New Melones an ‘absolute mess’

That’s how Jeff Shields, general manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, described it to me the other day.

The key reservoir east of Stockton is 23 percent full and 40 percent of normal.

Last year at this time, with the drought already well underway, New Melones held more than a million acre-feet of water. Now it’s down to a little over half a million.

 

What gives?

“The fact is we just have not had any rain or snow in the upper watershed of the Stanislaus River,” Shields said.

This will, in fact, be the driest January on record in that watershed, with just .13 inches of precipitation upstream of New Melones at Beardlsey Lake, he said.

Sure, things got wet earlier this fall, but there was very little runoff into New Melones. That’s because the storms were spread out, Shields said. Reservoirs are replenished with runoff when multiple storms hit quickly. When there are long breaks between storms, the ground absorbs more water each time it rains.

What does this all mean?

South San Joaquin and neighboring Oakdale Irrigation District have senior rights to New Melones water. They are entitled to the first 600,000 acre-feet flowing into New Melones each year.

If there’s not 600,000 acre-feet of inflow, Shields said, the allocation is decided by a complex formula that would probably allow both districts to share about 450,000 acre-feet this year.

The forecast for the end of February is 544,000 acre-feet of water stored in the lake, Shields said. 544,000 acre-feet minus 450,000 acre-feet leaves us with 94,000 acre-feet to play with if there are no additional storms.

That certainly  explains why the city of Stockton isn’t expecting to receive its contracted New Melones water this summer. Stockton East Water District and the Central San Joaquin Irrigation District contract for 155,000 acre-feet collectively. That water might simply not exist.

That doesn’t even factor in flows for Stanislaus River fish, and flows to flush salt out of the south Delta. In the water-starved San Joaquin River watershed, New Melones plays prominently in both of those roles.

This year, as Shields puts it, “New Melones is an absolute mess.”

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‘Good news… for people who love California’s wild creatures’

A rare Sierra Nevada red fox. Courtesy Yosemite National Park

I asked Sierra Nevada red fox expert John Perrine if the recent sighting of a Sierra Nevada red fox at Yosemite National Park portends well for the species’ recovery. There are only about 50 of these foxes in the world (they are not the same as common red foxes).

Perrine’s response:

It certainly seems like good news…  For a while, the Lassen population was the only known remnant population of California’s native mountain red fox, which was concerning, because it was a very small, highly localized population.  The discovery of additional fox populations in other areas suggests that California’s mountain red fox is more abundant and more widespread than previously thought.  It is also a reminder of how solitary, elusive, and secretive these animals can be, because these populations have persisted for decades in the wilderness backcountry.

Of course, there could be negatives as well.  It is possible that some change in the foxes’ habitat has caused them to move more closely to human-occupied areas.  But that is pure speculation on my part.  At this point, I’m going to be optimistic and say that the available evidence is good news for foxes and for people who love California’s wild creatures.    

Perrine said there have been unconfirmed sightings in Yosemite for years. While genetic tests have not yet been conducted, he said he assumes that the Yosemite fox photographed recently would be more closely affiliated with the fox population at nearby Sonora Pass than the foxes at Lassen.

More than a decade ago, I accompanied Perrine into the Lassen backcountry in an effort to find foxes that had been equipped with radio collars. It was one of the first environment stories I ever wrote, so long ago that I can’t even find a link today.

As I recall we found a fox curled up beneath a gnarled tree only a half-mile or so off Highway 89. He/she was sleeping soundly and did not seem at all disturbed. It’s a moment I remember well, even if the Internet doesn’t.

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Not as much water on the brain

A new PPIC poll released tonight shows that 59 percent of California adults consider water to be a “big problem” — a high number, but coming down from a record-high 68 percent in October.

It appears all of that December rain washed this issue away, as far as some folks are concerned.

Not surprisingly, though, residents in the Central Valley know what’s up. Sixty-eight percent of Valley residents in the new survey still call water a “big problem.”

Los Angeles, where water conservation efforts lagged last fall, tied with the Inland Empire for the lowest level of concern with 55 percent of residents in “big problem” territory.

It’ll be interesting to see where all these numbers end up after another winter/spring saturated with news stories like this one.

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I must get this off my chest

It’s Sunday, so here comes my holy heartfelt confession:

My grandfather worked for the L.A. Department of Water and Power.

There. I said it. Yes, it’s true, fellow Stocktonians. Howard Earl Hillis — “Grandpa Hillis” to me, newspaper reader, crossword puzzler, coffee-guzzler and bequeather of Christmas presents — lived a double life as a cunning Angelino conspiring to suck every last drop from Northern California and, indeed, much of the western United States.

Here’s the proof:

UNLV Libraries, Special Collections

That’s Grandpa, with the mussed-up hair on the left side of this photo, dated May 26, 1954. He’s showing off Hoover Dam’s Los Angeles control room to mucky-mucks, including Spencer Butterfield, president of the Bank of Nevada (second from left), and Earl Shreve, national director of the U.S. Savings Bond and former vice president at General Electric (second from right).

Speaking of electricity, that was Grandpa’s game. Not water. Stand down, Nor Cal.

But in the latter half of his career, he moved to where the water wars began — Independence, in the middle of the now-desolate Owens Valley. He became a superintendent at the DWP station in town.

This was decades after L.A. first thrust its thirsty tentacles into the eastern Sierra. Still, I’ve long wondered what life was like for Grandpa in Independence, where there are more tumbleweeds than townspeople, and where a gaggle of old geezers drinking coffee in the lobby of the Winnedumah Hotel on a Monday morning can practically be called a town-hall meeting.

What would it be like to live in a little town like that and work for the “enemy?”

Unfortunately, I never asked Grandpa about it. He died 10 years ago last month.

In an oral history project a couple of years back, my mom, Judy, helped fill in some of the blanks. With a laugh, she remembered seeing a sign in a public restroom in Independence. “Flush the toilet,” it said, “L.A. needs the water.”

“There was a little animosity there,” Mom said.

“There were some experiences where (Grandpa) had to be something of a peacemaker,” she said. “People very much resented the Department of Water and Power. But it was probably the biggest source of income for them. There were a lot of local people hired. They’d go up into the mountains and measure the snow levels. There was a lot going on, and yet people don’t like big business a whole lot, either, when they have a lot of power.”

She concluded: “He (Grandpa) was well-liked, I think, but not always.”

OK, so the first part of this post was obviously written with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Grandpa was no turncoat. He was from L.A. — he moved to Northern California only after he retired from Independence.

And as a kid, of course, I was blissfully unaware that he had labored for the same agency that “filled up those L.A. swimming pools,” as folks around here might scornfully say. Grandpa was just Grandpa. He gave big tight bear hugs and said funny stuff like, “Good gravy!” when you told him you got an “A” on your report card. He wore big, thick glasses, he played the organ, and when I was a boy he let me sit in his lap and read books to him.

Grandpa and I, circa 1980

There was a piece in the New York Times today about empathy, or lack thereof, in the U.S. The article is really about socioeconomics. But I wonder if empathy is also missing in the endless argument over California’s limited water resources. Everyone’s so busy lobbing rhetorical hand grenades at each other, that there seems little time for moderate, reasoned debate, and even less time for considering the real people on all sides of these arguments, and the real people who will prosper — or suffer — based on the water management decisions we ultimately make.

I’m not saying people should compromise or give up their long-held positions in this “war.” And perhaps it’s naive to think that this is anything other than a zero-sum game in California, a game that will inevitably end with both winners and losers.

But is it too much to ask for an acknowledgement that we’re all human beings here? Real people, not caricatures of good or evil?

And while I’m asking for miracles on this Sunday, how about a little rain, too?

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Stockton’s New Melones water in jeopardy?

No surprise here, but the federal government is warning that the Stockton area might not receive all of its contracted water from New Melones Lake this year.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said as much in a late December letter to the Stockton East Water District. And as we all know, things have only gotten worse in January.

The bureau warned Stockton East that “there may be insufficient water supplies from the Stanislaus River and New Melones Reservoir to meet the full needs of the senior water rights holders and Central San Joaquin Water Conservation District.”

And that’s a problem for Stockton East, which is at the bottom of that pecking order.

Stockton East and Central San Joaquin together are contractually entitled to 155,000 acre-feet of water from New Melones, but the senior water-right holders South San Joaquin and Oakdale irrigation districts get their water first, and Central gets its share before Stockton East.

Last year, Stockton East officials were pleasantly surprised to receive a 55 percent allotment. We’ll find out in February, most likely, what’s in store this year. But it doesn’t bode well that New Melones is 39 percent of normal, far worse than any other major reservoir in California.

Less water from New Melones means Stockton must either:

• Take more from the Calaveras River, where New Hogan Lake is 38 percent of normal;

• Take more from the Delta, which could be problematic if there’s not enough flow to push back saltwater from San Francisco Bay; or

• Pump up more from below ground, possibly jeopardizing improvements in groundwater levels beneath Stockton in recent years.

Meanwhile, Stockton is on pace for its driest January on record, high temperatures are climbing into the 60s and there’s not a hint of rain in sight.

This is not good.

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Sunday trumpets

I finally attended one of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s sandhill crane tours at the Isenberg Crane Reserve west of Lodi.

Wave after wave of birds flew in at dusk. It was a spectacular sight, of course, but it’s the noise I’ll remember most.

Just a reminder, the free tours are offered on Saturday and Sunday the first three weekends of each month, through February. It’s not too late to sign up this year, but hurry — reservations are accepted up to six weeks in advance and the tours fill up quickly. All the details are here.

You can always show up the day of the tour and hope that there’s a no-show. Several folks who were on a wait list yesterday were able to participate.

Tours start at the reserve’s south property, but then you carpool to the north wetland which is not normally open to the public. There’s a little visitor center and a viewing area with benches and a covered roof, just in case it ever rains again in California.

And if you’re not a serious birder with high-tech gear, don’t worry. Organizers provided a couple of scopes giving folks a great view of the cranes after they splashed down in the wetlands several hundred yards away.

Check it out. You won’t be sorry.

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‘Substantial’ ad campaign for twin tunnels

A group calling itself Californians for Water Security launched a public relations campaign today in support of Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin tunnels project.

A press release says the “comprehensive, multi-year campaign” aims to “fix California’s broken water distribution system through implementation of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP),” as the tunnels plan is formally known.

Membership consists mostly of chambers of commerce and various farm groups. The NAACP is also listed as a supporter.

A phone number on the coalition website belongs to the Bicker, Castillo & Fairbanks Public Affairs office in Sacramento.

Expect a blitz of ads. Coalition spokeswoman Robin Swanson would not say how much money is to be spent on the campaign, but did say the ad buy is “substantial.”

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Grab those reading glasses

Maybe you saw Sunday’s story about the University of the Pacific recruiting volunteers to transcribe John Muir’s journals.

Wanna help? Here’s what you’re in for:

Two pages from John Muir's 1868 journal describing his journey across the isthmus of Panama, on the way to California for the first time. Courtesy University of the Pacific library, copyright 1984 Muir-Hanna Trust.

As the story points out, it’s not that Muir necessarily had bad handwriting. His letters, written in ink and presumably while sitting at a desk, are perfectly legible. His journals, not so much. They were written in pencil, as Muir stood atop mountains and glaciers, or on ships at sea. Those journals jostled about in his back pocket through some pretty wild adventures.

Is it any wonder they are harder to understand?

I’m hardly one to criticize Muir. Check out a page from my reporter’s notebook:

Deciphering Muir can’t be any tougher than deciphering my notes, and will surely prove much more interesting. (Plus, you can zoom in on the journals which makes it a lot easier.) Click here to get started.

A few more samples from Muir’s journals:

Muir's journals contain many sketches. These depict Inuit people who he met on a trip to Alaska in 1881. Courtesy University of the Pacific library, copyright 1984 Muir-Hanna Trust.

More Inuit sketches. Note writing around the periphery; Muir's journals are famous for his scribbling in the margins and up the sides of pages. Courtesy University of the Pacific library, copyright 1984 Muir-Hanna Trust.

Muir's signature on the first page of one of his earliest journals, describing his "Thousand Mile Walk" from Kentucky to the Florida gulf coast. Courtesy University of the Pacific library, copyright 1984 Muir-Hanna Trust.

Another page from the Thousand Mile Walk journal. Courtesy University of the Pacific library, copyright 1984 Muir-Hanna Trust.

This shows the stark contrast between Muir's letters and his journals. You can see the letter in the background, written clearly in ink. Obviously Muir meant for that letter to be read and understood. Lying open on top of the letter is one of his journals, the pencil markings much more difficult to read. Perhaps he never intended an audience for those journals. Now he's got one. Record file photo by Michael McCollum.

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What’s on tap — weekend of Jan. 10-11 and beyond

Thus returns what was once a monthly listing of outdoors events and environment meetings.

I guess you could say the calendar took a holiday break stretching from Halloween through New Year’s Day. Hey, don’t blame me — I was here working the whole time.

Saturday, Jan. 10-Sunday, Jan. 11: Sandhill crane tour at the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve west of Lodi. Tours offered first three weekends of each month from October through February. Registration required. More details here.

Saturday, Jan. 10: Guided walk at the Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge north of Stockton. 9 a.m. Expect a two-mile walk on a dirt trail leading to a platform overlooking some wetlands. Event repeats on Jan. 24. More details here.

Saturday, Jan. 10: Organic produce stand open every Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon at Boggs Tract Community Farm. Fruits, vegetables, eggs and honey available. 466 S. Ventura Avenue. More details here.

Saturday, Jan. 10: Electronic waste collection event hosted by Onsite Electronics Recycling. 9 a.m., San Joaquin Delta College Shima 2 parking lot. Other collections also planned elsewhere in San Joaquin County. More details here.

Saturday, Jan. 10-Sunday, Jan. 11: Woodbridge Wilderness Area open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. The area is typically open the first three weekends of each month. Explore a quarter-mile of Mokelumne River frontage. Free. More details here.

Sunday, Jan. 11: “Ducks in Scopes” at the Cosumnes River Preserve. Scopes for both children and adults will be lined up, lending good views of many colorful ducks and geese. 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Event repeats on Jan. 17, Jan. 24 and Jan. 31. More details here.

Monday, Jan. 12: “Managing Drought” symposium, hosted by the Public Policy Institute of California. Discussion will include lessons learned in 2014  and policy priorities for 2015. 9 a.m. Webcast available. More details here.

Tuesday, Jan. 13: Stockton East Water District weekly board meeting. Noon, 6767 E. Main St., Stockton. Agenda available here.

Tuesday, Jan. 13: Class, “Getting to Know Your GoPro.” 7 p.m., Stockton REI. More details here.

Wednesday, Jan. 14: Green Team San Joaquin meeting, 9 a.m. at the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce. Group consists of businesses and organizations trying to be green while saving some greenbacks. More details here.

Wednesday, Jan. 14: California Fish and Game Commission. 9 a.m. Agenda to be posted here.

Wednesday, Jan. 14: Delta Fly Fishers meeting. Speaker will be Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, head of Stockton-based Restore the Delta.  7 p.m., John R. Williams School. More details here.

Thursday, Jan. 15: Delta Protection Commission meeting in Stockton. 5:30 p.m., University Plaza Waterfront Hotel. Agenda available here.

Wednesday, Jan. 21: California Water Commission meeting. 9:30 a.m. Agenda to be posted here.

Thursday, Jan. 22: San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District board meeting. 9 a.m., Fresno. Agenda and webcast to be available here.

Friday, Jan. 23: “Sky Tours” stargazing event at San Joaquin Delta College parking lot. 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Come peer through scopes set up by the Stockton Astronomical Society. Free. More details here.

Saturday, Jan. 24: “Astronomy in the Park” at Oak Grove Regional Park. Come peer through scopes set up by the Stockton Astronomical Society. Viewing starts at sunset. Free, though admission to the park costs $6 per vehicle. More details here.

Saturday, Jan. 24-25: Sandhill crane tour starting at Cosumnes River Preserve. 3:30 p.m. each day. More details here.

Monday, Jan. 26: Sierra Club Stockton chapter meeting. Theme “Gasland: Can You Light Your Water on Fire?” Organizers will show a film about fracking. 7 p.m.,  Central United Methodist Church. More details here.

Tuesday, Jan. 27: Class, “Fitness Monitor Basics.” 7 p.m., Stockton REI. Learn how to keep track of what your body is doing while you exercise. More details here.

Saturday, Feb. 7: Guided hike at the Cosumnes River Preserve.  Expect a three-mile round-trip walk along raised levees past buttonbush thickets, native grasslands, valley oak forests, savannah and tule marsh. More details here.

Tuesday, Feb. 10: Audubon Society meeting. Theme: “Bats are NOT Flying Mice!” Lee Christianson will talk about how bats differ from other mammals and birds. 7:30 p.m., Central United Methodist Church. More details here.

Tuesday, Feb. 24: Class, “Refresh Your Run.” 7 p.m., Stockton REI. Learn the training and technique you’ll need to be a runner. Dress for light activities and drills. More details here.

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Go tell it on the river

This news got lost amid the holiday eggnog, but environmental advocates last month unveiled a new website intended to raise the profile of the largely invisible San Joaquin River.

From the river’s headwaters in the High Sierra, to its mouth in the west Delta, the site maps out parks, historic sites and access points where the public can enjoy the San Joaquin.

The San Joaquin River Partnership put together the “access guide,” which is also compatible with mobile devices.

“It’s a guide for people who are recreating, so that they can go to one place (on the web) to find a spot to do what they like to do,” said partnership spokesman Finn Telles.  ”One of the partnership’s goals is to make the community around the river as well as the whole region aware of the river. It really is a special place.”

The site is not absolutely comprehensive — it doesn’t include the levees encircling Stockton’s Brookside neighborhood, for example, a wonderful waterfront commodity — but it does mention Stockton staples like Louis Park and Buckley Cove Park.

The project was funded through a grant from the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program, among other organizations.

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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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