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 (https://www.fws.gov/sfbaydelta/species/delta_smelt.cfm) 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 recordnet.com. 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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Does water bill override biops? Sure looks like it.

There was much talk Friday night on the floor of the U.S. Senate about whether the controversial California drought legislation now awaiting the president’s signature overrides the biological opinions that protect Delta fish or, by extension, the Endangered Species Act itself.

Depending on which senator was doing the talking, it definitely does or it definitely doesn’t.

I haven’t had the opportunity yet to speak with ESA experts on the very specific and technical language in the bill. But there is one provision that I think is fairly clear, saying that the secretary of the Interior:

In other words: During storms, the secretary would have authority to increase export pumping from the Delta above and beyond the maximum pumping level allowed under the ESA-mandated biological opinions, which in their current form are intended to prevent species from going extinct.

The feds wouldn’t always have this level of discretion. At other times, the bill simply allows the pumps to operate at the maximum level allowed under a specific range that is already outlined within the biological opinions (i.e., presumably, if the range allowed under the biops is -1,500 to -5,000 cubic feet per second, pumping would be allowed at -5,000 cfs).

See this other language, for example:

That’s very different than the first section I referenced, which, once again, allows the feds to pump at an unspecified level that exceeds the range spelled out in the biops. (If you want to read the California drought language in its entirety, it starts on page 584 of the bill.)

Remember, we are talking about biological opinions that were found by the National Academy of Sciences in 2010 to be “scientifically justified,” though far from perfect.

(Incidentally, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who helped broker the last week’s deal, asked the NAS to do its 2010 study after Delta exporters saw their water supplies slashed during the drought of the late 2000s, which was partially a result of the biological opinions.)

The legislation contains a caveat. Pumping can exceed those maximum levels only if it will not harm fish beyond what might be expected “for the duration” of the biological opinions. The significance of that language, I don’t know.

Bottom line: It appears the language referenced above does, in fact, override the biological opinions under certain circumstances. But if I’m missing something, please drop me a line and let me know. Learning as we go here.

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Same data, different headlines

These headlines ran in the L.A Times (left) and the Sacramento Bee (right). Both stories concern the same subject: The release of California's water conservation statistics for the month of October.

I spotted these seemingly conflicting headlines on DWR’s water news roundup yesterday.

What gives? Who’s right?

Confusing as it may seem, both stories are correct. The journalists are looking at the same numbers but are comparing them in different ways.

The L.A. Times story (on the left) focuses on the fact that following a somewhat alarming drop-off in water conservation rates in August, savings have slowly ticked upward in the ensuing months. Back in August, conservation levels fell from 20.1 percent to 17.6 percent (compared to 2013), after officials eliminated water conservation mandates for most cities. That slide, however, appears to have been stopped or even reversed, with savings of 18.3 percent in September and now 19.5 percent in October.

Thus, the Times’ conclusion that our efforts have slightly improved.

What about the Sacramento Bee’s story (on the right)? Rather than focus on month-to-month trends, the Bee story begins with a comparison of October 2016 with October 2015. Our 19.5 percent savings this past October were lower than the 22.5 percent saved the preceding October. In that sense, our efforts are lagging behind last year and have been for several months now.

My own story was more along the lines of the L.A. Times: That the decline in conservation seen earlier this summer appears to have stabilized, though we got lucky with a lot of rain in October which reduced outdoor demand.

Either story angle, however, is perfectly legitimate.

Bottom line: These issues are nuanced, and there’s only so much room in a headline or a lede to convey the complexity. People would be wise to read entire articles before reaching a conclusion. But in today’s 140-character world, I’m under no illusion that is likely to happen.

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‘It’s truly an amazing thing’

For those who have never had the chance to paddle down a salmon-bearing stream. Great stuff (well — except for that rope swing business. What were you thinking, dude?).

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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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