Just another long road trip

A Baltimore Oriole. Photo taken by Andy Reago/Chrissy McClarren at Emmenegger Nature Park in St. Louis.

Most often, the only Baltimore Orioles you’ll find in Northern California are the 6-foot-tall variety that migrate to the Oakland Coliseum a couple of times each year.

Members of Stockton’s Audubon Society, however, are excited about a Baltimore Oriole — the bird, that is — spotted recently at Westgate Landing Regional Park just north of Highway 12, in the Delta west of Lodi.

The bird was first seen by Dave and Pat Croft last Friday, according to local birder David Yee. Several others have since seen him. Apparently he is a very loud fellow, and quite active flying back and forth between the trees in the park.

“Here in San Joaquin County, this is only the second time a Baltimore has ever been found,” Yee wrote me in an email. “The first was back in the early 80s… There are probably less than 10 records total of Baltimore Orioles for the entire Central Valley, so it is a rarity indeed.”

Baltimore Orioles are typically found east of the Rockies, but they do nest as far west as central Alberta in Canada.

And, like any bird that migrates long distances, they sometimes stray far from their typical range. Often, young birds will simply go the “wrong way” and fly west toward California, instead of east where the majority of the population goes, Yee said.

Clearly, these birds need smart phones.

Speaking of which, if anyone gets a photo of our wayward friend, send it my way. Otherwise, it’ll be a long wait for the next opportunity — the rest of the Orioles aren’t due to arrive until early August for a three-game series against the A’s.

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Despite drought, new lawn at Delta College

(Photo courtesy Delta College)

Unlucky timing?

With water use in California coming under more scrutiny each day, San Joaquin Delta College is installing a grass lawn for the new plaza that has long been planned next to the new math and science building on the northeast side of campus.

Perhaps sensitive to public impressions of water waste, the college sent out an email today letting us know that the seeded area must be watered 10 minutes to 15 minutes a day for three or four weeks, followed by watering two or three times a week for another month.

Only then will the grass be established enough to further reduce watering in light of the drought, wrote Delta Vice President of Operations Gerardo Calderon. He noted that the grass was “desired by many” on campus.

For the water-aware, however, he adds that the college is reducing all other landscaping to a two-day watering schedule on Monday night/Tuesday morning and Thursday night/Friday morning. (The Stockton City Council, by the way, is set to consider twice-weekly watering citywide on Tuesday.)

And, Delta’s looking for ways to get rid of turf in other areas.

“Facilities is currently working to identify areas to remove existing turf and convert to drought tolerant planting,” Calderon wrote. “Facilities is working with the California Department of Water Resources to determine if (the college) qualifies for its lawn replacement program.”

And he adds, ominously, “A number of trees on our campus are perishing. Staff will consider possible removal of those trees.”

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Good news on groundwater?

San Joaquin County engineers check the water level at a well on the west side of Oak Grove Regional Park last summer. Photo by Craig Sanders.

Strange to see “good news” and “groundwater” in the same sentence, but San Joaquin County could be close to resolving a reporting problem that right now makes the county ineligible for millions of dollars in water-related grants.

Background: Last fall, the state Department of Water Resources determined that not enough information was available about local wells. The county was judged to be out of compliance with a state monitoring program, making the county ineligible for grants from previous voter-approved bond measures as well as the new Proposition 1 water bond.

That put the county in a tight spot. Local officials wanted state money for water projects, obviously, but they also didn’t want to upset private property owners who have allowed San Joaquin County access to monitor well levels for better than four decades.

Well construction details are a sensitive subject for some landowners. They don’t want the information to be released to the public. (It can’t be, under the law, but that’s a subject for another time.)

Anyway, the county sent out 160 letters asking well owners if they would allow the county to provide those details to the state.

And here’s the news: Brandon Nakagawa, the county’s water resources coordinator, said in a meeting this morning that the response was “overwhelming.”

The county got 85 or 90 responses, he said. Many well owners agreed that the information could be shared.

So, a plan to get back in the state’s good graces was submitted on Friday. If the plan is accepted, local agencies can once again apply for water-related state grants.

“Hopefully we’ll have good news soon,” Nakagawa said.

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For Delta smelt, eight is not enough

After locating just one Delta smelt in extensive surveys last month, officials apparently found eight this month, clustered in the area of the Sacramento Deep Water Channel.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife

That’s still a very poor showing. Last year’s May survey turned up 28 fish. The year before that, 19. The year before that, 121.

But there was only one way the results from April could have gotten any worse. And that, at least, didn’t happen.

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Everyone wants to fix something these days

As if sorting through the different interest groups in California water wasn’t complicated enough, we now have opposing causes that go by virtually the same name.

The governor’s twin tunnels plan has been renamed “California WaterFix.”

If that sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because independent engineer Bob Pyke already had a website called “Fix CA Water,” where he promotes his Western Delta Intakes Concept, an alternative to the governor’s plan.

I won’t even get into the California Water Fix Coalition, the little-known group that Fritz Grupe helped convene to search for common ground on water (that group took no position on the tunnels).

This reminds me of the confusion a few years ago over Restore the Delta vs. the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta. Similar names. Opposite interests.

The water wonks might be able to keep all of this straight. But can the public?


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‘Substantial’ ad buy for twin tunnels supporters

A group supporting the twin tunnels has a new TV spot, airing as of yesterday.

Here it is:

A spokeswoman for Californians for Water Security said the ad is running in targeted markets statewide, including a “substantial buy” throughout the Bay Area. Asked what “substantial” meant, she said, “well into the six figures.”

Californians for Water Security is one of several entities engaged in a social media war over the Delta. It claims support from business  and agricultural groups, labor and water users, among others.

Its primary opponent, Stockton-based Restore the Delta, has accused Californians for Water Security of being an astroturf group carrying water for south Valley growers intent on sucking the estuary dry.

Bottom line: The tunnels plan might have a new name, but the arguments sure look the same.

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Scary trend at New Melones

Last Thursday, about 9 p.m., New Melones Lake east of Stockton dropped below 500,000 acre-feet for the first time since 1991.

What’s the significance of that number?


This graph — it kind of reminds me of one of those bumpy slides at the playground — shows storage at New Melones dating back to spring 2011, when the reservoir was full almost to the brim.

What’s happened since? Well, the reservoir has lost on average about 500,000 acre-feet per year.

That wouldn’t be such a problem if New Melones was rebounding by 500,000 acre-feet per year. Obviously, it’s not. You can see in the graph how small the bump is each wet season, compared with the decline the following spring and summer as water is released for farms, cities and the environment.

So here’s the bottom line. The deal reached recently between senior water-right holders on the Stanislaus and the federal government calls for about 150,000 acre-feet of water to be left in New Melones at the end of September, after all users have had their (reduced) share. 150,000 acre-feet is roughly 6 percent of capacity. The reservoir could bottom out even lower, if fall rains are late arriving.

If next winter’s another dud, New Melones won’t have 500,000 acre-feet of water to lose.

The reservoir would go broke. And there is no overdraft protection.

Those bumpy slides always have a bottom.

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The strangest water story you will ever read

And here it is. Warning: You may get a headache.

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The ‘blob’ is back

NOAA image. The orange blob toward the left indicates warmer-than-normal temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, which is characteristic of El Nino.

Federal officials report a 60 percent chance that El Nino conditions will persist in the Pacific Ocean through next fall, which of course is generating the usual speculation about what this means for drought-stricken California.

This past winter it meant nothing. After months of toying with us, an El Nino did finally materialize in March, but it wasn’t a strong one. Wet years in Northern California correlate only with strong El Ninos.

You’d think the public might be more skeptical this time around.

But state officials have the opposite fear. They worry that the public might become complacent. After all, we associate “El Nino” with months and months of nonstop rain. The drought will get kicked to the curb and we can all go back to our wasteful ways… right?

“It really sends the wrong message when we’re encouraging people to do conservation programs and really focus on that,” said Jeanine Jones, a drought manager for the state Department of Water Resources. “We have to plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

Spring forecasts of El Nino are “notoriously not very reliable,” she added.

So don’t plan your sprinkler schedule this weekend around a forecast that might or might not materialize six months from now. In this case, a little skepticism is a good thing.

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A purple lining amid the drought

Photo by Jim Marsh

Calaveras River enthusiast Jim Marsh had an unusually upbeat take on the drought at least week’s State of Our Rivers symposium in downtown Stockton.

He pointed out that Stockton is better than 3 inches ahead of last year when it comes to rainfall. And as a result, a 3-acre native grass restoration site along the Calaveras is flourishing.

“You can talk about drought as a regional phenomenon, or you can talk about it as a microclimatic phenomenon,” Marsh said. “From my experience, at the 3-acre site, this year compared to last year is exceptionally diverse. The growth has been phenomenal this year.”

It’s easy to forget that our precip numbers here in the Valley aren’t as bad as last year (though they’re still below normal). Overall, of course, California’s drought has worsened because of the lack of snow in the High Sierra.

But if you take Marsh’s advice and keep your eyes peeled, you might see signs of hope around Stockton.

“It’s been really surprising,” he said.

Photo by Jim Marsh


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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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