RIP to the ‘tunnel tree’

Calaveras Big Trees’ famous tunnel tree, more formally known as the Pioneer Cabin Tree, was toppled in today’s storm. Park volunteer Jim Allday of Arnold discovered the sad scene and took these photos.

Photo by Jim Allday

 

Photo by Jim Allday

 

Photo by Jim Allday

Word spread quickly tonight. Some expressed anger. It seems logical, after all, that the tree’s demise may have been hastened by mankind’s desire to saw a giant hole out of the trunk more than a century ago.

But most were just plain sad.

“This tweet hit like a gut punch,” one reader wrote.

“Many memories at that tree. Always a great photo op with the family there,” another said.

The public’s response today was “just amazing,” Allday said.

“People are in absolute shock,” he said. “The shame of it is that the history of the park is tied into this tree quite a bit. The inside of the Cabin Tree was covered with etchings from the 1800s. Those are lost now.”

I’ll have more details about the story behind the tree tomorrow. Keep an eye on recordnet.com. In the meantime, Allday sent the following historic images. I look at these, and I have to think: They know not what they did…

Calaveras Big Trees State Park archives

Calaveras Big Trees State Park archives

 

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Tunnel construction in 2018?

A press release last week about the release of 97,000 pages of final environmental documents for the Delta tunnels says construction will begin “as soon as 2018.”

We’ve heard projections like that before. In January 2009, the Schwarzenegger administration said construction on a peripheral canal — the predecessor to the tunnels — would start in 2011. Nearly eight years later, here we are still talking.

Granted, the approval process is further along this time. But there are still obstacles to overcome, including approval from the State Water Resources Control Board and financing agreements to divvy up the cost among various groups that would receive water through the tunnels.

And of course, there is the inevitable litigation.

It’s been suggested to me that some kind of ceremonial groundbreaking could take place even before all these other hurdles are cleared. That could certainly expedite the start of construction, if only symbolically, with gold-plated shovels rather than colossal tunnel-boring machines.

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Does water bill override biops? Sure looks like it.

There was much talk Friday night on the floor of the U.S. Senate about whether the controversial California drought legislation now awaiting the president’s signature overrides the biological opinions that protect Delta fish or, by extension, the Endangered Species Act itself.

Depending on which senator was doing the talking, it definitely does or it definitely doesn’t.

I haven’t had the opportunity yet to speak with ESA experts on the very specific and technical language in the bill. But there is one provision that I think is fairly clear, saying that the secretary of the Interior:

In other words: During storms, the secretary would have authority to increase export pumping from the Delta above and beyond the maximum pumping level allowed under the ESA-mandated biological opinions, which in their current form are intended to prevent species from going extinct.

The feds wouldn’t always have this level of discretion. At other times, the bill simply allows the pumps to operate at the maximum level allowed under a specific range that is already outlined within the biological opinions (i.e., presumably, if the range allowed under the biops is -1,500 to -5,000 cubic feet per second, pumping would be allowed at -5,000 cfs).

See this other language, for example:

That’s very different than the first section I referenced, which, once again, allows the feds to pump at an unspecified level that exceeds the range spelled out in the biops. (If you want to read the California drought language in its entirety, it starts on page 584 of the bill.)

Remember, we are talking about biological opinions that were found by the National Academy of Sciences in 2010 to be “scientifically justified,” though far from perfect.

(Incidentally, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who helped broker the last week’s deal, asked the NAS to do its 2010 study after Delta exporters saw their water supplies slashed during the drought of the late 2000s, which was partially a result of the biological opinions.)

The legislation contains a caveat. Pumping can exceed those maximum levels only if it will not harm fish beyond what might be expected “for the duration” of the biological opinions. The significance of that language, I don’t know.

Bottom line: It appears the language referenced above does, in fact, override the biological opinions under certain circumstances. But if I’m missing something, please drop me a line and let me know. Learning as we go here.

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Same data, different headlines

These headlines ran in the L.A Times (left) and the Sacramento Bee (right). Both stories concern the same subject: The release of California's water conservation statistics for the month of October.

I spotted these seemingly conflicting headlines on DWR’s water news roundup yesterday.

What gives? Who’s right?

Confusing as it may seem, both stories are correct. The journalists are looking at the same numbers but are comparing them in different ways.

The L.A. Times story (on the left) focuses on the fact that following a somewhat alarming drop-off in water conservation rates in August, savings have slowly ticked upward in the ensuing months. Back in August, conservation levels fell from 20.1 percent to 17.6 percent (compared to 2013), after officials eliminated water conservation mandates for most cities. That slide, however, appears to have been stopped or even reversed, with savings of 18.3 percent in September and now 19.5 percent in October.

Thus, the Times’ conclusion that our efforts have slightly improved.

What about the Sacramento Bee’s story (on the right)? Rather than focus on month-to-month trends, the Bee story begins with a comparison of October 2016 with October 2015. Our 19.5 percent savings this past October were lower than the 22.5 percent saved the preceding October. In that sense, our efforts are lagging behind last year and have been for several months now.

My own story was more along the lines of the L.A. Times: That the decline in conservation seen earlier this summer appears to have stabilized, though we got lucky with a lot of rain in October which reduced outdoor demand.

Either story angle, however, is perfectly legitimate.

Bottom line: These issues are nuanced, and there’s only so much room in a headline or a lede to convey the complexity. People would be wise to read entire articles before reaching a conclusion. But in today’s 140-character world, I’m under no illusion that is likely to happen.

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‘It’s truly an amazing thing’

For those who have never had the chance to paddle down a salmon-bearing stream. Great stuff (well — except for that rope swing business. What were you thinking, dude?).

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About that 40 percent number

The Stanislaus River near Calaveras Big Trees. Record file photo

It seems simple enough: The State Water Resources Control Board, arbiter of equitable water use in California, wants to leave 40 percent of the water in three streams feeding the San Joaquin River south of Stockton.

To the surprise of no one who follows this stuff, it’s more complicated than it sounds.

Let’s ignore, for the moment, that the board has actually proposed a range of river flows from 30 percent to 50 percent, starting at 40 percent. I can only handle so much complexity, so we’ll just examine that 40 percent number.

What, exactly, does it mean? You could look at it two ways: One, that even after the board requires higher flows, that more than half of these rivers — the Stanislaus, the Tuolumne and the Merced — will still be diverted for human use. The science says that if you really want to restore salmon runs, it should be the other way around.

Or, you can look at how little water has traditionally been left in these rivers during the driest of years — as low as 5 percent or 6 percent on the Tuolumne in extreme cases, according to one commentator at today’s hearing. Cast in that light, 40 percent starts to look like a pretty big number.

That’s why we’ve seen a host of extremely critical opinion pieces published by newspapers around these parts, particularly the Modesto Bee, which ran a column earlier this week likening the water board to a drug addict obsessed with getting a fix (water, in this case) at any price.

Forty percent. Interpret this number with caution. Context is important.

For one thing, some folks may be thinking that the water board intends to increase flows by 40 percent. That’s not the case. It’s an increase to 40 percent.

An increase from what? According to the water board, about 21 percent of the water has historically been left in the Tuolumne River. On the Merced, it’s about 26 percent. And the Stanislaus is already close to 40 percent.

But one fish biologist suggests examining these numbers more closely. Jon Rosenfield, with environmental group The Bay Institute, points out that the numbers in the previous paragraph are based on the years 1984-99 only.

If you look at 1995-2014 — which makes sense, since 1995 is the last time that water quality standards were significantly updated — flows have been 28 percent, 30 percent and 43 percent on the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus respectively. according to Rosenfield.

That’s right: Using those other years as a baseline, flows on the Stanislaus have already topped 40 percent. Rosenfield says the water board’s plan could result in less water flowing down the Stan.

Across the three rivers, the biologist told me in an email last month, “The increase in flows is incremental and… entirely inadequate to restore viable salmon populations.”

Could even this “incremental” change cause serious harm to humans? The water board has said that increasing flows on the rivers will cost water users about 288,000 acre-feet of water per year on average. Of course, averages are just that — averages.

In wet years there’ll be plenty of water for people while still meeting the new flow target. No problemo. It’s in drier years when conflicts could emerge. State officials acknowledged at today’s hearing that farmers will likely need to pump more groundwater to compensate for a decrease in surface water, among other consequences. But when it comes to quantifying those impacts the water board and water users are miles apart.

I don’t pretend to have the expertise needed to vet those numbers myself, and I certainly won’t try here. All I know is that nothing is as simple as I’d like it to be. Not even a nice round number like 40 percent.

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For Stockton, tunnels about quality AND quantity

One detail was omitted from last week’s write-up on the city of Stockton’s concerns about how the Delta tunnels might impact the city’s new water treatment plant.

This is a bit wonky. Stick with me.

The story is all about the city’s fear that water quality will deteriorate at the intake for its $220 million drinking water plant, forcing expensive treatment upgrades that could jack up rates, theoretically, by up to 200 percent.

But it’s not just water quality that is of concern. It’s quantity, too.

That may sound strange. The Delta is tidally influenced. There is always water physically present at the city’s intake on Empire Tract.

But Stockton’s water right is a bit unusual. The water right allows the city to divert only as much water as it puts back into the Delta at its wastewater treatment plant, a number of miles upstream near the Port of Stockton.

This means the city is basically reusing its wastewater, though not necessarily the same actual molecules of water.

That’s cool, but here’s the concern: The city says saltier water at its drinking water intake means saltier water must be processed at its wastewater treatment plant. And if the water at the wastewater plant is too salty, the city may not be allowed under its permits to release as much of that treated wastewater back into the Delta.

And if the city can’t put as much water into the Delta, it can’t take as much out to begin with — even though there will be plenty of water physically present to divert.

A vicious cycle.

Again, all of this is theoretical. Using Delta-wide models, state officials have determined that water quality impacts at Buckley Cove, which lies between the city’s drinking water intake and the wastewater pipe, would see only very modest changes to water quality.

I haven’t heard the city dispute that finding, but Stockton officials would still like to see the state provide some analysis for waters closer to either end of the city’s waterworks.

The city was subject to “considerable scrutiny” when it received its own water right more than a decade ago, Municipal Utilities Department Assistant Director Bob Granberg testified before the State Water Resources Control Board.

“The city is simply asking the state board to require that petitioners resolve our protest concerns and impose conditions that will protect the city’s water supply,” he said.

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Not giving up: Dino’s take on Prop. 53

Here is Dino Cortopassi’s full statement, issued late Wednesday, about the status of Proposition 53:

“The closeness of the Prop 53 vote (currently 51% – 49%) means the final outcome will be delayed until 100% of all votes cast are reported. 

“In the interim, my personal congratulations to each and every one voting Yes on 53 (currently 4+ million Californians)! Funded by Sacramento Gang Politicians and Porkers, the No on 53 campaign threw everything at you that $20+ million could buy! Opposition included: hundreds of grant-hungry local entities; major funding from Special Interests who feed at the Public Trough; newspaper Editorial negativity; a barrage of blatantly false TV ads; and over the past three weeks, Governor Brown bombarding you with Robo calls and emails; statewide Press Conferences; and increasingly snide attacks on Prop 53 and me personally.

“Taken as a whole, the No on 53 campaign seemed analogous to German Panzer Divisions waging ‘Blitzkrieg’ on Poland in 1939. In the meantime, the Yes on 53 campaign relied on me providing personal interviews to journalists willing to consider Prop 53 on its merits; and two newspaper ads in major newspapers. That’s it! Of the total funds my wife and I contributed, 80% was spent on qualifying Prop 53 and less than 20% ($1 million) on promoting its merits.

“Think about the disparity of $20 million to $1 million campaigns plus the additional political clout of the Governor’s Sacramento Gang?!  By normal measurements, Yes on 53 should have been crushed by the No on 53 onslaught – but it wasn’t! And the reason is every one of you who voted Yes figured out the truth about the Debt Dragon that threatens Californians today and tomorrow!

“I’m proud of each Yes on 53 voter and I hope we are in the majority when 100% of votes cast are counted. If we are not in the majority, don’t despair because the truth torches we lit together cannot be extinguished, and the Sacramento Gang’s Debt Dragon will be leashed! Whether Prop 53 ends up at 51% or at 49%, We have Won – Thank You!”

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Big bucks against Dino Cortopassi

Sylmar-based Tutor Perini, an engineering firm, contributed $50,000 to the campaign against Proposition 53, which would require voter approval on large state projects like high-speed rail and the Delta tunnels. Tutor Perini won a nearly $1 billion contract to build the first leg of high-speed rail, and as shown in this screenshot from Tutor Perini's website, the company is involved in the "Bertha" tunnel drilling project in Seattle.

Opponents of Dino Cortopassi’s Proposition 53 have dumped more than $19 million into the race, including more than three-quarters of a million dollars on Wednesday alone, according to reports from the California Secretary of State.

Gov. Jerry Brown has been hitting 53 hard. And man, is there a diverse group rallying around him on this one.

Following is a list of some of the donations that caught my eye. This is NOT a comprehensive list. Of course, you can peruse the numbers yourself here.

(As a reminder, Prop. 53 would force a vote on state revenue bond projects topping $2 billion, including, likely, high-speed rail and the Delta tunnels, both of which are considered to be Brown’s “legacy projects”.)

Supporting the governor in opposing Cortopassi’s measure:

• Walter Robb (Whole Foods CEO): $25,000

• Facebook: $50,000

• Bicycle Hotel and Casino (Bell Gardens): $50,000

• George Marcus (Silicon Valley billionaire): $250,000

• Tutor Perini (engineering company building high-speed rail and involved in a Seattle tunnel-drilling project): $50,000

• Laurene Powell Jobs (widow of Steve Jobs): $50,000

• Comcast: $100,000

• 20th Century Fox: $250,000

• Disney Worldwide Services: $100,000

• Jeffrey Katzenberg (CEO of Dreamworks): $100,000

• Warner Brothers Entertainment: $50,000

• “Brown for Governor 2014″ (loan): $4.1 million

• Thomas Girardi (L.A. attorney, handled Erin Brockovich case): $100,000

• David Geffen (producer; think “Interview with the Vampire” and “Beetlejuice”): $100,000

• Stewart Resnick, (Beverly Hills billionaire, owner of Kern County’s Paramount Farms): $100,000

• Jerrold Perenchio, (Former chairman of Univision): $500,000

• L. John Doerr (venture capitalist): $1 million

• San Manuel Band of Mission Indians: $500,000

• Michael Moritz (venture capitalist): $100,000

• Kaiser Foundation: $240,000

• California Hospitals Association: $250,000

• The Geo Group (Florida-based private prison company; Brown vetoed a bill in late September that would have forced a Geo Group facility in Adelanto to close): $100,000

• Sierra Pacific Industries: $125,000

• Larry Flynt: $100,000

• Lytton Rancheria (Sonoma County tribe): $500,000

• California Democratic Party: $1.25 million

For his part, Cortopassi and his wife, Joan, have spent about $5 million to advance the measure. They have not solicited contributions.

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Swimming upstream on chloramines

Stockton Mayor Anthony Silva, in a screen shot captured from Facebook video

With the election closing in, Mayor Anthony Silva continues to question the use of chloramines to disinfect Stockton’s drinking water despite assurances from multiple levels of government that the chemical is generally safe.

“We haven’t finished the discussion on chloramines,” Silva says in a video posted to his Facebook page on Tuesday. “Do we know it’s truly safe for us to drink? Other cities out there disagree. I would like to look at more research. I would like the City Council to revisit this. Right now I don’t know if it’s safe for us to drink, or if we should be drinking bottled water.”

I responded to the mayor’s post with a link to some chloramines information from the Environmental Protection Agency, but my response appears to have been deleted. So I’ll repost it here. In the words of the feds:

“Water that contains chloramines and meets EPA regulatory standards is safe for:

• Drinking

• Cooking

• Bathing

• Other household uses.”

Here’s the reality: While no water treatment method is perfect, chloramines are not an issue of serious concern in the mainstream scientific community. Just a few weeks ago, I “attended” a webinar on chloramines hosted by the American Water Works Association — a nonprofit research group funded by water agencies — where experts addressed some of the very concerns that Silva, Erin Brockovich and other advocates have raised.

Among them, that chloramines cause health problems like mouth ulcers, skin rashes, digestive problems, etc.

“There is very little peer-reviewed information to support any of the claims,” said Ben Stanford, an environmental scientist and director of applied research with New York-based Hazen and Sawyer, an engineering firm.

Stanford said he didn’t want to be dismissive of people who have reported such symptoms.

However: “If we’ve got 45 percent of people on public water supplies — or 100 million Americans — being exposed to chloraminated water, we just simply don’t see those massive rates of issues out there,” he said.

This finding isn’t limited to industry-funded groups like the AWWA. As I reported last January after the chloramine issue exploded literally overnight in Stockton, the federal Centers for Disease Control went to Vermont in 2007 to investigate possible health problems after a similar community controversy ignited in Chittenden County. You can read the CDC’s final report here.

Unfortunately, the feds learned that anti-chloramine advocates had been “coaching” Vermont residents, telling them that their health problems were related to the drinking water and prompting them how to respond to investigators’ questions. So the results of the study were considered biased.

The controversy didn’t end when the CDC left town. So, a few years later, Vermont’s state toxicologist conducted a review of all the available scientific literature on chloramines and human health impacts. She found that chloramines use “is not likely to result in adverse health effects” and that the only reason a larger-scale epidemiological study hadn’t been done was that there wasn’t enough underlying science to justify the time and expense.

So what’s good about chloramines?

Chloramines are a weaker disinfectant than chlorine, which Stockton has relied upon for decades, but they stay in the pipes longer and are more effective at reducing concentrations of cancer-causing disinfection byproducts. Mark LeChevallier, AWWA’s chief environmental officer, used the ol’ tortoise and the hare analogy: Chlorine is the fast-moving but over-reactive hare, while chloramines are the slow and plodding (but ultimately victorious) tortoise.

Chloramines can form other potentially harmful byproducts which are not yet regulated, but here’s the important part: Water systems that switch from chlorine to chloramines, as Stockton just did, have seen an overall decrease in byproducts, LeChevallier said

As for lead, while Washington, D.C. suffered through a spike in lead contamination after converting to chloramines, that was at least partially a result of the city’s older lead pipes (which Stockton doesn’t have) and failure to put an adequate corrosion control plan in place.

“Many factors influence metal release from pipes,” LeChevallier said. “The type and amount of disinfectant is one of them. But it’s far more complex than saying, ‘If you switch to chloramines you’re going to have a lead problem.’”

Chloramines can eat away at rubber plumbing fixtures, but so can chlorine. Parts that are resistant to both disinfectants are now widely available.

Both are toxic to fish. Chloramines persist longer in the water and may be a greater threat as a result, but still, reports of chloramine-related fish kills in rivers and streams appear to be fairly rare even though large cities might experience hundreds of water line breaks in a single year, Stanford said.

“The key is not to minimize this and say, ‘You’ll never have this in your city,’” he said. “But what’s the risk?… What we are doing is evaluating and balancing risks and tradeoffs. There is no perfect solution anywhere.”

I’m certainly no expert on water treatment or water chemistry. But on the science of chloramines, Stockton’s mayor is swimming upstream.

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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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