To All,

This Lawsuit Has Put Big Ag On The Defensive In A Major Way
A pending Iowa case could set a new national precedent for water pollution stemming from farms.

Three highly agricultural counties — Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac — named in a controversial lawsuit brought by the Des Moines Water Works.

The lawsuit, which was filed in 2015, claims that nitrogen-rich water flowing off the area’s farms pollutes the Raccoon River, which, along with the Des Moines River, provides drinking water for half a million people. The water authority wants the counties to pick up the dramatically higher treatment costs for the water. The counties, who want the case dismissed, counter that there’s no proof that agriculture is directly responsible for the nitrates.

The case has thus far been upheld, though it won’t be brought to trial until next June. Meanwhile, both sides are digging in for a pivotal Iowa Supreme Court hearing on the matter set for September.

If the water utility wins the suit, it would mark the first time in the U.S. that agribusiness is forced to pay for water pollution, potentially setting a precedent with nationwide ramifications.


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Logging for Water

A battle is brewing over whether cutting down trees will increase California’s water supply.

By Will Parrish

Clear cuts in Battle Creek watershed

Clear-cuts in Battle Creek Watershed, with Mount Lassen in the background, give the area a look like leprosy on the skin. Photo by Zeke Lunder.

The day after an unseasonal June rain swelled the streams of the northern Sierra Nevada, Marily Woodhouse steered her 2003 Dodge Dakota through 65 miles of winding mountain roads near Mount Lassen. Woodhouse first traversed the area on horseback shortly after moving here 25 years ago. Back then, the land was lush with life, and its towering conifer forests furnished refreshingly cool air on days that were blistering hot beyond the canopy’s shade.

Now, acre after acre of land of the Battle Creek Watershed is parched as far as the eye can see. Nonnative plants like star thistle and mullein compete to cover bare ground that was once studded with pines, firs, and cedars. Rather than finding sanctuary in the forests, Woodhouse now collects data that she says demonstrates the epic damage that has been wrought by the state’s largest timber corporation, Sierra Pacific Industries, or SPI.

Nearly every week, for more than seven years, Woodhouse has stopped at the same 13 stream locations in the watershed. At each spot, the founder of the environmental group Battle Creek Alliance uses specialized equipment to examine and record water temperature, water pH, soil temperature, and “turbidity”: a measure of individual particles that are generally invisible to the naked eye, similar to smoke in the air.

In 2012, the Ponderosa Fire torched 27,234 acres in the watershed. But Woodhouse says SPI inflicted much greater harm through post-fire “salvage logging,” which involved removing virtually every large- and medium-sized tree in the burned area—both living and dead—and deep-ripping the denuded soil to a depth of three feet with heavy machinery in order to accelerate the growth of newly planted trees.

“I used to think clear-cutting was the worst thing, but it’s not,” Woodhouse said regarding the salvage logging. “They took everything down to bare dirt. The water quality went crazy bad.”

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Last Stands

North Coast timber conflict flares up—again

By Will Parrish


After an era of relative quiet compared to the so-called timber wars of the 1980s and ’90s, conflict over logging in the forests of Northern California has returned.

A plan to log 100- to 150-year-old redwood trees across 320 acres of northwestern Sonoma County in the Gualala River floodplain has generated fervent opposition from environmentalists and local residents over the past year. Clear-cutting of 5,760 fire-impacted acres in the Klamath National Forest kicked off in April, much of it on land previously designated as endangered species habitat.

The indigenous people of the area, the Karuk tribe, worked with local environmentalists to craft an alternative plan, but the Forest Service largely ignored it. The Karuk and the environmental groups have filed a lawsuit in an attempt to scuttle the logging. Last month, Karuk tribal members and local activists blocked the road leading to the logging while holding up a banner reading “Karuk Land, Karuk Plan” in an effort to slow the logging operations pending a legal judgment that could come as soon as late August.

During the last period of conflict 30 years ago, regional environmentalists curtailed some logging operations by setting aside talismanic stands of old-growth redwood trees in parks and preserves, and by pointing out that forests provide important habitat to numerous species, many of them endangered, including northern spotted owls, marbled murrelets and coho salmon.

California is home to some of the most prodigious forests on earth, but lumber production in California has steadily declined since the 1950s. A similar trend also occurred in other western states. But now logging companies are coming back to pick over what’s left.

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Will the Delta tunnels get built? Plan enters critical make-or-break phase

DELTA NEWS, July 24, 2016

Still swirling in controversy, Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed $15.5 billion re-engineering of the troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is heading into a critical phase over the next year that could well decide if the project comes to fruition.

Crunch time starts Tuesday. The State Water Resources Control Board begins months of grueling public hearings on the details of Brown’s plan to burrow a pair of massive tunnels beneath the heart of the Delta, a grand public works project designed to shore up the reliability of water deliveries to millions of Southern Californians and San Joaquin Valley farmers.

As the hearings plow forward, project planners will be scrambling to surpass another major milestone: securing a declaration from two U.S. regulatory agencies that the tunnels could operate without violating the Endangered Species Act.

Tunnel proponents say it’s essential to obtain that document before President Barack Obama leaves office next January. Otherwise the state might have to revisit much of the planning with a new administration in the White House, squandering eight years of work.

“You have certain windows in which you have to get things teed up and completed, and this window is six months,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The influential Los Angeles agency, probably the most vocal tunnels advocate outside of the Brown administration, relies heavily on Delta water to supply its 19 million customers.

Another key issue looms. Kightlinger said a “decision point” is fast approaching for south-of-Delta water agencies, which would be responsible for paying for the tunnels, to choose once and for all whether they’re on board. The agencies’ governing boards need to greenlight the proposal sometime early next year, Kightlinger believes, or momentum will fade on a project that will take at least a decade to complete.

“You need to get these processes started; we need to get going on the design; you need to get going on your geo-technical,” Kightlinger said. “You’ve got a whole huge timeline that’s got to be marching along.” Metropolitan hasn’t officially committed yet, either. But it has clearly signaled support, including spending $175 million to buy a cluster of Delta islands that Kightlinger said could be used to store construction materials as the tunnels get built.

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Twin tunnels: A matter of trust

Key hearing for water project starts this week

By Alex Breitler
Record Staff Writer
Posted Jul. 23, 2016 at 5:11 PM

When testimony begins Tuesday in a months-long hearing that could decide the fate of the $15 billion Delta water tunnels, amid all the acronyms and complexities and water-wonk jargon there will be a simple, consistent theme:


Or lack thereof.

Written statements submitted in advance of the hearing — which one advocacy group says may be the most important of its kind for decades to come — show that state officials will base their case for the $15 billion tunnels in part on an assertion that they have been good stewards of the Delta in the past, and that they can be trusted to divert water into the tunnels while still preserving water quality downstream in the fragile estuary.

They will say that they have met a complicated suite of standards nearly 99 percent of the time dating back to 1978.

“I think we would consider that to be pretty darned good,” said John Leahigh, who heads the operation of the State Water Project for the Department of Water Resources.

Delta activists will counter that with persistent salt invasions in the south Delta, and the temporary weakening of the water quality standards during the drought — 20-year-old standards which are already considered obsolete as several Delta fish species careen toward extinction — the state’s record isn’t as strong as the numbers suggest.

“The state’s trust value in the Delta is, like, zero,” said third-generation Delta farmer Mike Robinson. “There’s nothing there. They can make all the promises they want. They’re not going to follow through.”

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Researchers determine vineyards adversely affect soil quality

July 14, 2016, UBC Okanagan [British Columbia]

UBC biologists are digging under vineyards to see if the Okanagan’s grape industry is affecting soil quality.

Miranda Hart, an associate professor of biology at UBC’s Okanagan campus, her PhD candidate Taylor Holland, along with Agriculture Canada research scientist Pat Bowen, has spent the better part of three years studying soil samples from more than 15 vineyards throughout the Okanagan.

Specifically, they were looking at soils in vineyards and neighbouring natural—or uncultivated—habitats. With samples from both areas, the scientists compared the bacterial and fungal communities between these habitats, hoping to determine what’s happening to the soil under the wine-producing grapes.

They determined there was a definite difference in soil communities between the natural valley soil and the vineyard soil.

“Soil biodiversity may be an important part of terroir, which is everything to a grape grower, so they have a vested interest in ensuring we preserve soil biodiversity,” says Hart “This baseline study shows us that BC wine growing regions are different in terms of the organisms that live in the soil.”

All agricultural activity will affect the soil, some more than others, Hart explains. But in order to know how the soil is being changed, researchers wanted to compare samples with natural, uncultivated areas alongside processed areas.

“We have to take care of the microbes in the soil,” she says. “The biodiversity of soil microbes is essential if we are to feed our growing population.”

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Mike Benziger | Water Wizard

vommag July 31, 2015 Vol.1 Issue 2

Mike Benziger

Story: David Bolling
Photos: Steven Krause

Winemaking is a kind of alchemy because, at a fundamental level, it involves turning water into wine. A lot of water.

UC Davis professor Larry Williams studied a test plot of chardonnay grapes in Carneros and calculated that irrigated vines required a little over 15 gallons of water to produce a four-ounce pour of wine, although just 6.5 gallons from irrigation. Dry-farmed grapes (no irrigation) required slightly over 14 gallons of water, all of it drawn from the soil. Which leads us to Mike Benziger, the wizard of winery water.

Farming 50 acres of wine grapes on the side of Sonoma Mountain, Mike Benziger saved 1 million gallons of water between 2012 and 2013.

That amounts to 2,740 gallons a day, every day, for a year.

In 2014, he saved another 400,000 gallons.

How did he do that?

A typical vineyard, says Benziger, will consume about 100 gallons of water per vine per season. That could be as much as 300,000 gallons per acre. Mike got his vineyards below 50 gallons per vine, and 31 percent of his vines are dry-farmed, meaning they get no irrigation.

Again, how did he do it?

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Tree Growth Never Slows

Richard Schultz/Corbis

Redwood grove

Trees — including California’s giant redwoods — add an increasing amount of mass every year.

Many foresters have long assumed that trees gradually lose their vigour as they mature, but a new analysis suggests that the larger a tree gets, the more kilos of carbon it puts on each year.

“The trees that are adding the most mass are the biggest ones, and that holds pretty much everywhere on Earth that we looked,” says Nathan Stephenson, an ecologist at the US Geological Survey in Three Rivers, California, and the first author of the study, which appears today in Nature. “Trees have the equivalent of an adolescent growth spurt, but it just keeps going.”

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Cal Fire Oks Redwood Logging, Environmentalists Might Sue

Cal Fire has approved a timber harvest plan known as Dogwood that involves logging century-old redwood trees despite the objections of environmental advocates.

The Associated Press
July 5, 2016

Cal Fire has approved the Dogwood plan that involves logging century-old redwood trees despite the objections of environmental advocates.

The Press Democrat reports ( that environmental advocates may challenge the 330-acre “Dogwood” harvest plan that the state fire and forest agency OKed Friday.

Gualala Redwood Timber Inc. acquired the land along the lower Gualala River last year. Spokesman Henry Alden says the company plans to begin logging this summer unless there is outside interference.

Environmental groups like Forest Unlimited and Friends of the Gualala River have said they are considering taking the case to court.

They say the logging plan violates rules meant to protect sensitive habitats, although Alden strongly disputes that. The groups are also concerned about the operation’s cumulative effects.

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Of Water and Wine

New vineyards and resorts rising above the Napa Valley threaten the region’s water
This story was produced in collaboration with the Food and Environment Reporting Network, a non-profit investigative news organization.

Battle over Napa's hills

In the winter of 2015, a Hong Kong real estate conglomerate purchased the Calistoga Hills Resort, at the northern end of the Napa Valley, for nearly $80 million. Today, mature oaks and conifers cover the 88-acre property, which flanks the eastern slope of the Mayacamas Mountains.

But soon, 8,000 trees will be cut, making way for 110 hotel rooms, 20 luxury homes, 13 estate lots, and a restaurant. Room rates will reportedly start at about $1,000 a night, and the grounds will include amenities like a pool, spas, outdoor showers and individual plunge pools outside select guest rooms.

Following the sale, one of the most expensive in the nation based on the number of rooms planned, commercial broker James Escarzega told a Bay Area real estate journal that the project “will be a game changer for the luxury hotel market in Napa Valley.” That may well be true, but it’s likely not the kind of game changer that many locals want to see.

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