Visiting Editors: Violence, solar power and ag mitigation

April 27, 2013 

Editor's note: Our second quarter visiting editors write on a subject of their choice.

Gigi DeVault

Pursing the mental health angle in violence prevention is akin to arguing that the United States should deal with its immigration issues by ending the reign of drug cartel violence in Mexico: Too big, too late, and too expensive. Of the primary pillars of the recent proposed antiviolence and gun control legislation, the mental health option is the least practical and most costly.

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, recently refused to vote for HR 6429 — STEM Jobs Act of 2012, saying that he sought an integrated bill for immigration. The odds of obtaining desirable outcomes are increased when regulations address the complexity of policy problems. When a bill focuses on violence prevention, however, some members of Congress are apparently not bothered by the prospect of proposing law that is at once myopic and expansive.

Lawmakers seem content to follow the scent of a red herring: mental health systems. The bold and comprehensive gun control approaches considered in recent months are not needed, gun advocates claim. It's those other guys — the caricatured "others" like James Henry Farrario — who use guns to kill. NRA members say there is no reason to take assault weapons away from responsible gun owners. If we could just ensure that the background laws we already have are enforced — even with reduced access for funding to effectively implement the background check laws we have now, and no money to fund a more effective system.

Do we just need good legislation that contains provisions for identifying, tracking, and treating people with mental health issues? Would that help us deal with the legacy issues from the Reagan administration when droves of mentally ill people were released from mental health institutions? The question begs: Is it more practical to lock up people, or lock up guns?

DeVault is a business development specialist living in Oakdale.

Don Moyer

Recently The Bee editorial board met with representatives of a group called the California Climate and Agriculture Network, or CalCAN. Among other things, the group is concerned that solar generation facilities, both existing and proposed, may threaten California's agriculture industry. CalCAN points to the recent construction of a large solar facility on McHenry Avenue by firm that is selling the power to the Modesto Irrigation District. Only a few years before the property had been a producing vineyard, then the grape vines were ripped out, the land prepared and covered with a sea of solar panels that turn sunlight into electricity.

The solar project raises some interesting questions, such as:

• Should an irrigation district originally formed to benefit agriculture be involved in a project that removes vineyards, orchards or other crops?

• Does clean, renewable energy have a higher societal value than prime farmland?

• Would it make more sense to put solar generation panels on nonprime land and to save the prime land for higher and better uses?

There is no doubt that solar power generation is generally a good thing that we ought to encourage. It seems equally clear that wherever possible, we should save prime land for growing food. Take a look at the gently rolling hills on both sides of the Central Valley. Some of that land has no irrigation and such poor soil that one of my rancher friends says, "a rattlesnake has to pack a lunch to cross it." That's where we should locate solar facilities, not on prime farmland.

As much as I dislike more government regulation, I believe it makes sense for valley counties to restrict large solar generation projects to nonprime land.

Moyer, who lives in Ripon, is an outdoor writer and owner of Moyer Consulting.

Wayne Zipser

When the building industry and developers tout that there is more irrigated farmland today than 20 years ago, they are right. In fact, from 2010 to 2011, the acreage harvested in Stanislaus County increased by almost 20,000 acres, according to the 2011 Stanislaus County Annual Crop Report.

Rangeland, especially on the eastside foothills, has been developed at an alarming rate into almond orchards, grape vineyards and walnut orchards. This has been accomplished because of irrigation technology that allows farmers to deliver water more efficiently than ever before.

There are a few things to consider about these "new" acres. First, it is basically dry rangeland that served cattle ranchers for years — they were great stewards of the land. Those new foothill acres can only produce four or five different crops. We are able to grow more than 200 unique crops on the valley floor.

Second, is there sufficient water for this "new" farmland in the foothills? Hundreds of new wells have gone in and the long-term effects are already noticeable. Even with drip and micro-irrigation systems, the groundwater is being depleted. The valley floor, with its sandy loam soils and flood irrigation, has the ability to recharge groundwater very effectively. The foothills do not have that same ability to quickly recharge the aquifer.

The building industry continues to cite these new acres. They want to convince civic leaders that there is no need for new farmland protection plans.

Farmland protection plans become controversial even with farmers and landowners because of the concern about property rights. I hope we find community consensus about the value of our most prime land. In the old shell game of political opinion, it all comes down to which shell you want to pick. We've only got one chance, so we better get it right!

Zipser is a third-generation farmer and executive manager of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau.

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