More confusion than clarity in tunnels EIR

Gov. Jerry Brown spends quality time with the massive Delta tunnels EIR. Photo courtesy the governor's office

The final version of Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin tunnels plan is better than earlier drafts but still contains “key flaws,” independent scientists say, including an environmental impact report that is so chock full of facts that it doesn’t tell a clear story.

The latest draft critique marks the Independent Science Board’s fifth review of various iterations of the tunnels plan. Their criticism isn’t really about the tunnels themselves, but rather the documents that are being used to justify their construction.

The final EIR is like the drafts before it, “failing to communicate clearly the principal findings and uncertainties of an enormous report,” the panel concludes.

This isn’t all on the architects of the plan, the scientists add. EIRs are supposed to be understandable to the general public, but courts have often thrown them out because they’re not comprehensive enough. The result? EIRs that, for big projects like the tunnels, can total tens of thousands of pages filled with jargon and veritable acres of gray text.

In short, most EIRs now favor comprehensiveness over clarity and readability. And the the tunnels plan is no different.

The problem is that the lack of clarity puts many regular people (including yours truly) at a disadvantage. This includes members of the general public who may be most affected by a project — in this case, Delta residents themselves.

Those who wrote the tunnels EIR “followed what the laws, regulations and permitting processes require,” the science board says. “They faced enormous challenges from such a large and complex system. Yet the Delta’s problems are so important that project proponents should go far beyond the norm when providing and synthesizing scientific information.

“Environmental impact assessments for (the tunnels) have missed opportunities to increase understanding of the Delta as an ecosystem, a water supply, and as a place where people live and work.”

Some of the other issues raised by scientists in their latest review:

• The EIR doesn’t contain enough details about how so-called “adaptive management” would actually work. This criticism should sound familiar to those who have followed the tunnels issue over the last few years. Adaptive management is a way to deal with uncertainty about the future of the Delta that could lead to unexpected changes in how the tunnels must be operated.

The report explains why adaptive management is important, but not the details of how it will actually be done, the scientists say. That plan should be put in place now, they say, not after a decision has been made and officials have already pushed forward with the project.

• The report doesn’t “systematically” address how the tunnels might affect Delta levees and relies on seismic risk studies more than a decade old (a concern, since seismic risk is one of the justifications for building the tunnels in the first place).

• The report also doesn’t go deep enough on the potential impacts of climate change on the project, nor reductions in groundwater availability in the overtapped San Joaquin Valley, which could increase demand for Delta water.

Officials may not want to speculate about things like that, the scientists say, but ”reasoned speculation… is an important part of science and public policy discussions.”

• The report doesn’t look closely enough at potential environmental impacts of providing more water to those agricultural areas, such as pesticide use and agricultural runoff.

• The report is “overly optimistic” about how quickly wetland restoration projects will offset environmental impacts of building and operating the tunnels.

• Finally, of particular interest to Delta residents, the impacts of construction are “substantively” addressed but are not presented in a coherent way, with the details scattered across many chapters and not summarized in a way that might help Delta people understand what to expect.

A final version of the critique is expected to be released this week. I’ll post it here along with any major changes to the draft.

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Back on the porcupine beat

A woman called this morning. “This may sound strange,” she said, “but are you the person who wrote an article about porcupines?”

I immediately knew what was up. Every once in a while someone calls me to report a porcupine sighting. See, I wrote a story in 2012 about how porcupines are increasingly rare in the Sierra Nevada. So when people see a porcupine, and they hop on Google to find out how unusual that is, they find my old article and give me a call.

The weirdest such call came a couple of months ago. I wasn’t here so the guy left a voicemail. “I found a porcupine in Winnemucca, Nevada,” he said. Click.

Photo from the National Park Service

Today’s caller, 33-year-old Harper Dial of South Lake Tahoe, was a bit more talkative. But get this: Harper hasn’t seen just one porcupine. No, she’s seen seven of them, over a period of less than three years.

“A bunch of people have told me that they don’t believe me,” she said. “Then they’ve seen one with me. It’s very weird. I think they’re like my spirit animal. I know that sounds really dumb.”

One of the porcupines Harper hit with her car. She took him to a wildlife refuge, and eventually the animal recovered and was released back into the forest.

“I was happy when I went back and it was alive,” she said. “I felt a lot better about the whole thing.”

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Sierra and I’ve never seen a porcupine. Though I’ve never lived there, either. Certainly someone who lives at Tahoe would be more likely over the long haul to have that experience.

Porcupines aren’t endangered. Why have they become more difficult to find? One theory is that porcupines, which have a slow reproductive rate, have never fully recovered from aerial poisonings administered by the government in an effort to protect timber half a century ago.

Whatever the cause of the apparent decline, I’m glad Harper called. If one person saw seven porcupines, then there have to be a heck of a lot of them out there, right?

Any bets on how long before I get another call?

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Coming soon: Tunnels news

As this piece in the Sacramento Bee reports, things are going to start happening quickly on the Delta tunnels front.

Biological opinions describing the project’s possible effects on fish and wildlife may be finished by June 9, according to information presented at a recent Metropolitan Water District of Southern California committee meeting. The opinions are critical to allowing the tunnels to move forward.

Separately, the agencies that would receive water from the tunnels must soon decide whether they’re worth paying for. On Aug. 14, a Metropolitan committee is expected to discuss a potential financing and cost allocation plan, which could then go before the water agency’s entire board on Aug. 22 and theoretically be voted on Sept. 12.

A Metropolitan official told committee members last week that there has been an “increased intensity” of meetings in Sacramento over the question of how to allocate the $15 billion cost.

Here we go. Buckle up.

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Yeah, I’d say the snowmelt is on

Eagle Creek — which dumps into Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe — was running with such force on Monday that you could probably feel the spray just by watching this little video.

On the west shore of Tahoe, nearly all of the snow above about 6,500 feet has melted, but there are little waterfalls everywhere you look as the snow in the higher, impassable wilderness continues to melt.

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Video highlights S.J. County’s flood risks

Lodi resident and videographer Cyndy Green has spent months roaming San Joaquin County in search of compelling flooding and storm imagery.

The result of her labor: a 15-minute video she produced for the county Office of Emergency Services. Check it out. There’s some good information here about the region’s complex flood challenges.

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No pivoting on Smith Canal gate

Elected officials showed no signs of backing off the Smith Canal flood gate project on Thursday, despite a bit of added pressure from the community.

Three separate times, the San Joaquin Area Flood Control Agency board — made up of members of the Stockton City Council and San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors — voted to move forward with various aspects of the $37 million project.

But not before they heard from a handful of people who expressed some familiar, ongoing concerns about the need to build a flood gate in an area that has not flooded in modern times.

The critics included Dominick Gulli, a levee engineer who is suing SJAFCA, and Ernest Tufft, who lives on Smith Canal and has recently become quite vocal about his opposition.

Tuftt urged the board to slow down. “This winter, the performance of those levees was amazing,” he said. “Take a deep breath, relax, and think about this for the long term.”

But two board members who responded to the criticism suggested that the ship has sailed.

“This was discussed and debated extensively for years,” said Supervisor Kathy Miller.

Failure to build the gate would leave thousands still on the hook for flood insurance, and possibly more to come if FEMA widens the flood zone as the agency has suggested it will.

“As passionate as you are about not putting up this wall, we also hear from people who cannot afford the flood insurance,” said Supervisor Tom Patti. “Not a single person in this room woke up and said, ‘Guys, we want to build this wall, we think this is a great idea because we’ve got nothing better to do’… We are forced into the position we are in.”

The turnout for Thursday’s meeting was larger than usual, for a SJAFCA meeting, but that’s not saying much. All told, four people — including Gulli — shared their concerns with the project.

Among the items approved Thursday was the fourth yearly assessment for residents in the flood zone, who voted narrowly to pay for a share of the gate. The latest assessment, which averages $171 for a single family home, will raise nearly $1.7 million. Officials divulged last year that a portion of the assessment fees are also paying for SJAFCA’s legal defense against two lawsuits including Gulli’s.

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Stockton of the future?

Let’s tour Stockton in the year 2100, should an unlikely but “plausible” 10 to 12 feet of sea level rise occur.

Buckle up.

(And by the way: You can look up your own neighborhood — heck, even zoom in on your own house — by clicking here and following the directions.)

Homes in far west Brookside, one of the lowest places in Stockton

More Brookside homes

You'll have to take a boat to Council meetings at Stockton City Hall.

Dameron Hospital

San Joaquin Delta College. The koi are liberated.

The Haggin Museum

Interstate 5 at March Lane

The downtown In-Shape building

Tell me it ain't so... In-N-Out on March Lane is decidedly "out."

San Joaquin County Jail

The water would stretch as far east as the Miracle Mile.

Oak Grove Regional Park becomes boat-in only.

Grocery store at March Lane and Quail Lakes Drive

Spanos Cos. headquarters along Interstate 5 in far north Stockton

Spanos Park West. Some homes completely underwater.

Show's over at Stockton Arena.

Just about every seat is flooded at Stockton Ballpark.

An overview of Stockton, looking from the west toward the east

Weberstown Mall

Trinity Parkway commercial area in northwest Stockton

University Plaza Waterfront Hotel, downtown Stockton

University of the Pacific

The former Washington Mutual building in downtown Stockton

Stockton's wastewater treatment plant near the Port of Stockton

Weston Ranch in southwest Stockton

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Holy CDEC*: New Melones hits 2M acre-feet


New Melones Lake soared past 2 million acre-feet of storage over the past few days, a level that no one thought possible (well, I certainly didn’t) a mere six months ago.

The reservoir is now at its highest mark since 2011.

And still rising. This afternoon’s heat has pushed inflow above 9,000 cubic feet per second as Sierra snow begins to melt.

New Melones is now encroaching into space reserved for flood control. And as a consequence, officials are finally releasing substantial amounts of water from the dam — about 5,000 cfs on Tuesday.

At last, the downstream Stanislaus River is experiencing the kind of high flows that every other San Joaquin River tributary has seen for months now.

Let’s be glad the Stan was late to the party. The fact that the Stanislaus was a relative trickle in February is what saved the lower San Joaquin River region from potentially experiencing a much more serious flood.

I won’t say something dumb like “New Melones reaching 2 million acre feet is another sign the drought is over.” It is, of course.

It’s also another sign that we’re not out of the woods on flooding. It’s time to start paying close attention to Stanislaus River flows and what that means for the entire lower San Joaquin basin.

* For those uninitiated: CDEC is pronounced “C-deck,” which rhymes with “heck.” Clever, huh?


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State’s survey of other tunnel projects scrutinized

As the Delta tunnels hearings resumed in Sacramento this week, an engineering expert for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California testified that many other large tunnels have been drilled “without incurring risk or injury to project stakeholders.”

A list of other tunnels projects surveyed by Delta tunnels officials

But in their “detailed” survey of these projects spread across two continents, Delta tunnels proponents did not actually talk to nearby landowners, who would presumably be considered “stakeholders.”

Instead, officials relied on their meetings with project designers and owners, construction managers, and on written reports available on the Internet.

“In none of those discussions did any issues related to injury to users or other anomalies come up,” testified MWD’s John Bednarski, referring specifically to the Lee Tunnel, a 4-mile drain intended to divert London’s stormwater to a treatment plant.

Testimony of John Bednarski

Stockton attorney Thomas Keeling, representing San Joaquin County in the ongoing hearings, pressed Bednarski on his written testimony that none of the nine projects he referenced caused any harm.

“You made no independent effort to interview local businesses?” Keeling asked, this time referencing the Eastside Access Tunnel in New York.

“No, we did not undertake that,” Bednarski said.

“You made no independent effort to speak to local residents or farmers?” Keeling asked.

“No, we did not do that either,” Bednarski said.

Testimony of John Bednarski

The question of whether other “stakeholders” (ugh, I hate that word) may be harmed is central to the Delta tunnels case. In the hearing underway now, the state must prove that other legal users of water won’t be “injured” by the $15 billion project.

Keeling objected that the names of the experts that Bednarski and other Delta tunnels officials consulted with on these other projects were not included in his testimony. DWR attorneys said that information could be provided.

I can’t just sit around and watch this whole thing as the weeks and months pass. But I’ll try to catch bits and pieces of it. And when something interesting comes up, I’ll post it here. Tips and suggestions welcome.

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‘I’m staying out of the twin tunnels’

That’s what U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein told the crowd at a town hall meeting last night in Los Angeles. Watch her remarks on this clip at 1:08:14 and 1:11:14 (hat tip to Restore the Delta).

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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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