High-speed rail agency tries to ease farmers' fears

The Fresno BeeSeptember 11, 2012 

SACRAMENTO -- Will high-speed trains blow away honeybees? Will the state's proposed rail system throw a monkey wrench into ag irrigation systems up and down the Valley? Will the roaring trains stress out cows so much they'll produce less milk?

Those were some of the questions the California High-Speed Rail Authority took a shot at answering at Tuesday's board meeting.

West side farmer John Diener, chairman of the Agriculture Working Group, an advisory panel for the authority, presented a series of six reports. Some of the findings:

Honeybees: Wind from passing trains is not expected to create significant effects. Because of the streamlined design of the trains, Diener said, the expected windspeed would be about 2 mph at the edge of the railroad right of way -- too weak, he said, to disrupt bees.

"Honeybees are normally placed in quiet spots away from high-traffic areas, not usually placed right next to highways or railroads," Diener said.

Irrigation: This poses a significant engineering challenge, he said. In addition to crossing numerous canals and ditches operated by irrigation districts, the trains "will encounter an individual irrigation system on virtually every significant agricultural parcel in the Valley," the report said.

But solutions to individual problems will be available, and construction will be timed to avoid disrupting ditches when water is being provided to farmers. Also, farmers will be able to negotiate with right-of-way agents for any changes that are needed to irrigation systems.

Cows: There are more unknowns here. The report said that while cows exposed to recorded jet-aircraft noise at 80 decibels or less did not produce less milk, more studies need to be done on cattle in conditions where operations are within 350 feet of trains.

Diener said, "We're dealing with an electric train instead of a diesel train that BNSF currently runs, so this will be much quieter than that."

The Rail Authority says it wants to communicate better with San Joaquin Valley farmers who worry about 220-mph trains racing across their land.

Tuesday's presentation aimed at answering those concerns was a start. But not everyone is convinced.

Frank Oliveira, a Hanford farmer and member of the Kings County rail opposition group Citizens for High-Speed Rail Accountability, said the promises ring hollow.

"Good faith is going to have to be a part of this," he said, "and we don't have a lot of good faith based on past experiences."

Oliveira and other Kings County residents have, for more than a year, accused the rail authority of ignoring their concerns about the project's potential disruption of farms, businesses and neighborhoods.

The county, along with Hanford farmer John Tos and homeowner Aaron Fukuda, are suing the rail authority in Sacramento Superior Court to halt the project.

"Irrigation systems are man-made things, and anything made by man can be engineered to accomplish something -- at a cost," Oliveira said. "If you go tear up my wells and pipelines, what we need is faith that whatever it takes to put it back together in as good a shape as it was, is going to be accomplished."

Jeff Morales, the authority's CEO, said the Agriculture Working Group was formed to answer questions and allay some fears.

Diener was appointed last year to lead the group, which includes farmers, university researchers and agricultural extension experts who studied questions about concerns raised by Valley ag interests.

One issue not directly addressed Tuesday was how the authority expects to acquire right of way for its tracks.

Outreach consultant Bart Bohn, a former Fresno County chief administrator, said the authority must give Valley farmers a better idea about how that will work.

"In our public meetings, after the presentations, the property owners herd us to the maps because they want to see what's going to happen to their land," Bohn said.

So far, however, rail officials have only been able to discuss in generalities how the process will work and how a farmer's property could be affected.

The high-speed rail line proposed through the Valley will affect hundreds of farms in Merced, Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties, Bohn said.

Bohn said the authority has to compensate farmers not only for property used for the railroad right of way, but also to replace or relocate wells, buildings and other infrastructure that have to make way for the tracks.

But until the environmental process is completed, he added, it will be impossible to know exactly how each property may be affected.

Among possible solutions for farmers whose land the tracks cross: new crossings to accommodate frequent movement of farm equipment from one side of the tracks to the other "when justified," Bohn said; replacing wells or irrigation systems; or building pipelines or rerouting canals and ditches to keep water flowing.

The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6319.

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