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California Citrus Showcase focuses on water and pest issues

by Rand Green | March 11, 2010
VISALIA, CA -- Notwithstanding the current state of the economy in California and nationwide, California Citrus Mutual's annual Citrus Showcase, held here March 4, saw near-capacity attendance for the luncheon and sold- out exhibit space for the trade show. Furthermore, there is a waiting list for exhibitors who hope to participate in future Citrus Showcase trade shows, according to Joel Nelsen, president of CCM.

In addition to visiting trade show booths and attending the luncheon, attendees had the opportunity to participate in seminar sessions dealing with two of the more serious threats currently facing the California citrus industry: a water shortage that is due more to regulatory policies than to natural drought; and the spread of the Asian citrus psyllid in California and the spread in Mexico of Huanglongbing, also called citrus greening, a devastating disease for which the Asian citrus psyllid is a vector.

"Environmental activists continue to threaten our use of crop-protection tools and the water necessary to produce our fruit," Mr. Nelsen said in the event program.

"There are many issues affecting agriculture, but few are more important to its future than water," stated the printed introduction to the water seminar. "Currently on the table are state and federal measures that could lead east side growers to face the same devastation that is occurring on the [San Joaquin] Valley's west side."

However, much of the discussion focused on potential benefits for agriculture of five pieces of state legislation signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last November, known collectively as the comprehensive water package.

Glenn Farrel, government affairs manager for the Friant Water Authority, which manages water deliveries through several member agencies to "about 1 million acres of the world's richest farmland" on the valley's east side, said that the bills contained "a lot to love and a lot not to love," but it at least starts the state "moving forward on a path" toward providing needed water storage and solving water transfer problems created by environmental regulation.

The provisions of the comprehensive water package would be financed by an $11 billion bond measure that will be on the ballot for voter approval in November. It includes $3 billion for state-wide infrastructure for which the agricultural community has been pushing, and its inclusion in the package is "really a landmark accomplishment," Mr. Farrell said.

While $3 billion is "not a lot of money" in terms of what is needed for the storage and conveyance infrastructure, and not all of the $3 billion will even go toward that, still the bond, if approved, would provide "a very realistic opportunity for meaningful surface storage to be constructed," although it is likely to take at least 10 years before that actually happens.

George Soares, managing partner of the law firm of Hahn, Soares & Conway, which has been an advisor for CCM for many years, said that the water package "does things that we have wanted done for years." He added that in the future, people will look back on its passage as a memorable moment in California's legislative history.

"Did we create a pathway that will create dams in the state after doing nothing since about 1960? The answer is yes," he said.

"It has been a remarkable year in water," as there have been intense efforts to try to find a way through to make the system work better for everybody," said Tom Bohigian, state director for U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA).

The luncheon speaker was Damon Dunn, a self-made multi-millionaire with a compelling rags-to-riches story, who is currently a candidate for secretary of state in California.

Mr. Dunn noted that not only does California have 2.2 million unemployed people, with a 25 percent unemployment rate in the heavily agricultural San Joaquin Valley, but "we lost 47,000 employers from September '08 to September '09" as those employers, including many farmers, either went out of business or left the state.

Due to burdensome environmental and other regulations, "it is costing citrus farmers $400 an acre in government fees just to do business here," compared to $35 an acre in Texas, he said.