Ready, set, flow

Biologists check for salmon at the rotary screw trap on the Stanislaus River near Escalon. Record file photo

San Joaquin County is gearing up for the next big water tussle — new flow requirements on the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, including the Stanislaus.

By definition, if more water must stay in the river, then water users must take less. So you can see why this will be a big deal. KQED does a good job explaining.

I’ve been hearing these new rules are imminent, but I’ve also been hearing that for, like, two months. So who knows when we’ll actually see them.

Water users who may be harmed, however, are already stating their case — or certainly preparing to do so.

Last week, San Joaquin County’s water commission agreed to spend $20,000 for a consultant to study possible economic impacts. The consultant, Stratecon’s Rod Smith, perhaps better known as the “Hydrowonk,” is already doing such a study for neighboring Stanislaus County. San Joaquin will basically piggyback on that study.

Officials in Stanislaus are very worried about the new flow rules. In San Joaquin, the situation is a little different; we’re not all in the same boat, so to speak.

Many farmers on the east side of the county may stand to receive less river water from the Stanislaus. A number of local cities rely in part on the Stanislaus as well, including Escalon, Manteca, Tracy and Stockton (though the latter city is at the end of the line — Stockton hasn’t gotten a drop from the Stanislaus for the past two years).

On the other hand, any additional flows left in the river may benefit downstream farmers in the Delta, on the west side of the county. And any increase in water quality downstream could also help Stockton, since the city now draws a significant share of its drinking water from the estuary.

It’ll be interesting to see how hard San Joaquin County hits this issue, given the potential east-west divide. Though the $20,000 study was approved, three members of the commission abstained. That’s a bit unusual.

The South San Joaquin Irrigation District, which holds senior water rights on the Stanislaus, is also preparing for a fight. Last week, Fishbio, the fish consultants who work with the water district, announced that populations of rainbow trout (also known as steelhead, if they’re migratory) are at their lowest level in six years. That’s despite rules that took effect in 2009 that are supposed to help fish.

You can bet this will be a part of South San Joaquin’s case against the new flow standards.

For context, however, as my former colleague Dana Nichols reports, the farmers are the ones who divert most of the water that is available on the Stan.

Stay tuned. Eventually these rules will be issued. If not “imminently.”

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High Sierra helo rescue

Check out this helicopter rescue of a woman hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. The 66-year-old hiker was suffering symptoms of a stroke, but was able to activate a locator beacon indicating that she was in trouble, the Fresno Bee reported. The California Highway Patrol and the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office took it from there.

I’ve seen medical emergencies in the backcountry before. They’re scary. Without that beacon the patient in this case could have gone many hours or even days without treatment. A good reason to carry such a device, if you ask me.

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‘Still an opportunity’ to save the smelt?

Shortly before state water officials announced today that most urban water providers will no longer be subject to mandatory conservation targets, three environmental groups pleaded with the same panel for emergency flows through the Delta to prevent extinction of the smelt.

It’s normal for some smelt to die off this time of year as juveniles mature into adults, Jon Rosenfield, a conservation biologist with The Bay Institute, told the State Water Resources Control Board.

But something must be done to help a larger share of those babies make it to adulthood this year, he said. Most smelt live only one year, meaning every year is critical to the continuation of the species.

Additional flows would push saltwater back toward Suisun Bay. The smelt, which usually hang out near where freshwater meets saltwater, would head west and thus escape the predator-choked open channels of the interior Delta, among other benefits.

“There is still an opportunity to act to improve survival of this species,” Rosenfield told the board.

Despite understanding the need, water managers have allowed the saltier water to linger farther to the east this summer, the enviros say. And extra water that was promised for smelt about a month ago has not yet materialized.

Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council joined The Bay Institute in formally asking the water board last week for an emergency regulation that would increase Delta outflow to “avoid irreparable harm to the public trust.”

It is widely known that the smelt are close to disappearing from this planet. According to the environmentalists’ petition, the smelt was already at a record-low population in 2014; then, in 2015, the fish plummeted another 90 percent.

It’s unclear precisely where the proposed additional flows would come from. The environmentalists suggest tapping reservoirs other than Lake Shasta, whose supply is critical to keeping the Sacramento River cool for endangered winter-run salmon. They also suggest limiting downstream diversions and reducing exports from the Delta.

Their plan drew a stinging response last week from the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, a coalition of water districts that relies on Delta exports. The authority calls the concept of more Delta outflow a “more of the same” approach.

“Despite all of the sacrifice, billions of dollars spent, and millions of acre-feet of water dedicated to Delta smelt, their population decline continues unabated,” the statement says. “Farmers, fishermen, and environmentalists — everyone that truly cares about the status of our imperiled fisheries — should be furious. Decades old state and federal policies have failed and brought Delta smelt and salmon to the brink of extinction.”

On that last sentence, perhaps, some enviros and farmers can agree. But for vastly different reasons.

Water board officials said they will discuss the request.

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Tunnels hearing: The view from the cheap seats

Just for fun, here are a few random thoughts after the first three weeks of the water board’s twin tunnels hearing.

Disclaimer: I haven’t attended in person yet, and I’ve probably seen less than half of the hearing on webcast. Gotta have some time to actually report on this and other subjects.

That said, here goes:

1) Tam Doduc knows what she’s doing. Doduc, a longtime water board member, has the unenviable job of serving as the hearing officer — that is, as a sort of judge — in the tunnels case. She hears objections, occasionally poses her own questions, and keeps dozens of water attorneys in line which is no small feat. Doduc is a civil engineer by trade, not an attorney, but this is clearly not her first time presiding over a formal hearing.

2) Doduc doesn’t seem inclined to grant many of the numerous objections which state and federal attorneys have raised to questions posed by tunnels opponents. Lots of the stuff opponents bring up is irrelevant, the government attorneys argue, but Doduc’s philosophy seems to be, if in doubt, let them answer.

3) Never ask an engineer a question about modeling. Never ask an operations expert a question about engineering. Dozens — no, likely hundreds — of questions have been asked of witnesses who simply defer to other witnesses. And we wonder why this will take until February, or whenever.

4) Pity the poor court reporter who is attempting to keep a record. She’s the only one in the room who doesn’t know what “D-1641″ is, but she’s got to keep an accurate record of this and a zillion other nebulous terms. And then you get a guy like south Delta attorney John Herrick cruising along at 300 words per minute, and, well, like I said, pity the poor court reporter.

5) While some witnesses have been kept busy answering questions for days at a time, others must be dreadfully bored. State climatologist Michael Anderson has been sitting next to the other members of his witness panel since Wednesday, I think, but I’ve yet to hear him asked a single question. The other day, after sitting for hours, he got up and did some stretching exercises. I suppose it’s better to have a sore back after sitting so long than a sore throat after answering the same questions over and over again.

6) The chill saxophone tune played during breaks on the webcast is much nicer than the mindless repetitive music on Resources Agency press calls. Score one for Cal EPA.

7) I know less about the tunnels than I thought I did. And somehow, by the time this is over, I feel I’ll know even less. So why the heck am I watching? Because, once in a while, it is utterly fascinating.

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Whose logic is ‘nonsense?’

Got into a Twitter feud on Saturday night with someone who says my previous blog post, which attempts to put a human face on climate change in Stockton, is “nonsense.”

The post describes how a mentally disabled man who refused to use his air conditioner died in that monster 2006 heat wave.

It’s not that the commenter doesn’t believe in climate change, he went on to say. But in this case, the victim had access to air conditioning and declined to use it. Don’t blame global warming.

I don’t understand this logic. If the climate change-fueled heat wave hadn’t occurred, the air conditioner may not have been needed in the first place.

To be sure, absent climate change, there likely still would have been a heat wave. But it would have been less severe, scientists say. It’s possible Christopher Barron would have died anyway. We’ll never know.

But letting global warming off the hook because this man had an unfortunate disability is missing the bigger picture. It’s like blaming a fatal house fire on an elderly man’s inability to escape the flames, and ignoring the arsonist who set the blaze to begin with.

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Putting a human face on climate change crisis

Christopher Barron

For those who consider climate change to be a far-distant threat, or no threat at all, meet lifelong Stockton resident Christopher Barron.

He died 10 years ago today in the horrible 2006 heat wave that was exacerbated, at least, by global warming. At just 46 years old, he was one of the youngest victims in San Joaquin County.

Christopher was smart, a skilled musician and drummer who loved everything from Bach to the Beetles, his mother Leonora Barron told me last week.

And he was a devoted son, who talked to his mother almost every day and never forgot her birthday.

Christopher also suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder. Sometimes he would cross the street to avoid passing someone on the sidewalk. And if his feet got wet, he would point a hair dryer between each toe for a good 10 seconds to make sure he was perfectly dry.

He also sometimes refused to use his air conditioner because he believed it would release dust mites that would worsen his allergies.

And so it was, that after not hearing from her son for two days, Leonora stopped by his Pacific Avenue apartment after work. No one answered the door. She saw that a window was open, covered only by a screen. She looked inside, through the living room, and saw a pair of legs on the floor at the entrance to the bedroom.

She rushed next door, borrowed a kitchen knife and cut through the screen.

“I didn’t especially notice the heat,” Leonora said. “It was like I was walking or floating in a dream, trying to get there to the bedroom, not wanting to go there.”

He had been dead for some time, she said.

One decade later, Leonora thinks of Christopher every day. Especially when it’s hot.

“I still look for him,” she said. “That’s something you do when you lose someone. When I go places and see someone wearing a T-shirt of a color that he liked… I know it’s not him, but it’s very hard for a mother.

“It’s like you’re an amputee. Or a bird with a broken wing.”

Sometimes she second-guesses herself, thinking she should have been more aware of his vulnerabilities. But she also thinks society should take greater precautions during the next terrible heat wave. For example, she says, why not require the managers or owners of all Section 8 housing units to warn their disadvantaged tenants about the heat, and to keep a closer eye on them?

Climate change often seems a nebulous issue to the general public. We may not notice incremental heating over time. Local, short-term climate phenomena can mask global trends.

Yes, the 2006 heat wave would have happened even without broader climate change, one research meteorologist told me. The heat wave would have been significant, though perhaps not quite as extreme. Would Christopher Barron have died? We’ll never know.

But it is indisputable that he died as a result of a heat wave which scientists have linked to climate change. And don’t tell Leonora Barron otherwise.

“I think we do have to make some preparations,” she said.

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Tunnels and standards: Enough water for both?

The length of Sunday’s story on the state’s track record complying with Delta water quality standards forced me to leave a lot of material on the cutting room floor.

Including comments from Craig Wilson, the former Delta “Watermaster” who, until his retirement in 2014, worked for the same state water agency that is now holding extensive hearings that may decide the fate of the twin tunnels.

I asked Wilson his view of the state’s performance keeping the Delta fresh.

“I have to say that in general they have done a pretty good job in compliance with standards,” Wilson said.

When violations do occur, they are often inadvertent, slight, and quickly corrected, he said.

But here’s the rub: Wilson believes that if the tunnels are built, diverting much of the Sacramento River’s flow before the water reaches the heart of the Delta, that it will become that much more difficult in the future to meet downstream water quality standards.

“It’s going to take a whole heck of a lot of water,” he said.

Water which, if left in the Delta to satisfy the water quality standards, makes the $15 billion project less attractive financially for water users who must pay for it. “I don’t see how the customers are going to get much of a deal on that,” Wilson said.

That’s why Wilson has advocated for a smaller diversion on the west side of the Delta. That would allow water to flow through the estuary and satisfy water quality standards before getting slurped up and sent south.But so far, Wilson said, his proposal doesn’t seem to have gained traction.



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MWD boss on being a ‘good neighbor’

Now that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California officially owns 20,000 acres of Delta farmland, a question asked of General Manager Jeff Kightlinger at a public forum last week becomes even more relevant.

The question: As an absentee landowner in the Delta, what does it mean to Metropolitan to be a “good neighbor?”

Here is what Kightlinger said:

“That is a good question — what does it mean to be a good neighbor? I guess you could look at us an absentee landlord. That’s certainly not an unfair characteristic. What we want to do is figure out what is a good value use of that land in a way that also doesn’t have any impacts on locals and neighbors. Metropolitan owns 20,000 acres in the Palo Verde Valley, over by Blythe on the Colorado River. We have owned half of that land since the early 2000s, so for about 15 years now. We have worked very closely with both the the city and community there as well as the local water district. We’ve maintained it in farming but we’ve also fallowed parts of it to move water to us. We meet with them regularly to tell them our plans and we try to make sure it works in a way that works for both the community and for us. There’s been tensions at times. Sometimes they feel we’re operating it a little too much for a water benefit and they’d like to see more of a community benefit. We listened to that and try to work closely with them. So, that is what our board has said. We want to find ways that we can use this (Delta) land, assuming we do close on this land, in a way that’s locally beneficial and provides benefits to us. And we would want to hear from the community: Are we being successful in doing that?”

To which the moderator asked, “So how will they (the community) be able to reach you?”

Kightlinger paused, before joking, “Gmail.”

For the record, Delta Protection Commission Executive Director Erik Vink asked the question at a public forum hosted by The Sacramento Bee.

And yes, it’s a good question. Doubtless, folks will be vetting Kightlinger’s answer for decades to come.

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Farewell to a ‘river pioneer’

George Wendt, a legend in central Sierra Nevada river rafting, has died. But it’s not too late to get to know him:

Wendt took a chance leaving his job as a math teacher to start Angels Camp-based OARS, which eventually became a worldwide outdoors adventure company. Heartbroken by the flooding of the Stanislaus River after New Melones Dam was built, Wendt made it his mission to introduce as many people as possible to wild rivers, believing that if the people saw those places they wouldn’t want to destroy them.

Wendt was 74 years old.

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Smelt ‘resiliency plan’ or ‘last-ditch effort?’

State officials this morning released an “aggressive” plan to immediately help the Delta smelt, which may soon become the first species to go extinct in the Delta in nearly 60 years.

Most notably, the plan calls for additional summer flows through the Delta, this year ranging from 85,000 acre-feet to 200,000 acre-feet followed by up to 250,000 acre feet in 2017 and 2018. That’s on top of the regularly required flows. It’s a decent amount of water.

Smelt, most of which live only one year, do have a history of quickly bouncing back when flows increase. After 2011, the state’s only real wet year over the past decade or so, the smelt population soared. Then, of course, it promptly crashed again.

“With the best available science as our guide, we’re moving fast to improve conditions so that more young Delta smelt survive this year and reproduce,” said Chuck Bonham, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Not sounding so optimistic was Jon Rosenfield, a biologist with environmental group The Bay Institute, who told me that today’s plan is a “last-ditch effort to prevent extinction because we didn’t actually implement what the science said we should have done up to this point.”

In other words: Where was this water a few years ago?

During the worst of the drought, the state actually weakened Delta flow standards (temporarily)  in order to hold back more water in diminished reservoirs. And while Delta exports have at times been curtailed to protect the 3-inch smelt, those curtailments have not always gone as far as federal biologists thought they should.

Even the extra water promised as part of today’s plan is not likely enough to push saltwater far enough west to create suitable freshwater habitat, Rosenfield said.

He also criticized the timing of the plan, saying some of that additional water might have been helpful in June.

“Why is it taking them until mid-July to figure these things out?” Rosenfield said.

The plan says that the extra water could be purchased from willing sellers or could be made available through changes in Delta exports or releases from upstream reservoirs.

Other strategies include targeting invasive weeds in areas that are especially critical habitat for smelt, increasing flows into the Yolo Bypass to produce more fish food, restoring better than 5,000 acres of habitat over the next four years, and temporarily discontinuing the practice of dumping back into the Delta all of the nonnative fish that are collected at the export pumps.

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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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