PARTNERS

By Craig W. Anderson 

PG&E ANNOUNCED it would expand precautionary shutffs to include the entire Northern California service area. PG&E said these outages could last two or more days.

The Public Safety Power Shutoff [PSPS] program was put to the test in early June when a wild re triggered a power shutdown to PG&E customers in portions of Solano, Yuba, Yolo and Butte counties.

“This PSPS approach seems very draconian,” said SJFB First Vice President Ken Vogel. “By implementing PSPS PG&E would deliberately cause losses to farmers by interrupting their irrigation, packing shed operations and other needed and necessary agricultural activities.”

Prevention the key

Such a shutdown would eliminate lights, refrigeration and Internet in rural areas and communities that rely on agriculture for their livelihood, all of which could have been prevented, Vogel believes if only the transmission lines and infrastructure along with forest thinning by the state and federal agencies responsible for forest and wildlife area maintenance had been done.

“Such maintenance and monitoring was neglected by the state and feds. There’s a good chance these disastrous fires and their consequences could have been avoided,” he said.

Feds need to step up

And many consider the federal government isn’t assuming its proper role in preventing and fighting fires. “Around 60 percent of forested land in California is owned by the federal government. Wild fires don’t stop at jurisdictional boundaries, so a unified federal-state approach is the only way to properly protect lives and property,” wrote Sen. Dianne Feinstein in a letter to the Agriculture Secretary and U.S. Forest Service. While the feds certainly can do more, much of this effort to address the forests has been thwarted by state government regulations.

Water pumps stopped

Water sources could be the first vital item eliminated by an electrical cutoff and water, sewage and pumping functions for fire fighting would be lost. “This is a big challenge,” said Dave Eggerton, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. “It’s operationally challenging and very expensive.”

Crop losses

Some of that expense is certain to come from the loss of perishable fruit – peaches, pears, apples – most vegetables and other field crops would likely suffer as well. “There is the potential for ag to suffer catastrophic losses should outages occur at any time during harvest,” said SJFB Executive Director Bruce Blodgett. “The first question we asked PG&E was ‘What’s the plan? How are you reaching out to the agricultural community?’” He added that Farm Bureau is following up with PG&E regarding all aspects of this program.

Ag and PG&E’s lost attention

Why worry about this? Isn’t this consideration about agriculture – a $2.5 billion San Joaquin County industry – among the top priorities of the utility? “I asked a PG&E official about their thoughts on how these shutdowns would affect agriculture

and what considerations they’d made for this,” Blodgett said. “Their response was: ‘Oh? We hadn’t given it that much thought. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.’”

Shutting off power sanctioned

About the PSPS program, Karen Norene Mills, CFBF general counsel, said, “The hope is these de-energization events are rare and fulfill the goal to keep people and property safe. is has become a sanctioned tool to prevent damage and fires throughout the state, so we anticipate it being used by the utilities.”

She also said agriculture often has unique concerns and, in some cases, “It may be necessary for farmers and ranchers to consider the use of generators for essential water deliveries, such as for livestock.” With enough notice, farmers could irrigate in advance or “accelerate other activities” so the affected area hit by the shutoff is more protected.

Harvest windows

Crops have different harvest windows, explained SJFB past president Jim Ferrari, a walnut and diversified grower near Linden, some with a span of 40-45 days, others, like Chandler walnuts, have a 20 day window. “If we were to lose any of those harvest days due to a power shutdown, it would be a disaster,” he said. “California’s inadequate forest management practices helped lead to this situation.”

Ripple effect

The ripple effect on California’s $50.13 billion agriculture industry could be even worse, considering the negative effect the shutoff plan would have on the multitude of added value industries such as transportation, jobs, equipment, manufacturing, clothing, shoes, fuel, and a myriad other industries associated peripherally with agriculture.

Windy day disaster

A shutoff isn’t necessarily associated with res; PG&E began shutting down power sources to rural areas in 2018 on warm, windy days to reduce the risk of an unmaintained electrical line triggering a wild fire. And, before utilities can turn the electricity back on all of their lines must be inspected.

“People would be put out of work,” said Vogel. “And our crops depend on irrigation patterns; if the power is out for three or four days, walnuts would shrivel and some field crops would just die. Days without power would not be good.”

Shutdowns difficult

A general manager of a small water district, who had perhaps the best take on the frustrating situation, said, “These shutdowns are extremely hard. They’re shutting off the power during wild fire season, I get it. But to shut off the power to the one thing that fights the fire – water – I really don’t get that.”