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.”

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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.


Senator visits with Sequoia Riverlands Trust at Kaweah Oaks Preserve

October 30, 2012

Senator Fuller on the Sycamore Trail

SRT was honored to give a tour of Kaweah Oaks Preserve to Senator Jean Fuller (R) Bakersfield last Friday, October 26. Board President Scott Spear and SRT staff talked about conservation easements to keep farmers in business, natural and wildlife habitat projects and our environmental education programs for students. The Senator even tried out our new digital trail by reading the QR codes with her smart phone. Thanks to the Senator for her interest and also her husband Russell and assistant Stephanie Amaral. What a great day!


Organic Debate

September 7, 2012

Jeannie Williams in her organic garden in Hanford

HANFORD — The consumer debate over organic vs. conventionally grown produce just acquired another talking point that is causing quite a stir in the San Joaquin Valley’s agricultural community.

A newly released Stanford University study found similar nutrient content in conventionally grown food compared to certified organic food. The research tosses new fuel on a hot topic in Kings County, where most crops are grown with some pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

“There’s really no differences in nutritional value,” said Michele Costa, executive of the Kings County Farm Bureau, which represents mostly conventional growers.

Buying food locally is more important than whether it is certified organic or not, Costa said.

“Either way, whether you choose to buy organic or conventional, it’s really important to support your local farms,” said Costa.

Jeannie Williams, the landowner of Good Seed Organic Farm in Hanford, agreed that “[certified] organic doesn’t guarantee better nutrition.”

“It only guarantees that they didn’t use pesticides,” Williams said, pointing out that a whole range of natural fertilizers and natural pesticides can be used by both types of growers.

Higher nutritional value produce isn’t always achieved by getting the certified organic label, which measures what farmers don’t use — pesticides and synthetic fertilizers — rather than what they do use such as extra nutrients and minerals, she said.

However, Williams remains convinced of the value of organic food, noting it has less pesticides.

According to the Stanford study, there’s a 30 percent greater chance of having detectable pesticide levels in conventional vs. organically grown food. However, Bravata cautioned that both groups harbored very small amounts — both within safety limits.

“I don’t want to eat pesticides,” Williams said. “Even a 30 percent drop is better.”

Williams said the lesson the average consumer should get from the Stanford study is that “you have to know your source.” Ripeness and speed — the time from harvest to your mouth — are the most important things to look for, she said.

Large-scale agriculture often means longer shipping distances and times, which can make it more challenging for produce to ripen naturally, she said.

“That alone drops the nutritional value,” she said, suggesting that buying produce at the Thursday Night Market Place is a good idea. “That means buying local.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story. The reporter can be reached at 583-2432 orsnidever@HanfordSentinel.com


SRT Receives $3,000 grant from the Visalia Times-Delta

June 9, 2011

Sequoia Riverlands Trust would like to thank the Visalia Times-Delta for their generous $3,000 grant through the Gannett Foundation. Local grants such as this are an important investment in the community. The grant will help support SRT’s conservation and education programs in the region.


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December 23, 2010

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