A key issue in the race for California insurance commissioner between former commissioner Steve Poinzer and democratic senator Richard Lara is widlfire, reported Ezra David Romero on Capital Public Radio.
The new commissioner will have to deal with a complicated insurance system and a warming climate that's increasing the number, size and impact of California wildfires, said Susie Kocher, UC Cooperative Extension forestry and natural resources advisor.
For many Californians, the possibility of losing their insurance due to wildfire risk is a real threat.
"I recently talked to a homeowner who had his insurance canceled about three months before his house was destroyed by a wildfire,” Kocher said.
Lara says people or companies that start fires need to be held liable and not given a free pass, and that homeowners need better protection. He says in the past some insurance companies have dropped homeowners because of the risk from wildfires.
"Unfortunately, this is our new normal,” Lara said of recent wildfires in the state. “We're going to see fires with much more veracity.”
Poinzer, a tech industry entrepreneur and career-long Republican, is on the ballot as an independent.
“There's no room in this job for a partisan politician,” Poizner told the Los Angeles Times.
UC scientists, students and water agency professionals took a critical look inwards and a radical look outwards when they gathered in Sacramento in October to reimagine California water.
The event was the fourth annual gathering sponsored by UC ANR's California Institute for Water Resources and the University of California Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative, UC Water.
While science is the hallmark of a research-oriented institution like UC, the participants were asked to recognize their important role not just as scientists but also communicators.
“We have a big role in educating the public,” said Roger Bales, engineering professor at UC Merced who has been active in water and climate research for more than 30 years. “Scientists are political actors. Facts do not speak for themselves.”
Felicia Marcus, chair of the California Water Resources Control Board and a conference panelist, asked the scientists to make their work accessible, and if they are uncomfortable with plain language, “write it both ways.”
“Complexity can lose people easily,” she said.
The conference keynote speaker, futurist Kim Stanley Robinson, also addressed the divide between scientific discourse and popular understanding, in particular when speaking about climate change.
“There is a strange disconnect between what the scientific community is telling the world and what the world is hearing. As a result of data analysis, science is announcing to the world there is climate change. Individuals cannot perceive climate change,” he said. “Show them in ways that can be understood by the senses. The story has to be told with pragmatism and common sense.”
The Reimagining California Water Conference pursued the water journey from the high-mountain headwaters of the Sierra Nevada to the vast groundwater basins in the valleys below. Over the last century, the mountains were blanketed with snow each winter, storing water that melted slowly in the spring and summer to provide a reliable source of water for farming and communities below. However, climate change is telling a new tale. Warmer weather means less snow and more rain will fall on the mountains during the winter. The quick runoff must be managed in a way that preserves it for use in the summer.
“We need groundwater recharge because we're losing the snow pack quicker than we thought we would,” Bales said.
The new California water narrative has prompted scientists and policy makers to take a serious look at the potential for “flood-managed aquifer recharge” or Flood-MAR. Flood-MAR is a management strategy that uses water from rain or snowmelt to flood agricultural lands and working landscapes, such as refuges, floodplains and flood bypasses.
Successful implementation of Flood-MAR requires the identification of land for groundwater recharge, understanding the economic and agronomic impact of using agricultural land for recharge, and impacts of high-volume recharge on groundwater quality. But the potential is enormous.
“The state's underground basins are capable of storing 500 million acre-feet of water,” said Graham Fogg, UC Davis professor of hydrogeology. “That's like 500 Folsom reservoirs.”
Though the enormity of rewriting the California water story might seem an insurmountable challenge, panelist Debbie Franco noted that the passage of Sustainable Groundwater Management in 2014 happened when the state's unsustainable reliance of groundwater spiked during the 2011-2016 drought, reducing municipal water quality, drying domestic wells and causing land to sink.
“What seems impossible, after four years of drought, can be possible,” Franco said. “What will be the next thing? Get a sense of the solutions now.”
“When first-generation ranchers succeed, we all succeed,” says Kate Munden-Dixon, a Ph.D. student working with Leslie Roche, Cooperative Extension rangeland specialist with the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences.
Munden-Dixon and Roche recently discovered that many new livestock managers aren't plugged into information networks such as UC Cooperative Extension and rancher coalitions that provide science and strategies for making sustainable rangeland management decisions. This lack of connection can make first-generation ranchers more vulnerable when dealing with challenges like drought and climate variability, according to their study, which was recently published in Rangeland Journal.
To help bridge the gap, Munden-Dixon landed a $25,000 Graduate Student Grant from Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, a USDA program, to reach out to new ranchers and rangeland managers.
Why rangelands matter
More than one half of California — 38 million acres — is rangeland that provides open space, healthy watersheds, carbon storage, food, fiber and habitat for diverse plants and wildlife. UC Davis research indicates grasslands and rangeland have become more resilient at sequestering or consuming carbon dioxide pollution than forests in California, making them especially important in a warming world.
But rangeland and livestock production are at risk because more rangeland is being converted to housing and crop production. The average age of ranchers in California is 62, and fewer children are taking over the family ranch.
Enter a new wave of rangeland managers. Many of these young ranchers don't yet have access to the capital required to purchase land and large head of cattle and other livestock. Instead, they often contract with public and private landowners to graze goats, sheep and cattle to restore landscapes and reduce fire vegetation.
“What we really need is support in connecting land and contract opportunities,” says Brittany Cole Bush, an “urban shepherdess” and former contract sheep and goat grazer. She now consults with land owners and public agencies from her home base in Southern California. “We need market research that shows the value that grazing brings to fire abatement, soil conservation and so much more. Market research would increase our value and help us become viable players.”
Munden-Dixon is interviewing 40 new rangeland managers from across California to explore how decision-making by different demographics influences adaptation to climate change and quality of life. Munden-Dixon and her team are also hosting workshops to make sure Cooperative Extension specialists understand and can respond to all ranchers' needs.
“There is both a need and opportunity for a new generation of livestock managers that is able to adapt to California's changing climate,” Munden-Dixon says. “This next generation may not look like your typical rancher, so we want to ensure organizations are helping all ranchers succeed, regardless of their demographics or land tenure.”
The power of connection
Munden-Dixon would like to become a Cooperative Extension specialist herself one day. Working with first-generation ranchers reminds her that collaboration and public engagement are critical to addressing issues in sustainable agriculture.
“There is no one answer or single expert when it comes to building healthy food systems,” Munden-Dixon says. “We find solutions when we work together.”
Technology holds tremendous promise for the California agricultural industry, however there are challenges that must be better understood and managed, wrote Damon Kitney in an article distributed to participants in an Oct. 2 technology conference in San Francisco.
Using artificial intelligence to speed up genetic selection is one area where technology is evolving in the laboratories of the Silicon Valley. Glenda Humiston, the vice president for UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, was quoted extensively in Kitney's article about the potential of AI and other technologies in agriculture.
"Artificial intelligence is extremely difficult in agriculture because of the huge amount of variability in environmental conditions across a single field," Humiston said. "This requires many sensors, complex algorithms and large real-time data processing - all integrated and working together to inform decisions and actions."
Humiston said the ability to pull together an array of data - from drones, robots, sensors and genomics - and use it for informed decision making will require significant improvements in how 'big data' is managed. Point solutions are being developed by universities, startups and corporate innovators, but few are integrated to provide real-life solutions for farmers.
"Integration will be a key factor in making these technologies affordable and available to most farmers," she said. "Many startup technologies for agtech are hitting the market with glossy websites, pitch events and marketing materials that appeal to investors, but the science behind them is dubious."
A key issue covered in the article is the cost and availability of labor in berry production. About 60 percent of the costs associated with berries are labor. At times, a significant portion of berries are lost when farmers can't find labor to get them picked.
Despite the effort to find technology to cut labor needs, human labor in the field will never be replaced, according to Mark Bolda, UC Cooperative Extension strawberry and caneberry advisor for Santa Cruz County.
"It's not realistic to see robots as the full solution for our labor issues, rather more success will be found in berries by combining robots with already existing labor of humans," he said.
Berries are very soft fruits. Technology to find them, pick them and put them in a box does not exist, Bolda said. Robots of the future will likely transport full boxes out of the field, bring in new boxes, monitor the rate of picking and charting field issues.
UCCE farm management advisor Laura Torte concurs.
"Humans bring sensory attributes to agriculture that robotics and mechanization has not - yet - been able to perfect," she said.
Findings of the 2017 Healthy Kids Survey in Trinity County showed about three-quarters of teens lack healthy social connectivity, and most feel disconnected at school.
"We were surprised," said Janessa Hartmann, UC CalFresh nutrition education program supervisor for Trinity, Shasta and Tehama counties. "Trinity County is small and Trinity High School has just 364 students. We thought there were ample opportunities for students to connect."
The students told a different story. The survey found that 74 percent of 9th graders and 60 percent of 11th graders feel they have no caring relationships at school; 90 percent of 9th graders and 77 percent of 11th graders feel they have no meaningful participation at school.
The data prompted Junction City Elementary School principal Christine Camara to reach out to UC Cooperative Extension for assistance in creating a program where high school students could develop caring relationships through a project devoted to meaningful participation in their school and community.
UC CalFresh offers nutrition, physical activity and garden education in local schools. To involve teenagers, UC CalFresh created RISE, the Raw Inspiration Spreading Education program. It was designed to mentor, empower, and train teens to deliver the Learn Grow Eat Go Curriculum at the Junction City Elementary School afterschool program and support the school garden. RISE is giving older students the opportunity to work with elementary school students in a structured way that helps spark friendships, reduce social isolation and improve health outcomes.
This project, led by Maggie Alvord, UC CalFresh Trinity County nutrition educator, is also integrating the talents of 4-H program representative Nate Caeton and UC CalFresh garden coordinator Kim Stempien.
Trinity High School counselor Jaime Green noted that the pilot project aligns with the education component of the Career Pathway program by providing the opportunity for students to learn to teach. The Trinity High School horticulture teacher is offering classroom time and opportunities for students to learn the curriculum.
"By participating in this program, students are developing skills as educators," Alvord said. "They are becoming role models for the elementary age students."
Last school year, four high school students were enrolled in RISE. They delivered 10 Learn Grow Eat Go lessons to 60 after-school students.
"The RISE Program is fun. It's taught me how to guide and learn with children as well as further my knowledge in gardening and healthy lifestyles," said junior Macy Senter, one of the RISE participants.
"The momentum has only begun and I have a lot of ideas brewing regarding improvements in the RISE Program for the following year and hopefully years to come," Alvord said.