Would you walk down this street?

"Walk more" billboard along East Market Street near Aurora Street

This photo begs the question: Would it be wise to create walkable communities before spending money to promote walking?

Moments before I snapped this picture of a larger-than-life San Joaquin County Supervisor Bob Elliott smiling down from a billboard, I watched as a little girl with a backpack carefully stepped across the mattress and box springs that blocked the sidewalk on Market Street just east of Aurora Street in downtown Stockton.

When it comes to walking this neighborhood, navigating discarded mattresses may be the least of the little girl’s problems. This is a rough part of town. Drug paraphernalia litters the gutters. Questionable characters inhabit the park across the street. Maybe a year ago, my car was broken into less than two blocks to the west.

Sure, there are sidewalks. But does that alone make this a walkable neighborhood?

Elliott serves on the governing board of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, which commonly uses billboards to advertise its clean-air mission. And the district’s efforts don’t end with PR: Policies require employers of a certain size to encourage carpooling and other clean-air habits. Developers are required to build homes in a way that encourages less driving and more walking.

Sadly, the corner of Market Street and Aurora Street is not a blank slate.

If people in this neighborhood walk the streets, my guess is it’s not because they want to. They walk because they don’t have a choice. This billboard is targeted toward those who drive, and all the outreach in the world might not be enough for them to step out of their vehicles — at least, not here.

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Meet the new neighbors; MWD comes to town

Polite pleasantries were exchanged. A chocolate brownie was offered as a “welcome to the neighborhood” gift.

But in the end, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s visit to the belly of the beast — i.e., downtown Stockton, where the Delta Protection Commission met on Thursday night — revealed few new insights about the southland’s recent purchase of 20,000 acres of land in the Delta.

Randy Record, chair of Metropolitan’s Board of Directors, acknowledged that portions of the land could help facilitate Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin tunnels project, which the commission opposes.

But he also said the islands might be even more important if the tunnels aren’t built. Possible uses include fortifying levees to protect L.A.’s water as it passes through the Delta, and restoring wildlife habitat in an effort to improve the Delta’s ecosystem.

Why would the Met care about the health of the Delta? Because the amount of water it can squeeze out of the estuary has been limited by the collapse of the environment.

“We need to help figure out what’s going on here as far as the ecosystem is concerned,” Record said. “We want to be part of a project that helps get things back on track.”

Little has changed since the $175 million purchase was consummated two months ago, he said. Metropolitan has not terminated any farming leases. The land manager who worked for the previous owner is still on the job.  “It’s business as usual,” Record said.

Asked by commissioners about property taxes, he said Metropolitan has “every intention” of paying them.

Steve Arakawa, the Met’s manager for Delta initiatives, said there is “no blueprint” for what to do with the islands. “We don’t have a master plan,” he said.

And, he said, Metropolitan doesn’t want to isolate itself from its new neighbors.

“We hope this is a start in terms of talking about these things,” he said.

Critics of the Met did some talking of their own on Thursday. Delta levee engineer Chris Neudeck asked the commission why Metropolitan did not support a recent bill to indefinitely extend state funding to bolster levees.

“Now that they bought four islands, why aren’t they participating as a good neighbor?” Neudeck said.

(Arakawa responded that Metropolitan opposed the bill because the district wants to see the state’s separate process to prioritize levee investments play out first.)

Others were skeptical that Metropolitan’s intentions were as benevolent as they sounded. A speaker, whose name I didn’t quite catch, began by saying he wanted to quote Mark Twain. Thankfully, it wasn’t the old “whiskey is for drinking” cliche that Twain may never even have uttered.

Instead, the quote was, “When somebody comes explicitly to do you good, you should run like hell.”

All in all, though, it was a civil, if not terribly enlightening, discussion. Solano County Supervisor Skip Thomson even brought a brownie for Record, the Metropolitan chairman. Record accepted it with thanks.

Alas, he took it for the road, leaving before he had a chance to hear public comments, much to the dismay of some Delta advocates.

They’d been hoping to get to know their new neighbor just a bit better.

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I’m ready for this — are you?

Snow falls on Sonora Pass today. Photo courtesy the Dodge Ridge Ski Area

Snow fell at Sonora Pass today, the first sandhill cranes have arrived in the Delta and the high temperature in Stockton is in the upper 70s.

If we haven’t turned the corner after another long summer, we’re darned close.

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The man who spread straw, and hope

Michael Kriletich in 2009

Calaveras County farmer and activist Michael Kriletich died a few days ago.

I’m hardly the one to write a news obituary about him. I only met Michael once, in fact. But the impression that he left with me — and the fact that I’d exchanged emails with him just a couple of weeks ago — left me stunned at his passing.

I met Michael last fall on a scarred and blackened hillside outside Mountain Ranch. He and his son, Sean, and a handful of other volunteers, were spreading straw to prevent erosion in the wake of the Butte Fire.

Most of the Butte Fire burned on private land. It was up to property owners to prevent erosion. But many, understandably, felt paralyzed in the wake of the fire. They didn’t know what to do next.

In stepped Michael and Sean. They secured the straw from a rice farmer in the Valley. They arranged for a trucker to pick it up for next to nothing. They stockpiled the straw in the fire area, and then the best part: They rolled up their sleeves, strapped on their boots, and got dirty.

Michael and I chatted while he tossed heavy bales of straw from the back of a pickup. He wasn’t a young man, and it was hard work. Not that he was complaining. Michael spent the time talking about the importance of saving the watershed, of preserving the soil before winter storms washed it into the river.

He also spoke poignantly of all of the people he had encountered while doing this work. Their stories. The carpenter who lost everything in the blaze, down to his very last hammer. The family who lost their stunning, Eden-like landscaping.

Despite the sad stories, Michael told me, he saw a lot of joy as well.

“People are so appreciative of it (the straw),” he said. “They say it gives them hope.”

Michael and the gang were still working when I left late that afternoon. By then the ash was smudged across their faces, broken only by tiny rivulets of sweat.

I hardly knew Michael, really. But I learned everything I needed to know about him that afternoon. The best part is that every town, every community has someone like that ready to step up during the darkest of days. And that should be a comfort to us all.

Michael Kriletich and friends spread straw on a Butte Fire-blackened hillside last fall.

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Ready, set, flow

Biologists check for salmon at the rotary screw trap on the Stanislaus River near Escalon. Record file photo

San Joaquin County is gearing up for the next big water tussle — new flow requirements on the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, including the Stanislaus.

By definition, if more water must stay in the river, then water users must take less. So you can see why this will be a big deal. KQED does a good job explaining.

I’ve been hearing these new rules are imminent, but I’ve also been hearing that for, like, two months. So who knows when we’ll actually see them.

Water users who may be harmed, however, are already stating their case — or certainly preparing to do so.

Last week, San Joaquin County’s water commission agreed to spend $20,000 for a consultant to study possible economic impacts. The consultant, Stratecon’s Rod Smith, perhaps better known as the “Hydrowonk,” is already doing such a study for neighboring Stanislaus County. San Joaquin will basically piggyback on that study.

Officials in Stanislaus are very worried about the new flow rules. In San Joaquin, the situation is a little different; we’re not all in the same boat, so to speak.

Many farmers on the east side of the county may stand to receive less river water from the Stanislaus. A number of local cities rely in part on the Stanislaus as well, including Escalon, Manteca, Tracy and Stockton (though the latter city is at the end of the line — Stockton hasn’t gotten a drop from the Stanislaus for the past two years).

On the other hand, any additional flows left in the river may benefit downstream farmers in the Delta, on the west side of the county. And any increase in water quality downstream could also help Stockton, since the city now draws a significant share of its drinking water from the estuary.

It’ll be interesting to see how hard San Joaquin County hits this issue, given the potential east-west divide. Though the $20,000 study was approved, three members of the commission abstained. That’s a bit unusual.

The South San Joaquin Irrigation District, which holds senior water rights on the Stanislaus, is also preparing for a fight. Last week, Fishbio, the fish consultants who work with the water district, announced that populations of rainbow trout (also known as steelhead, if they’re migratory) are at their lowest level in six years. That’s despite rules that took effect in 2009 that are supposed to help fish.

You can bet this will be a part of South San Joaquin’s case against the new flow standards.

For context, however, as my former colleague Dana Nichols reports, the farmers are the ones who divert most of the water that is available on the Stan.

Stay tuned. Eventually these rules will be issued. If not “imminently.”

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High Sierra helo rescue

Check out this helicopter rescue of a woman hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. The 66-year-old hiker was suffering symptoms of a stroke, but was able to activate a locator beacon indicating that she was in trouble, the Fresno Bee reported. The California Highway Patrol and the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office took it from there.

I’ve seen medical emergencies in the backcountry before. They’re scary. Without that beacon the patient in this case could have gone many hours or even days without treatment. A good reason to carry such a device, if you ask me.

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‘Still an opportunity’ to save the smelt?

Shortly before state water officials announced today that most urban water providers will no longer be subject to mandatory conservation targets, three environmental groups pleaded with the same panel for emergency flows through the Delta to prevent extinction of the smelt.

It’s normal for some smelt to die off this time of year as juveniles mature into adults, Jon Rosenfield, a conservation biologist with The Bay Institute, told the State Water Resources Control Board.

But something must be done to help a larger share of those babies make it to adulthood this year, he said. Most smelt live only one year, meaning every year is critical to the continuation of the species.

Additional flows would push saltwater back toward Suisun Bay. The smelt, which usually hang out near where freshwater meets saltwater, would head west and thus escape the predator-choked open channels of the interior Delta, among other benefits.

“There is still an opportunity to act to improve survival of this species,” Rosenfield told the board.

Despite understanding the need, water managers have allowed the saltier water to linger farther to the east this summer, the enviros say. And extra water that was promised for smelt about a month ago has not yet materialized.

Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council joined The Bay Institute in formally asking the water board last week for an emergency regulation that would increase Delta outflow to “avoid irreparable harm to the public trust.”

It is widely known that the smelt are close to disappearing from this planet. According to the environmentalists’ petition, the smelt was already at a record-low population in 2014; then, in 2015, the fish plummeted another 90 percent.

It’s unclear precisely where the proposed additional flows would come from. The environmentalists suggest tapping reservoirs other than Lake Shasta, whose supply is critical to keeping the Sacramento River cool for endangered winter-run salmon. They also suggest limiting downstream diversions and reducing exports from the Delta.

Their plan drew a stinging response last week from the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, a coalition of water districts that relies on Delta exports. The authority calls the concept of more Delta outflow a “more of the same” approach.

“Despite all of the sacrifice, billions of dollars spent, and millions of acre-feet of water dedicated to Delta smelt, their population decline continues unabated,” the statement says. “Farmers, fishermen, and environmentalists — everyone that truly cares about the status of our imperiled fisheries — should be furious. Decades old state and federal policies have failed and brought Delta smelt and salmon to the brink of extinction.”

On that last sentence, perhaps, some enviros and farmers can agree. But for vastly different reasons.

Water board officials said they will discuss the request.

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Tunnels hearing: The view from the cheap seats

Just for fun, here are a few random thoughts after the first three weeks of the water board’s twin tunnels hearing.

Disclaimer: I haven’t attended in person yet, and I’ve probably seen less than half of the hearing on webcast. Gotta have some time to actually report on this and other subjects.

That said, here goes:

1) Tam Doduc knows what she’s doing. Doduc, a longtime water board member, has the unenviable job of serving as the hearing officer — that is, as a sort of judge — in the tunnels case. She hears objections, occasionally poses her own questions, and keeps dozens of water attorneys in line which is no small feat. Doduc is a civil engineer by trade, not an attorney, but this is clearly not her first time presiding over a formal hearing.

2) Doduc doesn’t seem inclined to grant many of the numerous objections which state and federal attorneys have raised to questions posed by tunnels opponents. Lots of the stuff opponents bring up is irrelevant, the government attorneys argue, but Doduc’s philosophy seems to be, if in doubt, let them answer.

3) Never ask an engineer a question about modeling. Never ask an operations expert a question about engineering. Dozens — no, likely hundreds — of questions have been asked of witnesses who simply defer to other witnesses. And we wonder why this will take until February, or whenever.

4) Pity the poor court reporter who is attempting to keep a record. She’s the only one in the room who doesn’t know what “D-1641″ is, but she’s got to keep an accurate record of this and a zillion other nebulous terms. And then you get a guy like south Delta attorney John Herrick cruising along at 300 words per minute, and, well, like I said, pity the poor court reporter.

5) While some witnesses have been kept busy answering questions for days at a time, others must be dreadfully bored. State climatologist Michael Anderson has been sitting next to the other members of his witness panel since Wednesday, I think, but I’ve yet to hear him asked a single question. The other day, after sitting for hours, he got up and did some stretching exercises. I suppose it’s better to have a sore back after sitting so long than a sore throat after answering the same questions over and over again.

6) The chill saxophone tune played during breaks on the webcast is much nicer than the mindless repetitive music on Resources Agency press calls. Score one for Cal EPA.

7) I know less about the tunnels than I thought I did. And somehow, by the time this is over, I feel I’ll know even less. So why the heck am I watching? Because, once in a while, it is utterly fascinating.

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Whose logic is ‘nonsense?’

Got into a Twitter feud on Saturday night with someone who says my previous blog post, which attempts to put a human face on climate change in Stockton, is “nonsense.”

The post describes how a mentally disabled man who refused to use his air conditioner died in that monster 2006 heat wave.

It’s not that the commenter doesn’t believe in climate change, he went on to say. But in this case, the victim had access to air conditioning and declined to use it. Don’t blame global warming.

I don’t understand this logic. If the climate change-fueled heat wave hadn’t occurred, the air conditioner may not have been needed in the first place.

To be sure, absent climate change, there likely still would have been a heat wave. But it would have been less severe, scientists say. It’s possible Christopher Barron would have died anyway. We’ll never know.

But letting global warming off the hook because this man had an unfortunate disability is missing the bigger picture. It’s like blaming a fatal house fire on an elderly man’s inability to escape the flames, and ignoring the arsonist who set the blaze to begin with.

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Putting a human face on climate change crisis

Christopher Barron

For those who consider climate change to be a far-distant threat, or no threat at all, meet lifelong Stockton resident Christopher Barron.

He died 10 years ago today in the horrible 2006 heat wave that was exacerbated, at least, by global warming. At just 46 years old, he was one of the youngest victims in San Joaquin County.

Christopher was smart, a skilled musician and drummer who loved everything from Bach to the Beetles, his mother Leonora Barron told me last week.

And he was a devoted son, who talked to his mother almost every day and never forgot her birthday.

Christopher also suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder. Sometimes he would cross the street to avoid passing someone on the sidewalk. And if his feet got wet, he would point a hair dryer between each toe for a good 10 seconds to make sure he was perfectly dry.

He also sometimes refused to use his air conditioner because he believed it would release dust mites that would worsen his allergies.

And so it was, that after not hearing from her son for two days, Leonora stopped by his Pacific Avenue apartment after work. No one answered the door. She saw that a window was open, covered only by a screen. She looked inside, through the living room, and saw a pair of legs on the floor at the entrance to the bedroom.

She rushed next door, borrowed a kitchen knife and cut through the screen.

“I didn’t especially notice the heat,” Leonora said. “It was like I was walking or floating in a dream, trying to get there to the bedroom, not wanting to go there.”

He had been dead for some time, she said.

One decade later, Leonora thinks of Christopher every day. Especially when it’s hot.

“I still look for him,” she said. “That’s something you do when you lose someone. When I go places and see someone wearing a T-shirt of a color that he liked… I know it’s not him, but it’s very hard for a mother.

“It’s like you’re an amputee. Or a bird with a broken wing.”

Sometimes she second-guesses herself, thinking she should have been more aware of his vulnerabilities. But she also thinks society should take greater precautions during the next terrible heat wave. For example, she says, why not require the managers or owners of all Section 8 housing units to warn their disadvantaged tenants about the heat, and to keep a closer eye on them?

Climate change often seems a nebulous issue to the general public. We may not notice incremental heating over time. Local, short-term climate phenomena can mask global trends.

Yes, the 2006 heat wave would have happened even without broader climate change, one research meteorologist told me. The heat wave would have been significant, though perhaps not quite as extreme. Would Christopher Barron have died? We’ll never know.

But it is indisputable that he died as a result of a heat wave which scientists have linked to climate change. And don’t tell Leonora Barron otherwise.

“I think we do have to make some preparations,” she said.

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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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