Thirsty son of a…

Photo courtesy the National Park Service

An anonymous caller the other day claimed that star thistle — scourge of scourges, among the worst of weeds — sucks up 1 million acre-feet of water a year statewide, an amount nearly one-quarter the capacity of Lake Shasta.

That couldn’t be right. Could it?

I asked Joseph DiTomaso, a U.C. Davis weed scientist. He said in an email that star thistle does, indeed, “significantly alter water cycles and deplete soil moisture reserves… in California,” and that a 2004 study found that the weed probably sucks up about 46,000 acre-feet in the Sacramento River watershed annually. The economic loss? About $16 million to $75 million.

I don’t know if anyone has tried to quantify star thistle’s impact in other watersheds. Sounds to me like the guy who called was a mite overly excited.

Still, 46,000 acre-feet in the Sacramento River watershed alone is a lot of water. By comparison, in 2010, homes and businesses in the Stockton metropolitan area guzzled about 58,000 acre-feet of water. So, that damn weed is almost as thirsty as this entire city.

Of course star thistle causes all sorts of other problems, too. It’s toxic to horses and crowds out important native plants.

Here’s what you can do about it (see page 3).

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Questions over acquiring land for twin tunnels

Delta advocates want more details about the mysterious “property acquisition plan” (part 1, part 2) that received quite a bit of attention last week.

In a letter to state and federal officials on Thursday, the Local Agencies of the North Delta asked loads of questions about the origin of the document and what it might mean for Delta property owners whose farms lie within the footprint of Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed twin tunnels.

Among other concerns, the group said that the existence of such a plan while the environmental review process is still underway suggests that alternatives are not being seriously considered. The plan “is concerning on many levels,” the group said.

The extent to which the contents of the plan remain relevant is subject to debate, however.

The document itself is undated. State officials say they didn’t even have it until tunnels opponents recently obtained it from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and posted it online.

Apparently the document dates back to August 2014 and is “very similar” to a 2013 document that was based on discussions starting in 2012, said Nancy Vogel, a spokeswoman for the state’s Natural Resources Agency.

In other words, it’s dated. The tunnels plan has since been tweaked to reduce impacts in the Delta; the “new” document doesn’t reflect that, the state says. (In fact, the document refers to the tunnels project as the “Bay Delta Conservation Plan,” a moniker that as of last spring is no longer the formal name.)

While the acquisition plan lists 300 properties as potentially being impacted by the project, state officials say the current, up-to-date number is 192 properties.

And the implication that hundreds of farms would be taken in their entirety through eminent domain is also inaccurate, the state says. (“State plans to take hundreds of Delta farms” was the headline in an Associated Press story that appeared in Tuesday’s Record.)

About 70 or the 192 properties are “impacted” only in the sense that easements would be required to build the tunnels beneath those properties. For those 70 properties, there would be no disruption on the land surface.

As for the others, according to a fact sheet provided by the state, “most of the parcels with potential surface impacts would involve a partial acquisition, not a complete parcel acquisition.”

Those clarifications aside, Osha Meserve — an attorney with the LAND group — told me Friday that the document remains relevant because the fundamental nature of the tunnels project hasn’t changed.

“There are some different properties, perhaps, but it’s pretty much the same,” she said.

And if nothing else, the mere existence of the document is a reminder to Delta residents that after four decades of talk about some kind of “isolated conveyance” through or around the Delta, the idea, at this point, is far more than just conceptual.

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S.J. County still in hot groundwater, state says

Purple = bad.

Groundwater in east San Joaquin County remains “critically overdrafted,” state officials announced this week.

That means, according to a report presented to the California Water Commission, that the area shows “obvious and significant negative impacts from chronic groundwater pumping.”

The label is nothing new. San Joaquin County was first declared to be “critically overdrafted” in 1980.

But county officials were hoping to be taken off of a list that also includes most of the rest of the San Joaquin Valley. Much has changed since 1980, they say; more river water has been brought to the county, and at least some pressure has been taken off of local groundwater supplies.

Brandon Nakagawa, the county’s water resources coordinator, called the state’s decision “curious.”

“There’s been a lot of good work done. Do we need to do more? Yes,” he said.

The practical effect of the state’s designation on Wednesday is that under new groundwater laws approved last year, water leaders in San Joaquin County must now write a “groundwater sustainability plan” by 2020. That’s two years earlier than counties whose groundwater basins are considered by the state to be in better condition.

Nakagawa said the county should be able to meet the tighter timeline.

“We should be doing that anyway,” he said.

He said he knows of no other consequence to being considered “critically overdrafted.”

Local water officials who disagree with the state’s findings can submit information stating their case, said Mary Scruggs, a supervising engineering geologist with the state Department of Water Resources. The list that came out on Wednesday is just a draft, she said.

There are still large gaps in data and information about groundwater, so all groundwater basins that were considered critically overdrafted in 1980 were carried over onto the new list, Scruggs said.

The onus is on the local regions to demonstrate why they should no longer be considered as such, she said.

“We don’t have reasons to say we should take them off” the list, Scruggs said.

It’s long been recognized that groundwater is a problem in San Joaquin County, but the acquisition of water from New Melones Lake, the construction of Stockton’s Delta drinking water plant and other improvements have helped alleviate the demand. In fact, county officials recently began to say that the county’s groundwater has reached a kind of fragile equilibrium; it declines during dry years like this one, but recovers during wet years, and therefore showing some stability over the long run, they say.

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El Niño. What’s it mean for Stockton?

So, yeah, you’ve heard. There’s a big El Niño brewing out in the Pacific Ocean.

I tried the other day to explain what this might mean for Stockton. “Speculate” might be a better word. Because in the end, all we can do is look back in time and guess.

Here, then, is how Stockton fared during every official El Niño since the mid-20th century.You’ll see that despite the hype, El Niños have been associated with floods and droughts and everything in between.

In fact, there’s not much of a pattern until you get into “strong” and “very strong” El Niño events. With one exception, those were wet years in Stockton; in two cases, we finished at least 200 percent of normal.

And therein lies our hope. After all, this year’s El Niño is supposed to be a biggie.

Then again, 65 years is not a very large sample size.

All precip totals here correspond to official readings at the Stockton Metropolitan Airport. Special thanks to longtime Bay Area meteorologist Jan Null, whose website is a wealth of El Niño info.

 

Weak El Niño

1951-52: 18.22 inches, 133 percent of normal

1952-53: 11.79 inches, 86 percent of normal

1953-54: 10.33 inches, 75 percent of normal

1958-59: 10.28 inches, 75 percent of normal

1968-69: 21.87 inches, 160 percent of normal

1969-70: 16.38 inches, 120 percent of normal

1976-77: 6.33 inches, 46 percent of normal

1977-78: 18.4 inches, 134 percent of normal

1979-80: 12.41 inches, 91 percent of normal

2004-05: 18.38 inches, 134 percent of normal

2006-07: 7.9 inches, 58 percent of normal

 

Moderate El Niño

1963-64: 10.04 inches, 73 percent of normal

1986-87: 9.82 inches, 72 percent of normal

1987-88: 9.98 inches, 73 percent of normal

1991-92: 12.07 inches, 88 percent of normal

1994-95: 17.81 inches, 130 percent of normal

2002-03: 12.11 inches, 88 percent of normal

2009-10: 14.42 inches, 105 percent of normal

 

Strong El Niño

1957-58: 22.75 inches, 166 percent of normal

1965-66: 11.09 inches, 81 percent of normal

1972-73: 23.95 inches, 175 percent of normal

 

Very strong El Niño

1982-83: 27.89 inches, 204 percent of normal

1997-98: 27.5 inches, 201 percent of normal

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Calaveras County, conservation kings

While Stockton snagged local headlines for its 41 percent reduction in water use in June, it was the Calaveras County Water District that achieved the lowest per-capita water use — a thrifty 57 gallons per person per day, lower than any other major water supplier in the San Joaquin River watershed.

Fifty-five gallons per day is generally considered the standard for indoor water use alone. So that gives you some idea how well the folks up in the Lode have been doing.

And what, exactly, are they doing that the rest of us aren’t?

It’s hard to tell. The water district’s water conservation ordinance isn’t all that different from others in the region, though it does contain two interesting provisions: One requiring commercial landscapes, schools and parks to reduce water use by 35 percent, and one requiring that potable water delivered to golf courses be used only for tees and greens, and only if those golf courses have maximized their use of recycled water.

District spokesman Joel Metzger also described an aggressive water conservation campaign which he says contributed to the region’s “incredible” effort.

“I attended just about every community meeting I could and spoke about drought and water conservation,” Metzger told me in an email.

The district also partnered with local hardware stores to distribute water conservation supplies, like faucet aerators and low-flow showerheads. Lots of water districts offer such supplies free of charge, but customers often have to take the initiative to call and request them. Making them easily available in hardware stores seems like a good step.

Calaveras also seems to be approaching the drought from more of a regional standpoint, putting together a nifty website that addresses the whole county. Then again, so did San Joaquin.

Finally, how the district calculated its per-capita usage also comes into play. Metzger says the district made two adjustments. First, it ignored “non-revenue” water that never makes it to customers and therefore, Metzger said, shouldn’t be counted against them. These are things like leaks, water used to flush pipes, and water used for firefighting. Not counting that water brings down the county’s overall water usage as reported to the state.

Second, Calaveras factored out some of its seasonal population — chiefly, people who visit vacation homes during the summer. That lowered its population as reported to the state, and therefore its gallons-per-person number. Many water districts didn’t take that step, which could also help explain why the Calaveras numbers are so low compared to others.

In the end, it’s tough to make comparisons, tempting as it is. Microclimate, methodology, demographics, the socioeconomics of very different communities — there are plenty of factors that could influence per-capita water usage. And I’m not about to pretend like I’m smart enough to figure it all out.

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Less conflict, more cooperation

At the close of a groundwater meeting on Wednesday, San Joaquin County Supervisor Chuck Winn offered some thoughts about working with, and not against, the south San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. He didn’t give much in the way of specifics, but here’s some of what he said:

“I continue to think this (water) problem is wider than our basins and wider than our county…

“I think (there are) opportunities down the road that we may want to explore with some other entities south of us that may be interested. Because if they’re not willing to fund the twin tunnels – who knows what’s going to happen with that — but maybe we can talk to them…

“The question is, can we discuss at least the opportunity that may arise in sharing, as opposed to what I’ve seen in the past — just constant battle and conflict between the north and the south…

“It is a sensitive issue but I think there are solutions that have not been discussed.”

 

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Forward progress on Bellota Weir?

Juvenile steelhead found in pools near Wilson Way. File photo by the Fishery Foundation of California.

It looks like the Stockton East Water District is preparing to apply for grant funding to improve fish passage at the Bellota Weir, on the Calaveras River east of Stockton.

The Calaveras has the potential to provide quality habitat for threatened steelhead. But the best habitat is upstream of Bellota Weir, the largest in a series of obstacles that fish must navigate to get where they need to go.

Talk of improving Bellota goes back at least a decade. Now, according to a memorandum discussed at last week’s Stockton East meeting, the district is eyeing potential state funding through the new voter-approved water bond — specifically, a share of the $372 million that will be doled out by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Sounds like any application would have to be made quickly. Grant proposals are due by late August or early September, the memo says.

Stockton East staff recommended that Fishbio, a company that consults with water districts on fish issues, help write the proposal because of its longstanding relationship with the district and the fish and flow data that it already has at its fingertips.

We’ll see what comes out of this. According to minutes from last week’s meeting, improving fish passage at Bellota will be a required component of the district’s long-delayed habitat conservation plan on the Calaveras. So it’ll have to be done, with or without funding. And from Stockton East’s perspective, I’m certain, the former is the preferred alternative.

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Stan River standard to be relaxed; could be ‘catastrophic,’ enviros warned

New Melones Dam, shown during better hydrologic times, impounds New Melones Lake on the Stanislaus River. Photo by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

State officials will allow water quality in the Stanislaus River to deteriorate in order to hold back more water for later in upstream New Melones Reservoir.

The decision this week by the executive officer of the State Water Resources Control Board comes despite an earlier warning from environmentalists that lower levels of dissolved oxygen “will be devastating to many species of fish that encounter such conditions” and “could cause a near or total failure of adult fall run salmon migration on the Stanislaus River and other tributaries of the San Joaquin.”

The decision on dissolved oxygen (“DO” for short) is just the latest in a series of similar relaxations of water quality standards across the Central Valley as officials chose between bad and worse actions during this fourth year of drought.

Officials have also temporarily weakened rules about how much water should be allowed to flow through the fragile Delta. And they are allowing warmer temperatures on the upper Sacramento River, which may jeopardize endangered winter-run Chinook salmon. This has all been done under emergency authority from Gov. Jerry Brown, bypassing the normal process required for such changes.

But back to the matter at hand: The Stanislaus River.

Just like humans, fish need oxygen to breathe. Theirs is dissolved in the water. Low DO, therefore, can be bad for fish.

Normally the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates New Melones as part of the Central Valley Project, must release enough water to achieve DO levels of at least 7.0 milligrams per liter on the Stanislaus River at Ripon. The new change will allow that number to fall to 5.0 mg/L through the end of November, a less ambitious target that allows the feds to release less water.

Tom Howard, executive officer of the water board, laid out New Melones’ sad condition in a document approving the plan. The reservoir is about 15 percent of capacity and 24 percent of normal, he wrote; things haven’t been this bad since the drought of the early 1990s.

Only about 300,000 acre-feet of water drained into the reservoir this year, the worst since New Melones was constructed in the 70s. And later this year the reservoir level may drop below the level required to run water through the power generators.

Farmers in the area are already receiving the lowest deliveries allowed under their contracts, and other more junior users — including the Stockton East Water District — didn’t get any New Melones water this year. In short, the feds say there is no way to meet DO requirements now and save water in the reservoir to help fish later this fall.

Howard agreed, finding there was an “urgent need” to weaken the standard, to “reserve critical water supplies that will be needed to provide minimal protection to the Stanislaus River fishery later in the year and for water supply purposes for various uses going into next year.” He acknowledged there will be impacts to fish, but said those impacts are “not unreasonable.” Some fish have likely already left the river; others will still be able to find suitable habitat farther upstream from Ripon, closer to New Melones, where DO levels will presumably be higher.

Howard did require Reclamation to write an operations plan for New Melones for next year, in an effort to get ahead of the game should the drought persist.

In an earlier letter, however, environmental groups The Bay Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations warned that lowering the DO standard — combined with the weakening of other standards earlier this year — could have a “catastrophic effect.”

Reducing flows on the Stanislaus won’t just lower DO, they wrote. It will also warm river temperatures and reduce the quantity and quality of habitat for spawning.

And the impact could be felt downstream of the Stanislaus, on the San Joaquin River and in the south Delta. The San Joaquin already struggles with low DO levels in the Stockton Deep Water Channel; less freshwater contribution from the Stanislaus won’t help, the groups warned. And fish will be particularly vulnerable to any changes in DO, since the San Joaquin is already unusually warm and polluted this drought year.

Lowering DO levels below 7.0 could make fish less capable swimmers, the groups said. Dropping below 6.0 could interrupt their migrations altogether.

Ultimately, delivering even the minimum contractual amounts of water to Stanislaus River farmers was enough to deplete cold water stored behind the dam at New Melones, the environmentalists said.

“Neither Reclamation’s water rights nor the water rights held by other water users on the Stanislaus River entitle those users to further devastate native fish and other public trust resources at teh expense of all current and future Californians,” the groups concluded.

For its part, Stockton East supported the change, arguing in a July 13 letter that the 7.0 standard at Ripon is “contrary to the best available science” since cold-water fish are many miles upstream during the summer. Stockton East didn’t get any of its contracted water from New Melones this year, but every drop held back behind the dam this year is a drop that Stockton East might be able to get next year if the drought eases.

“This change will allow Reclamation maximum flexibility in the use of the very limited water supply,” wrote Stockton East attorney Karna Harrigfeld.

As for all of the other weakened standards, some environmental groups filed an appeal earlier this week while others — including Stockton-based California Sportfishing Protection Alliance — filed a lawsuit. In the latter case, filed at Alameda County Superior Court, CSPA argues that reservoirs for several years have been drawn down more than they’ve been replenished.

In this way, CSPA alleges, the operators of state and federal reservoirs “have refused to provide a margin of safety… to meet the state’s Mediterranean climate and over-subscribed water delivery system.”

Instead, water regulators “bail them out” by relaxing standards, the lawsuit says, while fish species, “hanging on the lip of extinction, pay the price.”

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Tunnels tune

Listen to the full audio of Stockton music teacher Jon Michelsen’s “public comment” from last week’s twin tunnels hearing in Sacramento:

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Word’s out on the Delta

Hat tip to Bill Wells for pointing out that the Delta is listed on TripAdvisor.

And, the reviews are favorable. Fifty of 53 commentators have rated the estuary as a “very good” or “excellent” destination.

The one “terrible” review appears to be based on — you guessed it — water quality.

Maybe recent efforts to promote the Delta as a destination are starting to pay off.

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    Alex Breitler

    A native of Benicia, he lives in Stockton with his wife, Ann, who forces him to go backpacking in the Sierra Nevada or Trinity Alps at every opportunity. He has been writing mostly about natural resources since 2003, first in Redding and now in ... Read Full
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