Strange times as Delta rivers flow downstream

You know it’s a flood in the Delta when all of its rivers are actually flowing toward the ocean.

Earlier this week, the Old and Middle rivers, which normally run backward as they feel the influence of the powerful state and federal export pumps, began flowing downstream instead.

Evidently there is so much water coming down the San Joaquin River that even with the pumps churning away the rivers have taken on an overall “positive” downstream flow. That flow on Thursday was a solid 5,000 cubic feet per second.

This is good news for people who rely on water pumped from the Delta, because the pumps can run at or near capacity. And it’s good news for fish like the Delta smelt, which are sometimes sucked into the pumps when the rivers flow backward. Instead, their offspring this winter will be washed  miles downstream, experts say — possibly as far downstream as San Pablo Bay.

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Weird times in California water

Randy Pench/Sacramento Bee

Not sure I’ve ever seen a more perfect juxtaposition of California water issues than on Wednesday.

While Department of Water Resources engineers were inspecting a giant gash in the Oroville spillway, with the reservoir rising rapidly and a critical need to dump water downstream, the same state agency simultaneously announced a new report showing that the ground in portions of the San Joaquin Valley has continued to sink due to excessive groundwater pumping.

Of course, the subsidence report examines a time span from spring 2015 to fall 2016. The erosion problem up at Oroville happened just this week.

Still, the seemingly contradictory events shows how complicated and nuanced water issues are. Yes, we can be in a drought and a flood at the same time. Abundant rain and snow is not always explicitly “good” or “bad.” Quite often, it may be both.

Unfortunately, in today’s 140-character world, many people don’t have the time or willingness to accept such complexities. Check that: They have time. They just don’t want to.

Postscript: Almost forgot. The state water board extended emergency water conservation rules Wednesday, as well. These are strange times.

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A full tank of water tower nostalgia

Photo by Clifford Oto

It’s been fun monitoring reaction on social media to my news over the weekend that a half dozen of Stockton’s largest and oldest water towers will give up the ghost over the next few years.

A sampling from the Facebook groups Stockton History and Memories of Stockton:

–”I’m 58 and that tower has been there as long as I can remember. Feels like losing a long time friend/neighbor.” –Kenn Lujan Sonne

–”Let’s do an art project using lights on the towers and tanks. Or  murals. An homage to our history. Thoughts everyone?” –Cindi Fargo

–”I lived next door to the water tower on Atlee Street at Commerce Street, east of the University of the Pacific… we were sitting in the house when the Loma (Prieta) earthquake hit. My wife yelled at me, ‘What is this?’ I told her it was just an earthquake and to go outside. We went out on the front yard and looked up at that tower rocking about a foot and a half back and forth. The support cables were buckling and the tower looked like it was going to come down. This was very scary so we went toward El Dorado to get out of the way.” –Jim Stovall

–”They always looked like giant spiders at night. We kids would call them that.” –Vickie Ann Colatorti

–”I used to think they were alien ships.” –Kim Prato San Gabriel

–”Under that silver paint on the water tower at Flora and Buena Vista, you can find my sister’s name painted in big block letters that were painted in the middle of the night by her boyfriend of 1965. It must have impressed her. She married him a couple of years later.” –Wes Chisholm

–”I appreciate the history. But I won’t miss them.” –Darren Denison

–”I’ll miss them, and I didn’t even grow up here. Stockton is losing all of its character! Pretty soon we are going to have nothing but chain restaurants and strip malls.” –Terry Salcido

–”I guess everything and everyone will be gone one day. Nothing quite as constant as change.” –Donna Wright

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Water warrior steps down

Water activist Bill Loyko, at center.

Bill Loyko, one of Stockton’s original water watchdogs, is stepping out of the water.

Kind of.

Loyko was a leading force in the Concerned Citizens Coalition lawsuit that successfully challenged privatization of Stockton’s waterworks in the 2000s. The lawsuit also brought a new level of transparency to the city’s Municipal Utilities Department, with the formation of a citizens advisory committee that meets with MUD staff on a regular basis to chew over complex issues, like the big water rate hike approved last summer.

Loyko has been on that committee since the beginning. Today, he announced that he would step down once the City Council finds a replacement.

“We need to expand the knowledge of what we do out to some new people, preferably some people who are younger than me,” Loyko said.

That said, he’s still planning to attend meetings as a citizen.

The Water Advisory Group, as it’s called, is not a widely known committee, but it helped to create a level of transparency that many water agencies outside Stockton, quite frankly, could benefit from.

It’s a way for citizens to have their say before proposals go as far as the City Council level, at which point it may be almost too late to truly influence policy.

I’ve seen Loyko and other members ask knowledgeable and tough questions of city staff. Loyko told me after today’s meeting that he does believe some policies have been made stronger as a result.

Here’s hoping the WAG remains as active as it was under Loyko’s leadership.


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A shot I could never get

Photo by Calixtro Romias

This photo is why reporters with smart phones can never replace photojournalists.

At least, not if you want spectacular photos.

Record photog Calixtro Romias was cruising around last week when he happened to spot Phil Lee practicing his Kung Fu in front of an uprooted tree in Stockton’s Oak Park.

I’m not awful taking photos with my phone. I can usually come back to the office with something that will hold down the page. But I could do this work for a thousand years and I would never be lucky enough, nor skilled enough, to get a shot like that.

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Buildings vanishing!

Photo on left by the El Dorado National Forest Interpretive Association; photo on right by the Carson Pass Information Station

Shocking news: It’s been snowing in the Sierra. A lot.

The Carson Pass Information Station at the apex of Highway 88 has all but vanished, as you can see.

The statewide snowpack is 180 percent as of this morning. It’s already larger than the average April 1 snowpack, which is something, considering the fact that it’s not even February yet.

This is good news for California as long as the snow melts slowly and we are able to control it. Might not be so great for backpackers. Slogging through snow on the Fourth of July isn’t any fun, nor is a late mosquito hatch.

But we’ll have to see what the rest of winter has in store.

Kirkwood Inn. Courtesy the Carson Pass Information Station.

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Postscript on the ‘tunnel tree’

Courtesy the Calaveras Big Trees Association

Last word on the demise of the Pioneer Cabin Tree:

Amid all of the tears, and the anger directed toward the crude capitalists who carved a hole in her trunk and hastened her destruction, it’s worth pointing out that the magnificent tree had already been placed in a weakened state — at the hands of Mother Nature, not man.

Lightning struck the base of the tree sometime during the 1800s. A portion of the tree burned. David Coffin posted this photo on Twitter, which he said shows the tree after the lightning struck but before the tunnel had been built.

“Look closely enough, you can see daylight through the tree,” Coffin wrote on Twitter. “Not sure humanity’s crime is what ultimately did it in.”

Could it be that we’ve been too hard on our fellow man? Is it possible that tree was chosen to be hollowed out because it was already severely weakened — or did that simply make it an easier target?

Is it conceivable that, had the tree been whole to begin with, it might have been harvested many years ago rather than allowed to stand as long as it did?

Are we letting the facts get in the way of a good story?

I doubt it. Nancy Muleady-Mecham, an adjunct professor at Northern Arizona University and an expert on the giant sequoias, told me this shortly after the tree toppled:

“If nobody had put a hole in it to take away its structural integrity, and nobody put a trail through it, and if hundreds of thousands of people hadn’t kicked away dirt and pulled away pieces of wood, it would have been just fine for another hundred years,” she said.

And for anyone who believes that the Pioneer Cabin Tree might have been harvested long ago had it not been weakened by the lightning, consider the fate of the Mother of the Forest and the Discovery Tree, which were once two perfectly healthy trees. The former was stripped of all her bark in the mid-1800s — it was sent to New York and London for the public to marvel at — and is now merely a naked dead tombstone of a trunk. The latter was cut off at the base, the stump used as a dance platform and the fallen trunk as a bowling alley.

I don’t know what was in the hearts of the men who tunneled out the Pioneer Cabin Tree. But as the fallen giant becomes the latest exhibit in a garish display of mankind’s hubris, it is hard to give those men the benefit of the doubt.

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Moyle on latest smelt numbers

Update: Fixed typo below. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates 13,000 smelt are in the Delta, not 1,300.

Belatedly, here are some observations from native fish guru Peter Moyle about the latest Delta smelt surveys and the lack of a rebound last year, despite more water flowing through the system.

The bottom line: The numbers are low enough that any year-to-year differences that we might notice in the surveys “are not meaningful,” Moyle says.

He offers a shred of hope, noting that 200 smelt were found in a separate survey in December, “but one good sampling doth not a rebound make.”

Moyle’s words:

“1. First, remember there are three sampling programs that are used to monitor delta smelt, summer townet, fall midwater trawl, and fall & spring Kodiak trawl. The first two, designed originally to sample striped bass young, continue to catch smelt at record low levels. The Fall KT has had the same pattern until this month (December) when it caught over 200 smelt (227). The FKT program  is basically aimed at smelt so this could be interpreted as a population response to the wet cool conditions, pure luck, or focused sampling on a few places the smelt aggregate.  The UC Davis Fish Conservation and Culture Laboratory folks caught nearly 200 smelt near Decker Island (in Sacramento River)  a few weeks ago, to augment their breeding program. This ‘hot spot’ is often where smelt aggregate. USFWS estimates the total adult population is 13,000 fish ( but the take of smelt in these two programs suggests that the agencies are betting  more smelt exist out there that the estimate indicates.  It is important to recognize that when the numbers of fish become as low as they are today, one or two fish can make a big difference in the index for any species; this means there is a strong stochastic component to the numbers.  The trends for the species do suggest record low numbers but we have reached a point where year to year differences are not meaningful.  The ‘rebounds’ you notice are unlikely to be real.  Delta smelt, longfin smelt, and striped bass are sufficiently different in their spawning habits and areas that different factors may be affecting survival of larvae and juveniles when numbers are low.

“2. The fall midwater trawl and summer townet surveys were designed to assess the abundance of juvenile striped bass in the main channels of the Delta, but FMT is most often cited because it catches pre-spawning adult smelt and has a long record. It is fortuitous that delta smelt and longfin smelt used the same areas as juvenile stripers, so the FWT probably broadly samples them reasonably well, although the program does not sample key spawning for each species areas particularly well. It is a lousy sampling program for threadfin shad and splittail so their indices do not merit attention.  But I tend to accept the results of the FMT as our best indicator of smelt trends, recognizing its imperfections, especially if other sampling programs show the same pattern.

“3. Assuming a rebound in smelt is even detectable, there is at a least a possibility of improved conditions leading to improved numbers. But the indications from all sources (except possibly December FKT) are that smelt numbers are extremely low,  random factors (e.g. a school of predatory silversides being present in an important spawning area) could prevent recovery and lead to extinction.

“4. Another factor to consider is that  delta smelt are extremely sensitive to warm waters (greater than 20 degrees C) and this is just as important as flow for smelt survival. 2016 was another year of early spring warming, a trend we’ve been seeing for nearly a decade. The cool temps we are seeing now are good for the remaining fish but if Delta waters warm up early again we will not likely see a rebound in the smelt population. or at least not one that is detectable. A ‘test’ of this idea occurred in  2011 which had the coldest and latest spring-summer transition we’ve seen and there was a detectable increase in the smelt population.

“5. Curiously, the FMT may no longer be especially good at assessing juvenile striped bass numbers.  Our studies in Suisun Marsh, for example, do not show extreme decline in juvenile bass.  Striped bass can live up to 40 years, partly at sea,  and large females produce millions of eggs, so this species has the considerable potential to respond positively to improved conditions, especially if zooplankton are abundant in the spring window when larval/small juvenile  bass are present.

“The eternal optimist in me wants to see the recent Kodiak trawl catch as a positive sign of smelt resilience but one good sampling bout doth not a rebound make.”

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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 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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    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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