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Concerns linger in Merced County over state decision to cut river water to local farmers

The impacts of a recent decision by the California State Water Resources Control Board could ripple into serious consequences felt by Merced County water users next year, Merced Irrigation District (MID) officials say.The state board on Aug. 3 unanimously voted to to issue “emergency curtailment” orders for the rivers of the Sacramento-S...

The impacts of a recent decision by the California State Water Resources Control Board could ripple into serious consequences felt by Merced County water users next year, Merced Irrigation District (MID) officials say.

The state board on Aug. 3 unanimously voted to to issue “emergency curtailment” orders for the rivers of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed — severing Central Valley farmers from their main irrigation supply as the drought worsens.

Thousands of Valley farmers would be among the first to feel the impacts of being cut off from California’s main rivers and streams, including the more than 2,000 local growers within Merced Irrigation District.

The irrigation district oversees Lake McClure, a 1-million-acre-foot reservoir northeast of Snelling that serves as the primary water supply for Merced County growers and provides water to about 100,000 acres in the eastern part of the county.

“That reservoir is essentially the only water source for our growers,” said MID spokesperson Mike Jensen.

Water allocation for MID growers for 2021 is already set, but MID officials are wary about how the state board’s decision will play out locally in 2022 following an already challenging drought year — especially if dry conditions persist or the drought intensifies.

If emergency curtailment orders are in place during the storm season next year, it will prevent the reservoir from storing runoff as it flows downriver, Jensen said. This is cause for concern not only for growers, but for residents of east Merced County as well, as drinking water supply could be potentially impacted.

It could also worsen concerns over the county’s groundwater basins. MID’s water operations provide more than 100,000 acre-feet of groundwater replenishment each year to a groundwater basin that is identified by the state as critically overdrafted.

Basins labeled as critically overdrafted see their annual average of groundwater extraction exceed supply. Most San Joaquin Valley basins are critically overdrafted.

Agricultural and urban groundwater users are directed to limit consumption under the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

But Merced County growers feeling the direct effects of water being cut off may turn to sourcing their supply from wells, exacerbating concerns over the county’s critically over-drafted basins.

“If we don’t have adequate surface water supply for Lake McClure . . . our growers are going to be looking at pumping groundwater,” Jensen said, noting that increased groundwater pumping would put more demand on overdrafted basins.

MID officials have expressed apprehension to the state board about the emergency curtailment orders impeding the opportunity to capture valuable runoff for storage or water management activities if a storm event occurs next fall or winter.

As a result, local irrigation district officials have asked the state board to provide a point person to coordinate with to lift the orders if a storm does occur, thus allowing water to be put to use locally.

Last week’s move by the California State Water Resources Control Board marked the most drastic step since the drought was officially declared throughout a majority of California’s counties and surpasses any steps taken by the state during the previous drought.

The order affects those with direct legal rights to divert water from the rivers. The board pointed to the need to preserve river flows for drinking water as well as endangered fish species as reason to curtail farmers’ water use.

Maintaining river flow prevents saltwater from the Pacific from rushing into the Delta. If that water gets too salty, pumping operations from the estuary through which much of California’s water is pumped may stop.

Assemblymember Adam Gray, D-Merced, condemned curtailment proposal prior to the unanimous vote. He criticized the state board for halting water flows to farmers who grow food while no mandatory statewide conservation requirements are in effect for urban water users.

“The Board’s history of failing to balance the necessary sacrifices required during times of severe drought against the real-life impacts of those sacrifices is well documented,” Gray said in a letter to the board.

“What’s more important, making sure farmers can grow food for your tables or making sure someone’s lawn in Bel Air never turns brown around the edges?”

The state board’s decision means residents living in rural areas like Merced County will bear the overwhelming economic and social burdens created by the drought, Gray said in a news release. Irrigation restrictions will result in the loss of thousands of acres of fruit, nut, dairy and vegetable production that will cost thousands of jobs, he said.

According to the state board, curtailment orders may be lifted when river flows increase or are projected to increase, with the intent of regaining reservoir storage. California reservoirs are near record low storage, including the ones that maintain salinity in the delta and supply drinking water to most of the state.

The board will assess by Oct. 1 whether to continue with the curtailment orders. Storms or increased river flows in the fall would allow a dam operator to begin storing water for next year.

The Sacramento, Fresno and Modesto Bees contributed to this report.

This story was originally published August 11, 2021 5:00 AM.

Why Are Almond Growers Uprooting Their Orchards?

Row after row of plants lay flat, their brown branches and bone-dry roots splayed out on ochre grass. Aerial images of the scene are a little disorienting: There are so many toppled shapes that it’s hard to make sense of the scale. At first glance, a viewer might assume they’re surveying uprooted weeds or unwanted shrubs—small, brambly ankle-scratchers baking in the afternoon sun and not particularly mourned.But the plants weren’t weeds: They were once almond trees, each roughly as tall as a two-story home, eco...

Row after row of plants lay flat, their brown branches and bone-dry roots splayed out on ochre grass. Aerial images of the scene are a little disorienting: There are so many toppled shapes that it’s hard to make sense of the scale. At first glance, a viewer might assume they’re surveying uprooted weeds or unwanted shrubs—small, brambly ankle-scratchers baking in the afternoon sun and not particularly mourned.

But the plants weren’t weeds: They were once almond trees, each roughly as tall as a two-story home, economically precious, and very much alive.

Until they were yanked out in May, these particular almond trees lived in Snelling, California, which sits in Merced County, east of San Jose. There, local growers are nuts for almonds; farmers grew more than 223 million pounds in 2019-2020. But the area is in the grip of a major dry spell: This May was the driest in 127 years, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and 100 percent of the county is currently classified as experiencing “extreme drought.” Now, between the parched period and looming new regulations around groundwater usage, some farmers are opting to send their trees to the big orchard in the sky.

Almond trees rip easily from the ground—excavators equipped with a grapple, which looks like a clawed hand, can grip and pluck a water-starved almond tree in seconds. Plunked on their sides or dragged across a dry orchard, the plants look less like trees than like enormous, scraggly tumbleweeds.

THE GASTRO OBSCURA BOOK

With the right equipment, a crew can chew up roughly 10 to 15 acres a day, Zach Fowler of Fowler Brothers Farming, a California-based orchard development and removal company, explained last year to Ryan Valk, an ag-loving YouTuber who posts videos under the name California Farmer. That translates to well over a thousand trees. Eventually, trees from a dismantled orchard may be shoved into heaps and then fed trunk-first into grinders, which spit out their fragments into massive mounds of wood chips.

Mature almond trees are typically spent by their mid-twenties, and ripped out after 20 or 25 years, but some farmers are removing them early. A Central Valley grower recently told Bloomberg that she will remove trees this fall, before they’re past their prime, and swap in younger ones that don’t need as much water.

It’s not the first time the state’s almond growers have sacrificed some of their infamously thirsty crop in the face of drought. In 2014, for instance, Barry Baker of the Baker Farming Company in the Central Valley said goodbye to 1,000 acres of still-viable almond trees, around 20 percent of his total. “I just knew it would be tough to find water for these trees this year,” he told the Associated Press. “And I’m glad I pulled them out now,” Baker added, “because it’s just impossible to find water.”

Almonds are notorious guzzlers. They’re thirstier than many other tree crops. In Solano and Yolo counties, more than 120 miles northwest of Snelling, orchards typically sip around nine inches of water a month in the summer, according to a report by Wilbur Reil, a longtime advisor in the region on orchard and vine crops. Plants can injure themselves by trying to slurp during a drought. Attempting to suck water from dry soil can lead to dangerous embolisms, bubbles of air trapped in a plant’s xylem, the tissue that functions like straws to help them glug. When xylem is plugged up by air pockets, fluid can’t pass. Stoppered plants may die.

Leaving drought-stricken trees in the ground can also be a gamble: “I don’t think we have a lot of information about how little we can water a tree in a given year and expect it to produce in a following year,” says Phoebe Gordon, an orchard crops farm advisor at the UC Cooperative Extension whose areas of expertise include almonds in the counties of Madera and Merced.

Even so, Gordon hasn’t experienced growers reaching out because they’re considering ripping out orchards with more years left in them. She recalls only one person specifically asking about an alternative to almonds, and that was because the price of the nut has slipped, she says, dinging their value to farmers. “If folks do ask me about alternative crops, it’s usually in the context of soil and water quality,” Gordon says. She adds that an experienced grower would “absolutely” look into a crop’s water needs, and encourages growers to carefully consider how they’ll handle new statewide regulations governing groundwater usage that come into full effect in 2040. But it’s not so simple to swap almonds for, say, more drought-tolerant pistachios, Gordon says. Establishing a new orchard often means years of fallow finances before the trees yield crops, and growers also may require new and expensive equipment.

Trying to imagine the future of California’s agriculture landscape is “very much like looking into a crystal ball,” Gordon says. In the meantime, more orchards could be uprooted in their prime, leaving behind visually striking carnage.

May Day Fair springs into action again this month in Los Banos. Here are the details

This year’s Merced County Spring Fair in Los Banos, more than ever, has a “spring” in its step. Everyone, from exhibitors to fairgoers, seems to be excited about the upcoming event, which Los Banosans call the “May Day Fair.”No wonder. After two years of canceled fairs, there is a special excitement about the 2022 event. Fairgoers have missed the livestock, photo, art, cooking and crafts exhibits, as well as the entertainment, rides and food and beverage booths.The fair starts on April 27, and more...

This year’s Merced County Spring Fair in Los Banos, more than ever, has a “spring” in its step. Everyone, from exhibitors to fairgoers, seems to be excited about the upcoming event, which Los Banosans call the “May Day Fair.”

No wonder. After two years of canceled fairs, there is a special excitement about the 2022 event. Fairgoers have missed the livestock, photo, art, cooking and crafts exhibits, as well as the entertainment, rides and food and beverage booths.

The fair starts on April 27, and more people than usual are expected that Wednesday at 10 a.m. when Los Banos Veterans officially open the fair by raising the American flag.

This year’s fair marshals are especially popular. Anyone who has worked with Larry and Rhonda Borelli knows what genuinely nice people they are and how hard they have worked to make past May Day Fairs successful.

For persons interested in saving money on fair entry and ride tickets, pre-sale discount tickets are available Monday through Friday now through April 26 at the Merced County Spring Fair office at 403 F Street (209.826.5166).

By now, all livestock and exhibits have been entered, and the entertainment acts as well as the food and beverage booths have been secured. Each evening will feature free entertainment and on Saturday the popular truck and tractor pull will take place.

The Los Banos Fairgrounds staff is ready for large crowds. They have spent months getting the buildings and grounds ready, led by this year’s fair manager,

Bob Walker. Walker has been a fair manager for most of his life, including his many years of supervision of Stanislaus County Fair in Turlock.

The excitement over this year’s fair extends outside of Los Banos. Young exhibitors from Gustine to Snelling and beyond are looking forward to displaying their animals and projects.

On April 30 the popular May Day Parade will take place with floats and bands from many cities in northern California participating. Already, Los Banos residents are trying to figure out the best places to put their lawn chairs to watch the Saturday morning parade go by.

The May Day Fair has fascinated me since the first one I attended in 1972, the year after I moved to Los Banos. A guy born and raised in the Chicago area, I was intrigued by the enthusiasm everyone in town had for the fair. I invited friends from other cities to join me to watch the parade and see the exhibits.

By 1976, when my two oldest kids were barely old enough for the rides, I looked forward to Kid’s Day Friday with free admission. The tradition of a free day on Friday for kids 12-and-under continues this year.

Although my wife Susan and I believed in good nutrition, we made exceptions for the corn dogs, cinnamon rolls and other fair treats.

All three of my kids entered exhibits. My first two, Ginny and Mike, entered craft, woodworking and cooking projects. However, my third child, Megan, decided in fifth grade she wanted to raise a pig for the fair, as part of Los Banos’s Our Lady of Fatima School 4-H. Susan and I gave our approval, and Megan was off and running (or rather working).

Megan and her parents had wonderful support from OLF 4-H adult leaders, beginning with her first year of showing. Ken and Dan helped select a pig, Megan named him Nosebud and took care of him at the OLF School farm on Ramos Road.

That was the beginning of four consecutive years pig involvement and my increased understanding of what it takes to raise an animal for the fair. That included my making many trips to the pig farm for three months prior to the fair, watching Megan train her pig to walk next to her and shoveling pig manure (as parents do).

I also learned about market, showmanship and auction days and appreciated the many people in Los Banos who bid on young people’s animals, thereby replenishing the kids’ 4-H and FFA bank accounts.

Since then, I have an increased appreciation for every young person—in 4-H and FFA — as well as their adult club leaders and their parents. It takes a big commitment to show an animal.

This year my wife Sandy and I will be rooting for three of our granddaughters—Jaelyn, Taylor and Payton—who will be showing heifers, as well as entering projects in photography and crafts.

I tip my hat to everyone involved in the fair—participants, fairgoers and fairgrounds staff. And, like many other Los Banosans and other Merced County residents, I look forward to the five days of excitement at the end of this month.

On another note: Shiena Polehn, a longtime resident of Los Banos, passed away on April 1in Medford, OR. Shiena gave so much of her life to the people of Los Banos.

Many students of hers will remember the ESL and citizenship courses she taught at the Los Banos Campus of Merced College. Shiena was also an active member of AAUW and supported its many events.

I will remember Shiena’s kind and gentle demeanor, her warm smile and the wonderful holiday potlucks with her classes featuring every kind of wonderful ethnic dish that could be imagined.

Everyone who knew, worked with or was taught by Shiena mourns her loss.

John Spevak wrote this for the Los Banos Enterprise. His email is john.spevak@gmail.com.

This story was originally published April 15, 2022 10:53 AM.

Some Friendly Exotic Pets In This Neck Of The Valley

If you have been to a few annual community events — such as the Hilmar Dairy Festival or the Christmas Musical at the Christian Life Center — you surely noticed a few camels on display, and maybe wondered where they came from.Well, it’s quite likely they came from Lloyd Pareira’s ranch.Most local residents know Pareira as the dairy farmer turned County Supervisor after he successfully ran for office in 2016. But some people may be surprised to learn that Pareira continues to manage a 500-acre ranch just ...

If you have been to a few annual community events — such as the Hilmar Dairy Festival or the Christmas Musical at the Christian Life Center — you surely noticed a few camels on display, and maybe wondered where they came from.

Well, it’s quite likely they came from Lloyd Pareira’s ranch.

Most local residents know Pareira as the dairy farmer turned County Supervisor after he successfully ran for office in 2016. But some people may be surprised to learn that Pareira continues to manage a 500-acre ranch just off Highway 59, halfway between Merced and Snelling, and it’s home to all kinds of animals, including large exotic pets.

There’s a yak, an emu, a couple of Zedonks, a few bison, and seven camels among a variety of more common Valley animals such as sheep, cattle, pigs, chickens, turkeys and pigeons. There’s also “Scrappy” the cat that keeps everything in check.

Pareira says the camels are his favorite pets. They include a bull, a baby gilding, and five lovely ladies.

“They are very friendly,” Pareira says. “They each cost about a $150 a month to feed. Less expensive than a horse.”

Pareira also breeds and sells the camels, and they mostly go to horse owners who have the space and resources to care for them. The price? Anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000, depending on age and gender.

They come with some interesting traits. Did you know that the Arabian dromedary single-humped camel can drink up to 30 gallons of water in 10 minutes?

They also have two sets of eye lashes.

And they can produce milk and diary products too.

Camels can live up to 30 to 40 years, and sometimes longer. They are curious, intelligent — and despite their tainted reputation as spitters — they can be incredibly nice to people.

Pareira’s family has lived in the Central Valley since 1918. His ranch is in the river bottom. He has been a farmer all his life. He grew up in the Hopeton area near Snelling. He graduated from Merced College with an A.S. in animal science, and then went on to further his studies at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, earning a B.S. in dairy science.

Pareira, and wife Babette, have been married for 27 years, and they have four grown children. As a father, Pareira was very involved in raising his children, along with tending to his own dairy farm.

These days, he rents out about 360 acres of his ranch to a corn farmer and dedicates about 20 acres to his home, a brook and his pet animals. Most of his time has pivoted to serving the community.

Pareira is well-known in the community for his active community support and spearheading efforts to fight homelessness, improve education, boost local health care, and bring attention to farming, water, transportation, and public safety issues.

He is also involved in setting forth business opportunities to create jobs and grow economic prosperity within the county and particularly for his District 4 that includes Ballico, Gustine, Cressey, Delhi, Hilmar, Snelling, Stevinson, Winton, and portions of Atwater.

At 58, Pareira shows no signs of slowing down, and in fact seems more committed as ever to improving the quality of life in Merced County and beyond.

And if that also means showing off a few friendly camels at a community event or a school classroom every once in a while, then so be it. He’s more than happy to share his love of animals.

Butte College football holds on in overtime to defeat Santa Rosa

SANTA CLARA — Before the Butte College football team left for its road game against Santa Rosa Junior College on Saturday, Butte College coach Robby Snelling told his team Wednesday that the Bear Cubs play very hard at home and not to look past their 0-5 record this season.Snelling emphasized all 11 guys must do their jobs at all times. Snelling said following Saturday’s game his team did much better this week than in weeks prior as Butte (3-3, 1-0 in Golden Valley Conference action) defeated Santa Rosa Junior College (0-6...

SANTA CLARA — Before the Butte College football team left for its road game against Santa Rosa Junior College on Saturday, Butte College coach Robby Snelling told his team Wednesday that the Bear Cubs play very hard at home and not to look past their 0-5 record this season.

Snelling emphasized all 11 guys must do their jobs at all times. Snelling said following Saturday’s game his team did much better this week than in weeks prior as Butte (3-3, 1-0 in Golden Valley Conference action) defeated Santa Rosa Junior College (0-6, 0-1 in GVC play) 29-21 in Santa Rosa.

SRJC came out just as strong as Snelling expected as it took a 14-7 lead into halftime. The Bear Cubs offense held the ball for 24 minutes and 40 seconds, holding Butte’s offense off the field for all but five minutes and 20 seconds in the first half. In the second half things began to turn around for the Roadrunners as Butte held the ball for 17:39 and SRJC’s offense had the ball for 12:21.

Butte seemed to have the game in its hands, driving the ball down the field at the end of the fourth quarter but missed a field goal as time expired for the second consecutive game forcing the game into overtime.

After each team scored, Butte’s offense scored a second time and its defense stopped SRJC on four consecutive plays to give the Roadrunners the victory in both teams’ GVC opener. The win snapped Butte’s three-game losing streak.

In overtime, after Santa Rosa took a 21-14 lead to start, Butte quarterback Brian Harper connected with wide receiver Troy Davis for a 21-yard pass which brought the ball to the four-yard line. After a false start on Butte, Harper connected with tight end and Pleasant Valley High alumnus Austin York for a 9-yard touchdown to tie the game.

Overtime rules state that the team that starts with the ball on the first possession gets it last on the next possession.

Butte began at the SRJC 25 yard line and brought the ball to the three-yard line, before Harper connected with Troy Davis for a 3-yard touchdown. The Roadrunners went for the two-point conversion and were successful which brought the lead to 29-21.

“Those two they both worked out real nice. They left the corner open, we repped it a lot and it played out exactly how we were hoping and he was wide open for us,” Harper said.

The Roadrunner defense stopped the Bear Cubs on four straight passing plays to end the game with a final score of 29-21.

Harper was 14 of 21 passing with 170 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Harper added seven rushing attempts for 64 yards, including a 33-yard rushing touchdown at the start of the third quarter. Harper scrambled following a blitz by Santa Rosa and beat the defender to the outside and ran it in for the score.

Butte running back Johnny Williams had 100 or more rushing yards for the second consecutive game, as he rushed 26 times for 127 yards and a touchdown just before halftime.

Receiver Adam Bunch had two catches for 75 yards, including a 40-yard diving catch late in the second quarter which set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Williams. With under two minutes in the fourth quarter, on second down and 21 yards to go Bunch had a 36-yard catch which brought the ball across midfield before the missed field goal by Butte kicker Gabe Estabrook.

“Those are huge plays for us, definitely sparked the offense like we needed after just being down a little bit in the first half,” Harper said. “Just the whole team it kind of gave us a little more energy going into halftime so they were definitely clutch plays.”

Butte’s defense had five sacks Saturday. Steven Bryant had 1.5 sacks, Isaiah Ward and Grant Ewell had one each, and Tucker St. Andre, Koli Lemau and Lathun Snipes had a half-sack each. On special teams, Tizell Lewis blocked a punt halfway through the third quarter.

“We did a great job getting some pressure, making some plays down the field as well,” Snelling said. “We had a lot more of all 11 guys doing their job so the results were a lot better.”

During the three-game losing skid for Butte penalties have been a problem. Against Fresno City College Snelling said his team took a step forward after the loss to Modesto, but Saturday Snelling said he felt his team took a step back. The Roadrunners had 14 penalties for 135 yards Saturday.

Snelling said the penalties were the reason Butte was in the situation it was in in the first half. It converted on several third-down stops that were wiped out due to penalties. Snelling addressed his team at halftime and said they had to stop “shooting themselves in the foot with the penalties.”

After the Modesto game, Snelling said it would be corrected during Monday’s conditioning practice and he reiterated that once more.

“We will be working on it and we will get it corrected,” Snelling said.

Butte now looks towards a return home to play Sierra College at 1 p.m. Saturday in Butte Valley.

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