Map quest: Stockton’s science contribution grows

Karin Tuxen-Bettman shows off a trike mounted with a Google camera used to document the Amazon rainforest in 2009.

In the world of science and health, there’s a long list of Stockton “kids” done good — people who were raised and educated here and went on to advance our understanding of the world around us and within us.

Astronaut Jose Hernandez. Brain surgeon Alfredo Quinones. And how about Ashwin Vasavada, the No. 2 scientist on the Mars rover mission.

Let’s add another name to the list: Karin Tuxen-Bettman, who grew up near the University of the Pacific and recently made the news for helping Google document rising sea levels in San Francisco Bay.

As the Chronicle reported, the environmental group Baykeeper has been using a catamaran equipped with a Google Street View camera to map out 400 miles of coastline around the Bay.

The project, funded by Google, is intended to drive home the tangible impacts of climate change.

Tuxen-Bettman works for Google. She is expert at mapping wetlands. Operating the catamaran remotely by joystick is “basically a large-scale video game,” she told the Chron.

But she’s had far more exotic adventures. In 2009, Tuxen-Bettman traveled to Brazil’s Rio Negro Reserve for a similar project. This time the team mounted its camera on a trike, which was secured on a boat and floated down the Rio Negro River, the largest left tributary of the Amazon.

It captured 50,000 still photos allowing people sitting in their living rooms to journey deep into the rainforest.

Of course, the images also provide important insight on environmental concerns such as deforestation.

“We work with nonprofit organizations around the world on everything from conservation and the environment to humanitarian issues,” Tuxen-Bettman told The Record in 2012. “We train them to use Google’s mapping tools.”

“Being there (in the Amazon) was amazing,” she said. “The smells were beautiful. The sounds — just constant birds.”

Tuxen-Bettman went to Stagg High and was a Deltakeeper volunteer in the late 90s, helping reduce trash loads in local waterways.

For all of this city’s bad publicity, its homegrown talent has accomplished some pretty amazing things. Keep ‘em coming, Stockton.

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More Tulloch talk

Some tidbits that didn’t make the cut in today’s story about the possible draining of Lake Tulloch, east of Stockton:

• Here’s how it could help fish. Steelhead need cold water to spawn in the Stanislaus River. But Tulloch is shallow and warm. By draining Tulloch, cooler water from New Melones — which is about six miles upstream — can pass right through Lake Tulloch and continue down the Stanislaus. Essentially, the lake would revert to a river.

This was the strategy in the early 1990s, the last time Tulloch was drained. And it worked, according to water managers.

“We were able to lower downstream temperatures by 3 to 5 degrees,” said Steve Knell, general manager of the Oakdale Irrigation District. “That saved the fisheries in ’92.”

• While water managers say draining Tulloch could benefit both fish and water storage, upset Tulloch residents are focusing on the fish issue. They are urging the federal government to put aside fish protection rules until the drought is over.

It’s worth noting, however, that some environmental protections have already been waived. Emergency actions approved by the State Water Resources Control Board earlier this month decreased the amount of water required to flow down the San Joaquin River at Vernalis; that allows officials to hold back more water in New Melones.

So, there have been sacrifices all the way around.

• The biggest culprit in the sad state of New Melones (41 percent of normal) is the lack of rain and snow, not fish rules, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Still, frequent depletion of the reservoir is pretty much what local water managers predicted in 2009 when the feds issued the current, more aggressive fish protection rules for the Stan.

That hasn’t escaped the local water managers in this season of scarcity.

“What we said is coming to fruition,” Knell said.

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Water chief says ‘mistaken’ on environmental impacts

The head of the watchdog agency overseeing California water said he was “mistaken”  last year when he approved emergency actions that harmed threatened fish.

At a 12-hour hearing in Sacramento on Wednesday, Tom Howard, executive officer of the State Water Resources Control Board, made clear the impact of the severe drought on people.

But he also said he was “just wrong” when he concluded last year that temporarily changing the rules to keep more water in reservoirs would not cause unreasonable harm to the environment.

Despite that admission, Howard approved many of the same emergency changes this year, such as reducing flows through the Delta to hold back more water in upstream reservoirs.

However, he denied a request by state and federal water agencies to also increase water exports from the south Delta under certain conditions. Wednesday’s meeting was to gather comments on that decision and other aspects of the emergency rule changes.

The water board heard hours of testimony from emotional south Valley farmers and farmworkers, who said they were suffering for lack of water, as well as from environmentalists who supported the lower pumping levels in order to protect the Delta.

Threatened Delta smelt crashed to their lowest level on record last year, and 95 percent of endangered winter-run Chinook salmon eggs and juveniles died upstream on the Sacramento River. Environmentals have argued that the plight of the fish was worsened by last year’s water management decisions, an argument that Howard seemed to validate on Wednesday.

The length of the hearing showed just how difficult an subject this was for the state regulators.

“Clearly, reasonable people are going to differ on this issue,” Howard said.

Board members said at the end of the meeting that they wanted more information before issuing an order perhaps next month.

So far, the consequence to water users has been relatively minor. The state board estimates that water exporters have missed out on an opportunity to pump about 5,000 acre-feet of water as a result of Howard’s decision. Unless there are storms in March, however, the state board estimates the decision could cost water users anywhere from 69,000 to 84,000 acre-feet, a more significant amount of water.

Still, farmworkers who arrived by bus on Wednesday talked about how they cannot provide for their families. One woman said her daughter had to drop out of college because she could not afford tuition and books. The family hasn’t been able to work since September.

Ultimately, the situation boils down to making “terrible choices,” said board Chair Felicia Marcus.

“There’s not a big pot of water we can manufacture” to satisfy the state’s many needs, she said.

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A fable that ought to sound familiar

"The Fable of the Farmer and the Fish." Illustration by Steve Greenfield.

“Write it for the plumber in Manteca,” an editor told me a few years back, late on a Friday afternoon, after a judge overturned one of the biological opinions protecting endangered fish in the Delta.

Ever since then, I’ve had a vision of that poor plumber in my head when I sit down to write a complex water story.

This is not to disparage plumbers. Truth is, this stuff is brutally difficult to explain to all sorts of perfectly intelligent people who are probably a lot smarter than I am, but may not be well-versed in the wonky water world.

Delta advocate Jan McCleery doesn’t seem intimidated by the task. In fact, she recently wrote a children’s book about California water.

That’s right — a children’s book. “The Fable of the Farmer and the Fish” is available on Amazon. The e-book is illustrated by Discovery Bay resident Steve Greenfield; proceeds go to the advocacy group Save the California Delta Alliance.

“I’d hoped to write a clear explanation that even children will understand illustrating the fundamental issue behind the California water wars,” McCleery said.

The “fable” is about two groups, the “River People” and the “Desert Farmers.” One day the River People agree to share some of their water with the Desert Farmers, but over time the Desert Farmers’ thirst grows and grows until the streams where the River People live become salty and the fish start dying.

Sound familiar?

You might not like McCleery’s message if you’re south of the Delta. McCleery, a prominent Delta activist, has her opinions and she’s obviously not afraid to share them. This is, without question, a work of advocacy.

As for how her story ends, well, I promised her I wouldn’t give too much away. But the ending, too, might sound familiar to folks who have been in the fight long enough.

So evidently it’s not enough to write for the plumber in Manteca. Now I’ve got to write for the Manteca plumber’s kid. This job just keeps getting tougher.

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Like flipping a switch

That didn’t take long.

PG&E sued the Local Agency Formation Commission on Friday, less than 24 hours after LAFCo upheld its decision allowing a water district to take over retail electric service in south San Joaquin County.

Here’s the story. And if you’re looking for some light weekend reading, here’s the complaint filed by PG&E.

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Beneath the surface

A caller today complained that I didn’t include actual groundwater levels in today’s story on the ongoing decline in San Joaquin County.

The best I can do at the moment is post a couple of photos I’ve taken of the hard-copy groundwater monitoring report, which is not yet posted to the county’s website. When it is posted, you should be able to find it here.

First, here’s a shot of a topo map showing the distance from land surface to groundwater in the north county. You can see the depth is about 80 feet along Highway 99 in north Stockton, and increases as you head east.

Now here’s the same map, this time for the south:

Perhaps a better way to consider groundwater is to look at the total distance below sea level, which gives you a clearer idea of specific areas where groundwater is a problem.

Here’s a shot from a previous groundwater report in fall 2013, focusing on the area east of Stockton:

See the minus-60 contour line? It’s exactly what it looks like — a hole. A depression where the groundwater is lower than any surrounding area. In this 2013 map, the groundwater within that hole is at least 60 feet below sea level.

Now check out the same area one year later:

See that? The area that is at least 60 feet below sea level has increased considerably, by about 10,000 acres according to county officials. And now there’s an area that is at least 70 feet below.

In other words, things got worse.

Little wonder, when you look at the 2014 breakdown by water district:

• Central San Joaquin Water Conservation District: 49 wells tested, 47 declined;

• North San Joaquin Water Conservation District: 111 wells tested, 102 declined;

• Stockton East Water District: 71 wells tested, 62 declined;

• South San Joaquin Irrigation District: 33 wells tested, 30 declined;

• Southwest county: 15 wells tested, 12 declined; and

• Woodbridge Irrigation District: 27 wells tested, 24 declined.

One final note: Today’s story points out that wells across the county are only a few inches higher, on average, than they were in fall 1992, which has long been the dry-year standard for our area.

But the key phrase in that sentence is “on average.” Some areas of the county have groundwater levels higher than in 1992, while some areas are lower. Like so:

Red arrows indicate wells where water levels are lower than in 1992; blue arrows indicate wells where water levels are higher than 1992. Courtesy San Joaquin County

This map shows why county officials not long ago started describing our groundwater basin has having stabilized somewhat.

While some areas are down compared with 1992, others are up, thanks to the acquisition of more surface water from rivers and streams. And while (hopefully) short-term trends like the drought will cause most wells to decline, so too will future wet years help those wells recover. In theory, everything averages out over time.

So while our groundwater is falling at the moment, the sky isn’t. At least not yet.

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The one that didn’t get away

As a fisherman, I don’t have high standards. A satisfying catch to me is pulling a 12-inch brook trout out of a High Sierra lake, especially if I haven’t had a decent meal in a few days.

So maybe I’m easily impressed, but whenever I see videos like this one, I marvel at the monsters lurking in our lakes and waterways. Thanks to Doug Mote and Glory Hole Sports for posting.


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Conservation conversation

As reported earlier this week, California met Gov. Jerry Brown’s 20 percent water conservation goal for the first time last December.

Here’s a look at how San Joaquin and Calaveras counties did, in terms of gallons per person per day, and the percentage improvement in December 2014 compared with 2013:

1. City of Lathrop: 56 gallons (17 percent improvement)

2. Cal Water (Stockton): 56 gallons (4 percent improvement)

3. City of Stockton: 57 gallons (12 percent improvement)

4. City of Manteca: 61 gallons (27 percent improvement)

STATE AVERAGE 67 gallons

5. City of Tracy: 70 gallons (19 percent improvement)

6. City of Lodi: 74 percent (20 percent improvement)

7. Calaveras County Water District: 79 gallons (15 percent improvement)

8. City of Ripon: 91 gallons (30 percent improvement)

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1950s UFO fever in Stockton

Like most other Americans, Stockton residents were warily watching the sky in the ’50s.

Some interesting local incidents are revealed in newly released Air Force documents:

• On Jan. 1, 1951, a red and green object crashed at the Stockton Naval Supply Depot, exploding and burning fiercely. Among the debris, investigators found a bamboo ring that led them to believe the object might have been constructed in a tropical or Asian place. The FBI later concluded it was probably a homemade hot-air balloon.

• On May 22, 1952, at 12:40 p.m., eight employees at the Stockton Naval Supply Annex saw an object bright silver and rectangular in shape “hovering” in the sky. They watched for a few minutes. “The object did not fly away but merely disappeared from sight,” the report concluded. Another witness described it as a “globe” with no wing or tail assembly. The witnesses believed it was a weather balloon, but a check whether any balloons were launched around Stockton that day came back “negative.” Two F-89 aircraft were sent to the scene but could not make contact with the object.

• On Sept. 13, 1956, someone reported seeing a “star-shaped object” heading east at a high rate of speed over Stockton. It faded out of sight and disappeared. The Air Force concluded it was likely a weather balloon launched from Vernalis.

• On March 3, 1959, about 5:45 p.m., a former Air Force pilot who served in World War II arrived at his Stockton home after work and was told by a neighborhood boy to look up in the sky. There he saw a “strange and unidentifiable object” that the pilot said was about five times the size of an Air Force B-52, dirty white in color, moving slowly toward the south at 25,000 feet. He described it as “long… with a tapered upsweep toward the end.” Another witness said it was shaped like a boomerang. The setting sun reflected off the object. It “resembled nothing previously observed by (the pilot) on land, sea or in the air,” the report said. “… (The pilot) has never previously observed anything in the sky which he could not identify. He is certain in his mind that the object was not the result of an illusion based upon any phenomenon known to him.” The report was passed on to a commander at Hamilton Air Force Base; officials said it was “probably” a balloon.

Unfortunately, after I searched the newly released documents for Stockton-area reports last week, the online database was taken down over a copyright issue. So you can’t search for yourself.

You’ll just have to take my word for it…

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New Melones an ‘absolute mess’

That’s how Jeff Shields, general manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, described it to me the other day.

The key reservoir east of Stockton is 23 percent full and 40 percent of normal.

Last year at this time, with the drought already well underway, New Melones held more than a million acre-feet of water. Now it’s down to a little over half a million.


What gives?

“The fact is we just have not had any rain or snow in the upper watershed of the Stanislaus River,” Shields said.

This will, in fact, be the driest January on record in that watershed, with just .13 inches of precipitation upstream of New Melones at Beardlsey Lake, he said.

Sure, things got wet earlier this fall, but there was very little runoff into New Melones. That’s because the storms were spread out, Shields said. Reservoirs are replenished with runoff when multiple storms hit quickly. When there are long breaks between storms, the ground absorbs more water each time it rains.

What does this all mean?

South San Joaquin and neighboring Oakdale Irrigation District have senior rights to New Melones water. They are entitled to the first 600,000 acre-feet flowing into New Melones each year.

If there’s not 600,000 acre-feet of inflow, Shields said, the allocation is decided by a complex formula that would probably allow both districts to share about 450,000 acre-feet this year.

The forecast for the end of February is 544,000 acre-feet of water stored in the lake, Shields said. 544,000 acre-feet minus 450,000 acre-feet leaves us with 94,000 acre-feet to play with if there are no additional storms.

That certainly  explains why the city of Stockton isn’t expecting to receive its contracted New Melones water this summer. Stockton East Water District and the Central San Joaquin Irrigation District contract for 155,000 acre-feet collectively. That water might simply not exist.

That doesn’t even factor in flows for Stanislaus River fish, and flows to flush salt out of the south Delta. In the water-starved San Joaquin River watershed, New Melones plays prominently in both of those roles.

This year, as Shields puts it, “New Melones is an absolute mess.”

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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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