Where does Erin really stand on the tunnels?

Erin Brockovich’s visit to Stockton on Monday was about the city putting chloramines in the drinking water. But of course, any water conversation in this town gravitates toward the Delta tunnels, too.

Knowing that the tunnels would come up at the town hall meeting that night, I asked Brockovich earlier that afternoon how she felt about them.

She told me she had no position on the tunnels.

Five hours later, as the sometimes raucous event was winding down, Restore the Delta’s Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla addressed Brockovich directly on the subject of the tunnels.

“We have been trying to reach out to you,” Barrigan-Parrilla said, then asking Brockovich directly if she would join in the fight.

“If that’s an invitation,” Brockovich said, “the answer is yes.”

The answer earned a huge ovation from the anti-chloramines and presumably anti-tunnels crowd.

But given Brockovich’s clear answer to my question earlier in the day, her response that night raises questions about where she really stands.

Here’s how Stockton environmentalist Bill Jennings put it: “If you have no position on the tunnels in the afternoon, and then in the evening — before your faithful audience — you say ‘I’m against them,’ what does that say about her?”

Brockovich’s right-hand man, Bob Bowcock, told me Monday that he thought the tunnels were a “ridiculous, stupid idea” but also said he wants to learn the science behind the proposal. Bowcock’s consulting firm, Integrated Resource Management, has among its clients Southern California water providers that support the tunnels, but Bowcock said he has not consulted with them on the issue of Delta conveyance.

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The good news on chloramines

I tried to get to the bottom of Stockton’s sudden chloramines controversy in a couple of stories that ran on Sunday.

And for the moment, I’m pretty much tapped out on this subject.

But let me add one more thought.

While this story has gotten a bit ugly politically, and while the misinformation spread by some (but not all) social media users is alarming, there is at least one very positive thing to come out of all of this:

People are paying attention to their water.

In 10 years writing on these topics, I’ve never seen this level of interest in what comes out of Stockton taps. The legally mandated water quality report cards arrive in the mail, and we toss them away because we don’t know what boron is and we can’t comprehend “parts per billion” and what can we really do about all of that anyway?

Now people care. Whether the cause for this particular concern is reasonable or not doesn’t matter in this context. They care about their drinking water. They may read those quarterly water quality reports from now on. And as the Pacific Institute’s Peter Gleick suggests, perhaps the city will put more effort into public outreach and communication to help folks understand the proper context and avoid future miscommunications.

Now people care. There may yet be a constructive end to this curious controversy.

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Here we go: Water exports cut to protect smelt

A Delta smelt. California Department of Water Resources.

More and more worried about the fate of the diminutive Delta smelt, federal wildlife officials are requiring cuts in the amount of water that can be pumped south from the estuary starting Friday.

While you often hear how smelt have crimped the state’s water supply — and they have, in the past — this is the first time since the winter of 2013 that mandatory restrictions have been put in place.

The action is sure to touch a nerve down south, since runoff from recent storms is needed badly for parched cities and farms.

It’s worth noting, however, that Friday’s cuts are not as stringent as some scientists had recommended. The Smelt Working Group, an advisory science team representing multiple agencies, called for stronger protections to be put in place, citing in part the record-low number of fish.

“Any level of salvage observed at either (pumping) facility will be of concern,” the group said in its weekly report.

It is a cruel irony of California water that the storms we so desperately need are also more likely to draw imperiled smelt toward the deadly pumps in the south Delta, which makes it harder to take advantage of those storms from a water-supply perspective.

How does this happen? Rainstorms wash sediment into rivers, particularly the Sacramento, which then rolls muddy and swollen into the Delta.

If the pumps down near Tracy are running, some of that muddy water is drawn further south. Problem is, the smelt tag along because they like muddy water. It helps them hide from predators.

State pumping plant in the south Delta. California Department of Water Resources

They follow the muddy water until they’ve wandered dangerously close to the pumps, which are so powerful that the Old and Middle rivers in the south Delta actually run backward.

Thus, the problem we have today.

No smelt are known to have actually been “salvaged” at the giant pumps this year, according to the Smelt Working Group, but the scientists recommended reducing “reverse flows” to -2,000 cubic feet per second anyway. That’s because they’ve found smelt not far away in the San Joaquin River, and because they’re concerned that impending storms will draw smelt even closer.

Smelt are so precariously perched on the edge of extinction that very few can be lost to the pumps this year, under a disputed 2008 biological opinion intended to protect them. The limit, in fact, is just 56 smelt this year.

So, waiting for a few to actually show up at the pumps before reducing reverse flows would be risky, the advisory group said.

“Members are concerned that just a few fish detected in salvage will be problematic,” the group wrote after its most recent meeting earlier this week.

A regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ultimately rejected the recommendation to reduce reverse flows to -2,000 cfs, saying in part that the muddiness of the water in Old River might be related in part to tides, and that conditions may not be as poor as believed.

But certainly, there is cause for concern, Fish and Wildlife found.

And so the agency did decide, based on a proposal from the state and federal water agencies that operate the pumps, that reverse flows should be temporarily reduced to -3,500 cfs. That’s down from about -4,396 cfs as of last Sunday, and down from more than -6,000 cfs in late December.

As conditions change, the decision could be reevaluated as early as next week.

Bottom line: It’s once again time to walk the tightrope of water supply vs. species protection. If pumping restrictions like this continue throughout our El Nino-fueled winter, expect to hear plenty down south about large volumes of “lost” water. And if smelt show up at the pumps, expect to hear plenty in the Delta about the likelihood of a lost species.

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‘So good it’s worth it’

Smoke billows from a vent atop The Habit in north Stockton last April. Record photo by Calixtro Romias.

I’m a bit late posting excerpts from a lively discussion on social media regarding efforts to “chomp down” (get it?) on pollution spewing from The Habit in north Stockton:

• “Leave the Habit alone!!” (Lisa Gutierrez)

• “Probably a vegan driving by complained of the burger smell.” (Sue Kramer Greenberg)

• “It’s always so good it’s worth it haha.” (Sleepy Tatz)

• “Only in CALIFORNIA.” (Bill Fields)

• “That smoke is like a smoke signal to great food!!!” (Steve Garcia)

• “Waste of taxpayer money. Habit sucks. In-n-Out for life!” (Steve Snyder)

• “They should reconsider” fixing the problem. “I pass Habit on my way home every day and the smell gets me in there at least twice a week.” (Matt Cordel)

• “Now if they would do something about the In-n-Out line backing up traffic pretty much all day every day that’d be great!” (Ashley Curbow)

• “I can see the residual smoke prior to entering southbound I-5 at lunchtime. It does smell delightful however!” (Gaylen Barber)

• “The more smoke the better the food.” (Vince Caprini)

• “Pretty soon you won’t be able to flush a toilet without asking the state first and paying for the experience!” (Jerry Forson)

• “Oh, get a grip… We have some of the worst air quality in the nation. Instead of telling this unrestricted polluter to shut down, the air quality district is using them to evaluate technology that will reduce the effect that they and restaurants like them have on the air we all breathe. The Habit, to their credit, is doing their part to ameliorate the problem… I live near this smoke-machine and can’t believe the amount of pollution they churn out is legal. Depending on the time of day, one would expect to see fire trucks in the parking lot.” (Andy Abbott)

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Last word on water hyacinth

Bill Jennings

Enviro Bill Jennings says I missed the mark in my recent stories dishing out blame for the hyacinth problem.

In a nutshell: We’re all at fault, he says.

While the stories focused in part on the bureaucratic difficulties in spraying the weed, Jennings says we should work toward preventing these outbreaks in the first place by reducing nutrient loads in the Delta.

And all of us bear some responsibility for those nutrients — whether it’s fertilizer washing off our lawns and into the storm drains, or our treated wastewater that is released into the Delta, or runoff from farms.

“We’ve poured enormous quantities of nutrients into the estuary, and we’ve taken away the flow,” Jennings said. “What we’ve created is an Arkansas lake. And hyacinth thrives in those conditions.”

Of course, Jennings has a dog in this fight. He’s the one who forced the state to get permits to spray the hyacinth, by filing a lawsuit some 15 years ago. Spraying was temporarily interrupted, major restrictions on future spraying were implemented, and as we all know, the hyacinth has certainly not retreated in the ensuing years.

So add Jennings to your list of people to blame, if you want. I know some boaters who do.

But he is unapologetic for his actions.

“You could quadruple the amount of pesticides and get some headway there, but there’s a consequence,” he said. “These pesticides are toxic.”

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Elected officials’ water use revealed

The Calaveras County Water District — the only major water provider in San Joaquin and Calaveras counties that initially declined to release the water use of its elected officials — has changed its mind.

The district last week released water use data to The Record for two members of its Board of Directors who receive water from the district.

Comparisons aren’t perfect because of differences in how Calaveras bills its customers, but from mid-June through mid-August, Director Bertha Underhill’s household used about 116 gallons per day, while from mid-July through mid-September, Director Jeff Davidson’s household used about 226 gallons per day, according to the district.

Average consumption in Calaveras for the month of July was about 85 gallons per person, per day. But without knowing how many people live in Underhill’s or Davidson’s households, it’s hard to say how they’re doing compared to the “norm.”

Unquestionably, however, they come in far below the thirstiest elected officials in our region. At the top of the list, Tracy City Councilwoman Veronica Vargas used about 2,311 gallons per day.

At first Calaveras declined to release the usage numbers, saying in an email, “We cannot provide specific information of board members’ personal accounts.”

The Record challenged that position. The California Public Records Act requires elected officials’ water use to be made public, if the elected officials receive water from the same agency that they preside over, as do the two Calaveras directors in question.

Here’s more on local elected officials and their water use.

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Waves from ‘water hogs’ stories

Got some interesting comments today about Sunday’s package in The Record highlighting Stockton’s thirstiest citizens, San Joaquin County’s thirstiest elected officials, and the art of drought shaming:

• One anonymous caller didn’t like our shining light on the fact that Lodi City Councilman and former state Assemblyman Alan Nakanishi was the third-heaviest water user among 22 local elected officials.

“He’s a marvelous man, and that makes me sad,” the caller said.  I’m sure Nakanishi has many fine traits. This story is about water use. I would argue that elected officials, especially those who vote on water rates and conservation measures that everyone else must live by, should be held to a higher standard.

In fairness, however, we should point out that while Nakanishi and his wife used about as much water as nine average Lodi residents, most of the elected officials on our list would not even have cracked the Top 25 list of overall water users in Stockton.

Tracy City Councilwoman Veronica Vargas and her 2,311 gallons per day led the list of local electeds. But if she lived in Stockton, Vargas would have ranked 24th overall among the general public.

• Speaking of electeds, let me clear up some of the confusion about San Joaquin County Supervisor Kathy Miller.

Technically, one could argue that Miller — and not Vargas — was the thirstiest elected official in the county. But Miller’s case is a bit different because she doesn’t preside over the agency that delivers her drinking water.

The law requires water agencies to disclose the water use only of those elected officials who are customers of the agency over which they have oversight. County supervisors live all over the place and get their water from different agencies. We didn’t even ask the county for information about the supervisors, a) because we don’t know if any of them receive water from the county, and b) because San Joaquin County is not a large enough water provider to report its usage to the State Water Resources Control Board, which was our threshold for determining which agencies to use in our analysis.

Miller was mentioned in this weekend’s stories because she turned up separately on a list of Stockton’s thirstiest water users. We didn’t mention her in the story about elected officials because Miller doesn’t call the shots about water policy in the city of Stockton.

• A couple of commenters suggested that there might be higher tasks for The Record than to out high-volume water users.

“Yeah…..we have had 40 plus murders this year……….now you are on to real priorities,” wrote James DiSerio.

“It would be better publicizing and shaming convicted DUI offenders,” wrote Dawn Yates.

• Stockton resident Matt Beckwith said he appreciated the information about elected officials’ water usage, but added it “felt strange” to see private citizens also listed. Beckwith went on to post his own household water use on Facebook, saying it “seemed only right.”

Which got me thinking: Maybe I should post my June through September usage, too, if I’m going to push others into the spotlight.

I promise to do so on this blog, hopefully within the next week or so.

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On the fourth hole, not a birdie but a fishie

Photo by Jim Marsh

Jim Marsh was “chasing a golf ball around Swenson Park” last week when, after clearing the water hazard on the fourth hole, he noticed some splashing and thrashing in the shallows.

“I have seen many big carp there over the years so that’s what I expected to find,” he told me in an email.

This time it wasn’t a carp. It was a Chinook salmon. Marsh, who belongs to Friends of the Lower Calaveras River and knows a bit about these things, confirmed the sighting with biologists.

While it’s not unusual to find Chinook in the San Joaquin River or the Calaveras, every year we hear of a sighting or two in a less obvious place — one of Stockton’s smaller sloughs, or even in ditches and canals. The water hazard at Swenson Park is actually an arm of Five Mile Slough, a modest little stream that cuts through north Stockton to about Pacific Avenue.

In the end, the occasional Chinook sighting in Stockton is one of the city’s most spectacular examples of urban wildlife.

And no, Marsh didn’t make a birdie on the fourth hole.

He bogeyed it.

“Distracted by fish!” he wrote.

Photo by Jim Marsh

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Where’s the runoff? Coming… maybe…

Hulbert Creek, a seasonal tributary to the Russian River, was still dry in early December.

My wife and I have vacationed in Guerneville for the better part of 10 years, and I’ve never seen this creek — a seasonal tributary to the Russian River — dry in early December.

“Wow,” I said last week, when we first laid eyes on it.

True, it hasn’t rained much in Sonoma County. At the time this photo was taken last Friday, nearby Santa Rosa had received about 3.4 inches of rain this year — only about half of normal.

Still, in December you’d expect at least a little flow in this creek. I’ve seen it run bank-to-bank before Christmas, and in wet years the churning, angry creek has climbed to the point where homeowners perched high above start getting a little nervous.

Last week, an official with the State Water Resources Control Board talked about how runoff up and down California may be lower than expected, because the ground is so dry from four years of drought. Indeed, until the past 48 hours or so, we hadn’t seen much of an uptick in reservoir levels from the modest storms that had moved across the state.

That may be starting to change. These graphs depict storage levels over the past 90 days at a handful of major California reservoirs and at New Hogan Lake, which is critical for Stockton’s water supply:

Shasta Lake storage trend last 90 days

Lake Oroville storage trend last 90 days

Folsom Lake storage trend last 90 days


New Melones storage trend last 90 days

New Hogan Lake storage trend past 90 days

See the tiny upticks, especially at Shasta and Oroville (though noticeably lacking at New Hogan)? Hopefully that’s a good sign.

I asked Maury Roos, a senior hydrologist with the state Department of Water Resources, how long it might be until some of these creeks pick up a bit, and by extension, when some of the reservoirs might finally start climbing out of their doldrums.

“As a general rule, once we’ve had about 12 inches of precipitation the streams will start running fairly well,” Roos said.

As of earlier this week, the northern Sierra had about 5 inches of precip, and the San Joaquin watershed about 7 inches, he said. “A few more inches and we should start to see some inflow,” he said, prior to today’s significant storm. “Anywhere near an average rainfall year and they’ll start to pick up again.”

They’d better. I want to see our favorite Guerneville creek angry the next time we visit. But not too angry.

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Recent sea lion sightings not unusual, center says

A sea lion feeds on a fish in the Port of Stockton's turning basin in November. Record file photo by Clifford Oto.

Sea lions have inhabited the Delta for far longer than any of us have, but a recent string of sightings reported to me and documented on social media got me wondering if anything strange is going on this year.

First, Record photog Cliff Oto got this shot of a sea lion seizing a fish near the Port of Stockton in mid-November. About the same time, photos were posted to Facebook of a sea lion (maybe the same one?) fishing near the channel head in downtown Stockton.

Then I got a call last week from a woman who lives in Brookside, on the north bank of the Calaveras River. She told me that her son, a fisherman, recently saw a sea lion plying the waters of the Calaveras.

Since El Nino is to blame for everything, and if not El Nino then the drought, and if not the drought then “the blob,” I figured there must be some reason I’m hearing more anecdotal reports of sightings this year.

Or perhaps there’s no increase at all.

“Here at the center we have not seen an increase in the number of strandings of California sea lions in the Delta area either this year or in recent years,” said Laura Sherr, a spokeswoman with The Marine Mammal Center of Sausalito.

Sea lions thrive in both fresh water and salty water, she said. So a Delta that is saltier due to drought shouldn’t determine how many sea lions venture here.

“Most likely the animals are simply following fish availability,” Sherr said.

Maybe, she said, recent high profile cases of sea lion strandings and encounters with humans have simply raised public awareness that sea lions share our waters.

And then there’s the nifty smart phone camera, making the documentation of Delta wildlife phenomena easier than ever.

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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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