those countries will take Southern rice if the California rice is not available,” said Nathan Childs, a U.S. Department of Agriculture economist. “This movement was caused by the drought. It was not a change in preference caused by taste.”

One boon for California is that sales to the major export markets, Japan and South Korea, have remained intact, said Kirk Messick, senior vice president at Farmers’ Rice Cooperative, a Sacramento-based marketing company. Messick said he thinks the other customers eventually will return.

For now, though, Messick said the loss of business in the Middle East and Mediterranean have hurt. Overall exports have fallen by more than 20 percent in the past year, and the prospects for this year’s stunted crop aren’t terrific.

“We’re going to lose demand,” Messick said. “We could lose domestic markets as well.”

The concerns aren’t limited to the rice business. The supply of almonds, one of the most important commodities grown in California, is expected to shrink by 4 percent. “We’ll just have to see how we can best satisfy that demand as the year progresses with a smaller crop,” said Julie Adams, a vice president of the Almond Board of California, in an email. California growers sold $4.2 billion worth of almonds overseas in 2013, more than any other commodity. More recent figures weren’t available.

Pistachio production seems to have been hurt by the drought as well, although it’s too soon to say how big the crop will be and what impact that will have on sales to China and other key markets. “With the high demand that has been in place for pistachios around the world, we could sell much more than what we have,” said Richard Matoian, executive director of American Pistachio Growers, a trade group based in Fresno.

Jock O’Connell, a Sacramento economist and trade consultant, said international food processors and importers are growing restless about California’s weather patterns and water supplies, and are exploring alternatives.

“Guys overseas are pretty shrewd,” said O’Connell, who analyzes international trade trends for Beacon Economics of Los Angeles. “They’re looking around and saying, ‘How reliable will California growers be,’ and they have plenty of reason to be skeptical.

“There’s a lot of talk in the ag sector about the danger of (California farmers) becoming unreliable suppliers,” he added. “There’s a chance it will open up opportunities for growers in other regions of the U.S., and other countries.”

The California Department of Food and Agriculture says California exported $704 million worth of rice in 2013, the last year for which figures are available. That year, some 560,000 acres were harvested, a fairly typical season. This year, the harvest will encompass only 375,000 acres, according to the California Rice Commission. Export sales are sure to fall.

Ordinarily this is Durst’s favorite season, the two-week sprint to bring in the rice crop. “It’s like watching your child graduate from college,” he said. “It’s what you work for.”

This year, with only half his rice fields planted, the experience is bittersweet.

The sharp cutbacks have as much to do with the timing of water deliveries from the state’s government-run plumbing network as they do with the total supply of water. Compared with areas south of the Delta, water is actually fairly plentiful in the Sacramento Valley. But this spring, regulators kept more water than usual in storage at Lake Shasta, as part of a complicated effort to keep water temperatures lower in the reservoir to assist winter-run Chinook salmon. That meant much of the water didn’t arrive in time for spring planting.

“We couldn’t get our water deliveries when we needed them,” Durst said.

It was hardly a financial loss for most farmers. Though they couldn’t plant their full crops, many in the Sacramento Valley were able to sell much of the water that did arrive. A deal with the San Luis Delta-Mendota Water Authority, a large agricultural agency in the parched San Joaquin Valley, generated plenty of revenue: more than $600 per acre-foot of water.

Durst, one of those who participated in the sale, said he’ll probably make more money from that transaction than he would producing rice. But he called water sales a “Band-Aid” and not a permanent fix for the Sacramento Valley’s water problems.

“My business is to grow rice,” Durst said, adding that the massive fallowing has hurt the regional economy. “Some of the rice warehouses are struggling because they don’t have enough inventory. The trickle-down effect is going to be felt here.”

The impact is global. California rice farmers have spent decades pushing to get their products sold overseas, with considerable success. While California generates only a quarter of U.S. rice production, until recently it has been responsible for a third of the exports. A big part of the story is a 1993 trade agreement known as the Uruguay Round, which opened doors in Japan and South Korea. All told, anywhere from 55 percent to 65 percent of the California rice crop is exported, Messick said.

Now, the industry worries about backsliding.

“You work very hard to gain markets and it takes a long time to gain those markets back,” said Tim Johnson, president of the rice commission. “Next year is far from certain, even if we have a normal planting year.”

Read more here

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An interview with State Food and Ag Board President Craig McNamara – from the Environmental Defense Fund

California State Board of Food and Agriculture President Craig McNamara.

California State Board of Food and Agriculture President Craig McNamara.

By Eric Holst

Craig McNamara embodies agricultural leadership in California. He has farmed a 450-acre organic walnut orchard in Winters, California for the past 35 years. He’s been an innovator in implementing conservation practices on his land that both enhance wildlife and benefit his farming operation. He’s also the president of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture, and an influential sustainable agriculture educator.

I’ve known Craig for about 10 years and have had the honor of serving with him on the State Board for the last two. I spoke with him about how he integrates farming with ecology and his plan for dealing with potential El Niño rains.

Tell us about the interventions you’ve made on your acreage to protect wildlife.

Do you remember when Earl Butz was Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon? His motto was to farm “from fencepost to fencepost” — removing biodiversity from our farms, which was a big mistake.

Over the past 20 years, we have been planting hedgerows on our land, which is the managed planting of California native grasses, plants, shrubs and trees. This ensures that something will always be in bloom from January to December so we have habitat for native pollinators, which are so critical to our global well-being in terms of food production. The lady beetles, butterflies, and native bees, which are our natural predators, require protein and energy to control pest populations in our orchard. If you don’t have a plant in bloom, they can’t survive.

You and your wife Julie have also done a lot to educate folks about hedgerows.

Twenty years ago we founded the Center for Land-Based Learning to teach high school students about sustainable agriculture and natural resource conservation. We engage students from Yuba City to Bakersfield in activities like restoration and planting hedgerows.

As we plant new acreage of walnuts, we often plant several acres in a hedgerow so that the inner part of the farm will be connected to our watershed of Putah Creek. This makes a flyway and corridor for animals and insects and birds that wouldn’t have had that habitat.

We also collaborate with UC Davis and UC Berkeley on technical research projects studying the populations of bees, bats, birds, owls, and rodents on our land. So we know for sure that these measures have contributed to conservation.

What have you done with sustainable watershed management?

We’re fortunate that our middle son, Sean, has come back to the farm to assist us. He’s taking on the creek restoration project and implementing a whole new mulching and composting regime for us. At harvest time, we remove the high-tannin hulls from the walnuts, and usually farmers just mound them up and they become a toxic mess because of the concentrated tannins, which is bad for water quality. But this year we will be composting the hulls with shredded walnut trees from old orchards.

And then you’ll use the compost?

We need about 1,000 tons of compost a year to feed the ground and fertilize it. We don’t use any synthetic fertilizers, so we depend on compost and cover crops, which are nitrogen-fixing plants.

How has the drought affected you?

We are fortunate to be in a watershed fed from freshwater in Lake Berryessa, but everyone in our watershed is unsustainably pumping from the aquifer, so we need rain. Now, we’re out preparing for the possible El Niño. We want to be able to capture that rainfall on the farm, pump it out from our creek and flood the orchard in order to recharge the aquifer. If we let the creek carry it away, it would quickly go out into the (San Francisco) Bay and the ocean. Our retention ponds that have been dry for years could store the water and it will percolate down.

The beauty is that farmers across California are much more aware of these water-banking techniques than ever before and are prepared to do that if we get the rain.

You’ve been involved as an advisor to the last three governors as a member and now president of the state board. How has that experience affected your farming operations and your interaction with the agriculture community in California?

Serving on the California State Board of Food and Agriculture has been the single most rewarding agriculture experience of my career. The leadership provided by Secretary (Karen) Ross and Governor (Jerry) Brown and my fellow board members has catapulted me into the most critical issues of our time: climate change and drought. I have been able to apply the experiences and models that I have gained at the Board level directly into pro-active farming practices on our farm. The connections that this experience has provided me extend across California agriculture and indeed all the way to Washington, D.C.

Craig McNamara is president of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture. Eric Holst is a State Board member and associate vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund’s working lands program.

Link to item at the Environmental Defense Fund web site

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It’s your duty to go to your county fair – op-ed from the Sacramento Bee

090919_3506_CT_CLH L.A. County Fair data-recalc-dims=

By Joe Mathews

I feel guilty for having failed, as of this writing, to fulfill a central responsibility of California citizenship. I haven’t been to my county fair this year.

The Los Angeles County Fair can be an ordeal. The event is as sprawling as L.A. itself. Parking is $15. And the fair is held in September, when the Pomona fairgrounds can feel like the hottest place on earth.

But I believe I must go before the fair closes this weekend. In this extraordinary state, we simply have too few opportunities to celebrate the accomplishments of ordinary people, in fields including floral arts and cheese-making.

And that’s not all fairs do. Our fairs, like universities and prisons, are among the few institutions that link this big state. And by staying mostly the same year to year, they provide a healthy hedge against rapid change; their timeless role in advancing public knowledge of agriculture has never been more relevant than during this historic drought.

Perhaps most important, the 78 fairs in our 58 counties are among the last vestiges of democracy in this increasingly unequal state. They draw crowds far more representative of our communities than the electorate is these days.

Four types of entities operate fairs – counties, district agricultural associations, citrus fruit fairs and the state agency (Cal Expo) that handles the state fair – and all are democratic institutions. Fair boards are typically volunteers appointed by the governor or counties.

Attendance at California fairs is strongest in bad economic times when cheap entertainment is most cherished. The most recent studies pin the economic impact of our fairs at $2.5 billion, including some 30,000 jobs and more than $1 billion in annual spending by fairgoers. Their value may be highest in smaller places. Paso Robles, with 30,000 people, hosts the California Mid-State Fair that draws more than 400,000 people annually.

Harder to quantify is all the money that nonprofits raise at fairs. One beer booth at the Yolo County Fair helps support four volunteer fire departments.

The California fair season is long, running from February’s Date Festival in Indio through October’s strong slate, including the Kern County Fair, San Benito County Fair, Big Fresno Fair, Desert Empire Fair and the Southern California Fair in Perris. And fairgrounds are vital spaces even when fairs are not in session, hosting farmers’ markets, horse racing, boat shows, car shows, RV shows and concerts.

California fairs face financial and cultural pressures. They bring in their own revenues, but have struggled to find money to invest in their grounds and infrastructure. Fair operators speak with envy of convention centers or arenas that are funded by hotel taxes; they’d like a piece of such revenue streams. (My own idea for a new kind of sin tax – on corn dogs, a fair staple – received an Icee-cool reception when I tried it out on fair people.)

There is worry that, in today’s safety-obsessed society, core fair attractions may come to appear too dangerous. After all, fairs are invitations to leave the safety of your home, spend hours outside in unpredictable weather, and do strange things, often involving fried foods and large animals.

But there’s a price to be paid for democracy, and for fairs. This weekend, I intend to pay it. I’ll head to the L.A. County Fair and walk among the Chinese lanterns, watch pigs race, and taste the irony of a deep-fried Slim Fast bar. These are pleasures, yes.

But they are also civic duties. See you, my fellow citizens, at the fair.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.

Link to op-ed

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The drought, a historical perspective – from the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

Lake Oroville showing The Enterprise Bridge looking down the South Fork on September 5th, 2014.

Lake Oroville earlier this month.



















By Jay Lund

California’s ongoing drought will continue to break records and grab headlines, but it is unlikely to be especially rare from a water policy and management perspective.

Estimates of the current drought’s rarity range from once in 15 years to once in 1,200 years (Griffin and Anchukaitis 2014), depending on the region and indicators used (precipitation, stream runoff, soil moisture or snowpack). In the Middle Ages, large parts of California had droughts far worse than this one, some lasting more than a century (Stine 1994). The probability of California experiencing a once in 1,200-year drought during a short human lifetime is extremely low.

The chance that this dry period is a “new normal” is probably small. Many parts of Australia are paying for expensive desalination plants built when a severe drought was misinterpreted as a new normal. If this drought is as unusual as once in 1,200 years, then why pay heed beyond just getting through it? We are unlikely to see the likes of it again.

The obsession over El Niño and the California drought masks the reality that the atmospheric condition is poorly correlated with stream flows in Northern California, where 75 percent of the state’s water supply originates.

East Coast news media should keep this perspective: Every summer California has a drought far drier and longer than the eastern U.S. has ever seen. This explains California’s extensive water and irrigation infrastructure (and why people move to California).

The uniqueness of an individual drought is fascinating. Each drought is unique in area, persistence, dryness, temperature, internal pattern and how it ends. California’s current drought is unusually severe, and certainly the worst since 1988-1992. Groundwater in the Tulare basin is probably lower than at any time in human history. This drought also has been unusually warm, leading to it having the lowest snowpack in 500 years and driest soil in 1,200 years). In precipitation or stream flow, this drought so far is between the third and eighth driest years on record for most big rivers.

By focusing on unique aspects of a drought, any drought can become an incredibly rare event. Becoming engrossed in the superlatives, however, can distract from the business of managing water shortages and preparing longer-term solutions.

What’s more relevant for water policy and management is the banality of drought. We should expect to see droughts in California of severity similar to the current drought about once or twice in a generation. Given climate change and the growth in expectations and values for diverse water uses, it seems reasonable to expect such droughts a bit more frequently than in the past. The warmer temperatures in this drought seem likely to become normal for future droughts, with disproportionate effects on ecosystems and small streams.

Agencies, cities, bankers, insurers, farmers and residents should prepare for greater regularity of droughts as harsh as the current one. Severe drought in California should be reclassified from a rare “act of God” to something more like a business cycle swing that recurs several times in a lifetime or career.

California is managing pretty well under the current drought in most areas (Howitt et al. 2015; Hanak et al, 2015) and can survive much more severe and prolonged droughts, if managed well (Harou et al, 2010).

It is more important to focus on managing the dry event and preparing for future ones than understanding the fascinating intricacies of drought origins and statistics. But we probably will continue to obsess about drought statistics and El Niño anyway.

Link to blog post


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Food Safe Families with Oakland school children, the USDA and a ‘Big League Foodie’

I spent an energizing afternoon at Parker Elementary School in Oakland this week, where students took full advantage of a presentation about how to handle, prepare and store food safely and help protect their families from food poisoning.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service Administrator Al Almanza and I shared the stage with Oakland Athletics rookie Mark Canha, a self-described foodie who takes advantage of his club’s frequent road trips as an opportunity to sample some of the nation’s best eateries. (Check him out on Instagram: @bigleaguefoodie.)

We were impressed with how engaged these students are when it comes to the science of food safety, from how germs function to how to check internal temperature when we cook meals like meat, fish and poultry.

It all boils down to:

  1. Clean – wash hands and surfaces often
  2. Separate – separate raw meats from other foods
  3. Cook – cook to the right temperature
  4. Chill – refrigerate food promptly

Plenty more from FSIS at foodsafety.gov!

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Nation’s first food waste reduction goals set – from the USDA

food waste

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Administrator Stan Meiburg have announced the United States’ first-ever national food waste reduction goal, calling for a 50-percent reduction by 2030. As part of the effort, the federal government will lead a new partnership with charitable organizations; faith-based organizations; the private sector; and local, state and tribal governments to reduce food loss and waste in order to improve overall food security and conserve our nation’s natural resources. The announcement coincides with world leaders gathering at the United Nations General Assembly in New York (Sept. 25 – 27) to address sustainable development practices, including sustainable production and consumption. As the global population continues to grow, so does the need for food waste reduction.

“The United States enjoys the most productive and abundant food supply on earth, but too much of this food goes to waste,” said Vilsack. “An average family of four leaves more than two million calories, worth nearly $1500, uneaten each year. Our new reduction goal demonstrates America’s leadership on a global level in in getting wholesome food to people who need it, protecting our natural resources, cutting environmental pollution and promoting innovative approaches for reducing food loss and waste.”

Food loss and waste in the United States accounts for approximately 31 percent—or 133 billion pounds—of the overall food supply available to retailers and consumers and has far-reaching impacts on food security, resource conservation and climate change. Food loss and waste is single largest component of disposed U.S. municipal solid waste, and accounts for a significant portion of U.S. methane emissions. Landfills are the third largest source of methane in the United States. Furthermore, experts have projected that reducing food losses by just 15 percent would provide enough food for more than 25 million Americans every year, helping to sharply reduce incidences of food insecurity for millions.

“Let’s feed people, not landfills. By reducing wasted food in landfills, we cut harmful methane emissions that fuel climate change, conserve our natural resources, and protect our planet for future generations” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. “Today’s announcement presents a major environmental, social and public health opportunity for the U.S., and we’re proud to be part of a national effort to reduce the food that goes into landfills.”

Ongoing federal initiatives are already building momentum for long-term success. In 2013, USDA and EPA launched the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, creating a platform for leaders and organizations across the food chain to share best practices on ways to reduce, recover, and recycle food loss and waste. By the end of 2014, the U.S. Food Waste Challenge had over 4,000 active participants, well surpassing its initial goal of reaching 1,000 participants by 2020.

In addition to the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, USDA has unveiled several food loss reduction initiatives over the past few years, including an app to help consumers safely store food and understand food date labels, new guidance to manufacturers on donating misbranded or sub-spec foods, and research on innovative technologies to make reducing food loss and waste cost effective. USDA will build on these successes with additional initiatives targeting food loss and waste reduction throughout its programs and policies.

In addition, the USDA is launching a new consumer education campaign through its Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion with information on food loss and waste facts and reduction tips. Moreover, a new section on ChooseMyPlate.gov will educate consumers about reducing food waste to help stretch household budgets.

USDA and EPA will also continue to encourage the private sector—food service companies, institutions, restaurants, grocery stores, and more—to set their own aggressive goals for reducing food loss and waste in the months ahead. Organizations such as the Consumer Goods Forum, which recently approved a new resolution to halve food waste within the operations of its 400 retailer and manufacturers members by 2025, are helping to lead the way.

Link to news release

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