Reports outline possible impacts from rail project
By Christine Souza
Central Valley farmers say draft environmental documents released last week by the California High-Speed Rail Authority confirmed their concerns that the system could disrupt thousands of acres of farmland. The environmental reports examine, identify and evaluate potential impacts associated with the construction, operation and maintenance of two sections of the project: the 65-mile Merced-to-Fresno portion and the 113-mile Fresno-to-Bakersfield section.
Kings County Farm Bureau Program Director Diana Peck, who has reviewed the Fresno-to-Bakersfield report, said the rail authority has taken a "do-now, ask-forgiveness-later" approach, making critical errors that could damage Kings County.
"Kings County is a small, agricultural-based community and when you consider the amount of agricultural production that will be taken out, proportionate to the size of our county and its economy, this alignment is extremely damaging," Peck said.
She criticized the rail authority's environmental impact report/ environmental impact statement for a lack of alignment alternatives for high-speed rail running through Kings County. Although the report describes six alignments, Peck said it lacks more than one route for Kings County. She added that state and federal environmental laws require that a few different routing configurations be considered.
"For almost the entire portion of the alignment through Kings County, they are not showing alternatives other than one single alternative, which is very frustrating," Peck said. "They should be making a comparison and studying other alignments."
Farmer Mike Monteiro of Hanford said the high-speed rail project would run through his dairy.
"The high-speed rail is splitting my property right in the middle. It's splitting off my maintenance facility and my fueling yard from my main dairy," Monteiro said. "It's really a huge problem the way they are just zigzagging through this area. The whole alignment has got to be changed."
Monteiro said no one from the authority had spoken to him about possible impacts to his farm during the preparation of the environmental reports.
"In my area south of Highway 198, there are four dairies before you get to Corcoran and those have a total of 10,000 cows that would be affected. It's a huge problem for us," he said.
For the Merced-to-Fresno section of the project, the EIR/EIS evaluates three north-south alignment alternatives, including along the Union Pacific Railroad and Highway 99, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, and a hybrid that combines the two. The Madera County Farm Bureau supports the Union Pacific Railroad/Highway 99 alternative because it would have the fewest agricultural impacts.
Madera County Farm Bureau Executive Director Julia Berry said the environmental documents discuss agriculture in many sections, from transportation to socioeconomic impacts.
"The worst part is that decisions will be made based on the environmental document, which accounts for impacts at a macro level," Berry said. "The individual property owner is not considered; impacts on a county as a whole are taken into account. This project will destroy the livelihood of many individuals, and (state environmental law) is not the vehicle to help us protect against this outcome."
The environmental documents, which start the clock for a public comment period that continues through Sept. 28, estimate that the cost to build high-speed rail between Merced and Bakersfield has escalated to between $10 billion and $13.9 billion, compared to the $6.8 billion first projected.
Before construction can begin on the voter-approved rail system connecting San Francisco, Los Angeles and eventually Sacramento, the authority must complete the environmental review process.
A California Farm Bureau Federation attorney said CFBF plans to examine the environmental documents carefully to ensure that the rail project avoids or addresses all impacts to agricultural resources and the agricultural economy.
"The process has moved extremely fast without disclosing key design features and their impacts upon agriculture," CFBF Associate Counsel Chris Scheuring said. "We will be poring through the environmental reports for thorough disclosure and analysis of those impacts, in order to provide comment and design criticism on behalf of our members."
To hear comments about the project that will be considered as part of the official record, the rail authority will hold a series of public hearings between Sept. 14 and Sept. 28 in Merced, Madera, Fresno, Hanford and Bakersfield. Public meetings intended to educate people about the environmental review process are scheduled between now and Sept. 21, in Le Grand, Chowchilla, Fairmead, South Fresno, Shafter/Wasco, Rosedale and Corcoran.
The High Speed Rail Authority and Federal Railroad Administration will prepare final environmental documents for the project that will include responses to comments and a description of the preferred alternative and proposed mitigation.
The draft EIR/EIS is available online and information about the schedule of public hearings and meetings can be found at www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov/.
Public comments may be submitted electronically via the authority website. To comment by mail, send to California High Speed Rail Authority, 770 L St., Suite 800, Sacramento, CA 95814. Indicate "Fresno to Bakersfield Draft EIR/EIS comment" or "Merced to Fresno Draft EIR/EIS comment" on the subject line or on the mailing envelope.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.