Tulare County changes solar farm policy

February 28, 2013

farmland 2

Atwell Island, near Alpaugh, is one of the solar plants covered by the new solar plan approved by the Board of Supervisors. / submitted.

David Castellon, Visalia Times-Delta, Feb 27, 2013

There is less land in unincorporated Tulare County where solar farms can be built after the Board of Supervisors voted to change the county’s policy.

As a result, the 370,250 acres of agriculturally-zoned land in the county where solar farms were unlikely to be permitted before Tuesday’s vote by the supervisors has been increased by an additional 283,7999 acres.

That leaves nearly 188,000 acres of unincorporated agriculturally-zoned land where the county would be likely to allow solar projects.

Those changes are based on recommendations by the county’s Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee, a group of farmers and others involved in the agricultural industry that the supervisors asked in December to review the county’s policy on where utility-scale solar farms — those intended to provide energy to regional electrical grids or communities — could be built.

The board’s request was triggered by members of the Tulare County Farm Bureau, who were concerned that the solar policy the supervisors approved in 2010 didn’t do enough to prohibit construction of solar energy operations on prime farmland.

That policy stated that the board would “not necessarily support” prohibiting solar farm construction on prime farmland, and most of the more than 1,900 acres where the county has approved 17 utility-scale solar farms are on non-prime land.

All are in various stages of development, including the 160-acre Atwell Island solar farm near Alpaugh, which has been built and will be the first to go online once Pacific Gas and Electric gives approval, said Mike Washam, the county’s economic development director.

“We are concerned that the non-prime ‘case by case’ [consideration] approach is not yet clearly defined for prime farm lands, and we strongly discourage the county from permitting any solar development on lands that can support viable agriculture production,” states a letter the Farm Bureau sent to the county Planning Commission in September.

The Farm Bureau doesn’t object to building solar farms on non-prime land, where water and soil conditions are so bad that it may not be viable to successfully farm there.

Washam, who also is the county’s liaison to the Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee, said the group discussed the county’s solar farm policy and recommended changes that included:

• • Solar farms should not be built within the urban growth and development boundaries around each Tulare County’s cities, or in the development boundaries around small communities that the county has designated as “hamlets.”

• Solar farms should be close to electrical grids, corridors for electrical lines, electric sub stations or end users.

• The county shouldn’t support solar farm development on land designated by the State Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program as prime farmland or on land designated as having class 1 soil by the California Natural Resources Conservation Service.

• The county should include land where any permanent crops have been grown in the last 10 years and citrus and olive groves along along Tulare County’s citrus belt — which runs along the east end of the county — as being “constrained” from solar development.

• The county should not support removal of permanent crops to make room for solar projects if there is sufficient water to continue farming, regardless of soil classifications. Analysis that looks at water sources and availability for the land would have to be conducted.

• Analyze the potential effects of a solar farms on neighboring agricultural farms and mitigate them.

Washam said the committee worked with the county Resource Management Agency and the Farm Bureau to develop the recommendations.

“This is more to what I understand is protecting viable farm ground than we had before,” count Supervisor Allen Ishida said before he and his fellow supervisors voted unanimously to make the recommended changes part of the county’s solar policy.

Ishida is a former citrus grower and a long-time advocate of farmland preservation.

“I’m very pleased. Because this really reflects, I think, a much more comprehensive land-preservation policy for the county,” Patricia Stever Blattler, the Farm Bureau’s executive director, said of the board’s vote.

“The biggest change is solar sites will not be supported in farmland planted with permanent crops,” such as grape vines, tree fruits and nuts, Washam said.

He said the the land along the citrus belt was added because citrus and olive trees can grow in poorer-quality soil than row crops, if enough water is available.

Of the 17 solar projects approved by the county, two would not meet the new criteria, but they will not be affected by the policy changes, Washam said. He added that three other solar projects awaiting county approval meet the new criteria.

The solar policy changes don’t affect solar projects within cities or solar projects powering individual buildings, farms, dairies or other businesses in the unincorporated county.

And the changes in solar policy may not have much effect in the future.

“I think we have actually seen the big boom in solar that is going to want to locate here, so I don’t know if these policies, at this point, will have an impact on solar development,” Stever Blattler said.

That boom was driven by a 2008 directive to increase the ratio of California’s electricity coming from from renewable sources, including, solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and hydroelctric power.

Since then, private companies have been working to build solar and wind farms in various parts of the state — including Tulare County — with plans to sell the electricity they generate to electrical utility companies.

And the projects in development across California could generate three times as much electricity as the state needs to reach it 33 percent renewable-energy goal by 2020, said Hector Uriarte, the green jobs coordinator for Proteus, Inc.

The Visalia-based jobs training program has trained more than 450 people in solar installation jobs, and many of them have worked on building solar farms in the south Valley.

“If anything, we are reaching the end of the road for the projects coming through,” Uriarte said, adding that “The ones here are going to go forward.”


Effective Protection in farmland conservation

February 27, 2013

By ADMIN| Published: FEBRUARY 26, 2013

PRESS RELEASE

Former USDA Deputy Secretary and Co-Chair of AGree Jim Moseley Makes Case  for Attaching Compliance to Crop Insurance in Next Farm Bill

Washington, D.C., Feb. 26, 2013—Over the last 25 years, one of the least-publicized farmland conservation efforts has actually been one of the most effective, says a new report by former USDA Deputy Secretary and Co-Chair of AGree Jim Moseley. Conservation Compliance: A 25-Year Legacy of Stewardship explains how conservation compliance, which has historically required farmers to implement conservation measures in return for federally funded farm support, helped save millions of wetland acres while keeping billions of tons of soil on farms. As a result, millions of marginal, erosion-prone lands have remained healthy and productive.

“Few conservation programs can boast the success rate of conservation compliance,” said Moseley, who served as Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2001 to 2005. “This program has helped farmers save 295 million tons of soil per year and kept an estimated 1.5 million to 3.3 million acres of vulnerable wetlands from being drained. The results of this compact between farmers and taxpayers have been astounding.”

The report urges Congress to reattach conservation compliance to crop insurance premium assistance in the next farm bill reauthorization.  As federal farm policy is updated, it is increasingly likely that some commodity programs will be phased out in favor of a strengthened crop insurance program that is becoming the core component of the farm safety net. Therefore, according to Moseley, it seems essential that conservation compliance also be updated to apply to the crop insurance premium assistance.

“As Congress reauthorizes the farm bill, it is important that the conservation gains made over the last 25 years be retained,” said Moseley. “Unless included in the ongoing farm bill discussions, there is a possibility that, for the first time in a quarter century, conservation compliance provisions will no longer be attached to the largest federal payment program supporting producers.”

In addition to highlighting the successes of conservation compliance, the report dispels several myths about conservation compliance and presents key facts about the program, including:

  • Conservation compliance is a reasonable expectation in exchange for the significant safety-net benefits the public provides for producers.
  • Most producers are already in compliance.
  • Re-attaching crop insurance premiums to conservation compliance will lead to minimal administrative burden.
  • Conservation compliance includes common-sense protections for farmers.
  • Conservation compliance saves money.

Visit http://www.farmbillfacts.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Conservation-Compliance-Legacy.pdf to download the full report.


CA farmland getting gobbled up by solar projects

February 4, 2013

By TRACIE CONE

Published: Feb 2, 2013


FILE – In this Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2011 file photo, solar panels are seen at the NRG Solar and Eurus Energy America Corp.’s 45-megawatt solar farm in Avenal, Calif. There’s a land rush of sorts going on across the nation’s most productive farming region, but these buyers don’t want to grow crops. Instead developers are looking to plant solar voltaic cells to generate electricity for a state mandated to get 33 percent from renewables by the end of the decade. (AP Photo/The Sentinel, Apolinar Fonseca, File)

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) – There’s a land rush of sorts going on across the nation’s most productive farming region, but these buyers don’t want to grow crops. They want to plant solar farms.

With California mandating that 33 percent of electricity be generated from renewables by the end of the decade, there are 227 proposed solar projects in the pipeline statewide. Coupled with wind and other renewables they would generate enough electricity to meet 100 percent of California’s power needs on an average summer day, the California Independent System Operator says.

And new applications for projects keep arriving.

Developers are flocking to flat farmland near power transmission lines, but agriculture interests, environmental groups and even the state are concerned that there is no official accounting of how much of this important agricultural region’s farmland is being taken out of production.

“”We’ve been trying to get a handle on the extent of this for quite a while now,” said Ed Thompson of American Farmland Trust, which monitors how much of the nation’s farmland is absorbed by development.

The California Department of Conservation, which is supposed to track development on privately held farmland, has been unable to do so because of staff and funding reductions, officials say.

“I’d love to say we have all of that information, but we really don’t,” said Molly Penberth, manager of the land resource protection division. “We’re going to play catch up getting that information, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley.”

Planning department records in four of the valley’s biggest farming counties show about 100 solar generation plants already proposed on roughly 40,000 acres, or about the equivalent of 470 Disneyland theme parks. Planners in Fresno County say their applications for solar outnumber the ones they received for housing developments during the boom days.

Solar developers have focused on the southern San Joaquin Valley over the past three years for the same reason as farmers: flat expanses of land and an abundance of sunshine. Land that has been tilled most often has fewer issues with endangered species than places such as the Mojave Desert, where an endangered tortoise slowed solar development on federal land.

Much of the solar development is proposed for Kern, Tulare, Fresno and Kings counties, which are home to more than 400 crops that pump $30 billion into the economy and help sustain U.S. food security.

In January, the farmland trust released a report projecting that by 2050 more than 570,000 acres across the region could be lost to development as the Central California population explodes. Farmland losses due to housing, solar development, a warming climate, cyclical drought and ongoing farm water rationing to protect endangered fish, plus the state’s signature transportation project – the High Speed Rail – are all issues the trust is trying to monitor.

“These are things that don’t make headlines, but come under the category that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” Thompson said.

No statewide plan or policy exists to direct projects to areas where land is marginal for farming and power transmission lines exist or can be easily routed, though groups as diverse as the Defenders of Wildlife and the independent state oversight agency Little Hoover Commission have issued studies calling for one.

Projects are approved by elected county boards of supervisors, or if larger than 50 MW, the California Energy Commission.

“There’s no consistent approach” county to county in deciding what gets approved on farmland, said Kate Kelly, a planning consultant who is studying the environmental impact of valley projects for Defenders of Wildlife.

While one of the nation’s leading solar trade groups has not taken an official position on conversion of farmland to solar, Katherine Gensler of the Solar Energy Industries Association says more thought must go into location.

The largest solar facility operating so far covers 500 acres 60 miles northwest of Bakersfield and produces enough electricity for 36,000 homes.

Just three weeks into 2013, five valley farmers have told the Department of Conservation that they want to cancel low agriculture tax rate contracts to develop solar on their property. None takes advantage of a year-old law making it easier to cancel on marginal land, Penberth said.

County boards of supervisors are attracted to the promise of clean energy construction jobs. Some of the projects are on prime land as small as 20 acres, some on habitat shared by threatened or endangered species such as the kit fox, Swainson’s hawk and blunt nose lizard. The 9,000-acre Maricopa Sun project in western Kern County is on prime land that the county says lacks a reliable water supply.

Almost always developers chose sites because there’s a willing seller in the vicinity of existing transmission lines, experts say.

Transmission is the biggest reason for the holdup of a massive project that energy planners, agriculture interests and environmentalists agree is perfectly situated – the Westlands Solar Park in remote Kings and Fresno counties. It’s planned for 47 square miles of farmland fallowed because of high levels selenium in the soil.

Developers say the project ultimately could provide 2.7 gigawatts of electricity – enough for 2.7 million homes. But the wait for approval from the California Independent System Operator to tap into transmission lines for a large project proved too long so they got out. For now.

“We realized it would be a seven-to-10 year process,” said Joshua Martin, the solar company’s chief financial officer. “We could easily have spent $7 million in fees to stay in line, but it doesn’t make good business sense. It’s a messy market right now and things need to calm down.”

Ten years might be wishful thinking. An email the ISO sent to stakeholders on Jan. 18 said that it could be 12 years or longer before the needed upgrades in transmission infrastructure could be complete for solar projects currently waiting for transmission hookups in the Fresno area.

Westlands Solar Park is betting that environmental obstacles and connection costs will force many of the projects in the pipeline statewide to be abandoned. But what they’re hoping in the meantime is that state regulators eventually will direct solar development away from prime farmland.

Next month the California Energy Commission is set to make a move in that direction with adoption of a report that will recommend a coordinated approach placing solar in “zones with minimal environmental or habitat value,” near existing or planned electric system infrastructure. The agency would also collaborate with the Department of Conservation to identify areas of the state with marginal land.

Martin says the move likely is too late to help the projects that are stalled and in danger of missing out on federal tax incentives that expire in 2016.

“Someone needs to take a role and say what lines should be built and which aren’t in the state’s best interest,” said Martin. “So far we have been underwhelmed.”

____

Reach Tracie Cone on Twitter: http://www.Twitter.com/TConeAP


Loss of Stature for Giant

December 12, 2012
In this 2009 photo released by Steve Sillett, The President, a Giant Sequoia Tree, is shown in Sequoia National Park, Calif. After 3,240 years the Giant Sequoia is still growing wider at a consistent rate, which may be what most surprised the scientists examining how they and coastal redwoods will be impacted by climate change and whether they have a role to play in combatting it.

 In this 2009 photo released by Steve Sillett, The President, a Giant Sequoia Tree, is shown in Sequoia National Park, Calif. After 3,240 years the Giant Sequoia is still growing wider at a consistent rate, which may be what most surprised the scientists examining how they and coastal redwoods will be impacted by climate change and whether they have a role to play in combatting it. / Steve Sillett
Written by The Associated Press

Deep in the Sierra Nevada, the famous General Grant giant sequoia tree is suffering its loss of stature in silence.

What once was the world’s No. 2 biggest tree has been supplanted thanks to the most comprehensive measurements taken of the largest living things on Earth. The new No. 2 is The President, a 54,000-cubic-foot gargantuan not far from the Grant in Sequoia National Park.

After 3,240 years, the giant sequoia still is growing wider at a consistent rate, which may be what most surprised the scientists examining how the sequoias and coastal redwoods will be affected by climate change and whether these trees have a role to play in combatting it.

“I consider it to be the greatest tree in all of the mountains of the world,” said Stephen Sillett, a redwood researcher whose team from Humboldt State University is seeking to mathematically assess the potential of California’s iconic trees to absorb planet-warming carbon dioxide.

The researchers are a part of the 10-year Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative funded by the Save the Redwoods League in San Francisco. The measurements of The President, reported in the current National Geographic, dispelled the previous notion that the big trees grow more slowly in old age.

It means, the experts say, the amount of carbon dioxide they absorb during photosynthesis continues to increase over their lifetimes.

In addition to painstaking measurements of every branch and twig, the team took 15 half-centimeter-wide core samples of The President to determine its growth rate, which they learned was stunted in the abnormally cold year of 1580 when temperatures in the Sierra hovered near freezing even in the summer and the trees remained dormant.

But that was an anomaly, Sillett said. The President adds about one cubic meter of wood a year during its short six-month growing season, making it one of the fastest-growing trees in the world. Its 2 billion leaves are thought to be the most of any tree on the planet, which would also make it one of the most efficient at transforming carbon dioxide into nourishing sugars during photosynthesis.

“We’re not going to save the world with any one strategy, but part of the value of these great trees is this contribution and we’re trying to get a handle on the math behind that,” Sillett said.

After the equivalent of 32 working days dangling from ropes in The President, Sillett’s team is closer to having a mathematical equation to determine its carbon conversion potential, as it has done with some less famous coastal redwoods. The team has analyzed a representative sample that can be used to model the capacity of the state’s signature trees.

More immediately, however, the new measurements could lead to a changing of the guard in the land of giant sequoias. The park would have to update signs and brochures — and someone is going to have to correct the Wikipedia entry for “List of largest giant sequoias,” which still has The President at No. 3.

Now at 93 feet in circumference and with 45,000 cubic feet of trunk volume and another 9,000 cubic feet in its branches, the tree named for President Warren G. Harding is about 15 percent larger than Grant, also known as America’s Christmas Tree. Sliced into one-foot by one-foot cubes, The President would cover a football field.

Giant sequoias grow so big and for so long because their wood is resistant to the pests and disease that dwarf the lifespan of other trees, and their thick bark makes them impervious to fast-moving fire.

It’s that resiliency that makes sequoias and their taller coastal redwood cousin worthy of intensive protections — and even candidates for cultivation to pull carbon from an increasingly warming atmosphere, Sillett said. Unlike white firs, which easily die and decay to send decomposing carbon back into the air, rot-resistant redwoods stay solid for hundreds of years after they fall.

Though sequoias are native to California, early settlers traveled with seedlings back to the British Isles and New Zealand, where a 15-foot diameter sequoia that is the world’s biggest planted tree took root in 1850. Part of Sillett’s studies involves modeling the potential growth rate of cultivated sequoia forests to determine over time how much carbon sequestering might increase.

All of that led him to a spot 7,000 feet high in the Sierra and to The President, which he calls “the ultimate example of a giant sequoia.” Compared to the other giants whose silhouettes are bedraggled by lightning strikes, The President’s crown is large with burly branches that are themselves as large as tree trunks.

The world’s biggest tree is still the nearby General Sherman with about 2,000 cubic feet more volume than the President, but to Sillett it’s not a contest.

“They’re all superlative in their own way,” Sillett said.

 


New Year’s resolution: Become a volunteer

December 10, 2012

Is volunteering for you?

Do you like being outdoors in a beautiful natural setting or would you like to spend some time in a garden?

Sequoia Riverlands Trust would love to have you as a volunteer at Kaweah Oaks Preserve or Dry Creek Preserve!

If you’re thinking about doing some volunteering in the New Year, here are some tips for finding that perfect volunteer spot.

1. Identify the causes you’re passionate about.

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(Kids at Kaweah Oaks Preserve)

Do you feel strongly about a particular problem or issue? Just to think, “Oh, well, volunteering would be a nice thing to do,” isn’t really enough. You might start, but will you stick with it? If you feel strongly about something, such as nature, open space, animals, homelessness or helping children, then that is a very good sign and the start of a great volunteer experience.

2. Determine how much time you have.

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(Nature guides showcasing preserve on walk)
Do you want something that is short and infrequent? Or could you donate a certain amount of time each week or month? This is something you’ll want to share with the nonprofits you talk with. There are volunteer opportunities that can fit any time commitment, from being a Girl Scout leader for a school year to registering attendees at a charity event for a few hours.
Nonprofits have become quite adept at tailoring volunteer opportunities to fit our modern lifestyles. For instance, Sparked, a website that helps people engage in “microvolunteering,” matches volunteers who just want to devote snatches of time to their causes with nonprofits that have suitable projects.You may even be able to use work time to volunteer. Many companies have employee volunteer programs, days of service during which teams of employees help a cause, or even loan out “skilled” volunteers to help with sophisticated projects at charities. You can even find a way to use your professional skills to benefit others through a matching service like Catchafire.

3. Contact relevant organizations.

Look up the organizations in your locale that deal with the issues you care about. Contact them and ask if they have any volunteer opportunities. You can also get an idea of what volunteer opportunities are out there by visiting the many online volunteer matching services.Your local media are also great resources. Community newspapers and the websites of your favorite TV stations often have news or listings of volunteer needs right in your neighborhood. Be sure to encourage your neighbors and friends to tell you about their volunteer experiences and how they got involved.Contact one to three organizations and then visit them in person. Ideally, you’ll meet with a volunteer coordinator and get a good idea of how the nonprofit works, the kinds of volunteer opportunities that are available, and how good a fit it is for your goals. It’s a good idea to volunteer for a small project before getting extensively involved. If it doesn’t work out, you can move on. Finding your right volunteer match can make the difference between being a volunteer dropout or a happy, dedicated one.

4. Look for a volunteer opportunity that will be fulfilling.

(Getty Images”)

Volunteer work should not be entirely selfless. It is important that you enjoy what you are doing so that you will continue doing it. Think about what you like to do. Are you a “take charge” kind of person? If so, you won’t be happy knocking on doors or stuffing envelopes. Look for leadership opportunities at nonprofits, such as serving on a board of directors, helping with fundraising, or organizing an event.

On the other hand, you might not want something intellectually challenging. Perhaps you have enough of that in your own career and would like to so something simple but meaningful. Maybe you would enjoy cleaning up a vacant lot, planting a garden or signing people up for a charity run.

5. Match your skills to the volunteer opportunity.

Make a list of the things you are good at so that you can share them with the volunteer coordinators that you talk with. People who are sophisticated with computers, for instance, are in high demand at nonprofits. But your skills might be a facility with people, ability to do detailed work such as keeping meticulous records, hands-on ability such as carpentery or sewing, a talent with the written word, or public speaking.

6. Be prepared for a challenge.

(Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation”)

Boredom and impatience with the process are the biggest threats to a fulfilling volunteer experience. Some nonprofits will be disorganized and ill prepared for volunteers. Don’t stay with that kind of situation. If they deserve you, they will be ready to use you effectively.

If you work for a high-powered corporation, you may get impatient with the way things are done at a nonprofit. Try to refrain from telling them how to do their job.

If you work with things instead of people, you may have to rethink how you operate. Working with people and their problems takes a different and more patient mindset.

7. Expect personal growth.

(Getty Images”)

You may be challenged by having to deal with people who are less educated than yourself, from different backgrounds, and who have a different ethnic background. For sure, your stereotypes will crumble as you witness the dignity of all people no matter their circumstances.

These challenges are healthy ones and will result in your own personal growth if you persevere rather than run away at your first glimpse of life as others live it.


Holiday Portraits and Rare Plant Sale

December 7, 2012
cactus3
Cactus sale and portrait fundraiser Saturday at Kaweah Oaks Preserve
Dec. 06
visaliatimesdelta.com

Kaweah Oaks Preserve will be hopping this Saturday as families dressed in their holiday best pose for portraits and a rare Christmas cactus sale takes place.

Both the portraits and plant sale benefit Sequoia Riverlands Trust, caretakers of this preserve located east of Visalia on Road 182.

Professional holiday portraits by CJHopper of PhotoMenage are by appointment only. Call now for an appointment as space is limited. Cost is $55 for the 20-minute photo shoot and one 8×10 print. To make an appointment, call CJHopper at 595-9691.

Sequoia Riverlands Trust is selling Christmas cacti collected by Andrew Frazier, SRT’s native plant nursery manager. This is not the typical Christmas cactus sold in nurseries. The sweet-scented, large blooms have cream colored petals with bright yellow highlights. They bloom at night about two nights a year in the spring and are called the Queen of the Night.

The bare-root cacti cost $5 to $25. Native plants and other cacti will also be available for purchase at the plant sale from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.

For more information, call Kelly Ryan at Sequoia Riverlands Trust at 738-0211, ext. 105 or email atkelly@sequoiariverlands.org.


Sequoia Riverlands Trust awarded state grant

November 29, 2012

Sequoia Riverlands Trust gets funding awarded by the state Natural Resources Agency.

November 26, 2012 11:30am

More than $34 million in funding is being allocated to 33 proposed river parkway projects statewide by the state Natural Resources Agency. Of the total, nearly a third – over $10.2 million – is going to projects in the Central Valley.

A project by Sequoia Riverlands Trust is one those receiving funds:

• Sequoia Riverlands Trust – Kaweah Oaks Preserve Acquisition $410,181. The money will help acquire approximately 22 acres of riparian habitat adding approximately one-half mile of creek frontage along Deep Creek to the Kaweah Oaks Preserve in Tulare County.

The projects funded will create recreation opportunities for families, restore fish and wildlife habitat, provide flood management, and enhance California’s river parkways, the state says.

“Our river parkway grants help communities connect children with nature, promote public health by providing families with greater outdoor recreational opportunities, and protect the rivers that provide us with clean water,” says Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird. “The river parkways program is a great example of local agencies working together with the state to create increasingly sustainable communities in California.”

In 2006, California voters passed Proposition 84, the Safe Drinking Water, Water Quality and Supply, Flood Control, River and Coastal Protection Bond Act, which authorized the Legislature to appropriate funds to benefit river parkway projects.

The California River Parkways Program, a competitive grant program administered by the secretary for natural resources, awards funds to public agencies and non-profit organizations to develop river parkways in their communities.


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