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Approval of Bee-Killing Pesticides Challenged in Court

Environmental and food safety groups yesterday challenged California’s illegal practice of approving new agricultural uses for neonicotinoid pesticides despite mounting evidence that the pesticides are devastating honey bees.

Pesticide Action Network, Center for Food Safety and Beyond Pesticides, represented by Earthjustice, filed the legal challenge in the California Superior Court for the County of Alameda, urging the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) to stop approving neonicotinoid pesticides pending its completion of a comprehensive scientific review of impacts to honeybees. The DPR began its scientific review in early 2009 after it received evidence that neonicotinoids are killing bees, but five years later, the DPR has yet to take meaningful action to protect bees.

Mounting scientific evidence shows that the widespread use of neonicotinoid pesticides is a leading cause of decline in honeybee populations.

Meanwhile, the DPR has continued to allow increased use of neonicotinoids in California. Yesterday’s lawsuit challenges the DPR’s June 13 decision to expand the use of two powerful neonicotinoid insecticides—sold under the trademarks Venom Insecticide and Dinotefuran 20SG —despite the agency’s still-pending review of impacts to pollinators. The case underscores these larger problems with the DPR’s unwillingness to comply with laws enacted to ensure that pesticides do not threaten human health, agriculture or the environment.

“State officials have approved pesticides time and time again, despite mounting scientific research and real-world evidence that neonicotinoids pose harm to bees,” said Paul Towers, organizing and media director for Pesticide Action Network. “With no action in sight, we must take the state to court to protect bees, beekeepers and our food system.”

A growing body of independent science links a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids (neonics) to bee declines, both alone and in combination with other factors like disease and malnutrition. Twenty-nine independent scientists conducted a global review of 800 independent studies and found overwhelming evidence of pesticides linked to bee declines. Oregon officials also determined the neonic dinotefuran was the cause of two massive bumblebee kills in the state last year. In February 2014, the groups submitted a letter calling on the California DPR not to allow greater use of this pesticide. 

“Unless halted, the use of these pesticides threatens not only the very survival of our pollinators, but the fate of whole ecosystems,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of Center for Food Safety. “Scientists have consistently documented widespread environmental contamination from neonicotinoids as they build up in our soil and waterways, especially in California. The DPR has a responsibility to step in and say no,” 

“Bee and other pollinator populations are declining at unprecedented rates,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides. “They cannot afford to be subject to a toxic treadmill that fails to consider the full spectrum of cumulative impacts and risks threatening their very existence. The treadmill must be stopped.”

“DPR has been saying for five years that neonicotinoid pesticides may be killing California’s honey bees, and yet the agency allows more and more of these pesticides to be used each year,” said Greg Loarie, an attorney at Earthjustice representing the groups who filed yesterday’s lawsuit. “It’s past time for DPR to fix its broken evaluation system and protect our bees and our agricultural economy. It obviously will take legal action to accomplish this.”

One in every three bites of food depends on bees for pollination, and the annual value of pollination services worldwide are estimated at more than $125 billion. In the U.S., pollination contributes $20-30 billion in agricultural production annually. And in California alone, almonds crops—entirely dependent on bees for pollination—are valued at more than $3 billion.

In December 2013, the European Union began a two-year moratorium on three of the most widely used neonicotinoids. Yet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, working in coordination with Canadian and California officials, has refused to take any action until at least 2018.

Disappointed with the lack of a clear timeline for evaluating the harms of the pesticides, California legislators are currently advancing a bill (AB 1789) that would compel the DPR to finish its review of neonicotinoids within the next two years. The bill will be taken up again when the legislature returns from recess in August.

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"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."

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On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."