Even in flood, smelt captured at Delta pumps

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

State and federal water exporters are approaching a key limit to the number of imperiled Delta smelt that can be “salvaged” (read: killed) at the south Delta pumps.

Make no mistake, it’s been a great water year for people and fish alike. Conditions in the Delta for smelt and other species are the best they’ve been in years.

But for reasons experts can only theorize about, smelt have been showing up at the pumps off and on since January. As of today, 57 smelt have been counted there; this year’s “take” limit, as determined by scientists, is 64 fish.

If you bust through your take limit you risk getting shut down. So the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has asked its counterpart, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to consider raising the limit. (The state’s not pumping right now because of damage at Clifton Court Forebay.)

No decision has been announced. But in its March 17 response to the bureau’s request, Fish and Wildlife notes that the exporters’ planned operations through April “will maintain favorable conditions for Delta smelt” and says the agency will work closely with the exporters to “adaptively manage and avoid or minimize impacts.”

Salvage at the pumps. Graph from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife

Jon Rosenfield, a biologist with The Bay Institute, an environmental group, expressed a word of caution about increasing the number of fish that can be killed. The limit was set at 64 for a reason, because the science considers that to be the number of fish that can be taken at the pumps without jeopardizing the species, he said.

“There has to be a biological rationale for allowing more take than would previously have prevented jeopardy,” Rosenfield said.

Rules for how much water must flow through the Delta were temporarily weakened each of the past three years because of the drought, and smelt populations reached new historic lows. The population will likely increase this year, but every adult smelt taken at the pumps is one less fish available to produce next year’s progeny.

“We need to capitalize on every opportunity we have to bolster their populations,” Rosenfield said.

Non-scientist that I am, I was surprised to learn that smelt were showing up at the pumps at all. I’ve been told they’re lousy swimmers. And with all the water in the system, the rivers near the pumps have been flowing downstream (a rarity) for weeks now. Wouldn’t that keep smelt at a safe distance?

Not necessarily. Rosenfield said that even with rivers surging in one direction, smelt may be able to work their way upstream following smaller eddies or side currents.

Why swim upstream at all? The smelt may be chasing turbid, or cloudy, water into the area around the pumps, he said. Smelt like turbidity because it allows them to hide from predators. They may be wandering close to the pumps because (gasp) the south Delta actually appears to the fish to be a functioning river estuary right now.

We won’t have the full picture for how this year’s high flows have benefited smelt until a series of surveys this fall. A word of caution: Smelt populations increased 738 percent during the wet year of 2011, only to plummet right back to near-historic lows the following year once dry conditions returned.

If there’s a nice bump in 2017, let’s hope it isn’t another one-time deal.

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Smith Canal petition in the works

This rendering shows what the gate near the mouth of Smith Canal might look like, as seen from Atherton Cove

Levee engineer Dominick Gulli, who is suing to block the proposed Smith Canal flood-control gate, told officials last week that he has also started a petition.

“It brings up many of the issues of the way you’re collecting this assessment” to pay for the gate, Gulli told the San Joaquin Area Flood Control Agency’s Board of Directors. “I don’t think that, once the people hear these facts, there will be many of them who want to pay them.”

Gulli declined today to send me a copy of the pending petition.

“Get it somewhere else,” he wrote. “You’ll blame me for people for having flood insurance to stop the gate.”

The gate is supposed to remove a FEMA-imposed flood insurance mandate for thousands of central Stockton homeowners. When deployed, the gate would prevent Delta floodwaters from backing up into the canal.

It’s not that there are any known problems with the Smith Canal levees. But because they are covered with homes, officials cannot inspect them adequately. Hence, the flood insurance restriction for much of the surrounding area.

Gulli applied for a contract to design the gate, but was rejected. He is now suing to block the project altogether.

Atherton Cove homeowners have also sued, fearing that the gate will trap water hyacinth in the scenic cove behind their homes, among other issues.

SJAFCA officials recently disclosed that the agency’s legal costs to fight the two lawsuits combined is now more than $800,000. That means that a portion of the money that residents agreed to pay for the gate is now paying for lawyers instead.

If SJAFCA loses either lawsuit, construction could be delayed, and residents would be required to pay flood insurance for a longer period of time.

“I’m the last thing that’s delaying this project,” Gulli told the SJAFCA board last week. “There are many things way bigger than me that is delaying this project.”

Gulli, who represented himself in the early stages of his lawsuit, also said that he has hired his daughter, a “rookie attorney,” to handle his case. A new legal petition is expected to be submitted in a couple of weeks, he said.

“I’m not dead yet,” Gulli said.

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Breathing room — but not enough

This graph from the Department of Water Resources shows three months' worth of storage levels at Don Pedro Reservoir. The lake has dropped 11 feet since Feb. 22, but has a long way to go to be able to accommodate expected snowmelt.

After coming within a few inches of capacity on Feb. 22, Don Pedro Reservoir has dropped about 11 feet.

You can thank this extended dry spell for that.

Officials have managed to dump about 138,000 acre-feet of water during that time. But is it enough?

The Tuolumne River system will likely see anywhere from 2 million acre-feet to 2.9 million acre-feet of snowmelt runoff from April through July, according to the latest projection from the state Department of Water Resources.

If runoff totals, say, about 2.3 million acre-feet, that would be 191 percent of normal.

Look, April through July is a long four months. If the snow melts slowly and the runoff eases into Don Pedro, maybe we can handle it.

Still, the numbers speak for themselves. Somewhere north of 2 million acre-feet of water will be headed our way (I’m talking to you, Modesto, Lathrop and Stockton). At the moment there is 142,000 acre-feet of room in the river’s largest reservoir.

Don’t be fooled by the dry weather. This is nowhere near over.

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Some well-deserved recognition

One of the Delta’s most cherished critters is being memorialized on a postage stamp.

The photo comes from Nebraska, but it’s a scene close to the heart of any outdoors-loving person in Stockton or Lodi, too.

New "forever" stamp featuring the sandhill crane. Photo by Michael Forsberg

Michael Forsberg took the shot of sandhill cranes flying over the Platte River, officials said. The new stamp is intended to celebrate Nebraska’s 150th anniversary as a state.

The Platte River region serves as a pit stop for a half million cranes as they migrate from their summer haunts in the far north to their wintering areas in the lower U.S. and Mexico, and vice versa.

Our Delta cranes stay on the Pacific Flyway, and don’t make it over to the Cornhusker State, as far as I know.

Regardless, the image should strike a chord with anyone who has attended the free crane tours out at the Isenberg Crane Reserve, or happened to wander onto Staten Island around sunset during the wintertime. Quite a scene it is, and now, commemorated in one of the most dignified ways possible.

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A full New Melones Lake in our future?

New Melones storage levels since 2011, when the lake nearly reached capacity

I asked the Bureau of Reclamation’s Ron Milligan on Tuesday if it’s conceivable that New Melones could fill up later this year — a question that would have been laughed off just two months ago.

With a little more snow in the central Sierra, Milligan said, it is possible.

New Melones was the last of the major reservoirs to recover from the drought.

“It’s a big reservoir,” he said. “People said it would take decades to refill.”

Instead, the reservoir is in a practically perfect position heading into March. At 107 percent of normal, and about 66 percent of capacity, it’s not forced to dump water like its nearly full sister reservoir to the south, Don Pedro, where officials have been scrambling to make room for future storms and snowmelt.

Instead, if all goes well, New Melones will gradually fill up over the next few months without having to make large releases that could contribute to downstream flooding.

New Melones has long been a magnet for controversy on the San Joaquin River side of the system, with its water promised to cities and farms, and a need to protect endangered species in the Stanislaus River and meet water quality standards in the downstream Delta.

For the near future, at least, there just might be enough of New Melones to go around.

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Flood, seen from the air

Check out this drone footage of the San Joaquin River flood south of Manteca:

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A 2011 USGS study estimated what would happen in Stockton and communities across California if the 1861-62 sequence of storms happened again today.

I’ve been writing about water for 10 years in one of the state’s most flood-prone cities.

And I’ve never had to write about a substantial flood.

I’ve written countless stories about planning for future floods, about the quality of our levees and the need for new flood control infrastructure.

But an actual, honest-to-goodness flood? Never seen one.

That could change this week. I hope it doesn’t. But after two back-to-back droughts dominated the past decade, it’s fascinating to see San Joaquin County emergency responders shift into flood-control mode.

I wonder: How ready are regular people?

Agricultural San Joaquin County flooded in 1997. But urban Stockton hasn’t flooded since the 1950s. Generations have passed without seeing a major flood in the city. Do people realize that there’s a river out there, and that the levee behind their house is more than just a place to walk the dog? Are they generally familiar with the risks in their neighborhoods?

We’re a long way from an urban flood, and our levees are a lot better than they used to be, which of course explains why it’s been 70 years since Stockton itself flooded.

But one consequence of flood disasters being increasingly rare may be a lack of community memory and awareness. And it’s going to happen again, eventually.

Neighborhood flood maps prepared by the San Joaquin County Office of Emergency Services can be found here. (Scroll down and click on the brochure links for best results.) And click here to read a 2011 USGS study about what would happen in Stockton and across California if the 1861-62 sequence of storms happened again today. Hint: Not good.

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Strange times as Delta rivers flow downstream

You know it’s a flood in the Delta when all of its rivers are actually flowing toward the ocean.

Earlier this week, the Old and Middle rivers, which normally run backward as they feel the influence of the powerful state and federal export pumps, began flowing downstream instead.

Evidently there is so much water coming down the San Joaquin River that even with the pumps churning away the rivers have taken on an overall “positive” downstream flow. That flow on Thursday was a solid 5,000 cubic feet per second.

This is good news for people who rely on water pumped from the Delta, because the pumps can run at or near capacity. And it’s good news for fish like the Delta smelt, which are sometimes sucked into the pumps when the rivers flow backward. Instead, their offspring this winter will be washed  miles downstream, experts say — possibly as far downstream as San Pablo Bay.

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Weird times in California water

Randy Pench/Sacramento Bee

Not sure I’ve ever seen a more perfect juxtaposition of California water issues than on Wednesday.

While Department of Water Resources engineers were inspecting a giant gash in the Oroville spillway, with the reservoir rising rapidly and a critical need to dump water downstream, the same state agency simultaneously announced a new report showing that the ground in portions of the San Joaquin Valley has continued to sink due to excessive groundwater pumping.

Of course, the subsidence report examines a time span from spring 2015 to fall 2016. The erosion problem up at Oroville happened just this week.

Still, the seemingly contradictory events shows how complicated and nuanced water issues are. Yes, we can be in a drought and a flood at the same time. Abundant rain and snow is not always explicitly “good” or “bad.” Quite often, it may be both.

Unfortunately, in today’s 140-character world, many people don’t have the time or willingness to accept such complexities. Check that: They have time. They just don’t want to.

Postscript: Almost forgot. The state water board extended emergency water conservation rules Wednesday, as well. These are strange times.

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A full tank of water tower nostalgia

Photo by Clifford Oto

It’s been fun monitoring reaction on social media to my news over the weekend that a half dozen of Stockton’s largest and oldest water towers will give up the ghost over the next few years.

A sampling from the Facebook groups Stockton History and Memories of Stockton:

–”I’m 58 and that tower has been there as long as I can remember. Feels like losing a long time friend/neighbor.” –Kenn Lujan Sonne

–”Let’s do an art project using lights on the towers and tanks. Or  murals. An homage to our history. Thoughts everyone?” –Cindi Fargo

–”I lived next door to the water tower on Atlee Street at Commerce Street, east of the University of the Pacific… we were sitting in the house when the Loma (Prieta) earthquake hit. My wife yelled at me, ‘What is this?’ I told her it was just an earthquake and to go outside. We went out on the front yard and looked up at that tower rocking about a foot and a half back and forth. The support cables were buckling and the tower looked like it was going to come down. This was very scary so we went toward El Dorado to get out of the way.” –Jim Stovall

–”They always looked like giant spiders at night. We kids would call them that.” –Vickie Ann Colatorti

–”I used to think they were alien ships.” –Kim Prato San Gabriel

–”Under that silver paint on the water tower at Flora and Buena Vista, you can find my sister’s name painted in big block letters that were painted in the middle of the night by her boyfriend of 1965. It must have impressed her. She married him a couple of years later.” –Wes Chisholm

–”I appreciate the history. But I won’t miss them.” –Darren Denison

–”I’ll miss them, and I didn’t even grow up here. Stockton is losing all of its character! Pretty soon we are going to have nothing but chain restaurants and strip malls.” –Terry Salcido

–”I guess everything and everyone will be gone one day. Nothing quite as constant as change.” –Donna Wright

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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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