Logging off, for now

OK guys, forgive me this brief moment of narcissism…

When I was a nervous intern at the Medford Mail Tribune in the late 1990s, a veteran reporter pulled me aside in the hallway one day. “Get out,” he hissed. “Get out while you still can.”

I ignored him. And I’m so glad I did. Daily journalism has enriched my life over the past 18 years in ways that I can’t fully explain.

It’s fun and frustrating. It’s inspiring and depressing. It’s badass and boring (LAFCO meetings, anyone?). All of these things. All at once.

I’ve learned that people are mostly good, even if they sometimes do stupid stuff. I’ve learned that absolute truth is elusive. I’ve learned that compassion comes first. And I’ve learned that I have no business ever again flying with the Blue Angels, even if I were to skip breakfast next time.

This Thursday I start a new job as the public information coordinator at San Joaquin Delta College. (Whoops. I buried the lede.) I’ve been writing about the college for The Record for nearly a decade. Delta is so critical to Stockton’s future. I’m excited to tell its story, and I’m immensely grateful for the chance to do so.

I still intend to write a little on the side about the other Delta (the estuary, that is) and water and environment issues in general. Please drop me a line at alexjbreitler@gmail.com whenever you have news, tips or suggestions. These subjects are important to me and will always be a part of my life.

Can’t say enough about my friends and colleagues at The Record. They are committed journalists working under difficult circumstances to bring Stockton the factual news coverage that this city deserves. Wherever you are in this world, please consider supporting local journalism.

And with that, I’ll shut up. Lots to do. I’ve got a slew of stories to write before my final deadline on Wednesday night. It’s been a blast, and anything short of a mad dash to the finish line would be a disservice to myself. (This blog, by the way, will no longer be active, but I hope to soon have a new place to share news and random thoughts. I’ll let you know.)

To my sources, my readers and my colleagues, thanks for your trust and friendship, and I’ll see you in the next chapter.

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The incredible shrinking Delta conveyance: a timeline

Delta “isolated conveyance” proposals — be it a canal, tunnels, whatever — have generally gotten less ambitious over the years, at least in terms of capacity.

But they don’t seem to be any less controversial, if the reaction to the state’s latest announcement is any indication.

Just for perspective:

• 1970s/80s Peripheral Canal: 22,000 cubic feet per second (cfs)

• 2006 Bay Delta Conservation Plan (Schwarzenegger administration): 15,000 cfs with 100,000 acres of habitat restoration

• 2013 BDCP (Brown administration): 9,000 cfs with 100,000 acres of habitat restoration

• 2015 California Water Fix: 9,000 cfs minus most of the habitat

• 2018 California Water Fix: 6,000 cfs and maybe another 3,000 cfs later.

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Smith Canal: State is still a partner

For those following the Smith Canal flood gate saga, here’s some additional insight from Mike Mierzwa, with the state Department of Water Resources:

“The State still supports the project as a cost-share partner.  In fact, it was included in our short list of US Army Corps of Engineers projects referenced by name as part of our 2016 Water Resources Development Act support letter.

“While there are deadlines associated with our Prop 1E funding, if the construction time frames were delayed beyond the Prop 1E sunset, naturally we’d look for other funding sources.  I’m optimistic that state funding for urban projects is not a concern.”

Translation: Despite the litigation and the potential for “substantial” delays in the Smith Canal flood gate, the state is still on board. And that’s good news for project supporters, because California is supposed to pick up roughly half of the $37 million bill.

If the state were to drop out, there is no Smith Canal project and thousands of people stay in the flood zone with mandatory flood insurance and building restrictions.

But it doesn’t sound like that’s likely.


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More than just birdies at Swenson golf course

Photo by Steve Rapaport

As I wrote in Saturday’s Record, the debate over the future of Swenson Park Golf Course — and the potential construction of homes there — may be the most passionate open space discussion I’ve seen since I moved to Stockton in 2005.

While a manicured golf course isn’t purely “natural” habitat, it is clear that Swenson is home to plenty of critters. And that’s something that may be of value to golfers and non-golfers alike.

To add to this discussion, a big thanks to Steve Rapaport for sending me a number of photos he has taken at Swenson. Enjoy.

Photo by Steve Rapaport

Photo by Steve Rapaport


Photo by Steve Rapaport

Photo by Steve Rapaport

Photo by Steve Rapaport

Photo by Steve Rapaport

Photo by Steve Rapaport


Photo by Steve Rapaport

Thank you also to Jim Marsh for documenting a real National Geographic kind of moment in the middle of a city of 300,000 people. As I wrote Saturday, Marsh was on the golf course last winter when he saw a fox several hundred feet down the fairway. It was dragging a fat steelhead behind it.

The fish, presumably, had come from Five Mile Slough which forms the northern boundary of the course. When there’s enough flow, migratory fish like salmon and steelhead find their way from the Pacific Ocean all the way to Swenson Golf Course. That’s remarkable.

It’s not clear how the fox got possession of the fish, but here’s what was left of her when Marsh arrived at the scene.

Photo by Jim Marsh

The point of Saturday’s story was to establish that open spaces — even golf courses — have value to wildlife, and thus to people (including non-golfers). We are hearing many of those stories about Swenson now that the city is reevaluating its future. I don’t know what the right course of action is, but it’s certainly appropriate that these stories are part of the discussion.

Postscript: Put this one on the ever-growing list of ideas. Marsh suggests selling “subscriptions” or “memberships” to walkers or wildlife enthusiasts who would like to visit Swenson, which would open portions of the park up to golfers and non-golfers alike. Details, of course, would have to be worked out, Marsh writes. “But would this not be a way to add income beyond what green fees generate?”

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He’d always return your phone call

Michael Cockrell. Record file photo

It’s harder than ever for journalists to access many public officials.

Some government agencies forbid reporters from speaking directly with experts, or at least they may put up major roadblocks. Some  insist on carefully orchestrated email exchanges, as opposed to actual conversations. Some won’t talk at all, simply posting their spin on social media and bypassing journos entirely.

Michael Cockrell, recently departed from the San Joaquin County Office of Emergency Services, did none of these things. After 18 years in this business, in fact, he may well be the most accessible public official I’ve ever worked with. He is certainly at or near the top.

And that’s kind of remarkable. Because as the local OES chief, Cockrell was a pretty busy guy. He worked long hours, especially during floods or other emergencies. Last winter, when the San Joaquin River spilled over its banks,  someone even brought a cot into the office so that he could sleep there instead of driving home for a couple of hours and then coming right back.

The point is, it’s a stressful job, with many pressing and urgent obligations. But Cockrell never seemed perturbed by the press. He was always willing to talk — whenever he possibly could — and share his expertise, which was considerable after 35 years at OES.

That levee failed in 1997, but the other one didn’t, he might tell you. Here’s the current flow of the San Joaquin River at Vernalis and here’s how it compares to 1997. Here’s where they made the relief cut to save that urban development. (Unsure what a relief cut is? Ask Cockrell. He’ll be happy to explain.)

Media questions never seemed like a hassle to Cockrell. They were just part of the job. He had a policy in his office, in fact, to return every reporter’s phone call within 15 minutes.

“Some say the media is the enemy,” Cockrell told me recently, “but are you going to say that and then turn around and ask them to put your message over the radio or TV or in the newspaper? You need them as much as they need you.”

Record file photo

Last winter, standing on a rain-slickened levee near Manteca, I was asked by a worker supervising the flood-fighting effort if I had a right to be there. I said I did, as long as I wasn’t interfering. He said he’d feel better if Cockrell himself confirmed that, so I called him up and handed the phone over. Cockrell explained the law, and the issue was resolved before it became a serious problem.

He told me later that he considers himself an “advocate” for reporters.

“Your  job is to help them get the story right,” he said. “Your job is not to sit there and keep them out of the way.”

For local journos, Cockrell’s departure is a blow. Let’s hope others across the spectrum of government follow his lead. I’m biased, I supposed, but it does seem that an open and accessible government is good not only for journalists, but for the general public, too.

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Something fishy happened here

Photo courtesy Kyle Horvath/Cramer Fish Sciences

Last week’s write-up about the discovery of a green sturgeon in the Stanislaus River got a lot of clicks. I suspect that’s because it’s so unusual these days to hear “good news” about Central Valley fisheries.

One thing you might have missed in the guts of that story was how biologists were able to definitively identify the fish.

The Cramer Fish Sciences technician who first spotted the 4- to 6-foot long sturgeon returned to the Stan to dive and look for it again. And he got some great pictures.

Photo courtesy Kyle Horvath/Cramer Fish Sciences

It sure looked like a green sturgeon. But experts needed DNA to rule out the possibility of a more common white sturgeon.

So the technician returned to the same place yet again and this time couldn’t find the fish. But he took a water sample. And within days or weeks at most (this all transpired in early October), the results of DNA testing confirmed that a green sturgeon had been in the area.

What I didn’t know was that taking a water sample in the mere vicinity of a fish would be enough for positive identification. But of course, fish urinate and shed skin cells and who knows what else. All of that becomes mobilized in the water and can register a DNA hit.

One expert with the National Marine Fisheries Service told me that the DNA testing can be effective as far as 500 meters (1,640 feet, or nearly one-third of a mile) from the fish.

A Smithsonian article provides more insight, concluding that the science — still in its infancy — could be useful in setting fishing quotes or assessing impacts of various projects on endangered species.

For a rare fish, there’s nowhere to hide these days.

At any rate, they cracked the case. And we now know that green sturgeon — one of them, at least — have returned to the Stanislaus River.

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Santa Clara voted on — something

The Santa Clara Valley Water District says it voted to support the California WaterFix today.

But did it? The Mercury News describes the vote as a rejection of the Fix, because Santa Clara’s board conditioned its approval on “considering an approach” that incorporates one tunnel instead of two tunnels.

The Sacramento Bee also describes the vote as a rejection of Brown’s plan, though not prominently in the headline as the Merc did.

This is getting parsed to death on social media, and is understandably causing tons of confusion. Bottom line: Santa Clara voted to support the WaterFix but with conditions that could dramatically change the project to the point where it is no longer the WaterFix.

At least, not as it has always been described — two tunnels capable of diverting 9,000 cubic feet per second of water from the Sacramento River. If you choose to define “WaterFix” more loosely, merely as some kind of isolated conveyance, then that’s a different story. But that’s not the WaterFix preferred alternative.

OK. Deep breath. The biggest problem seems to be with the wording of the resolution.

The conditions are described by Santa Clara as “guiding principles for participation,” and are most definitely locked in as part of the overall approval.

But principle No. 3 does appear to contain some wiggle room. Rather than explicitly requiring one tunnel instead of two, it says the district supports “considering an approach that incorporates… one tunnel instead of the two tunnels.”

The full language, because clearly it matters in this case:

“Given that Westlands Water District and certain other agriculture districts have declined to participate in the WaterFix project, we are supportive of a lower-cost, scaled-down and staged project that… is consistent with the existing environmental impact reports and other administrative proceedings. We support considering an approach that incorporates the following in the first stage of the project:

a) One tunnel instead of the two tunnels;

b) A reduced intake volume from the original 9,000 cubic feet per second;

c) A reduced number of intakes on the Sacramento River;

d) A project that incorporates and ensures less impacts on fisheries relative to current operations; and

e) Allows Santa Clara Valley Water District elected officials to be actively involved as leaders in the governance of the WaterFix project to ensure the project is implemented appropriately and to prevent any Southern California water grab.

Any changes to the project that diverge from this principle must be brought before the board before any final agreement is announced.”

Full disclosure: I wasn’t at Tuesday’s meeting and didn’t hear much of the debate. But here’s my take from the cheap seats.

This sure doesn’t sound like support for the WaterFix as it has always been defined. But there’s enough wiggle room in the language (that word “considering” again) that I’m not sure it’s an absolute rejection, either.

I would say that the board declined, for now, to endorse the project as originally proposed by the Brown administration.

Enough. It’s late. Let the parsing continue.

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Westlands has said ‘no’ before

One under-reported detail in the wake of the Westlands Water District’s vote against the Delta tunnels is the fact that this isn’t the first time the water district has supposedly rejected the project — or at least, the process.

“We’re not going to spend another dime on this,” Westlands board President Jean Sagouspe told the Fresno Bee in — wait for it — 2010.

That’s right. Almost seven years ago Westlands declared that it was pulling out of what was then known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Its concerns at the time were essentially the same as today: That the project — which was then sized to deliver up to 15,000 cubic feet per second of water, 40 percent larger than today — would simply not deliver enough water to make it worth the cost.

The 2010 announcement, dropped right before Thanksgiving as I recall, wasn’t mere waffling. It was Westlands, in a formal letter, effectively saying “no more.” The late, great Mike Taugher called the water district’s withdrawal a “serious blow” to BDCP.

But that was not the end, as it turns out. At some point — I don’t remember exactly when — it became clear that Westlands was still at the table. And they’ve been there, though rather skeptically, ever since.

Fitch Ratings last week speculated that the most recent Westlands vote isn’t as final as it sounds. “The decision reflects the difficulty and complexity of negotiating among the many stakeholders who would pay for California’s biggest water project since the construction of the State Water Project (SWP) in the 1960s, but it is likely to signal the beginning — not the end — of serious negotiations over the financing of the plan.” (emphasis mine)

History suggests Fitch may be right.


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Big recognition for tiny S.J. rabbits

Record file photo

The riparian brush rabbit, probably San Joaquin County’s cuddliest endangered species, is getting some much-deserved love from National Geographic.

The magazine includes the rabbit as one of 7,000 species featured on its Photo Ark project, highlighting animals on the brink of extinction. Check out the Photo Ark here.

An Instagram post featuring the brush rabbit had more than 1 million hits as of this morning.

The rabbits, which live only in the San Joaquin River floodplain, are inherently vulnerable to — you guessed it — floods. This fact was demonstrated again this past winter, when rescuers went in by boat to scoop up as many bunnies as possible and get them to safer ground. An unknown number perished.

Patrick Kelly, who runs the Endangered Species Recovery Program at Cal State Stanislaus and is one of the leading authorities on the local rabbits, was excited to see them get worldwide attention, according to a press release from the university.

“When I was a small child reading National Geographic at my granduncle’s house in Galway City in the west of Ireland, I never dreamed that someday I would be working with a National Geographic photographer on a project,” he said.

Patrick Kelly. Record file photo

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Trusting the tunnels: For many, it just got harder

“Beneficiary pays.” It is one of the bedrock promises of the Delta tunnels plan, one which I have seen repeated time and again at public meetings, in interviews and in boatloads of documents over the past 11 years.

“Those who would benefit from the tunnels would pay for them.” How many times has that sentence, more or less, shown up in my copy?

The Office of Inspector General’s audit on Friday appears to erode that basic, fundamental promise. It turns out that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation contributed nearly $85 million to the tunnels plan over a period of seven years. That’s nearly one-third of all of the planning costs as of mid-2016.

Some of the money — about $50 million — was obtained through what auditors called a “complex, obscure process” that let the water districts off the hook for repaying the tab to the federal government. Rather explicitly, under the Delta Reform Act, the water agencies — not the taxpayers — are supposed to pay not only for the tunnels’ construction but also for environmental planning and design.

“USBR could not provide us with a rationale for its decision to subsidize (Central Valley Project) water contractors, other than the water contractors asked USBR to pay,” the auditors wrote.

The bureau did divulge to some members of Congress in a 2013 letter that federal money had been spent on the planning effort, but that was years after the spending started. In 2014, regional officials with the bureau say they got permission from the top brass to use the process outlined in the audit — again, years after they started doing it.

Following the audit’s release, San Joaquin County elected officials put out some of the most scathing statements I’ve ever seen from them on the subject of the tunnels.

“The Office of the Inspector General’s audit provides irrefutable proof that (tunnels) proponents cannot be trusted and the integrity of the process for reviewing the tunnels should be questioned,” county supervisor Chuck Winn said. “…(Tunnels) supporters will clearly say and do anything in order to get the tunnels constructed, including misusing taxpayer dollars, employing deceitful accounting tactics and betraying the public trust.”

The bureau has disputed the audit, saying all that its actions were taken in “good faith.” At the same time, the bureau promised not to take those actions again. Read into that what you will.

The bottom line is that for opponents, the tunnels project has always been about trust, or lack thereof. Can they trust that the tunnels will be operated in a scientifically defensible way after a $17 billion investment has been made? Can they trust that the adaptive management process will not be subverted by politics? Can they trust that some future administration will not simply waive whatever strict new water quality standards might be established to protect the Delta?

Project proponents have tried to reassure them on these points and others. On Friday, that task got even harder.

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