A new way to pay the electric bill: crowdfunding

Solar workers installing panels on the Shawl Anderson Dance Center. (Photo: Andreas Karelas)

Solar workers installing panels on the Shawl Anderson Dance Center. (Photo: Andreas Karelas)

Laura Flynn for New America Media / KALW’s Crosscurrents

Click here to listen to Laura’s story

Fly low over California, and you’ll see a patchwork of black and shiny rooftops fitted with solar panels. It didn’t always look like this. Just over a decade ago, there were fewer than 500 solar rooftops in the state. By 2012, that jumped to over 160,000.

Much of that growth has happened in just the past few years. It doesn’t stop there. National industry analysts say the solar sector grew by a third in just the first quarter of 2013, with California leading the charge.

A few things are making solar more accessible, among them: cheaper panels, rebates, and new ways to for pay for them. Crowdfunding is among these new and creative ways to finance solar panels. Instead of paying tens of thousands of dollars to install solar, other people pitch in and get something in return. It’s like a Kickstarter for your electricity bill – and it’s a business model that allows people to participate directly in making solar happen.

It happened for the Shawl Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley. As piano melodies spill out the door, and dancers walk in and out, Managing Director Rebecca Johnson explains how and why her studio went solar. For one thing, she says, they were spending about $400 a month on utilities. Then they noticed their neighbors.

“All our neighbors are totally residential homes,” Johnson says. “When they got solar, we thought, ‘Wow, our roof is the same exact slope as well.’”

As they were figuring out their options and getting quotes, they got an unexpected offer. A man named Andreas Karelas offered them a lease to own system that would power 100 percent of the center’s electricity needs. They wouldn’t owe any money up-front and their monthly bill would drop.

When she saw the offer, Johnson says she thought it was to good to be true

“I don’t understand where the loophole is,” she says she rememebrs thinking.

Andreas Karelas is the founder and executive director of the non-profit RE-volv, based in San Francisco.

“Our mission is to empower people to invest collectively in renewable energy,” he says.

In other words, to “crowdfund” the dance center’s solar panels.

Crowdfunding is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a way to raise money from a lot of small donations instead of, say, one giant bank loan. The dance center is a classic example. RE-volv launched a campaign through the website Indiegogo.

In the campaign video, Karelas talks about “individuals and community centers that are generating their own power on their homes and places of work that use that energy and then share it with their neighbors.” He says it’s time to think about energy in new ways.

RE-volv raised about $25,000 through foundations and donations from 300 people around the world. That money paid for the upfront costs. Once the project was underway, the dance center started paying just under $300 a month to lease the panels. That money goes into a fund that generates interest, and helps pay for future projects. So when you donate 50 bucks to the dance center’s roof, you’re not just supporting them – you’re also helping other projects down the line.

“So our hope is that people will be eager to kind of put their money into something where it does earn a return but they’re not asking for the return back themselves,” Karelas says. “They’re asking for the return to be reinvested into more and more solar allowing it to grow exponentially.”

This is pretty different from how solar providers usually work. In a typical lease, the dance center would make payments for 10 or 20 years, then at the end of that either renew the lease or buy the system at market value. If they didn’t, or couldn’t, the company might take the panels back. With RE-volv’s model, the dance center will own its system outright after 20 years.

Dance center director Rebecca Johnson says it’s about more than the money.

“It’s not so much the finances as the decision that we made and having our community know that their dancing is now solar powered is just a powerful sense of community,” she says.

RE-volv is just one of several companies trying out models for crowdfunding solar energy. Dan Rosen is the CEO of Mosaic, an investment crowdfunding company based in Oakland. Their model also offers a return – but this one is for investors.

“Our base of investors can become advocates and some of the best advocates for clean energy,” Rosen says. “Because they’re invested in it. Because they have skin in the game.”

Mosaic provides an online platform where anyone can invest directly in a clean energy project and earn between 4 and 6 percent interest. Investments can be as little as $25.

Rosen says crowdfunding relies on fairly simple math. He says investor Warren Buffett is pouring lots of money into solar right now. Buffet has a personal fortune in the billions, but Rosen says Buffet is not as rich as millions of everyday folks who pool their money.

“Someone asked who has more money than Warren Buffett,” Rosen says. “We all do. We all have more money than Warren Buffett.”

So far, Rosen says Mosaic has financed 15 projects, raising $3 million from about 2,000 people. For example, 138 people paid to put solar panels on the roof of the Asian Resource Center or ARC, a building that houses a bunch of nonprofits and businesses in Oakland. ARC now makes monthly lease payments of about $340 to Mosaic. ARC’s payments help pay each of those investors a return.

“So Mosaic is bringing a new source of capital to the table that is people power,” Rosen says. “That is powered by individuals and small institutions. And institutions that want to invest in clean energy.”

At the Energy Institute at the Haas School of Business, the co-director of the Energy Institute, Severin Borenstein sees the logic.

“I think that has the appeal for some investors who couldn’t otherwise get into investing in solar PV very easily of being able to make small investments and still get into this market,” Borenstein says.

He says it’s a niche market.

“As far as the growth of this industry I think it’s going to be driven by the economics,” Borenstein says. “Both the true costs of installing solar relative to retail electricity prices and the tax treatment.”

But, he says, the retail cost of electricity is higher than the actual cost, which raises questions about the stability of the solar sector.

“The way it is in California people pay a higher price per kilowatt if they consume more,” Borenstein says.

That’s because most utilities roll the fixed costs of the transmission lines and managing the grid into our electricity usage. So going solar also means the utility eats that additional cost.

“Those very high prices you’re paying don’t reflect the actual cost of supplying power to you,” Borenstein says.

This makes going solar more attractive and utilities see the threat.

“The utility recognizes it’s giving incentives for people to install solar instead of buy their power from the utility, and as a result they are trying to change those tariffs,” Borenstein says.

For example, everyone could be charged a fixed monthly fee for simply being connected to the grid. If that happens, Borenstein says, the whole solar sector could slow. But for now, it’s still growing.

“Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding is a way that we can democratize energy,” says Rosen from Mosaic. He sees crowdfunding as a way to change the whole energy industry. He anticipates major growth in solar rooftops, enough to disrupt the way utilities currently work. Where people with their own energy sources – like solar panels – distribute the excess to their neighbors.

Rosen imagines that “every home could essentially be a power plant.”

“Because it really is inevitable,” he says. “It’s cheaper to put solar on your home than not. It will happen. It’s economics.”

Solar still makes up less than 1 percent of the country’s total electricity production today. Rooftop solar makes up even less of that. Crowdfunding projects have a long road ahead, but Rosen and other supporters are hoping it’s a sunny one.

This story was produced as part of a 2013 NAM Fellowship on Energy and the Environment for Northern California Ethnic Media (a collaboration with SoundVision Productions’ Burn: An Energy Journal) with the support by S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and PG&E.

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California experiments with fracking regulation

Leslie Layton for New America Media / ChicoSol


The Sierra Club’s Dave Garcia is part of a campaign against hydraulic fracturing in Northern California. (Karen Laslo/ChicoSol)

CHICO, Calif. — On a summer morning, Dave Garcia, the political chair of the Sierra Club’s Northern California Yahi chapter, occasionally interrupted a tour of gas wells in the Sutter Buttes to point out wildlife: a scampering cottontail rabbit, a vigilant red-tailed hawk, and whizzing western kingbirds.

Garcia had brought a pair of journalists here to witness fracking in the Northern Sacramento Valley, something that most Northern Californians probably have no idea is underway in this area. The well sites appear almost deserted—there are no gas flares, no trucks moving huge tanks of water, no towering pump jacks. In fact, people are rarely seen at these electronically monitored stations. 

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”— a procedure used to capture hard-to-reach pools of oil and gas — has fueled a debate nationwide. Some studies show that fracking has links to water and air pollution, increased seismic activity, and water shortages.

In California, most of the debate has focused on development of the Monterey Shale in the southern San Joaquin Valley. There, oil companies want to exploit the nation’s largest shale-oil reserve. They’ve already begun, using fracking, horizontal drilling and a technique called “acidizing.” Much less attention has been focused on the natural gas reserves in rural Northern California, where fracking has occurred in Sutter, Glenn and Colusa counties.

According to an industry website, of the dozens of Sutter County gas wells, 15 were fracked a couple of years ago by Venoco, a Denver-based oil and gas company. These are small-scale fracking operations, comparatively speaking, but the Sierra Club’s Garcia is nonetheless concerned about possible contamination of the Tuscan Aquifer that slopes from the Sierras to the west side of the Buttes.

Efforts to regulate the drilling technique in California have also ramped up.

Earlier this fall, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 4, which regulates fracking in the state for the first time. Brown supports increased fracking in the state.

SB 4 directs the state Dept. of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) to establish regulations for fracking and another oil extraction method called acidizing, where acids are injected into a well to unlock oil deposits. Oil and gas companies will be required to obtain a permit, disclose chemical additives, and notify neighbors of plans to frack. The law also requires an independent scientific study.

Senator Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, an SB 4 sponsor, said the law establishes some of the nation’s most stringent regulations for fracking and acidizing. But some environmentalists have criticized it for not going far enough. A number of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and California League of Conservation Voters, have either didn’t back or withdrew support for the bill. 

Anti-fracking activists across the state continue to press for a moratorium on fracking. In Butte County, a group belonging to the Chico Citizen Action Network is pressing for a local ordinance to halt fracking.

As California is on the brink of a great experiment in fracking regulation, state residents are grappling with a key question—whether fracking can be successfully regulated and safely conducted. Throughout the state, key interest groups — from anti-fracking activists and environmentalists to pro-business and oil industry representatives — are lining up to wage a battle over community support for fracking.

Fracking in rural Northern California

In the Northern Sacramento Valley, gas-well fracking has been underway, quietly and without oversight, for years, underscoring the freedom the industry has had to operate at will. California was late in regulating fracking.  On her website, Sen. Pavley points out that 14 other oil-producing states already regulate the practice.

In the fracking world, the word itself can mean different things.

Fracking involves drilling thousands of feet into the earth, then blasting a mixture of sand, water, and chemicals into an encased well at high pressure to fracture rock, allowing the oil and gas in it to escape. It requires large volumes of water—a single operation might need 5 million gallons if the well is drilled horizontally.

By drilling horizontally, a well can be extended for thousands of feet. In several of these huge projects, chemicals have leaked or gas has seeped into aquifers in incidents that were linked to faulty well construction.

In California, “acid fracking,” or well acidizing, may yield better results than horizontal drilling, according to news reports. These “acid jobs” involve injecting huge volumes of highly corrosive hydrofluoric acid and other acids into a well to dissolve the rock.

In the Northern Sacramento Valley, fracking means fracturing rock in vertical or slanted gas wells, said Chico State geology professor Todd Greene. Fracking here “is not anywhere close to the type of fracking you see in Pennsylvania, Wyoming and New York,” he said.

Horizontal drilling has been used to exploit the Marcellus Shale and other large deposits in other parts of California.

Greene, who previously worked for the oil industry, notes that this part of the valley sits on sandstone—not shale rock. This area has gas, but little to no oil. Horizontal drilling that makes large-scale projects feasible isn’t usually effective in sandstone formations, Greene said.

But fracking in the North Valley raises similar concerns about possible leakage of toxic chemicals that are used in the process. More importantly, the lack of information about the extent of fracking in this region and elsewhere in the state point to inadequate state monitoring of a widespread practice.

Greene said, for example, that it would be useful to know what’s being done with the contaminated wastewater that flows back up a well after injection. On well pads in the Sutter Buttes, green drums hold up to 3,500 gallons.

Many of the wells are accessible from Pass Road, which winds along the base of what is known as the world’s smallest mountain range. The gas wells are behind gates that bear no-trespassing and danger signs. If you approach the wells, you might catch the wafting smell of gas or chemicals, or hear a humming or pumping sound. Homes on domestic wells are occasionally sprinkled around the bluffs.

Despite the widespread drilling – sometimes close to homes — it’s not easy to get basic questions answered, such as the direction of the drilling or where the wastewater goes. State regulators balked at the word “interview,” and an oil conglomerate provided what amounted to a “we don’t talk to the media” statement. 

A trail of fracked wells

DOGGR regulates California well-drilling, but hasn’t yet begun requiring an additional permit for fracking. DOGGR’s administration has been widely criticized in the past for failing to even monitor fracking. Officials declined to be interviewed for this story.

With little information provided by the state regulatory agency, the public has had to turn to other, incomplete sources of information on fracking operations in the state. 

In response to critics, DOGGR began compiling records on well-fracking last year, said Kyle Ferrar, state coordinator for the nonprofit FracTracker Alliance.

FracTracker has identified 237 fracked wells that haven’t been reported to DOGGR. One of those missing from the DOGGR database is a Sutter Buttes well.

Sometime after Venoco fracked wells in the Sutter Buttes in 2011, it sold its Northern California holdings. DOGGR’s website indicates the wells are now under management of Vintage Production California, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum.

Occidental Petroleum’s External Relations Manager Amy Fonzo responded via an email, saying that due to “competitive and proprietary reasons,” Vintage doesn’t discuss its operations. 

Property owners who lease land don’t always fare well with the oil companies, either. 

A Glenn County landowner contacted the Butte Environmental Council (BEC), an environmental advocacy organization, earlier this year after an exchange with a company that drills for gas on her property. She was hesitant to renew a lease that required signing over mineral rights because she had grown increasingly worried about the safety of fracking. 

The company told her it wasn’t fracking, but if she didn’t renew the contract, it could access gas on her land from a neighboring parcel, according to BEC. 

Garcia first learned about horizontal fracking from the HBO film Gasland, which documented cases of groundwater contamination in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Wyoming. He then turned for information on this area to the website FracFocus, where oil and gas companies have been asked to report fracking.

FracFocus provides a rough and incomplete sketch of fracking in the state. Perhaps most alarming to many community activists is the fact that drilling companies don’t provide complete listings of the chemical concoctions they’re using, noting in some cases that an additive is a “trade secret.”

“Oil companies are way ahead of us in terms of what’s going on,” Garcia said. “They’re marching right along in their shroud of secrecy.”

Despite concerns about fracking’s risks to health and the environment, some community members welcome a fracking boom in the hopes that it will bring jobs. 

Where are the jobs?

On a July evening in a Marysville meeting hall, Bishop Ron Allen stood at the podium, discussing in his booming preacher’s voice unemployment, oil and untapped riches.

Allen, the founder of Sacramento’s International Faith Based Coalition, lent his oratory skill to promote a fracking boom at an “educational summit.” Allen told an audience that included Tea Party supporters and landowners that expanded oil and gas production would provide jobs and generate income in the “underserved community.”

“California has been standing on the sidelines despite having 60 percent of America’s shale [oil] reserves right beneath our feet,” Allen said. Then he added: “Somebody help us, please.”

The summit was sponsored by Roseville’s nonprofit Coalition of Energy Users, whose key leadership has ties to conservative organizations. It was one of several events this past summer, held by various groups, in which fracking was presented as a path out of poverty and economic stagnation. 

Outside the summit meeting, anti-fracking protesters held signs denouncing “Big Oil” and passed out flyers. Some of the protesters had requested seats at the summit weeks in advance, but said that when they arrived, they found their names on a “Do not admit” list and were greeted by members of the Sons of Liberty motorcycle club, who served as bouncers at the event.

Job creation is often trumpeted as a benefit of expanded production, but it’s hard to know whether fracking creates work on the valley’s northern gas fields.

Sutter County is a top producer of dry gas — the gas that comes from fields without any oil in the mix. The county has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state at 13.6 percent in July, compared to the statewide average at 8.7 percent.

But some environmentalists argue that the hidden costs of fracking aren’t being considered.

“We’re going after the dirtiest fossil fuels that are left,” said Kassie Siegel, the director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We are going to have higher and higher health and environmental costs. People will get sick and the climate crisis will get worse.”

Regulating fracking

Activists have been fighting for a moratorium that would stall fracking pending the outcome of scientific study. 

The oil industry fought off several bills that would have imposed a statewide moratorium on fracking in the 2013 legislative session. It also opposed Pavley’s compromise SB 4.

On its website, the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry lobbying group, says a law based on SB 4 should at least end talk of fracking moratoriums.

“There is no longer a place in California for the emotion-fueled demands for a moratorium of hydraulic fracturing,” wrote Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the WSPA. 

Environmental organizations say they’re worried that DOGGR will rubber-stamp permit applications instead of requiring environmental review. They’re worried that the bill prevents imposition of a statewide moratorium at some future point, though Pavley has disputed this.

Organizations that support a ban or moratorium warn against reliance on regulation. They often note industry exemptions from the nation’s Safe Drinking Water Act through what’s popularly known as the “Halliburton Loophole.”

Eight California communities have passed resolutions to ban fracking, including Berkeley, Culver City and Marin County, according to Food and Water Watch.

A few days after passage of Pavley’s bill, several anti-fracking activists set up a table at the Saturday Chico farmers’ market, collecting signatures on a ban petition. Activist Willow Dejesus said she’s worried about fracking’s impact on water supplies and aquifer contamination.

“Water doesn’t get any closer to the heart of our livelihood,” said Dejesus. “I don’t think regulation is an answer. There’s tons of regulations in place, but there’s always exemptions, always people who don’t follow regulations, always accidents.”

Though FracFocus doesn’t show fracked wells in Butte County, Garcia says he’s identified 10 active gas wells in the county. Once natural-gas prices start climbing back up, the wells could be subject to fracking, he said.

“These companies are going to be going to the old gas wells they have in Butte County and reworking them,” Garcia said. “That’s why it’s critical to get a moratorium.”

California’s fracking story has really just begun.

This story was produced as part of a 2013 NAM Fellowship on Energy and the Environment for Northern California Ethnic Media (a collaboration with SoundVision Productions’ Burn: An Energy Journal) with the support by S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and PG&E.

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Greening California schools a ‘win-win’ for students and districts

Araceli Martinez Ortega for New America Media / La Opinion


Vince Wolfe, The Met High School’s Vice Principal, points to sensors that turn off climate control systems when students leave the classroom. (Araceli Martinez/La Opinion)

A model of energy efficiency, The Met is where most schools in the state would like to be, and thanks to a new funding stream many could get that chance.

Sensors in the Met shut off air conditioning and heating systems when students leave the classroom, and fluorescent lights have replaced incandescent ones in the school’s lighting system. Large windows let in abundant sunlight while effectively blocking out noise.

“Greening our schools will save us energy costs, give our kids healthier places to learn and prepare our students for future jobs in a green economy,” said Jonathan Raymond, superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD), at an event celebrating the completion of renovations to the school last year.

The new Met looks more avant-garde than your everyday public school building. It’s the result of a $7 million renovation of an old downtown building funded by a school construction bond approved by city voters in 2002.

In the last few years, a broad drive toward sustainability has reached into the classroom, with green schools sprouting up across the country. Green schools are lauded as a win-win proposition – cutting energy costs through more efficient building and school systems and creating healthier environments that studies show boost academic performance.

Still, while The Met exemplifies these features, a majority of the state’s schools remain far behind and are in dire need of renovation. Funds to upgrade school buildings have typically come via local measures that were unevenly distributed throughout the state. Few made it to low-income districts.

But that could change, thanks to a new measure approved last year.

Leveling the Playing Field

In November 2012, voters overwhelmingly approved Prop 39 — the California Clean Energy Jobs Act. The measure requires out-of-state corporations to pay taxes based on the percentage of sales made in California, just like other employers.

With its implementation, the state will receive $1 billion a year. Half that money will go toward upgrades for the oldest schools in the state. The improvements could lead to significant savings in energy and utilities. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that 40,000 jobs will be generated as a result of the measure.

Three-fourths of schools in the state are more than 25 years old, according to research from the office of state Senator Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles). These older schools tend to lack sufficient lighting and often times have insulation, heating, air conditioning, and plumbing problems.

“$2.5 billion will be distributed in the next five years to energy efficiency and renewable energy projects in schools across California,” said De Leon, who was the campaign co-chair of Prop. 39.

De Leon said that distribution of Prop. 39 funds would be weighted toward school districts with more high-need students. These districts could get as much as 15 percent above what other districts receive.

The recent budget adopted for the fiscal year 2013-14 already allocates more than $460 million for energy projects at K-12 schools and community colleges. But it also requires the California Energy Commission (CEC) to develop guidelines. Each school district must apply to the California Energy Commission to receive their funding.

Sen. De Leon’s staff expects the application process to begin by the spring of 2014.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s office estimates about half of California’s 10,000 schools could benefit from the added revenue.

In Los Angeles Unified, the second largest district in the country, energy bills routinely top $105 million a year. Of the 650 schools in the district, 59 are using solar energy or are in the process of building solar power systems, according to Richard Luke, LAUSD’s deputy director of planning and development.

The first project was launched in 2010, Luke said. LAUSD now generates 21 megawatts of solar electricity, providing savings of as much as $400,000 per year.

“The plan is to save $142 million in energy costs over a 20 year period,” Luke said.

Benefits to Children’s Health

De Leon said that greening the school environment through improved ventilation systems and energy efficiency will also improve children’s health.

“The lack of fresh air in schools greatly affects children with asthma,” he said.

 There is a direct connection between levels of asthma, poor ventilation, mold and carcinogens in the walls of dilapidated schools, according to Kate Gordon, the vice president and director of the energy and climate program for Next Generation.

“A third of classrooms in the state are in portable buildings, many of which are desperately in need of maintenance and energy improvement, and in fact, some are toxic due to the chemicals they contain,” she said.

A 2012 report by UC Berkeley’s Center for Cities and Schools in fact shows the state spent billions in recent years on installing these portable classrooms, funds that were initially intended for energy improvements.

According to the Green Schools Initiative (GSI), founded in 2004 by a group of parents and environmental activists, California schools lose more than $30 million a year because of missed days due to asthma, the leading cause of absences in schools.

Jane Warner, president of the American Lung Association, said that increasing energy efficiency would reduce air pollution that causes asthma and lung disease.

“In the process of improving school buildings, Prop 39 will remove lead, asbestos, mold, and other substances in schools,” she said.

Such health concerns are particularly pronounced among California’s more low-income districts, which tend to suffer from higher rates of toxins in the classroom and from sources of pollution nearby.

Assembly member Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who backed Prop. 39, said current funding “is significant,” but too little to get the job done.

“The monies that we are able to provide are not enough to do what we want in every single school facility across the state,”  Skinner said. 

This story was produced as part of a 2013 NAM Fellowship on Energy and The Environment for Northern California Ethnic Media (a collaboration with SoundVision Productions’ Burn: An Energy Journal) with the support by S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and PG&E.

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When the levees break – again

Former Yuba City Mayor Kash Gill – a local farmer – is a Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency board member. (India-West file photo)

Former Yuba City Mayor Kash Gill – a local farmer – is a Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency board member. (India-West file photo)

Sunita Sohrabji for New America Media / India West

YUBA CITY, Calif. – On Jan 2, 1997, a break in a levee on the rain-soaked Feather River – which lies north of Sacramento  – unleashed a devastating flood, leaving vital farmlands under 30-feet of water. The deluge caused $25 million in damages to the large population of Sikh American farmers, who grow most of the nation’s peaches and prunes here in the Yuba and Sutter County region.

Former Yuba City Mayor Kash Gill, who farms 200 acres of peaches and almonds, told India-West the 1997 floods made his town a ghost town for several days.

“Everyone was evacuated, all the businesses were shut down, a lot of trees were under water, and debris, garbage, oil and lead was running through the water system.

“When I got elected six years ago, fixing the levees was my first priority. We don’t want a disaster like New Orleans happening here,” he said, referring to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

Fixing the levees must be a priority for government at all levels, and for the Sikh American population in this area, said Gill, who sits on the board of the Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency.

“It’s a race against time,” he said.  “You never know when you’re going to get hit again and whether there will be money to fix it then.”

The levees on the Yuba and Feather Rivers, in rural Northern California, have been in a state of disrepair for at least 50 years, causing economic hardship for the area’s sizable Sikh American farming community. The constant threat of flooding threatens vital cropland, hydropower plants that supply electricity to hundreds of thousands of people, and a rich cultural heritage of the Sikh community that dates back to the 19th century.

And while these farmers have rebuilt their lives and farms after multiple floods, they are still waiting on promised federal funding to fortify the levees and gird against the next deluge.

Central Valley Sikhs are shown dedicating a new gurdwara in Live Oak, Calif., which opened last August.(Photo: Ranjit Kondala)

Central Valley Sikhs are shown dedicating a new gurdwara in Live Oak, Calif., which opened last August.(Photo: Ranjit Kondala)

Fertile farmlands and floods

A number of tributaries flow into the Feather River, creating ideal conditions for fertile farmlands.

The Sikh American population in the area is the largest outside of India, informally estimated at 100,000 people. Ninety five percent of the nation’s peaches are farmed by Sikhs here. Sikh farmers also produce 60 percent of the nation’s prunes here, and 20 percent of the country’s almond and walnut supplies.

But, what makes the region a productive farmland also makes it flood-prone, underscoring the need for a well-maintained and robust levee system.

The 2007 assessment by the Army Corps of Engineers found 125 observed “levee performance problem locations” on the Feather River since 1955. The problems include seepage, erosion, boils, breaks and cracks. The study concluded that a levee failure at any one of the problem locations could cause flooding with a depth of one foot to over 20 feet.

The study also found that most of the levees on the system did not meet the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) standard of a 100-year protection plan – the length of time the levee should stay intact, resulting in much higher flood insurance rates for the area’s farmers.

Jaswant Bains, president of the Sacramento Packing Company, which farms 400 acres of walnuts and prunes, told India-West he lost an estimated $1.5 million in damages to his orchards, equipment and structures during the 1997 floods.

The Indian American agricultural entrepreneur has lived in the Yuba City area for more than 43 years. He said the Punjabi farming community has kept up a steady push to get the levees repaired and in 2010 paid assessments to fund some of the work.

The region has suffered massive flooding twice before: in 1955, a levee break at the Shanghai Bend levee on the Feather River killed 38 people on Christmas Day and forced 30,000 people to evacuate the area. In 1986, 895 homes were destroyed and 3,000 people were evacuated in the farming towns of Olivehurst and Linda after a levee break on the Yuba River.

Power and water

A map of the Yuba and Feather rivers in Northern California.

A map of the Yuba and Feather rivers in Northern California.

The YCWA also annually provides 350,000 acres of water to 18 irrigation districts, serving as many as 100,000 farmers.

Curt Aikens, general manager of the YCWA, told India-West that during the 1986 and 1997 levee breakages, all four hydro-electric plants were shut down for “several days,” leaving a large segment of PG&E customers without power.

Nevertheless, said Aikens, levee damage has had minimal impact on the agency’s ability to supply water and power to the region.

PG&E manages five hydroelectric plants on the stretch of Feather River that runs closest to Yuba City and Marysville, collectively producing 353 MW of hydroelectric power.

But the damaged levees have little impact on the corporation’s ability to supply power to its consumers, according to Paul Merino, PG&E’s spokesman in Chico, Calif.

“The electricity generated by these plants isn’t dedicated,” Merino said. “It goes into a general pool from several sources.”

Digging for dollars

The Army Corps of Engineers oversees California’s extensive system of levees, which is owned by local and private agencies. Local agencies will occasionally ask ACE for help with a levee improvement project, but ACE has no overall mandate to repair or improve the state’s levee system, explained Chris Gray, a spokesman for ACE’s Sacramento district.

Rep. John Garamendi, a Democrat who began representing this region in 2013, said ACE repair projects could take years – even decades – to begin.

“You’ve got some of the richest farmland in the nation in one of the highest hazard levee systems in the country,” he said, noting the hydrology and topography of the area.

“Devastating floods have simply wiped out their [Sikh] farms,” said Garamendi, who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “They understand the necessity of improving the levees.”

Garamendi is a former Lieutenant Governor of California and he has served in Congress since 2009. He said California must prepare itself for climate change, which would bring on more, major storms and have disastrous effects on the 100 miles of levees within his district.

At a June House Transportation and Infrastructure committee hearing, Garamendi urged the Corps to fast-track levee work in his district in spite of the fact that ACE’s budget has been slashed by a quarter billion dollars.

Shanghai Bend

After long delays, two levee restoration projects are currently underway on both the Yuba and Feather rivers, but the work falls short of what is needed.

On Aug. 7, Garamendi and Rep. Doug LaMalfa joined state and local officials to kick off the Feather River West Levee Project, three years after it was slated to begin. The project aims to fix 41 miles of broken levees to get them to a 200-year level of protection at a cost of $312 million.

The project was initiated in 2010, but needed a 408 permit from ACE before beginning construction. ACE approved one mile of the complex project on July 17 this year, and approved the remaining 40 miles of the project on Sept. 13.

Traditionally, ACE has maintained its complex levee system across the country, but Garamendi noted it takes years – even decades – to get on the agency’s priority list.

The Feather River West Levee project has bypassed the ACE system and created a unique initiative funded by local assessment bonds and state dollars, and managed by local and state agencies.

Local assessments in 2010 kicked in $41 million for the project. On top of that, the State Department of Water Resources has committed $57 million to the first phase of the project, which is expected to be completed in 2015.

Delayed ACE approval means construction will start late: repair work must end in November, before the rains begin. In June, Garamendi and LaMalfa urged ACE to approve the 408 permit, noting that a break in a part of the levee could impact 40,000 residents in the area.

“We could have been going another mile this year but ACE has not given us permission,” said Mike Inamine, executive director of the Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency. “It’s been a very lengthy bureaucratic process. We’ve been applying a lot of pressure to Garamendi, LaMalfa and (Sen. Diane) Feinstein to get the projects approved.”

Inamine said that an additional five-mile stretch south of Yuba City has not been factored into the current project. The south stretch of the river is mostly agricultural land. The proposed project in this south area would fix levees to a FEMA-approved 100-year level of protection, reducing what Inamine called “draconian” flood insurance rates for farmers in the region.

FEMA “strangling” rural economy

FEMA regulations mandate that farmers have flood insurance against at least 100-year levels of flood protection. Inamine said that requirement is “strangling the rural economy.” No new structures can be built until the levees come up to code. Existing structures can’t be replaced.

FEMA has been remapping flood plains, designating many portions of Sutter County as a “Special Hazard Flood Area.” The remapping has raised flood insurance at cost-prohibitive rates; existing structures must also carry new insurance to meet FEMA’s standards, reports AgAlert, a weekly newspaper, quoting Sutter County farmers who said that meeting FEMA’s standards would mean a shut-down of their long-standing businesses.

Garamendi last year introduced the “Flood Insurance for Farmers” bill in Congress, which would allow farmers to build new structures and refurbish existing structures, despite the FEMA remapping. Farmers would also be allowed to purchase flood insurance at subsidized rates for new and existing structures. The measure is still pending, according to Garamendi.

Marysville Ring

A second initiative, the Marysville Ring Levee Project, finished its first phase of construction in June. The first phase was a 4,600 linear foot cut-off wall in an urban area of Marysville, reducing seepages from existing earthen levees.

All four phases of the Marysville Ring Project – a $92.5 million initiative – are expected to be completed by 2017, Robert Kidd, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, told India-West. Further construction has been stalled until additional federal funds are allocated, said Kidd, explaining that the federal government was expected to kick in two-thirds of the funds, while state and local sources would pay the remaining third. Those federal funds are in question, Kidd said, given sequestration cuts.

“Marysville has a strong interest in continuing to work on this project and reducing their risk of flooding,” said Kidd. “The community has many recent memories of flooding and has stepped up to make sure this project will get done.”

Rice Kings of Colusa

New Sikh immigrants arrive at Angel Island, circa 1910. The group arrived on the Nippon Maru from Japan, reported the San Francisco Chronicle. (File photo, courtesy of the late Tej Singh Sibia)

New Sikh immigrants arrive at Angel Island, circa 1910. The group arrived on the Nippon Maru from Japan, reported the San Francisco Chronicle. (File photo, courtesy of the late Tej Singh Sibia)

Economic hardships amid the forces of nature embody that Sikh American experience in the region.

Sikhs and Muslims migrated to Yuba City around 1907. Few of them spoke English, and they didn’t have professional skills, so they turned to farming.

The small community, never larger than 10,000, was not allowed to own land, but nevertheless leased thousands of acres. Later, changing miscegenation laws allowed the Indian American pioneers to marry Mexican women and buy land in their names.

“It’s amazing how well they did, given all the restrictions,” said Bruce LaBrack, professor emeritus at the University of the Pacific, noting that back in the day, Indian farmers in the region were known as “The Rice Kings of Colusa.”

He said the Sikh farmers have always been resilient.

“Farms got washed away, but then the rains stopped, the floods receded, the levees were repaired and they got back to work,” he said.

This story was produced as part of a 2013 NAM Fellowship on Energy and the Environment for Northern California Ethnic Media (a collaboration with SoundVision Productions’ Burn: An Energy Journal) with the support by S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and PG&E.

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