Which Billionaire Owns The Most Land In The U.S.? Hint, It’s Not Bill Gates
AJ Fabino – December 7, 2022
Earlier this year, in May, claims were made that Microsoft Corp co-founder Bill Gates owned the majority of America’s farmland.
While that is false, with the billionaire amassing nearly 270,000 acres of farmland across the country, compared to 900 million total farm acres, a different billionaire privately owns 2.2 million acres, making him the largest landowner in the U.S.
John Malone, the former CEO of Tele-Communications Inc., which AT&T Inc. purchased for more than $50 billion in 1999, has a variety of ranching and real estate businesses, primarily in Maine, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming.
Worth $9.6 billion, Malone, a media veteran, said he purchased the land because “they are not making it anymore.” He also owns three hotels in Dublin, Ireland, and a fourth in Limerick.
The current Liberty Media Corp chairman made the decision to put his billions of dollars in wealth into land after spending a summer working on a family farm in Pennsylvania.
Bell Ranch in New Mexico, a 290,100-acre plain dotted with mesas, rimrock canyons, meadows, and a distinctive bell-shaped mountain, was one of his first significant acquisitions. In addition, Florida’s Bridlewood Farms is a noteworthy asset.
He now holds the title of the largest landlord in the US, surpassing Ted Turner, with a total of 2.2 million acres of crops, ranch property, and woodland.
Malone noted in a CNBC interview that preservation was his primary motivation for purchasing land, and he intends to purchase more. He said that his properties serve as a reliable source of income and a solid hedge against inflation.
“The conservation of lands is important,” the billionaire said. “That was a virus that I got from Ted Turner.”
He continued, “the forestry part of it in the Northeast is a pretty good business, with very low return on capital, but very stable and leverageable,” Malone said. “And we think it will provide good inflation protection in the long run. That’s basically the motivation there. It just seemed like a good thing to do.”
U.S. warns California cities to prepare for fourth year of drought
Sharon Bernstein – November 28, 2022
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – Federal water managers on Monday urged numerous California cities and industrial users to prepare for a fourth dry year, warning of possible “conservation actions” as drought conditions continue despite early rains.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said water storage is near historic lows in the reservoirs it operates in the state, which serve the Central Valley breadbasket as well as the cities of Sacramento and San Francisco.
Shasta Reservoir, the state’s largest and the capstone of the federal Central Valley Project, is currently at 31% capacity, the agency said.
While the rainy season, which generally begins in October and continues through March or April, may yet bring more precipitation, it would be prudent for cities and industrial users to prepare for the possibility that less water will be available than the agency had contracted to provide them.
“If drought conditions extend into 2023, Reclamation will find it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to meet all the competing needs of the Central Valley Project without beginning the implementation of additional and more severe water conservation actions,” the agency said.
Initial water supply allocations for its customers would be announced in February, the agency said.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by David Gregorio)
A Soil Fungus That Causes Lung Infections Is Spreading Across the U.S.
Nikki Main – November 21, 2022
An illness-causing fungus known as hisoplasma is in the soil of nearly all U.S. states, a new study suggests. The researchers behind the work say doctors may be relying on outdated risk maps and therefore missing diagnoses of the infections, which can sometimes be deadly.
According to the CDC, histoplasma, or histo, is found in the soil of central and eastern U.S. states, primarily in Ohio and the Mississippi River valleys. But that assumption is based on research from the 1950s and 1960s, says the team behind a new paper published in Clinical Infectious Diseases. When a person breathes in spores of the fungus, they can contract an infection called histoplasmosis.
“Every few weeks I get a call from a doctor in the Boston area – a different doctor every time – about a case they can’t solve,” said study author Andrej Spec, an associate professor of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, in a press release. “They always start by saying, ‘We don’t have histo here, but it really kind of looks like histo.’ I say, ‘You guys call me all the time about this. You do have histo.’”
Lead author Patrick B. Mazi, a clinical fellow in infectious diseases also at Washington University in St. Louis, and his colleagues analyzed more than 45 million Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries extending from 2007 through 2016. They looked at diagnoses across the country of three fungal diseases: histoplasmosis, coccidioidomycosis, and blastomycosis. Histo, the most common, was causing clinically relevant rates of illness in at least one county in 48 of 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C. The other two infections were each found in more than half of states.
“Fungal infections are much more common than people realize, and they’re spreading,” Spec said in the release. “The scientific community has underinvested in studying and developing treatments for fungal infections. I think that’s beginning to change, but slowly.” Climate change may be driving this spread as warming temperatures make more habitats suitable for the fungi.
While histo can be easily combatted in healthy adults, and many people who are exposed never develop symptoms, those who are immunocompromised as well as infants and people 55 years and older may develop more serious illness, including a cough, fever, chest, pain, body aches, and fatigue, according to the CDC. Symptoms appear within three to 17 days after exposure; most symptoms will go away within a month, but if it spreads from a person’s lungs, the illness can become severe and require months of treatment.
People can be exposed to histo and other fungal pathogens through activities that disrupt soil, like farming, landscaping, and construction. They can also be exposed inside caves and while working in basements and attics. Spec noted: “It’s important for the medical community to realize these fungi are essentially everywhere these days and that we need to take them seriously and include them in considering diagnoses.”
Large part of Ukranian corn crop may stay in fields over winter.
November 21, 2022
KYIV, Nov 20 (Reuters) – Significant areas of Ukraine’s corn crop may be left to overwinter in the fields due to difficulties with harvesting and fuel shortages, analyst APK-Inform said on Sunday.
Corn can potentially be harvested in winter or early spring, but previously only very small areas of the crop would be left to overwinter if farmers wanted to reduce grain moisture.
Ukraine is a major global corn grower and exporter and harvested almost 42 million tonnes in 2021. This year, analysts say, the harvest could total 27.5 million to 27.9 million tonnes.
APK-Inform said in a report that the prospect for a large part of the corn crop to stay in fields this winter was “becoming more and more possible” due to low domestic prices, difficulties with field work caused by the war and high fuel prices.
The Ukrainian agriculture ministry said on Friday only 50% of the area sown for corn had been harvested as of Nov. 17, or 12.3 million tonnes.
The government has said Ukraine could harvest between 50 million and 52 million tonnes of grain this year, down from a record 86 million tonnes in 2021, because of the loss of land to Russian forces and lower yields.
Farmers have already completed the 2022 wheat and barley harvests, threshing 19.4 million and 5.6 million tons respectively. (Reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)
Farmland Values Hit Record Highs, Pricing Out Farmers
Linda Qiu – November 13, 2022
Joel Gindo thought he could finally own and operate the farm of his dreams when a neighbor put up 160 acres of cropland for sale in Brookings County, South Dakota, two years ago. Five thousand or six thousand dollars an acre should do the trick, Gindo estimated.
But at auction, Gindo watched helplessly as the price continued to climb until it hit $11,000 an acre, double what he had budgeted for.
“I just couldn’t compete with how much people are paying, with people paying 10 grand,” he said. “And for someone like me who doesn’t have an inheritance somewhere sitting around, a lump sum of money sitting around, everything has to be financed.”
What is happening in South Dakota is playing out in farming communities across the nation as the value of farmland soars, hitting record highs this year and often pricing out small or beginning farmers. In the state, farmland values surged by 18.7% from 2021 to 2022, one of the highest increases in the country, according to the most recent figures from the Agriculture Department. Nationwide, values increased by 12.4% and reached $3,800 an acre, the highest on record since 1970, with cropland at $5,050 an acre and pastureland at $1,650 an acre.
A series of economic forces — high prices for commodity crops like corn, soybeans and wheat; a robust housing market; low interest rates until recently; and a slew of government subsidies — have converged to create a “perfect storm” for farmland values, said Jason Henderson, a dean at the College of Agriculture at Purdue University and a former official at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Missouri.
As a result, small farmers like Gindo are now going up against deep-pocketed investors, including private equity firms and real estate developers, prompting some experts to warn of far-reaching consequences for the farming sector.
Young farmers named finding affordable land for purchase the top challenge in 2022 in a September survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition, a nonprofit group.
Already, the supply of land is limited. About 40% of farmland in the United States is rented, most of it owned by landlords who are not actively involved in farming. And the amount of land available for purchase is extremely scant, with less than 1% of farmland sold on the open market annually.
The booming housing market, among a number of factors, has bolstered the value of farmland, particularly in areas close to growing city centers.
“What we have seen over the past year or two was, when housing starts to go up with new building construction, that puts pressure on farmland, especially on those urban fringes,” Henderson said. “And that leads to a cascading ripple effect into land values even farther and farther away.”
Government subsidies to farmers have also soared in recent years, amounting to nearly 39% of net farm income in 2020. On top of traditional programs like crop insurance payments, the Agriculture Department distributed $23 billion to farmers hurt by President Donald Trump’s trade war from 2018 to 2020 and $45.3 billion in pandemic-related assistance in 2020 and 2021. (The government’s contribution to farm income decreased to 20% in 2021 and is forecast to be about 8% in 2022.)
Those payments, or even the very promise of additional assistance, increase farmland values as they create a safety net and signal that agricultural land is a safe bet, research shows.
“There’s an expectation in the market that the government’s going to play a role when farm incomes drop, so that definitely affects investment behavior,” said Jennifer Ifft, a professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University.
Eager investors are increasingly turning to farmland in the face of volatility in the stock and real estate markets. Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder and billionaire, is the biggest private farmland owner in the country and recently won approval to buy 2,100 acres in North Dakota for $13.5 million.
The number of private equity funds seeking to buy stakes in farmland has ticked higher, said Tim Koch, a vice president at an agricultural financial cooperative in the Midwest, Farm Credit Services of America. Pension funds also consider farmland a stable investment, Ifft said.
Farmers, too, have witnessed an influx of outside interest. Nathaniel Bankhead, who runs a farm and garden consulting business in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has banded with a group of other agricultural workers to save up to $500,000 to buy about 60 acres of land. For months, the collective has been repeatedly outbid by real estate developers, investors looking to diversify their portfolios and urban transplants with “delusional agrarian dreams,” he said.
“Places that I have looked at as potential farmland are being bought up in cash before I can even go through the process that a working-class person has to do to access land,” he said. “And the ironic thing is, those are my clients — like I get hired by them to do as a hobby what I’m trying to do as a livelihood. So it’s tough to watch.”
Bankhead characterized the current landscape as a form of “digital feudalism” for aspiring working farmers. Wealthy landowners drive up land prices, contract with agricultural designers like himself to enact their vision and then hire a caretaker to work the land — pricing out those very employees from becoming owners themselves.
“They kind of lock that person to this new flavor of serfdom where it’s, you might be decently paid, you’ve got access to it, but it will never be yours,” he said.
Unable to afford land in her native Florida, Tasha Trujillo recently moved her flower farm to South Carolina. Trujillo had grown cut flowers and kept bees on a parcel of her brother-in-law’s 5-acre plant nursery in Redland, a historically agricultural region in the Miami area, about 20 miles south of downtown.
When she sought to expand her farm and buy her own land, she quickly found that prices were out of reach, with real estate developers driving up land values and pushing out agriculture producers.
A 5-acre property in the Redlands now costs $500,000 to $700,000, Trujillo said. “So I essentially didn’t have a choice but to leave Miami and Florida as a whole.”
“Farming is a very stressful profession,” she added. “When you throw in land insecurity, it makes it 20 times worse. So there were many, many times where I thought, oh, my God, I’m not going to be able to do this. This isn’t feasible.”
As small and beginning farmers are shut out — the latest agricultural census said that the average age of farmers inched up to 57.5 — the prohibitively high land values may have ripple effects on the sector at large.
Brian Philpot, CEO of AgAmerica, an agricultural lending institution, said his firm’s average loan size had increased as farms consolidated, squeezing out family farms. This, he argued, could lead to a farm crisis.
“Do we have the skills and the next generation of people to farm it? And two, if the answer is going to be, we’re going to have passive owners own this land and lease it out, is that very sustainable?” he said.
Henderson also warned that current farmers may face increased financial risk as they seek to leverage their high farmland values, essentially betting the farm to expand it.
“They’ll buy more land, but they’ll use debt to do it,” he said. “They’ll stretch themselves out.”
Economists and lenders said farmland values appear to have plateaued in recent months, as the Federal Reserve raised interest rates and the cost of fertilizer and diesel soared. But with high commodity prices forecast for next year, some believe values will remain high.
A native of Tanzania who moved to South Dakota about a decade ago, Gindo bought 7 acres of land to raise livestock in 2019 and currently rents an additional 40 acres to grow corn and soybeans — all the while working full time as a comptroller to make ends meet.
For now, he has cooled off his search for a farm of his own even as he dreams of passing on that land to his son. The more immediate concern, he said, was whether his landlord would raise his rent. So far, the landlord has refrained because Gindo helps him out around the farm.
“He really doesn’t have to lend me his land,” Gindo said. “He can make double that with someone else.”
In Florida, Trujillo said, the owner of the land where her brother-in-law’s nursery sits has spoken of selling the plot while prices remain high, so he too has begun looking for his own property.
“That’s a big fear for a lot of these farmers and nursery owners who are renting land, because you just never know when the owner’s just going to say, ‘You know what, this year, I’m selling, and you’ve got to go,’” she said.
In Tennessee, Bankhead said he considered giving up on owning a farm “multiple times a day” as friends who have been longtime farmers leave the profession.
But so far, he remains committed to staying in the field and doing “the work of trying to keep land in families’ hands and showing there’s more to do with this land than to sell it to real estate developers,” he said. “But the pain of not having my own garden and not being able to have my animals where I live, it never stings any less.”
It’s an outrage that Saudis use Arizona’s water for free. I’ll work to stop it
Kris Mayes – November 4, 2022
Arizona should not be giving its water away to the Saudi Arabians, or anyone else for that matter. Yet, for the past seven years, the attorney general and governor have allowed a Saudi company to pump out more than $38 million worth of groundwater from La Paz County for free.
That’s right. Arizona is giving away its groundwater for nothing to one of the richest nations on Earth – and to the severe detriment of Arizonans.
It is an outrage and a scandal at a time when the Saudi government is deliberately raising the price of gasoline for U.S. citizens by cutting back OPEC oil supplies.
As attorney general, I will work to put an end to these sweetheart Saudi deals.
Below-market leases short Arizona schools
As first disclosed in The Arizona Republic last June, the State Land Department has leased state trust land to the Saudi-owned Fondomonte corporation for $25 per acre, so that the Saudi company could grow alfalfa and send it back to Saudi Arabia to feed that country’s cows.
More unbelievably, the state is allowing this company to pump groundwater for free. The $25/acre land lease is well below market rates, and the water being given away comes from the Butler Valley Basin and Vicksburg – areas that Arizona cities may very well need to rely on for their water needs in the near future.
To comply with the Gift Clause, a government expenditure must (1) serve a public purpose, and (2) the consideration the public has paid must not far exceed the value received.
As stated by the Arizona Supreme Court 38 years ago, the deal between the government and the private entity cannot be “so inequitable and unreasonable” that it amounts to providing a subsidy to the private party.
Giving away more than $38 million of groundwater for free is both inequitable and unreasonable. Agreeing to lease state land to a Saudi company for only one-sixth of the market price for similar land is probably inequitable and unreasonable as well. Pursuant to the Arizona Constitution, money that is generated from state trust land leases must go to benefit Arizona K-12 schools.
Wells are going dry, complaints unanswered
Four months ago, the La Paz County supervisors filed a complaint with Attorney General Mark Brnovich concerning the below-market Fondomonte lease and the groundwater giveaway. To date, Brnovich has done nothing, not even respond to the county supervisors.
Moreover, several years ago, more than 500 La Paz County residents signed a petition that they hand-delivered to Gov. Doug Ducey’s advisers, voicing their outrage about the free groundwater giveaway.
Recently, I traveled to Vicksburg and met with La Paz County Supervisor Holly Irwin, who showed me the Fondomonte farm in that western Arizona community. Alfalfa fields stretch for miles, and commercial wells can be seen from the road gushing the state’s precious and irreplaceable water at thousands of gallons per minute.
Irwin also took me to a nearby Baptist church whose well has been dewatered. She told me that many of her constituents living around the Fondomonte farms have had their wells sucked dry by the Saudi-owned farms.
Records at the Department of Water Resources show that the Saudis are drilling deeper and deeper wells, which will likely cause residential wells to go dry.
During my first week as attorney general, I will request an auditor general’s audit of all industrial-scale leases of state trust land where water is being pumped to determine if the rates are below market and how much school funding has been lost as a result.
If such abuses have occurred, I will work to ensure that the companies are required to restore the proper funding to the state and our schools.
I will also proactively advise the Arizona State Land Department on an ongoing basis that leasing water at rates that are significantly below market rates could represent a violation of the state’s Gift Clause and that the leaseholders could face efforts to recover undercharges in the future.
Arizona’s water supplies have never been more threatened.
Lakes Mead and Powell are less than 150 feet from “dead pool” status and hydrologists believe they will hit dead pool sometime in 2023. It is time for Arizona’s leaders to act like they care about Arizona more than a country thousands of miles away that is trying to harm America.
I will do that as Arizona’s next attorney general.
Kris Mayes is the Democratic candidate for Arizona attorney general. She served two terms on the Arizona Corporation Commission.
Big agriculture warns farming must change or risk ‘destroying the planet’
Dominic Rushe – November 2, 2022
Food companies and governments must come together immediately to change the world’s agricultural practices or risk “destroying the planet”, according to the sponsors of a report by some of the largest food and farming businesses released on Thursday.
The report, from a taskforce within the Sustainable Markets Initiative (SMI), a network of global CEOs focused on climate issues established by King Charles III, is being released days before the start of the United Nation’s Cop27 climate summit in Egypt.
Many of the world’s largest food and agricultural businesses have championed sustainable agricultural practices in recent years. Regenerative farming practices, which prioritize cutting greenhouse gas emissions, soil health and water conservation, now cover 15% of croplands.- ADVERTISEMENT -https://s.yimg.com/rq/darla/4-10-1/html/r-sf-flx.html
But the pace of change has been “far too slow”, the report finds, and must triple by 2030 for the world to have any chance of keeping temperature rises under 1.5C, a level that if breached, scientists argue, will unleash even more devastating climate change on the planet.
The report is signed by Bayer, Mars, McCain Foods, McDonald’s, Mondēlez, Olam, PepsiCo, Waitrose and others. They represent a potent political and corporate force, affecting the food supply chain around the world. They are also, according to critics, some of those most responsible for climate mismanagement with one calling the report “smoke and mirrors” and unlikely to address the real crisis.
Food production is responsible for a third of all planet-heating gases emitted by human activity and a number of the signatories have been accused of environmental misdeeds and “greenwashing”. Activist Greta Thunberg is boycotting Cop this year having called the global summit a PR stunt “for leaders and people in power to get attention”.
“We are at a critical tipping point where something must be done,” said the taskforce chair and outgoing Mars CEO, Grant Reid. “The interconnection between human health and planetary health is more evident than ever before.” Big food companies and agriculture must play a big part in changing that, said Reid. “It won’t be easy but we have got to make it work,” he said.
Agriculture is the world’s largest industry. Pasture and cropland occupy around 50% of the planet’s habitable land and uses about 70% of fresh water supplies. The climate crisis is challenging the industry across the world but the group’s call for change comes as the industry – which employs 1 billion people – is facing supply chain issues in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and soaring inflation. It also comes amid mounting skepticism about promises to change from companies that have contributed to climate change.
These current issues must not detract from the need for change, the report argues. “With the inflationary environment and widespread supply chain disruption, it would be easy to reduce our focus on the longer-term challenge of scaling regenerative farming. But we believe it’s vital we maintain a sense of urgency. We must take action now to avoid more acute crises in the future,” its authors write.
Sunny George Verghese, chief executive of Olam, one of the world’s largest suppliers of cocoa beans, coffee, cotton and rice, said: “We cannot continue to produce and consume food and feed and fiber in the way we are doing today unless we don’t mind destroying the planet.
“The only way out for us is how we transition to a more resilient food system that will allow us to meet the needs of a growing population without the resource intensity we have today.”
The report studied three food crops, potatoes, rice and wheat, and has made policy recommendations it will present at Cop27.
The taskforce’s members are working to make the short-term economic case for change more attractive to farmers. “It’s just not compelling enough for the average farmer,” said Reid. More widely the report argues industry and government must also work harder to address the knowledge gap and make sure farmers are following best practices. Third, all parties involved in the agriculture industry from farmers to food producers to government, banks and insurers need to align behind encouraging a shift to more sustainable practices.
“It involves change for all the players including the government, private, public companies and others. No one player can do this on their own, this has to be a collaboration of the willing. What needs to happen now is action and delivery,” said Reid.
Over the next six months, the group will assess how they can spread the taskforce’s work with the aim of establishing a common set of metrics for measuring environmental outcomes, establishing a credible system of payments for farmers for environmental outcomes, easing the cost of farmers transitioning to sustainable practices, ensuring government policy rewards farmers for greening their business and encouraging the sourcing of crops from particular areas converting to regenerative farming.
Devlin Kuyek, a researcher at Grain, a non-profit organization that works to support small farmers, said it was increasingly difficult for big agricultural and food companies to ignore climate change. “But I don’t think any of these companies – say a McDonald’s – has any commitment to curtail the sales of highly polluting products. I don’t think PepsiCo is going to say the world doesn’t need Pepsi.”
Kuyek pointed out that Yara, another signatory to the report, is the world’s largest supplier of nitrogen-based fertilizers, “which are responsible for one out of every 40 tonnes of greenhouse gas emitted annually”.
“It’s pretty disingenuous,” said Kuyek. “Small, local food systems still feed most of the people on the planet and the real threat is that the industrial system is expanding at the expense of the truly sustainable system. Corporations are creating a bit of smoke and mirrors here, suggesting they are part of the solution when inevitably they are part of the problem.”
Considering the controversial histories of some of the companies involved in the report, Verghese said he expected criticism and scrutiny. “All companies have to stand up to the scrutiny of being attacked if there is real greenwashing. There is no place to hide,” he said. “As far as Olam is concerned we are very clear on our targets, we have had the confidence to make these targets public. All of us have progressed along the sustainable journey. It is not that we have not made mistakes in the past but as we have become better at this we are willing to be subject to scrutiny.”
Both Reid and Verghese said the scale of the issues the world’s food supply is facing cannot be underplayed but that more governments and companies were becoming convinced of the need for urgent change. “I believe change can be made,” said Verghese. “I am optimistic. The fact that these kinds of coalitions are emerging is very positive. We are all otherwise very strong rivals and competitors. We hate each other’s guts, we don’t come together on anything unless there is a huge crisis. Everyone is recognizing there is a huge crisis. We need to come together.”
He was accused of stealing huge amounts of water over 23 years. Here’s why no one noticed
Dale Kasler, Ryan Sabalow – November 1, 2022
California’s water police struggle to track where water is flowing and whether someone is taking more than they’re supposed to.
A criminal case unfolding in the San Joaquin Valley underscores how the federal government seems to have similar problems.
Prosecutors say they uncovered a massive water theft that went on for 23 years without anyone noticing.
Earlier this year a federal grand jury indicted Dennis Falaschi, the former general manager of the Panoche Water District in the western San Joaquin Valley, on charges of conspiracy, theft of government property and filing false tax returns.
Falaschi’s alleged crime stemmed from the federal government’s operation of the Central Valley Project, the system of reservoirs and canals that dates to President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.
According to prosecutors, Falaschi engineered a brazen scheme to steal $25 million worth of water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, operator of the Central Valley Project. More specifically, Falaschi stands accused of having his underlings siphon water from the Delta-Mendota Canal, the main conduit for delivering federal water to farms along the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and part of Silicon Valley.
He then billed Panoche customers for this stolen water and used the proceeds to pay “himself and other co-conspirators exorbitant salaries, fringe benefits and personal expense reimbursements,” the indictment says.
How Panoche Water District legal trouble started
Falaschi’s legal troubles began in 2017, when the state controller’s office released an audit showing that the financial controls at Panoche were too lax. Among other things, staffers were allowed to use district credit cards to buy Oakland A’s and Raiders season passes, and tickets to a Katy Perry concert.
A month later, Falaschi left Panoche. Then in 2018 the state attorney general’s office charged him and three other former district employees with embezzling $100,000 from Panoche and illegally burying toxic chemicals on district property. Prosecutors said Falaschi allegedly used the embezzled funds to buy a pair of slot machines and some kitchen appliances, among other things. That case is still pending.
The latest indictment covers a scheme that, according to prosecutors, began in 1992 and wasn’t discovered until April 2015 when a canal maintenance worker saw a whirlpool above the equipment that prosecutors say Falaschi had hidden in the canal to siphon off the water.
The theft lasted long enough to enable Falaschi to grab a total of 130,000 acre-feet of water — enough to fill about 13% of Folsom Lake, prosecutors said.
Last year district officials made a civil settlement over the missing water, agreeing to pay $7.5 million to the federal government and another $1 million to an umbrella agency, the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which buys water from the feds.
The indictment came months after the civil settlement. The grand jury says Falaschi had several of his employees install a valve mechanism in the canal — submerged below the water line — near the district’s headquarters in Firebaugh.
Falaschi, who now lives in Aptos, could receive up to 24 years in prison if convicted.
He has pleaded innocent to the criminal charges. In a statement, his Fresno lawyer Marc Days blasted the feds for prosecuting Falaschi “over a leak from the government’s rotted pipe which the government failed to repair,” and for relying on the statements of “unreliable and incompetent witnesses motivated by their own self-interest.”
Days said the amount of water the federal government accuses Falaschi of taking pales in comparison to some of the other leaks from the same canal.
He said area farm districts receive “massive amounts of unmetered water,” including one leak that Days alleges siphons off 200 cubic feet a second, an amount that in a year would surpass the water prosecutors allege Falaschi stole over those two decades. The federal government, Days claims, has known about the problems but fails to do anything to prevent them.
Mary Lee Knecht, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation, declined comment because of the pending case.
Why missing water goes undetected
Falaschi’s successor at Panoche, Ara Azhderian, said it’s no secret that water goes missing throughout the Delta-Mendota system. Evaporation alone takes a significant toll, he said.
In fact, Azhderian said Falaschi’s alleged scheme likely went unnoticed for so long due to the sheer size of the Delta-Mendota Canal and the volume of water it delivers.
Two million acre-feet of water moves through the canal in a typical year, and the canal is nearly 117 miles long.
“When you think about the system and how long it is, how big it is,” he said, “… it was such a small amount in the scheme of things as to be undetectable.”
Others say the problems along the canal — whether through massive leaks or by alleged thefts — highlight just how difficult it is to keep tabs on the state’s most precious resource.
“We really don’t know where our water is going,” said Jeffrey Mount, a water expert at the Public Policy Institute of California. “Where it really breaks down for us now is in this ever-tightening water world where we’re having to deal with less. Major chunks of it, we don’t know where it goes and who’s using how much.”
How unhealthy is red meat? And how beneficial is it to eat vegetables? A new rating system could help you cut through the health guidelines
Aleksandr Aravkin, Associate Professor of Applied Mathematics, University of Washington, Jeffrey Stanaway, Assistant Professor of Global Health and Health Metrics Sciences, University of Washington, and Christian Razo, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington – October 21, 2022
We developed a new method for assessing health risks that our research suggests should make it a lot easier for people to determine which health advice to follow – and which to ignore. The approach, recently published in the journal Nature Medicine, offers a straightforward way for both policymakers and the general public to assess the strength of evidence for a given health risk – like consuming red meat – and the corresponding outcome – ischemic heart disease – using a rating system of one to five stars.
The system we developed is based on several systematic reviews of studies regarding risk factors like smoking and health outcomes such as lung cancer. Well-established relationships between risks and outcomes score between three and five stars, whereas cases in which research evidence is lacking or contradictory garner one to two stars.
In our analysis, only eight of the 180 pairs that we analyzed received the top rating of five stars, indicating very strong evidence of association. The relationship between smoking and lung cancer, as well as the relationship between high systolic blood pressure – the higher of the two numbers in a blood pressure reading – and ischemic heart disease were among those eight five-star pairs.
This rating system enables consumers to easily identify how harmful or protective a behavior may be and how strong the evidence is for each risk-outcome pair. For instance, a consumer seeing a low star rating can use that knowledge to decide whether to shift a health habit or choice.
While the visualization tool provides a nuanced understanding of risk across the range of blood pressures, the five-star rating signals that the overall evidence is very strong. As a result, this means that clear guidelines can be given on the importance of controlling blood pressure.
Why it matters
Clear messages and evidence-based guidance regarding healthy behaviors are crucial. Yet health guidance is often contradictory and difficult to understand.
Currently, most epidemiological analyses make strong assumptions about relationships between risks and health outcomes, and study results often disagree as to the strength of risk-outcome relationships. It can be confusing for experts and nonexperts alike to parse through conflicting studies of varying strength of results and determine if a lifestyle change is needed.
This is where our method comes in: The star-based rating system can offer decision-makers and consumers alike much-needed context before headline-grabbing health guidance is dispensed and adopted.
For example, the average risk of ischemic heart disease with a blood pressure of 165 mmHG – or millimeters of mercury, the basic unit used for measuring pressure – is 4.5 times the risk of the disease with blood pressure of 100 mmHG; but this is just a single estimate. The relative risk of ischemic heart disease increases by more than four times across the blood pressure range, and there is inherent uncertainty in the estimate based on available data. The rating of five stars incorporates all of this information, and in this case means that relative risk of ischemic heart disease across the entire range of exposures increases by at least 85%.
On the other hand, take the example of red meat consumption. Consuming 100 grams of red meat per day – as opposed to none – results in a very modest (12%) increase in risk for ischemic heart disease. That’s why it scores a rating of just two stars, consistent with only a weak association.
People should be well aware of their levels of exposure to risks classified with three to five stars, such as systolic blood pressure. By monitoring and keeping one’s blood pressure as low as possible, a person can substantially reduce the risk of developing ischemic heart disease.
Our hope is that decision-makers will be able to use our star rating system to create informed policy recommendations that will have the greatest benefits for human health. We also hope the public can use the ratings and the visualization tool as a way to more clearly understand the current level of knowledge for different pairs of health risks and outcomes.
Jeffrey Stanaway receives funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Aleksandr Aravkin and Christian Razo do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
It may be impossible to completely avoid PFAS, but there are a few simple ways to reduce your exposure.
Eating at home, ditching nonstick pans and unnecessary carpets, and filtering your water can help.
Hazardous, long-lasting “forever chemicals” are all over the news lately, and they’re all over our day-to-day environments too.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, is a class of thousands of man-made substances that are common in everyday objects, but research is making it increasingly clear that they may be harmful to human health. Peer-reviewed studies have linked them to some cancers, decreased fertility, thyroid disease, and developmental delays.
That’s bad news since PFAS last for decades without breaking down, earning them the “forever chemicals” nickname. Researchers have found them in drinking water and household dust across the planet, in the oceans, at both poles, and drifting through the atmosphere.
In a paper published last month, leading researchers at the University of Stockholm concluded that all the planet’s rainwater, and probably all of its soil, are contaminated with unsafe levels of PFAS. Ian Cousins, who spearheaded that research, fears it’s impossible to avoid the chemicals.
“I don’t bother,” Cousins told Insider, adding, “It’s almost mission impossible. You can’t really do it.”
Even if you can’t completely dodge PFAS, there are a few easy ways to reduce exposure in your daily life.
Eat at home, with minimal grease-resistant packaging
PFAS were developed in the 1940s to resist heat, grease, stains, and water. That means they’ve ended up in a lot of food packaging. That includes pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, some wrappers, and grease-resistant paper.
Restaurants and fast-food chains may use such packaging more than grocery stores do. A 2019 study found that people had lower PFAS levels in their blood after eating at home, and higher levels after eating fast food or at restaurants.
Throw out scratched nonstick pans
The coating used in nonstick cookware usually contains PFAS, and they can easily leach into your food at high heat and once the coating gets scratched.
The Washington Department of Ecology advises against heating nonstick cookware above 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and recommends throwing it out once the nonstick coating scratches. Cast-iron pans are a safe alternative.
Ditch your carpet and stain-resistant fabrics
Other household items like carpeting, water-resistant clothing, and stain-resistant treatments for fabrics can also contain PFAS. Researchers don’t think the chemicals can easily absorb into your body through your skin, but those fabrics shed fibers that can travel through the house as dust, eventually getting ingested or inhaled.
Vacuum, dust, and open the windows
PFAS accumulate in dust, which lingers in the air and allows humans to breathe the chemicals into their lungs. By dusting and vacuuming regularly, along with opening windows to allow for airflow and ventilation, you can keep dust levels low in your home and reduce the amount of PFAS you inhale.
Test and maybe treat your drinking water
You can test your water for PFAS through a laboratory certified by your state. If the water exceeds guidelines, you may want to consider doing something about it, especially if you have children.
Even at very low levels, exposure to two of the most common PFAS — called PFOA and PFOS — has been linked to decreased vaccine response in children. That research prompted the US Environmental Protection Agency to revise its drinking-water guidelines, decreasing the safe levels of those substances by a factor of 17,000. In August, the agency issued a proposal to classify those two PFAS as hazardous substances.
A few types of water filters can diminish PFAS levels, though they may not completely remove the chemicals from the water. State environmental departments recommend filtration systems that use reverse osmosis for tap water. They also recommend filter systems that use granular activated carbon (aka charcoal), which can be installed on faucets house-wide or used in a tabletop pitcher, but a 2020 study found mixed results from those systems.
If you get your drinking water from a well, the EPA recommends testing it regularly and contacting your state environmental or health agency for certified labs and safety standards.
Check before you buy cosmetics
Last year, a group of researchers published the results of testing 231 cosmetic products in the US and Canada for PFAS. More than half the products contained indicators of the chemicals.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a public, searchable database of cosmetics and personal-care products, highlighting ingredients with potential risks to human health, such as PFAS like Teflon. They also maintain a map where you can check if you live near a PFAS contamination site.
Ultimately, Cousins said, people don’t need to be “super worried” about low-level exposure, since there’s no strong evidence of major health impacts across the population. Still, reducing PFAS use in consumer products could keep the problem from getting worse in the future.
“I think we should use this to get a bit angry about what’s happened and try and make change, so that we don’t keep doing this,” Cousins said. “Maybe we have to use [PFAS] in some cases, but only when they’re absolutely essential. And then we should also try to innovate, to try and replace them in the longer term.”