McNerney on VA clinic/flood issue

Here’s a comment from U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, on the situation with the long-awaited VA clinic and the possible complications due to flood concerns:

“The construction of a new VA medical facility in French Camp to serve the many veterans in the San Joaquin region is one of my top priorities. Since being elected to Congress, I have worked consistently to secure a location and funding for the clinic, and I have worked closely with our community, keeping an open line of communication with the VA and the Army Corps of Engineers to ensure the project moves forward without delay. This includes addressing any issues related to flood protection at the French Camp site. Establishing a VA clinic in our region has been a community-wide effort and it’s important that we keep working together to see the project through to completion. As the member of Congress who represents 60 percent of the legal Delta, I also have a keen understanding of the importance of flood control and levee maintenance. All Californians deserve flood protection, and I will continue to work to make that a reality.” 

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Read the latest Delta lawsuit

South-of-Delta water users say the federal government has failed to take a hard look at the human impact of reductions in water exports from the estuary.

Here’s a copy of the lawsuit that the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority and the Westlands Water District filed on Friday.

This all goes back to the biological opinions of 2008 and 2009, rules that were put in place to protect Delta fish like smelt and salmon. The “BOs” require pumping to be ramped down when fish are in danger. Some years, including this past winter, this has reduced exports to San Joaquin Valley farmers and southland cities.

After a long battle, the BOs were eventually upheld by the courts, though the feds were blamed for failing to consider human impacts.

Years later, those human impacts still haven’t been addressed, the water users say in their lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the federal Department of Interior.

“Once again,” the plaintiffs write, “litigation is necessary to hold Reclamation responsible for its obligations under federal law.”

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Survey says… it’s DWR

If you spot a couple of government-types cruising around San Joaquin County this summer, they might be surveyors with the state Department of Water Resources.

No, they’re not plotting to build the tunnels. For more than half a century DWR has conducted routine land use surveys all over Northern California in an effort to better estimate agricultural and urban water demand.

This is the first time in 20 years that the agency has surveyed San Joaquin County as a whole, though the Delta was surveyed in 2007.

The “regrettable” delay in returning to San Joaquin County was due to a lack of staff combined with requests for surveys in other counties, Kim Rosmaier, chief of land and water use for DWR, wrote in a letter to the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation last month.

The survey team consists of just two people, a driver and someone with a laptop for mapping. In addition to crop acreages, they’ll try to determine what kind of irrigation system is used and whether the water is coming from a river or from belowground.

Eventually, the results will be posted here.

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Judge: Delta Plan is ‘invalid’

A judge clarified today that the Delta Plan — a broad management plan for the estuary through the end of this century — is invalid and must be set aside until it can be partially rewritten.

If that sounds familiar, it’s pretty close to what we reported one month ago when Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny issued his initial ruling in the case, which had so many litigants that one of my editors labeled it “lawsuit-palooza.”

That initial ruling, however, had been interpreted in widely different ways.

“This is a victory for folks in the Delta,” Thomas Keeling, an attorney for some plan opponents, said at the time.

The council also announced that it had won, reporting in a press release that “the court… ruled in favor of the Delta Stewardship Council on the vast majority of issues” and had upheld the plan, calling only for a pair of “refinements.”

The conflicting reactions had some observers scratching their heads.

I suppose victory is in the eye of the beholder, but the judge’s clarification today did compel the Stewardship Council to change its tone a bit today, saying it was “disappointed.” Invalidating the entire plan, when the judge found fault with only a few of its provisions, means that even the noncontroversial policies within the Delta Plan cannot be enforced, the council warned.

“The Delta remains in crisis and now isn’t the time to set aside the state’s only comprehensive management plan for the Delta,” executive officer Jessica Pearson said in a prepared statement.

To one environmentalist, the judge’s invalidation of the plan was — well, a validation of opponents’ original interpretation. Most significantly, the judge has found that the plan failed to include quantifiable targets for California to reduce its reliance on the Delta for drinking water, as required by law.

That’s an important finding, said Bill Jennings, head of the Stockton-based California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, one of many litigants in the case. Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin tunnels have been described as allowing exporters to take not more water, but rather about the same amount of water as they take today. Will the tunnels pencil out financially if a newly revised Delta Plan makes less water available?

“This will force the state and federal contractors to reassess whether they wish to expend tens of billions of dollars for a project that will supply less water from the Delta,” Jennings said.

The judge’s clarification is tentative, with further hearings scheduled for Friday. We’ll see how it all shakes out.



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Why surface water matters

In an email, Stockton East Water District board member Mel Panizza makes a good point about last week’s story on declining groundwater levels.

The story talks about how most local wells sank again this spring, even though precipitation was at least somewhat improved over the previous year.

Here’s what I failed to mention: While rainfall is one important factor, another is the ability to take surface water in lieu of groundwater.

And while the Calaveras River did provide more water this spring, for the second straight year farmers east of Stockton have not been able to import a single drop from the overtapped Stanislaus River basin.

“Shows the importance of using surface water as opposed to wells,” Panizza wrote. “It is an indication of surface water’s importance regionally.”

Stockton East did recently make arrangements to buy 10,000 acre-feet of water from Stanislaus River irrigation districts. Will that help the groundwater? Stay tuned.

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More bad news for Delta smelt

No surprise here, but an annual spring survey that is an important indicator of the Delta smelt’s ability to spawn shows the species has hit another record low.

Read the ugly details here.

“I am not optimistic that the smelt can make it through the next year or two. Love to be proved wrong,” California native fish expert Peter Moyle said in an email today after reviewing the survey results from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The spring survey estimates the population of adult smelt, which gives us some idea how many smelt have the potential to spawn. Most Delta smelt live just one year, so it’s critical that there are enough fish each spring that they can find each other and take care of business.

Alas, this spring’s population index — a number that represents the estimated population — is a mere 1.8. That’s less than 10 percent of last year’s index (which, by the way, was also a record low). The index is down from 130 in 2012, which was actually a pretty decent year because it was so wet (a rarity in California over the past decade).

In raw numbers, 13 fish were found at eight collection stations this spring. Eighty-eight fish were found last year, and the average catch going back more than a decade is 311 fish.

These are not superficial surveys. Crews sample 40 stations across the Delta once a month, usually spending about four or five days to get the work done. They use a 25-foot-wide net to catch the fish.

While the smelt — as Donald Trump recently pointed out — are small and seemingly insignificant, scientists consider the fish to be an indicator of the estuary’s overall health.

The last Delta species to go extinct was the thicktail chub, last seen in 1957.

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‘Drought’ not so easily defined

The fact-checkers had a field day with Donald Trump’s pronouncement last week that, in effect, there is no drought in California.

“Lies Trump reality,” blared the headline in Slate.

I realize that because he’s running for president, and because of his track record, everything Trump says will be — and should be — closely scrutinized.

But everyone who has expressed outrage over Trump’s comment should understand that it’s absolutely nothing new. The “there is no drought” sentiment has been expressed many times over the years, and it is not exclusive to south San Joaquin Valley water exporters.

There are at least three ways to define drought. There’s the hydrologic definition, in which case, according to scientists with the U.S. Drought Monitor, we are clearly still in a drought, albeit less severe than last year.

There’s the dictionary definition: “A prolonged period of dry weather; lack of rain,” according to my Webster’s. Does that definition still apply? Maybe, if you live in Bakersfield. Maybe not, if you live in Redding.

Then there’s the political definition, which of course, is the trickiest of all. Politicians in areas where water supplies have been slashed to protect endangered fish in the Delta are fond of referring to a “man-made drought,” although the fish account for only a portion of their shortage.

But I can also recall when, during the drought of the late 2000s, environmentalists complained that then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was overstating the problem, perhaps to push his peripheral canal plan. Reservoirs weren’t in such terrible shape, they said. ”What (expletive) drought?” one enviro told me at the time.

The bottom line: No matter what you think of Trump, the definition of “drought” is — and always has been — in the eye of the beholder.

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In defense of stripers

A striper taken from flooded Mildred Island in the Delta. File photo by Pete Ottesen

Striped bass “are not the problem” in the Delta, writes California native fish expert Peter Moyle and other experts with the U.C. Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

South-of-Delta water users have long said that it makes no sense for the state to maintain fishing limits on stripers, because the fish are not native to the Delta and chomp down on fish that are native, which in turn crimps water exports.

But the solution may not be as simple as lifting those limits and allowing fishermen to wipe out stripers. Such an action might have “unintended consequences,” Moyle says.

For example, while stripers eat native fish they also eat other fish that eat native fish. Like the Mississippi silverside, which Moyle says preys on Delta smelt eggs and larvae.

No more stripers means more Mississippi silverside, which might actually be bad for Delta smelt, he writes.

He also affirms what striped bass defenders have been saying for a long time: That the species has coexisted with native fish species for well over a century, and both were once far more abundant, suggesting other factors are at play here in their decline.


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The reward for saving water…

No, not a rate hike this time.

The California Water Service Co. threw a huge party for its central Stockton customers on Saturday at the Stockton Civic Memorial Auditorium.

About 750 people attended, according to the San Jose-based company.

Courtesy the California Water Service Co.

Cal Water Stockton customers saved 22 percent from June through February, exceeding their state mandate of 20 percent. Cal Water customers already used less water per capita than most other local providers, making the 22 percent reduction even more impressive.

It took some aggressive new policies to get the job done. For the first time, each Cal Water household was assigned a water “budget” based on previous usage. If you exceeded your budget, you paid a surcharge.

Cal Water was also one of only two local water providers that I’m aware of that started a cash-for-grass rebate program.

“Cal Water commends our Stockton customers for their exceptional response to the drought, and we wanted to take this opportunity to thank them and let them know how much we appreciate their hard work,” Stockton District Manager John Freeman said in a prepared statement.

I haven’t heard of any other water provider going so far as to throw a party to reward its customers. Let’s hope it will be the last such celebration for many years.

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Delta land buy still a ‘go’

Southern California’s huge water wholesaler declined to reverse course Tuesday on the purchase of roughly 20,000 acres of land in the Delta, a $175 million deal that has Delta advocates worried.

A vote to pull out of the deal failed 54 percent to 29 percent, with another 10 percent abstaining.

The decision came despite Stockton-based Restore the Delta’s delivery of 10,223 signatures from those opposing the purchase. Restore the Delta has argued that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s primary interest in buying the land is to facilitate the construction of Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin tunnels.

“We ask, ‘Does it make financial sense for Metropolitan to spend $175 million to purchase land to support an infrastructure project that will not meet Southern California’s water needs?” Esperanza Vielma, with Restore the Delta, asked Metropolitan’s Board of Directors.

Metropolitan hasn’t denied that the tunnels are part of its interest in the property, but says it has other motivations as well, such as shoring up levees and restoring wildlife habitat, actions which in turn could help protect the agency’s water supply.

When Metropolitan first approved the deal earlier this year, some board members made clear they wanted another bite at the apple before escrow closed in June. Representatives from Los Angeles, Santa Monica and San Diego voted to block the deal altogether.

Sure enough, after an informational briefing on Tuesday, Keith Lewinger, one of Metropolitan’s San Diego board members, moved to pull out of the deal.

Suja Lowenthal, who represents Long Beach on the board, supported the motion, saying that a position on the tunnels should come before purchasing the property, which would be “premature” at this point.

“I think it would be wise for us to wait,” Lowenthal said.

Other board members disagreed. Gloria Gray, a former member of the state’s Delta Stewardship Council, said Metropolitan’s consideration of the land buy had been “thorough.”

“I think it is a good investment,” she said.

Litigation to stop the deal is still pending, with a key court date scheduled for May 19.

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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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