Author Archives: Sasha Khokha

Sasha Khokha is Central Valley Bureau Chief for KQED’s  statewide public radio program, The California Report. Based in Fresno, she covers a vast geographic beat, including the nation’s most productive farm belt, some of California’s poorest towns, and Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks. Whether trekking up a Sierra glacier with her microphone, interviewing farmworkers in Spanish, or explaining complicated air or water quality issues, Sasha translates rural California to the rest of the state. She is a graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Brown University, and the mother of two young children.

Ag and Water: Making Do with Less

This story was produced in collaboration with NPR, with help from producer Cindy Carpien. Sasha’s radio story aired on The California Report on June 8, and will also air later this month as part of NPR’s series on water and the West.

Juicy apples spring from the apparently dry landscape of Sonoma County. Photo: Cindy Carpien

Juicy apples spring from the apparently dry landscape of Sonoma County. Photo: Dan Lehrer, Flatland Flower Farm

Does climate change spell doomsday for California agriculture?

That’s what Nobel-prize winning physicist Steven Chu told the Los Angeles Times in an interview, soon after President Obama appointed him Secretary of Energy.

“I don’t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen,” he told the Times in February. “We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.”

For another perspective, I called UC Davis ag economist Richard Howitt, who focuses on water and California agriculture, to ask him what he thought.

“That’s a highly inaccurate statement,” Howitt said. “Steven got carried away. Brilliant man, but he doesn’t know anything about California water.”

Howitt’s models show climate change will likely lead to a 25% reduction in the state’s water supply over the next 50 years. He says that will likely mean some rough times ahead for farmers, but certainly not the end of California’s role as an agricultural powerhouse.

In fact, Howitt says if California farmers can continue to grow more drought-tolerant crops and cut back on flood irrigation, they’re likely to thrive in the marketplace over the long term:

“As income increases, people eat more California fruit, nuts, and vegetables,” he says. “They don’t care about cotton; they don’t care about corn. We are on the right side of the agricultural business in terms of future growth.”

Of course, that means if you were to fly over the Central Valley in 50 years, you’d probably see fewer emerald-green islands of crops like rice, alfalfa, and cotton–and more fields of wheat and flexible crops like canning tomatoes, which can be planted seasonally and according to demand.

“This will, of course mean that we have less slack in the system than we do now,”  says Howitt.  “We’re going to have to be much better at applying water, look a little more like Israel and a little less like Northern California.”

Engineers who specialize in irrigation technology have long looked to drought-stricken countries for models. The folks who developed the Pure Sense software I discuss in my radio story have collaborated extensively with farmers in Australia.

Howitt also says no matter how efficiently farmers apply water, they have to figure out how to more efficiently move it around the state. Rather than just fighting over smelt, salmon, and pumping in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Howitt thinks farmers could be more efficient if we plumb water east to west (currently the two major water systems in California are primarily north-south oriented). Howitt says that would create incentives for farmers in relatively water-rich areas, like the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, to sell water to farms with good soil but less water–like the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, home to the some of the largest and wealthiest farms in the world.

Tricking plants into yielding more with less

Meanwhile, the idea of “dry farming,” like what the folks at Sonoma County’s Flatland Farm are doing with their apples, is getting popular in coastal areas. Dry-farmed tomatoes, like these from Santa Cruz, are increasingly popular at farmer’s markets.

Some researchers are taking this concept to places where it doesn’t rain so much. The idea is to control irrigation to stress the plants to the point where they think they’re starting to die, which triggers the plant’s genetic imperative to produce more fruit. David Goldhamer, who advises Central Valley farmers through the UC Cooperative extension, has demonstrated that farmers who cut back on watering of navel oranges and pistachios, may actually produce higher-quality fruit and generate more income.

A sprinkling of history

I also visited David Zoldoske, at the Center for Irrigation Technology at Fresno State. They have an amazing collection of historical sprinkler systems and a virtual irrigation museum online. Zoldoske has been studying irrigation and water efficiency for decades. Here’s what he told me about how agriculture is going to have to adapt to warming temperatures:

“I think the thing to remember here is there is no silver bullet. There is no reservoir or canal or any other technology or engineering feat that’s going to solve this problem. We’re going to have to use every tool in the toolbox. It’s going  to take multiple feats of engineering elegance so we can solve this problem. And it’s still possible that we’ll fail. And I don’t want to be saying that we will fail. We need to be very focused on this. It’s going to be a long journey. We won’t solve it over night.”

Learn more:

Ag and Climate Change

The entire April-June issue of the University of California’s quarterly journal, California Agriculture, is devoted to research on climate change and how it may fundamentally alter California’s environment and landscape, agriculture and food quality.

Saving Every Drop:

The California Institute for Rural Studies has profiled some of the most efficient California farmers in their January report, California Water Stewards: Innovative On-Farm management Practices (.pdf link).

The institute is also tied into the California Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiative (CAWSI), which has just launched a new website that features farmers using less water.

California’s Water Meter Rebellion Withers

City water conservation specialist Marilyn Creel shows Fresno resident Mary Ann Evans how to adjust her sprinklers to point them away from the sidewalk.

City water conservation specialist Marilyn Creel shows Fresno resident Mary Ann Evans how to adjust her sprinklers to point them away from the sidewalk.

Monday on The California Report, Central Valley Bureau Chief Sasha Khokha tracks one city’s longstanding rebellion against water meters–and says the day of reckoning is nearly at hand. Listen to Sasha’s story here.

I admit it. I wanted to do this story because I saw so many of my neighbors watering their driveways. What I learned is that unmetered cities are a long and slow-dying tradition in the Central Valley.

Martin McIntyre, who used to head Fresno’s water agency, explained how vehement anti-metering forces swayed voters and banned meters in the city charter:

“They were really false arguments. The simple phraseology was ‘meters are taxing machines,’ and they’re going to use meters to fund city hall activities. And, in fact, as is the case for all municipal water supply systems, the funds collected from ratepayers by law can only be used for the operation and improvement of the water supply system. Nonetheless, that resonated with some of the public and it was very easy for a handful of people to get prominent headlines above the fold simply by saying city hall is taxing us to death.”

State lawmakers overrode Fresno’s rule, because they understood that cities with meters use less water.

Ellen Hanak, a water researcher with the Public Policy Institute of California, has found that metered cities use about 15 percent less water than unmetered cities. And cities with a tiered rate system save an additional ten percent on top of that. In addition to usage, her report compares different cities’ water rates. Of course, San Franciscans get away with using less water because–guess what? Many of them don’t have front yards.

Hanak crunched statewide residential water rate numbers and determined that more than half of San Joaquin Valley residents don’t have water meters. (For further details, read the survey disclaimer.)

But meters are coming, one way or another.

There are basically three laws that will eventually require the entire state to install water meters. One says that all homes built after 1992 must have meters. Another dictates that cities that get federal water (like Fresno) have to install meters by 2013. And yet another law says that all California cities (including holdouts like Sacramento) have to be metered by 2025.

Fresno is gearing up to install its first meters this year. They’ve even created a handy Q&A for skittish customers.

And if you thought Central California was the only laggard, this might make you feel better: many Chicago residents don’t have meters, either.

But they probably don’t have the sprinkler ladies–who can fix any leaky, squeaky, spritzy sprinkler, and make sure it’s pointing away from the sidewalk.

KQED’s Sasha Khokha braves sprinkler spray to record Fresno’s city water conservation team at work.

KQED’s Sasha Khokha braves sprinkler spray to record Fresno’s city water conservation team at work.

Ag Rules: Heading Off the Heat

Water cooler imprinted with heat safety tips. Photo: Sasha Khokha

Water cooler imprinted with heat safety tips. Photo: Sasha Khokha

It was like a pageant of farmers in plaid shirts; nearly a dozen speakers  in a Fresno County meeting hall, surrounded by vineyards. Farm leaders offered glowing praise of Cal OSHA’s new guidelines and training seminars that will help them comply with the state’s first-in-the nation heat safety rules–passed three years ago.

The love-fest with Cal-OSHA sets a new tone for agriculture. Growers have traditionally been at odds with the agency tasked with protecting the state’s workers. Farmers have challenged fines and complained about inspections. But despite the regulations,  six workers died last summer, including a pregnant teenage farmworker (some of the victims worked in construction or other outdoor jobs).

Part of the problem was that neither Cal-OSHA inspectors nor farmers had a very clear understanding of how to implement the rules. Is it enough to have an umbrella folded up in the back of a pickup in case it got hot? How hot? How much shade and water is enough?

Today, Cal-OSHA chief Len Welsh made it clear: when it’s 85 degrees or hotter, shade tents or umbrellas have to go up. And that shade should be no more than a two-and-a-half-minute walk away, according to the rules, which also require enough shade so that one-in-four employees are protected from the sun at any given time.

That’s still worrisome for leaders of  the United Farmworkers Union, who were conspicuously absent from the press conference. There are times, they say, when the temperature soars well above 100 or spikes suddenly and everybody should get a break. The UFW says the new guidelines are too vague, and Cal-OSHA’s publicity campaign to educate farmers isn’t enough. Union leaders say the state should impose more fines and criminal penalties when workers die in the heat.

Record-Low Water Allocations for Farms

Photo by Sasha Khokha

Deceptively soggy fields in Fresno County. Photo by Sasha Khokha

This morning’s news for Central Valley farmers was bad–but not unexpected: record low allocations of water from state and federal irrigation systems, just as growers make their spring planting decisions.

There are two major plumbing systems that supply water for Valley farms. This morning, the federal Bureau of Reclamation said the best-case scenario will be that ag customers of its Central Valley Project get 10% of their requested water this year. Zero is more likely for most, especially if the current season’s weather patterns persist. The previous low for CVP allocations was 25% in the early 1990s.

Also today, the California Department of Water Resources confirmed its earlier estimate of 15% allocations for farms served by the State Water Project.

The recent string of rainy days has left fields soggy but failed to make a dent in the current drought. Elissa Lynn, Senior Meteorologist for the state Department of Water Resources says we’d need four or five more big storms by April to bring the state’s precipitation levels up to normal.

It’s unlikely it will keep raining hard enough, for long enough, to bring California out of a drought.

And that means more fighting over the state’s water supply. Especially when it comes to the massive state and federal plumbing projects that pipe water from northern California to make arid Central Valley fields bloom.

Not only is there less water in the state’s reservoirs, but there are restrictions on pumping it because of legal decisions to protect the endangered delta smelt.

On The California Report this morning, we visited with a Fresno County tomato farmer, to find out how he’s coping. If you missed it, that radio story will be posted here sometime today.

For more on the drought, explore Climate Watch’s newest resource, California’s Water. Visit this page for access to KQED’s drought coverage, data and reports from the Department of Water Resources and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and California water news from across the Web.

Cow Power Takes to the Highway

biogas1If the program for the World Ag Expo in Tulare had a centerfold, it might well be a gleaming red and silver tank truck, powered by pure Holstein hydrocarbons.

A Tulare County dairyman is using cow “emissions” to fuel two delivery trucks. Instead of a sleeper compartment, the cab of the truck holds six lightweight tanks for compressed bio-methane.

Western United Dairymen have produced a video about the project and its benefits to the environment. That’s an interesting twist because the dairy lobbying group and air quality regulators haven’t always seen eye to eye on the question of bovine gas.

Emissions from livestock have their own load of air quality issues, especially in Tulare County, where there are more cows than people. When cows burp or emit gas, it produces ozone, a key component of smog. Dairy owners have also wrangled with air regulators over emissions from some methane digesters that convert manure to electricity on dairies. For a refresher (poor word choice, perhaps), check out our recent radio/web series on methane.

But the California Air Resources Board stands behind the cow-power project (though perhaps not the manure spreaders–okay, old joke). In fact, CARB staked the dairy to a $600,000 grant, under legislation passed in June 2006 to encourage the introduction of alternative fuels into the California market. Hilarides Dairy and Cheese company used the money to help build a methane digester and figure out how to convert the diesel trucks.

How exactly does cow poop become something that can power a vehicle? It isn’t pretty, according to the group Sustainable Conservation, which put out a report on the subject. It goes something like this:

Manure is flushed from the cows’ stalls into a covered lagoon where bacteria convert the manure to biogas. The trapped gas is sent from the lagoon to a biogas upgrading system which removes impurities. Pressurized bio-methane is put into the truck’s fuel tank. The truck is then ready for the road.

The report estimates that cows could eventually power a million cars nationwide. But unless you live near a dairy farm or have your own personal cow to hook up to your fuel tank, don’t expect this will save you a trip to the gas station anytime soon.

Photo courtesy of Hilarides Dairy: The biogas upgrading system arrives by truck from Michigan (but transported with conventional diesel).

It's Not All Downhill

img_sasha-300.jpgSome of the most rewarding parts of my job covering the Central Valley are the stories I discover in Yosemite, Sequoia/Kings Canyon, and other parts of the Sierra. I’ve reported wearing snowshoes, sitting in a canoe, and perched in a Search and Rescue helicopter. So when the Climate Watch team asked me to tackle climbing to a glacier, I was thrilled.

The Dana Glacier is one of the most accessible in the Sierra, but the hike turned out to be a grueling journey. I was recovering from the stomach flu, and had to muster enough strength to scramble up miles of unsteady rock. There was no clear trail. I was never sure whether to plant my weight on the small boulders which sometimes tipped back and forth under my feet. I fell several times, and eventually decided to put away my microphone. Our trek (including stops to photograph and interview) took us about nine hours.

The air grew thinner as we climbed past 11,000 feet. In fact, you can hear my heavy breathing in the radio story about the journey. What you can’t hear is the screaming headache I developed when we reached the glacier.

We were dehydrated because the sun was intense, and we didn’t bring enough water. Producer Gretchen Weber and I were so worried about carrying all of our microphones and cameras up the steep bedrock that we only brought a few bottles. And there were few refilling opportunities in this parched moonscape.

But the journey was spectacular. Glacial “flour,” or fine silt from the moraine, colors the lakes below Dana almost tropical blue. They look like the Hawaiian ocean, but feel icy to the touch. Seeing withering Dana Glacier reflected in that water was magnificent.

On the way down, I badly bruised my toenails from banging them against my hiking boots. Three of my toenails fell off, and I had to wear a prosthetic one on my big toe to my wedding a few weeks later! When the fake fell off at the wedding, friends and family scoured the grass to find the missing toenail. That makes my hike to the Dana Glacier something I’ll remember forever.

Listen to the radio report.

Check out the video and audio slideshow of the journey.