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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Lawsuits, get yer lawsuits here

8/24: Updated with Placer County Water Agency, Anderson-Cottonwood Irrigation District, city of Brentwood, North Delta Water Agency, Sacramento Municipal Utility District

8/23: Updated with complaints from Butte County and cities of Folsom, Roseville

I’ll try to post all of the newly filed Delta tunnels lawsuits here. If I’m missing anything, please drop me a line — I’d like to hear about it. Thanks.

Anderson-Cottonwood Irrigation District

City of Antioch

City of Brentwood

• Butte County

• Delta counties, Delta farmers, etc.

East Bay Municipal Utility District

Cities of Folsom and Roseville, San Juan Water District and Suburban Sacramento Water District

Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District and other Sacramento Valley water districts

• North Coast Rivers Alliance, commercial fishing groups, Winnemem Wintu tribe

Placer County Water Agency

North Delta Water Agency

• Restore the Delta, Friends of Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, Save Our Sandhill Cranes, various environmental groups

City of Sacramento

Sacramento County

Sacramento Municipal Utility District

Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District

• Save the California Delta Alliance

• City of Stockton

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A more nuanced message on Delta tunnels

Delta tunnels proponents really want you to read the latest blog post by fish experts Peter Moyle and James Hobbs. The project’s official Twitter account, @CAWaterFix, has tweeted links to the post six times over the past day.

“Dr. Moyle & Dr. Hobbs explain why they are optimistic about #CAWaterFix from a fish perspective,” one tweet reads.

The scientists do share some reasons for optimism, explaining their “qualified support” for the project. But they use just as much digital ink, maybe more, describing the potential pitfalls of this “giant experiment that may or may not work as promised, no matter what the models and experts say.”

The new fish screens on the Sacramento River will be “pushing screening technology to the limit,” Moyle and Hobbs write. If something unexpected happens, it is unclear exactly how the adaptive management process will function and how decisions will be made. And the scientists acknowledge that it may be hard for skeptics to accept official promises that the project will not result in a substantial increase in water exports from the Delta.

The trust concern ties back to issues like the temporary urgency change petitions that Gov. Jerry Brown used to weaken Delta water quality standards and save more water during the drought, without going through the standard environmental review process. For tunnels opponents, that begs the question: What will some future governor do when the first drought strikes a tunneled Delta? What will happen to the rules that are supposed to govern tunnels operations? Will Lucy pull away the football?

Same thing with Congress, which seems to be perpetually considering legislation that would ramp up Delta exports. Who will be in power in 2035, after the tunnels become operational? 2040? 2050? What will the political climate be then? Will someone try to override Delta protections? Of course, there’s no way to tell.

Reducing exports may actually be the best chance for endangered fish, the scientists conclude in their post, but the “realities of California water politics” make such an outcome unlikely. Of the remaining alternatives, they say, the tunnels are best.

All of this is simply to suggest that we read the full post. Don’t just really on summaries (including this one) or whatever supporters or opponents are saying on social media. Moyle and Hobbs deliver a nuanced message.

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Good gravy! It’s in the 80s

Notice anything different today? Stockton’s longest streak of 90-degree-plus weather in half a century has finally ended.

National Weather Service

July 1 was the last time we fell short of 90 degrees. Since then it’s been 93 degrees or worse. Such a 43-day barrage of above-average heat is unusual, even for the Central Valley in July and August.

Which is why today’s 86 degrees never felt better.

Of course, it’s too much to ask for an extended period of below-average temperatures. The city is likely to be back in the 90s by midweek.

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Litigation trepidation. I have it.

With Lawsuit-Palooza Episode II expected in theaters on or before Aug. 21, I can’t help but wonder how impossible it’ll be to keep tabs on all of this.

We’re talking Delta tunnels litigation now, and as former San Joaquin County Supervisor Larry Ruhstaller used to say, this will be like playing three-dimensional Tic-Tac-Toe in the dark with catcher’s mitts on. (I think that’s what he used to say. Sorry if I got that wrong, Larry.)

More succinctly, this is gonna be a mess.

First, the state’s decision to move forward with the tunnels last month started a 30-day clock that expires on Aug. 21, by my count. That’ll be the deadline for tunnels opponents to file lawsuits challenging the project under the state’s California Environmental Quality Act. Everyone and his dog who lives north of Tracy will file.

But wait. It couldn’t be that simple, right? Because the tunnels will convey water that belongs to both the state and federal water projects, the feds are partners in all of this. They’re expected at some point to announce their own decision to proceed. And that means a whole ‘nother set of very similar lawsuits filed in federal court.

What happens if state courts rule one way and federal courts the other? Don’t ask me.

We’re not finished. These are the lawsuits targeting the environmental documents that justify the project. We’ll have an entirely new round of litigation when (and if) the State Water Resources Control Board decides to modify the projects’ water rights, allowing their water to be diverted from a new location. We’ll have a new round of litigation when (and if) the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers grants a permit to modify wetlands. And we’ll have a new round of litigation when (and if) the Delta Stewardship Council finds that the tunnels are consistent with the Delta Plan (which, by the way, is itself still being litigated).

Oh, and there are the lawsuits challenging the federal wildlife agencies’ biological opinions which have already been filed.

And there may well be other points of entry for tunnels opponents that I”m not aware of.

Good luck to anyone trying to sort this out in the coming weeks, months and years.

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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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