It’s official, Bill Lyons joins Gov. Newsom’s staff as a voice of the Valley

SACRAMENTO – Bill Lyons officially became the Agriculture Liaison to Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday afternoon.

What is the Agriculture Liaison? That’s something Lyons will have to help figure out. The position is new, apparently created specifically for Lyons and for a governor trying to deepen his understanding of how the Central Valley works.

“Gov. Newsom is really concerned about the entire Central Valley,” said Lyons on Wednesday. “He sees the opportunities in the Central Valley, and he’s really making an effort to reach out to people up and down the entire Valley.”

Lyons is well-known in Modesto, where he is CEO of Mape’s Ranch (which specializes in cattle and various crops) and Lyons’ Investments (a land development company with interests throughout the San Joaquin Valley). He was a member of the Modesto Irrigation District board of directors (1984-93), ran for county supervisor (2010) and has served on community boards ranging from Little League baseball to Haven’s Women’s Center to the Howard Training Center to Salvation Army to the Gallo Center for the Arts.

He’s also well known in Sacramento, where he was the state’s Secretary of Food and Agriculture under Gov. Gray Davis (1999-2004), and has remained active in Democratic Party politics.

Lyons, 68, is a political rarity in that he has received prestigious awards both from agriculture and environmental groups – organizations frequently in conflict over water and land use. He was president of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau and is a former California Cattleman of the Year. He was named the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Environmentalist and was the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation’s Conservationist of the Year in 2010 – among other numerous awards.

That might be why Sen. Dianne Feinstein and others recommended him for a seat on the State Water Resources Control Board last month. Instead, the Governor apparently wanted Lyons closer, bringing him directly into his office in a newly announced role as “liaison.”

“I bring a very broad range of knowledge on a lot of different topics,” said Lyons. “There are people who disagree with me, but I really do think I have some experience in bringing balance and offering sensible solutions.”

Apparently, Newsom wants to hear such solutions. He has visited the Valley at least four times (not all his visits have been announced, so the exact number is unclear), including Reedley, Fresno and Monterey Park Tract in Stanislaus County. Each time, he has stressed similar issues – providing clean drinking water and greater opportunity to the region.

“You’ve already seen the number of trips he’s made up and down the Valley,” said Lyons. “As busy as the governor is, to take the time to come down personally – with all of his senior, senior staff – to tour … it means we have someone who really understands. I’m really excited about that … I think he’s going to provide some unique leadership on some very complex issues.”

As Lyons sees it, water, agriculture and opportunity are inseparable.

“Economic opportunity and the success of agriculture, it’s so intertwined,” said Lyons, “they’re almost hand-in-hand. A good economy stimulates a good agriculture base and a good agriculture base stimulates a good economy. Where there are overlaps, I may be able to voice some opinions, some ideas. But I’m also excited about Lenny Mendonca’s appointment – he’s another Valley voice.”

Mendonca is a Turlock native whom Newsom appointed to lead the High Speed Rail Authority Board. A former senior partner in one of the world’s leading project-management firms, Mendonca also has a reputation for getting things done. His first act might be to help Newsom battle the Trump administration’s efforts to force California to refund some $3 billion in federal funds already allocated – and mostly spent – on the project.

It’s possible that Lyons, too, might be offering advice on difficult issues involving federal water projects which could lose funding if the president redirects money to builds his wall. If so, Lyons leaves no doubt about his loyalties.

“Obviously, there are going to be some differences between the two administrations, but I’m supporting my governor,” said Lyons.

Because Lyons reports directly to the governor, his appointment does not require senate confirmation. It pays $175,008 per year.

Modesto will get more rain, snow in its watershed. How do they compare with 2017?

Yet another cold storm Wednesday could bring light rain to Modesto and low-elevation snow to an already-blanketed Sierra Nevada.

As wet as this winter seems, it has a long way to go before matching what happened two years ago: The watersheds of the Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers both had record runoff, as measured over the 12 months ending Sept. 30.

The Tuolumne ended up at 255 percent of average that year, according to the Turlock Irrigation District, the largest user of the river. The Modesto Irrigation District and San Francisco also tap it.

The Stanislaus had 275 percent of average runoff that year. It supplies the Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts and the federal Central Valley Project.

The lower Tuolumne ran close to its banks for several months in 2017 because of releases from Don Pedro Reservoir to prepare for runoff from above. New Melones Reservoir had enough space to moderate the lower Stanislaus.

As of Tuesday, the central Sierra snowpack stood at 154 percent of average for the date, the California Department of Water Resources reported. The total runoff for the water year will depend on what else happens this winter and spring, and the occasional summer storms in the mountains.

This year’s conditions, while not record-setting, are nonetheless impressive. The Dodge Ridge ski area near Pinecrest conveyed that in Tuesday’s online update. It has recorded 393 inches of snowfall since last autumn, groomed into a summit base of 119 inches for skiers and snowboarders.

The National Weather Service forecasts less than 0.2 inches of rain in Modesto from the midweek storm. Snow is expected down to about 1,500 feet in elevation in the Sierra, with 2 to 4 inches between 2,000 and 4,000 feet.

Mostly sunny days and highs in the 50s are forecast from Thursday through at least Tuesday, Feb. 26.

Girl Scout cookie fans in Stanislaus County: Your day has arrived

It’s Girl Scout cookie time, Stanislaus County. For the third straight year the Girl Scouts Heart of Central California have held the Mega Cookie Drop at the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds. Area troop leaders, parents and Scouts picked up 255,000 packages of cookies for distribution. Volunteers, staff and scouts loaded cars, vans and trailers with the widely anticipated sweet treats. The cookie drop serves customer pre-sales with the remainder destined for booth sales. To find a booth near you, visit girlscoutcookies.org

Take your shot at a nature photo contest featuring the Valley and Sierra

Photographers have until March 31 to enter a contest featuring wildlife and landscapes in the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada.

The Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, based in Twain Harte, is once again sponsoring the annual photo contest. It had been just for wildlife in the past. A natural landscape category was added for 2019.

The contest has an adult division (older than 18) where the top prize will be $100 in both the wildlife and landscape categories. Second place will be $50, and third place will get honorable mention. The youth division has $50 prizes for the top wildlife and landscape photos.

CSERC will use some of the submitted photos on its website and in the slide presentations it has done since 1990 for school and other audiences in the Valley and Sierra.

To enter, send up to 10 high-resolution images and photographer contact information to Heidi Beswick at heidb@cserc.org. The winners will be revealed on the website April 5. More information is at 209-586-7440.

Police investigate shooting in east Modesto

A shooting Saturday morning in east Modesto apparently started as a domestic disturbance, police said.

According to Modesto Police Lt. T.J. Moffett, the shooting was reported in the 3800 block of Wilmington Way at 9:57 a.m. The location is off of Creekwood Drive north of Yosemite Avenue.

“We located one male victim that had been shot and subsequently identified a person of interest who was located in the area,” Moffett said by telephone Saturday.

Police later said in a post on the department’s Facebook page that the incident started as a domestic disturbance.

“The victim is the brother of the female half involved in the disturbance,” the post reads. “The victim and his sister were leaving the residence when the suspect approached them. After an altercation occurred, the suspect shot the victim several times while they were outside of the home.”

Both the victim and the suspect are adult males, Moffett said. Their identities were not released.

The victim was taken to a hospital and underwent surgery. An update on his condition was not available Saturday afternoon.

Authorities ask anyone with information on the case to call Crime Stoppers at 209-521-4636

Rain-swollen Orestimba Creek floods roads near Newman

The drone video, shot above Orestimba Creek on Stanislaus County’s west side, shows a driver doing a smart thing: He or she approaches the creek, swollen above its banks and across Bell Road, then stops and turns around.

That’s exactly what authorities hope drivers do when they come across roadway flooding. “Turn around; don’t drown” is the advice that officials give to drivers who come upon water in the road. Water can be misleading, and asphalt underneath could wash out and make it deeper than it appears.

So far, the roads that cross Orestimba Creek are the only ones locally that have gone underwater during the latest storm, according to Stanislaus County spokeswoman Amy Vickery.

There’s potential for more roadway flooding in the Northern San Joaquin Valley in the next couple of days. The National Weather Service predicts rain likely on Saturday, followed by possible showers Sunday. Presidents Day is looking clear but chilly, with highs in the 50s and lows in the 30s.

Another storm could move in Wednesday, forecasters said.

Soggy conditions continue in Modesto, but there is an end in sight

It was another soggy day in the Northern San Joaquin Valley on Thursday, but the area escaped the wild weather experienced in other parts of the state.

The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning Thursday morning for communities in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties. Several areas reported localized flooding and windy conditions.

Locally, the Modesto Irrigation District recorded more than a third of an inch of rain between Wednesday and Thursday. Several fender-bender crashes were reported, as well as a fatal crash in rainy conditions on Interstate 5 near Newman early Thursday.

Nothern and Southern California both saw unusually wet conditions. Several homes were evacuated and a house slid down a hill in Sausalito, near San Francisco, the Associated Press reported. And the Knott’s Berry Farm and Six Flags Magic Mountain theme parks closed due to weather.

The recent storms have brought much of the state out of drought conditions: Nearly 37 percent of California had no level of drought or abnormal dryness, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported Thursday, according to the Associated Press. About 10.5 percent of the state was in moderate drought, just over 1.6 percent was in severe drought. The remainder was in the abnormally dry category. The numbers reflect data gathered up to Tuesday.

Anyone looking for sunshine will have to wait. Weather Service forecasters predict rain showers off and on in the Modesto area into the holiday weekend, clearing out by the Presidents Day holiday Monday. High temperatures will be in the lower 50s, with lows dipping into the mid 30s.

And then, next week, there’s another chance of rain.

Modesto’s embattled insurance carrier considers bankruptcy

Riverstone Capital — the insurance carrier that has failed to pay Modesto employees’ medical claims and is the subject of a U.S. Department of Labor complaint filed in federal court — is considering bankruptcy.

A Riverstone official laid out the company’s intentions in a nearly two-minute voice mail he left Wednesday morning on a Bee reporter’s cell phone.

The official thought he was leaving a message for Grace Kim, a senior trial attorney with the Labor Department. (The reporter’s voice mail does not have a personal greeting but an automated female voice that says the caller has reached a certain phone number.)

“This message is for Grace Kim. This is Travis Bugli, chief operating officer of Riverstone Capital. I have updates that I wanted to give to you over the phone,” the message states.

They include:

“Because the independent fiduciary (Receiver Management was appointed to oversee Riverstone’s operations) has determined that our staff is no longer necessary as far as the plan administration is concerned, he has already stated that he cannot release any funds to be used to pay them. So we had to let our staff go.”

“We are now in the process, it looks like, where we are going to end up having for the company, Riverstone Capital, to file for bankruptcy.”

“We want, we would like to settle regardless. We just want to determine at this point what we need to do so that we can determine what is, what we are responsible for, and what we are not so that we can go ahead and put this to an end.”

The Labor Department filed a Feb. 1 complaint against Riverstone as well as two associated companies. The complaint says Bugli is a founding partner and owns 47.5 percent of the companies. Another company official, James Kelly, is listed as a founding partner and 47.5 percent owner.

The complaint alleges Riverstone charged low premiums that were not sustainable in an effort to attract customers while charging exorbitant fees. The complaint alleges that in late December the medical plans Riverstone managed for about 112 employers with more than 16,000 participants had unpaid claims of about $24 million.

It still is not clear what the complaint means for Modesto. The complaint alleges violations of the Employee Retirement Security Act, which regulates private sector health plans. Besides the roughly 112 employers covered by ERISA, the complaint states Riverstone had about seven non-ERISA plans.

A Labor Department spokesman has said Modesto is not among the ERISA plans and said Tuesday that the department’s attorneys would not comment on whether Modesto’s unpaid claims are under the authority of the independent fiduciary.

When reached by phone Wednesday afternoon, Bugli said he could not say how a Riverstone bankruptcy would affect Modesto’s unpaid claims. “The independent fiduciary has all the assets,” he said. “They are in charge.”

He said his company is cooperating with the Department of Labor.

An official with the fiduciary could not be reached for comment. Modesto spokesman Thomas Reeves said Wednesday the city has been in contact with the fiduciary. But he said because Modesto learned about the complaint Monday, city officials still are determining what it means for Modesto.

About 700 of the city’s roughly 1,200 employees have insurance through Riverstone, which the city has used since January 2017. The city recently switched to new insurance effective March 1 after it grew concerned about unpaid claims and a request from Riverstone for an 87 percent increase in contributions. Modesto is determining the amount of unpaid claims and a plan to resolve them.

What clues do mass shooters leave? How to survive an attack? Symposium offers answers

There was nothing entertaining about the program at the State Theatre on Tuesday morning. But it just might save lives.

Hundreds of people — business owners, downtown workers, city employees, a survivor of the October 2017 massacre at the Route 91 music festival in Las Vegas — turned out to get expert advice on the “pre-incident indicators” exhibited by past mass shooters, as well as what to do when caught in the midst of a shooting.

The free Active Shooter Symposium was presented by the Modesto Chamber of Commerce and Rank Investigation & Protection. It began with psychologist Philip Trompetter, who specializes in police and forensic work, telling the audience the importance of being in a “yellow zone” state of mind when in public. That means being aware and alert of your surroundings, but also remaining calm and relaxed.

He later handed the mike to James Yandell, a Ceres police lieutenant and SWAT commander and Rank employee who talked about what to do if caught in the midst of a shooting.

There were 30 so-called active shootings — defined as an incident still in progress when police arrive — in the U.S. in 2017, Trompetter said. That’s the largest ever recorded by the FBI in a one-year period. The symposium was “not intended to scare anyone,” he said from the stage, because it’s highly unlikely for anyone to be caught up in a mass shooting. But when they do happen, they’re catastrophic, so it’s worth talking about how they might be averted, he said.

Because mass shootings almost never are spur-of-the-moment events, but rather planned for days, weeks, months, even longer, there is time for the observant to see the clues “leaked” by would-be shooters, Trompetter said. Shooters under 18 tend to “leak” more to teachers and classmates than to their families, he said, while adults do so more to their romantic partners.

The clues they leave take many forms: tweets, text messages, doodles and drawings, expressed interest in previous mass shootings, innuendos like “I’m going hunting,” even tattoos. Among school shooters, Trompetter said, some have attempted to recruit a partner in crime, or warned friends to stay home from school a particular day.

He urged the audience to avoid falling into “bystandership” — ignoring clues, perhaps for fear of overreacting. His conclusion urged people “to trust the inherent gift of their intuition, the validity of their hunches and the powers of their observations.”

Yandell’s portion of the program focused on the “run, hide, fight” options faced by those who encounter an active-shooter situation. He, too, spoke of the importance of getting into the yellow zone mentality — being alert and thinking clearly and calmly to survive.

Running is the “first and best option” if it’s available, he said. That’s what Turlock resident Christie Marriott was hoping to hear. Because running and jumping into a car with other fleeing concertgoers — strangers she now considers part of her family — is how she survived the shooting at the Las Vegas festival that left 58 people dead and hundreds injured.

Marriott signed up for the symposium as soon as she heard about it, in part because she wanted affirmation she did the right thing that night. She did, Yandell said. She got out of there, and she helped some others without letting it slow her down and keep her in harm’s way. Hear Marriott’s account in a video with this story at modbee.com.

If fleeing a shooting isn’t possible, hide, Yandell said. A windowless room with a lockable door is best. If the door can’t be locked, barricade it. Turn off any lights and keep quiet. If there are windows, stay out of view.

As a last resort, when actually confronted by a shooter, fight, Yandell said. In a rare moment that drew some laughter from the audience, he reminded women that high-heeled shoes can be wielded as weapons. So can a heavy purse swung like a medieval mace, he said. Even a simple pen can badly hurt a shooter if stabbed into the soft tissue of the throat. Have a belt with a big, cowboy-style buckle? Wrap it around your wrist with that hunk of metal in front, and punch away.

Fire extinguisher in the room? Empty it into the attacker’s face, then beat him with the canister. And once you start hitting the gunman, don’t let up until he’s not getting up, Yandell said.

The symposium was concluded by a team of Doctors Medical Center nurses that offers free Stop the Bleed training — simple ways to stanch uncontrolled bleeding — each month at the DMC Conference Center. The next class is Feb. 28. Learn more by visiting cms.bleedingcontrol.org/class/search or calling 209-573-6151.

Residents fear marijuana nurseries west of Modesto will change their way of life

Residents in the rural area around Shiloh School west of Modesto strongly opposed two permits for marijuana nurseries last week.

The Stanislaus County Planning Commission recommended denying one of the nursery permits on California Avenue, south of Maze Boulevard, and also turned down a permit for indoor cultivation on El Roya Avenue near the Beard Industrial District in southeast Modesto.

Adding fuel to Shiloh-area opposition was that project proponent Legacy Nursery is partly owned by a county planning commissioner, Marc Etchebarne. Residents also said county Board Chairman Terry Withrow had disclosed at a community meeting on the Legacy proposal that Etchebarne’s father is a client of Withrow’s accounting business.

Etchebarne did not participate in Thursday’s planning commission hearing. Withrow confirmed that a dairy nutrition business owned by Etchebarne’s father is a client of his accounting firm. Withrow said he will recuse himself when the Legacy permits are considered by county supervisors.

Thursday’s planning commission actions were only recommendations, and all three cannabis permits are tentatively set for March 6 hearings before the Board of Supervisors.

Mark Wolfe, who lives on Broyles Road, said Legacy’s nurseries threaten to “change our way of life,” and he asked the planners for time so he could hire an attorney. The cannabis business would be public knowledge, attracting criminals looking to commit robberies, and other residents could be victimized if dangerous people knock on the wrong door, speakers said at Thursday’s hearing.

Residents said it wouldn’t be safe for dairy employees in the area or property owners who irrigate at night.

Legacy proposes, in the 5700 block of California, to enclose a 2,450-square-foot pole barn and use 5,000 square feet on the top floor of a barn for growing starter cannabis plants and supplying them to licensed cultivators. The business would also construct a 7,800-square-foot nursery canopy and office and two 10,000-square-foot greenhouses in phases at the southeast corner of California and South Hart Road.

Jennina Chiavetta, a partner in Legacy Nursery, said surveillance cameras will watch the nurseries and Legacy will pay for a security patrol. The nursery sites in the 5700 and 6800 block of California are 2.7 miles and 1.7 miles from Shiloh School on Paradise Road, respectively, greater than the 600-foot buffer required by law.

Chiavetta said nonflowering cloned plants will be sold wholesale to licensed cultivators and retailers. Nursery plants don’t have the strong odors of mature marijuana plants. “We are plant scientists; we are not drug dealers,” Chiavetta, noting that she and Etchebarne are UC Davis alumni.

County planners voted 3-2 against the use permit in the 5700 block of California, citing neighborhood compatibility concerns, but approved Legacy’s second nursery site.

Commission Chairman Scott Hicks said the Legacy proposal complied with all of the county’s commercial cannabis permit requirements. Hicks said he previously had serious issues with allowing commercial cannabis in Stanislaus County and voted against Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana statewide in November 2016.

Hicks said he had adjusted his thinking based on projections that 80 percent of cannabis activity would remain illegal.

The county plans to issue up to 61 commercial cannabis permits, including seven for retail shops, and has been processing applications for months.

Planners turned down a permit for Prem Gen Corp., doing business as Uncle Budd’s Nursery, which wants to keep growing commercial marijuana indoors in the 500 block of El Roya Ave., south of Yosemite Boulevard. The cultivation business was in operation before passage of Proposition 64, operating under the state’s medicinal cannabis act of 1996, the applicant said.

Planners frowned on Prem Gen’s request for a waiver on the county’s 200-foot setback requirement, designed to keep commercial cannabis sites at least 200 feet away from homes. The setback aims to protect residents from being overwhelmed by pungent odors. Prem Gen proposed a cultivation, nursery and distribution business using three 5,000-square-foot warehouses in an industrial-zoned area, with multiple dwellings within 200 feet.

Planning Commissioner Marjorie Blom said she could allow the waiver because of the location in an industrial area and because some of the homes have been unoccupied for years. Other planners disagreed, citing concerns it could set a precedent for waiving the residential setback.

Angela Freitas, director of county planning and community development, said a few other cannabis permit proposals in the county’s pipeline are also asking for waivers on the residential setback.

Last month, the commission approved the county’s first two commercial cannabis permits, allowing indoor cultivation and distribution at two locations on Jerusalem Court, north of Kiernan Avenue, within a planned industrial zone north of Modesto.