State’s survey of other tunnel projects scrutinized

As the Delta tunnels hearings resumed in Sacramento this week, an engineering expert for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California testified that many other large tunnels have been drilled “without incurring risk or injury to project stakeholders.”

A list of other tunnels projects surveyed by Delta tunnels officials

But in their “detailed” survey of these projects spread across two continents, Delta tunnels proponents did not actually talk to nearby landowners, who would presumably be considered “stakeholders.”

Instead, officials relied on their meetings with project designers and owners, construction managers, and on written reports available on the Internet.

“In none of those discussions did any issues related to injury to users or other anomalies come up,” testified MWD’s John Bednarski, referring specifically to the Lee Tunnel, a 4-mile drain intended to divert London’s stormwater to a treatment plant.

Testimony of John Bednarski

Stockton attorney Thomas Keeling, representing San Joaquin County in the ongoing hearings, pressed Bednarski on his written testimony that none of the nine projects he referenced caused any harm.

“You made no independent effort to interview local businesses?” Keeling asked, this time referencing the Eastside Access Tunnel in New York.

“No, we did not undertake that,” Bednarski said.

“You made no independent effort to speak to local residents or farmers?” Keeling asked.

“No, we did not do that either,” Bednarski said.

Testimony of John Bednarski

The question of whether other “stakeholders” (ugh, I hate that word) may be harmed is central to the Delta tunnels case. In the hearing underway now, the state must prove that other legal users of water won’t be “injured” by the $15 billion project.

Keeling objected that the names of the experts that Bednarski and other Delta tunnels officials consulted with on these other projects were not included in his testimony. DWR attorneys said that information could be provided.

I can’t just sit around and watch this whole thing as the weeks and months pass. But I’ll try to catch bits and pieces of it. And when something interesting comes up, I’ll post it here. Tips and suggestions welcome.

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‘I’m staying out of the twin tunnels’

That’s what U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein told the crowd at a town hall meeting last night in Los Angeles. Watch her remarks on this clip at 1:08:14 and 1:11:14 (hat tip to Restore the Delta).

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Searching for Delta asparagus

Delta asparagus awaits packaging at the Kings Crown packing shed. Photo by Clifford Oto

Update: Beyond just grocery stores, here’s a new story listing other places you can still get the good stuff.

This month’s story on the steepening decline of Delta asparagus left out one important thing:

Where can you still find it around here?

I’ve spent the past several days trying to find out, sampling a dozen major grocery stores in Stockton. The labels can be confusing, and the source of the asparagus isn’t always entirely clear; if anyone has specific knowledge about any of these locations and would like to provide clarification, please reach out to me and I will update this list.

Here’s what I found:

• Food 4 Less, March Lane. Asparagus from Mexico. $1.99/pound.

• Grocery Outlet Bargain Market, Pacific Avenue: Asparagus from Mexico. $1.99/pound.

• WinCo Foods, March Lane: Asparagus from Mexico. $1.98/pound.

• Smart & Final, Hammer Lane: Asparagus from Mexico. Labeled says “Americas Asparagus” with image of North and South America. $1.99/pound.

• Trader Joe’s: Asparagus from Mexico. $2.49/12 ounces or $3.99/12 ounces for organic.  Microwavable container from Mexico and Peru for $3.49.

• Rancho San Miguel: Asparagus from Mexico. $2.99/pound.

• Save Mart, Quail Lakes Drive: Asparagus from Mexico. $3.99/pound.

• Safeway, Pacific Avenue. Asparagus labeled as a “product of the USA” but no additional information given. Safeway did not respond to request for clarification. $3.99/pound.

• Raley’s, Morada Lane: Some asparagus labeled as a “product of the USA” and some from Mexico. Distributed by Stockton-based Grower Direct Marketing, which does handle some Delta asparagus. $2.99/pound. Organic California asparagus for $5.99/pound.

• Walmart, Trinity Parkway: Asparagus labeled as “California grown” but no additional information given. Walmart did not respond to request for clarification. $1.97/pound.

• Marina Marketplace, Benjamin Holt Drive: Asparagus labeled “product of the USA” but no specific location given. Two bundles for $3.

• Podesto’s: “Delta Queen” asparagus from Stockton-based Klein Family Farms. $3.49/pound. Organic asparagus grown in Capay, west of Woodland, for $4.99/pound.

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More on Delta tunnels impacts

A schematic by the state Department of Water Resources shows what one of the three intakes to the Delta tunnels might look like.

Wildlife agencies are still writing the permits that would be required to build Gov. Jerry Brown’s Delta tunnels, but bits and pieces of the draft documents have been posted online, along with a report from a independent peer-review panel of scientists.

While the scientists’ job wasn’t to directly weigh the merits of the tunnels, they did examine the methods that the wildlife agencies are using to measure the project’s impact in a wide range of areas.

And they concluded that the agencies “have provided evidence that some aspects of the (project) will have significant adverse effects on listed species and critical habitat.”

This non-scientist finally went through the panel’s findings. They are complex and nuanced. Some of the details, as best I understand them:

• There are “numerous” construction impacts. The estimated 15,000 barge trips needed to bring construction materials into the Delta could cloud up the water and increase the risk of chemical spills. The docks built to accommodate those barges could turn into hiding places for hungry predatory fish which will chow down on the natives. And if they’re not eaten, the native fish may be stressed by all of the construction noise.

• Habitat for threatened Delta smelt may be diminished if cofferdams are used in the Sacramento River during construction. Those dams would be built within the river to drain the water from the area where the intakes to the tunnels will be built. A natural consequence of those dams is that the river itself will have less room to handle downstream flows, which means water will travel through the area at a faster velocity.

Those faster flows may effectively prevent smelt from accessing habitat farther upstream. On the other hand, the dams could help to keep construction impacts away from sensitive areas inhabited by fish.

• Once the tunnels are operational, and the dams are removed, loss of habitat might still be a problem because smelt won’t be strong enough to swim past the three very powerful intakes, which will each be more than 1,000 feet long. The probability of any fish successfully passing all three of the screens is “almost certainly less than 0.04 percent,” the panel found.

Hundreds of acres of new fish habitat would be created elsewhere to offset the loss above the intakes, but it could take years or even decades for habitat restoration to reach maximum benefit.

Still, on the south side of the Delta, if the tunnels allow for fewer smelt to be killed at the existing pumps, then it’s possible the fish may become better established on the San Joaquin River, which would be good news. Overall, the project should result in a net reduction in the “entrainment” of smelt, the panel found.

• Another habitat impact: During the summertime, with the tunnels in place, saltwater will move farther upstream in the Delta, potentially prohibiting smelt from accessing downstream, open-water habitat in the Suisun Bay area.

• For salmon, the three screened intakes collectively are expected to kill 5 percent to 10 percent of the migrating juveniles. But that may be an underestimate. “Realistically, fish successfully navigating past any one screen may be weakened by the effort, and hence their loss/injury rates are likely to increase for the next screen, and again for the next,” the panel found.

Overall, they found the operation of the tunnels may cause a “significant reduction” in the survival of endangered winter-run Chinook salmon. And even small changes in survival rates “could lead to significant population-level impacts.”

• On algae: If the tunnels are in place and the south Delta pumps are used less often, higher flows in that area could reduce harmful algae blooms. But that problem may instead occur at the Sacramento River near the intakes, where algae hasn’t historically been an issue.

• Many uncertainties remain about the impacts of the tunnels. While “adaptive management” is a tool officials can use to change the way the project is operated as scientists learn more about those impacts, the success of adaptive management will depend on how robustly those plans are executed, and who is in a position to make decisions about how the tunnels are operated.

• The draft permits consider climate change only through 2030, not a long enough window of time.

More to come on this, of course, once the permits themselves are published.

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Latest Smith Canal court document

Stockton levee engineer Dominick Gulli — who applied for a contract to fix Stockton’s Smith Canal flood insurance problem, then sued when he wasn’t selected — has filed a third amended complaint at San Joaquin County Superior Court.

The complaint appears to be shorter this time, but still covers a lot of ground (read it for yourself). Gulli accuses the San Joaquin Area Flood Control agency of wasting taxpayer money and of being too cozy with the contractor that was ultimately selected for the project.

Gulli seeks to block the construction of a flood-control gate that is supposed to get thousands of residents out of FEMA’s high-risk flood zone. Gulli’s lawsuit, and another filed by an entity calling itself the Atherton Cove Property Owners Association, have cost more than $800,000 to fight, SJAFCA officials said recently.

The money for the legal fight is coming from the assessments paid by property owners, assessments that were supposed to pay for the gate.

More to come as these lawsuits continue to wend their way through the courts.

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Even in flood, smelt captured at Delta pumps

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

State and federal water exporters are approaching a key limit to the number of imperiled Delta smelt that can be “salvaged” (read: killed) at the south Delta pumps.

Make no mistake, it’s been a great water year for people and fish alike. Conditions in the Delta for smelt and other species are the best they’ve been in years.

But for reasons experts can only theorize about, smelt have been showing up at the pumps off and on since January. As of today, 57 smelt have been counted there; this year’s “take” limit, as determined by scientists, is 64 fish.

If you bust through your take limit you risk getting shut down. So the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has asked its counterpart, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to consider raising the limit. (The state’s not pumping right now because of damage at Clifton Court Forebay.)

No decision has been announced. But in its March 17 response to the bureau’s request, Fish and Wildlife notes that the exporters’ planned operations through April “will maintain favorable conditions for Delta smelt” and says the agency will work closely with the exporters to “adaptively manage and avoid or minimize impacts.”

Salvage at the pumps. Graph from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife

Jon Rosenfield, a biologist with The Bay Institute, an environmental group, expressed a word of caution about increasing the number of fish that can be killed. The limit was set at 64 for a reason, because the science considers that to be the number of fish that can be taken at the pumps without jeopardizing the species, he said.

“There has to be a biological rationale for allowing more take than would previously have prevented jeopardy,” Rosenfield said.

Rules for how much water must flow through the Delta were temporarily weakened each of the past three years because of the drought, and smelt populations reached new historic lows. The population will likely increase this year, but every adult smelt taken at the pumps is one less fish available to produce next year’s progeny.

“We need to capitalize on every opportunity we have to bolster their populations,” Rosenfield said.

Non-scientist that I am, I was surprised to learn that smelt were showing up at the pumps at all. I’ve been told they’re lousy swimmers. And with all the water in the system, the rivers near the pumps have been flowing downstream (a rarity) for weeks now. Wouldn’t that keep smelt at a safe distance?

Not necessarily. Rosenfield said that even with rivers surging in one direction, smelt may be able to work their way upstream following smaller eddies or side currents.

Why swim upstream at all? The smelt may be chasing turbid, or cloudy, water into the area around the pumps, he said. Smelt like turbidity because it allows them to hide from predators. They may be wandering close to the pumps because (gasp) the south Delta actually appears to the fish to be a functioning river estuary right now.

We won’t have the full picture for how this year’s high flows have benefited smelt until a series of surveys this fall. A word of caution: Smelt populations increased 738 percent during the wet year of 2011, only to plummet right back to near-historic lows the following year once dry conditions returned.

If there’s a nice bump in 2017, let’s hope it isn’t another one-time deal.

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Smith Canal petition in the works

This rendering shows what the gate near the mouth of Smith Canal might look like, as seen from Atherton Cove

Levee engineer Dominick Gulli, who is suing to block the proposed Smith Canal flood-control gate, told officials last week that he has also started a petition.

“It brings up many of the issues of the way you’re collecting this assessment” to pay for the gate, Gulli told the San Joaquin Area Flood Control Agency’s Board of Directors. “I don’t think that, once the people hear these facts, there will be many of them who want to pay them.”

Gulli declined today to send me a copy of the pending petition.

“Get it somewhere else,” he wrote. “You’ll blame me for people for having flood insurance to stop the gate.”

The gate is supposed to remove a FEMA-imposed flood insurance mandate for thousands of central Stockton homeowners. When deployed, the gate would prevent Delta floodwaters from backing up into the canal.

It’s not that there are any known problems with the Smith Canal levees. But because they are covered with homes, officials cannot inspect them adequately. Hence, the flood insurance restriction for much of the surrounding area.

Gulli applied for a contract to design the gate, but was rejected. He is now suing to block the project altogether.

Atherton Cove homeowners have also sued, fearing that the gate will trap water hyacinth in the scenic cove behind their homes, among other issues.

SJAFCA officials recently disclosed that the agency’s legal costs to fight the two lawsuits combined is now more than $800,000. That means that a portion of the money that residents agreed to pay for the gate is now paying for lawyers instead.

If SJAFCA loses either lawsuit, construction could be delayed, and residents would be required to pay flood insurance for a longer period of time.

“I’m the last thing that’s delaying this project,” Gulli told the SJAFCA board last week. “There are many things way bigger than me that is delaying this project.”

Gulli, who represented himself in the early stages of his lawsuit, also said that he has hired his daughter, a “rookie attorney,” to handle his case. A new legal petition is expected to be submitted in a couple of weeks, he said.

“I’m not dead yet,” Gulli said.

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Breathing room — but not enough

This graph from the Department of Water Resources shows three months' worth of storage levels at Don Pedro Reservoir. The lake has dropped 11 feet since Feb. 22, but has a long way to go to be able to accommodate expected snowmelt.

After coming within a few inches of capacity on Feb. 22, Don Pedro Reservoir has dropped about 11 feet.

You can thank this extended dry spell for that.

Officials have managed to dump about 138,000 acre-feet of water during that time. But is it enough?

The Tuolumne River system will likely see anywhere from 2 million acre-feet to 2.9 million acre-feet of snowmelt runoff from April through July, according to the latest projection from the state Department of Water Resources.

If runoff totals, say, about 2.3 million acre-feet, that would be 191 percent of normal.

Look, April through July is a long four months. If the snow melts slowly and the runoff eases into Don Pedro, maybe we can handle it.

Still, the numbers speak for themselves. Somewhere north of 2 million acre-feet of water will be headed our way (I’m talking to you, Modesto, Lathrop and Stockton). At the moment there is 142,000 acre-feet of room in the river’s largest reservoir.

Don’t be fooled by the dry weather. This is nowhere near over.

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Some well-deserved recognition

One of the Delta’s most cherished critters is being memorialized on a postage stamp.

The photo comes from Nebraska, but it’s a scene close to the heart of any outdoors-loving person in Stockton or Lodi, too.

New "forever" stamp featuring the sandhill crane. Photo by Michael Forsberg

Michael Forsberg took the shot of sandhill cranes flying over the Platte River, officials said. The new stamp is intended to celebrate Nebraska’s 150th anniversary as a state.

The Platte River region serves as a pit stop for a half million cranes as they migrate from their summer haunts in the far north to their wintering areas in the lower U.S. and Mexico, and vice versa.

Our Delta cranes stay on the Pacific Flyway, and don’t make it over to the Cornhusker State, as far as I know.

Regardless, the image should strike a chord with anyone who has attended the free crane tours out at the Isenberg Crane Reserve, or happened to wander onto Staten Island around sunset during the wintertime. Quite a scene it is, and now, commemorated in one of the most dignified ways possible.

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A full New Melones Lake in our future?

New Melones storage levels since 2011, when the lake nearly reached capacity

I asked the Bureau of Reclamation’s Ron Milligan on Tuesday if it’s conceivable that New Melones could fill up later this year — a question that would have been laughed off just two months ago.

With a little more snow in the central Sierra, Milligan said, it is possible.

New Melones was the last of the major reservoirs to recover from the drought.

“It’s a big reservoir,” he said. “People said it would take decades to refill.”

Instead, the reservoir is in a practically perfect position heading into March. At 107 percent of normal, and about 66 percent of capacity, it’s not forced to dump water like its nearly full sister reservoir to the south, Don Pedro, where officials have been scrambling to make room for future storms and snowmelt.

Instead, if all goes well, New Melones will gradually fill up over the next few months without having to make large releases that could contribute to downstream flooding.

New Melones has long been a magnet for controversy on the San Joaquin River side of the system, with its water promised to cities and farms, and a need to protect endangered species in the Stanislaus River and meet water quality standards in the downstream Delta.

For the near future, at least, there just might be enough of New Melones to go around.

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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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