Big win for little water district

The Stockton-based Central San Joaquin Water Conservation District — which flies under the radar, even compared with other water districts — may have a massive cash windfall coming its way.

In a legal fight dating back two decades, Central and the neighboring Stockton East Water District had claimed they were owed between $37 million and $42 million for water promised but not always delivered by the federal government from New Melones Lake.  Stockton residents helped pay for a tunnel and other infrastructure to take the water, only to have the feds inconsistently deliver it for a variety of reasons.

The districts prevailed on the merits of the case, but the damages awarded last year by a trial court amounted to a disappointing $2.5 million combined.

Stockton East settled the case and moved on, but Central pressed the matter, filing an appeal.

And the district won. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found on Friday that the lower court should have awarded “expectancy damages.”

Central’s failure to request a full amount of water every year wasn’t necessarily because of reduced demand from its growers, the court found. Rather, it is “eminently plausible” that the government’s failure to provide the water in 1993 is what prompted Central to ask for less in subsequent years.

“At some point most people stop asking for what they have been told they are not going to get, and they make other plans to meet their needs,” the court found.

“… Why would Central request water it was told would not be available? It seems clear that having sufficient water available is paramount to the success of the agricultural enterprise, and failure to obtain the water needed from Central quite plausibly would have caused the farmers to look elsewhere, on their own, for water, or to resort to using groundwater.”

Could the decision have implications for other water districts that have been denied full allocations under their federal contracts?

Read the ruling here.

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Am I a fearmonger?

In reaction to Sunday’s story about crude oil transport by rail, James Rod Gonzalez writes to The Record:

“Your choosing to run an ‘opinion piece’ from the Environmental Zealot, and blogger, Alex Breitler on the front page, is again showing your… disdain for reality and the welfare of the community you espouse to serve. The sky is falling mentality of Breitler and his minions is astonishing and their attempt to gin up fear of something that as he even states, ‘Stockton is off the beaten path for at least some of these shipments… traveling through Sacramento on the way to Bay Area refineries.’ This fear mongering being represented as front page news when Stockton already has more than enough issues to really fear is totally unconscionable, and on the part of the Record and your editorial staff, immoral. You and your staff manage to make the lives of Stocktonians bad enough just reporting things that are happening not ‘what if’ fairy tales of an Environmental Justice blogger. While I doubt that this letter will be published, someone, and I sincerely hope more than I, must call you on it!”

Didn’t know I had minions.

Seriously though, I appreciate the note and I understand the concern about making a big deal out of something that might never happen here — in this case, some kind of dangerous crude oil spill.

There’s a lot of “coulds” in environment journalism. That blue-green algae in the San Joaquin River could make you sick. The proposed twin tunnels could harm Stockton’s new $220 million drinking-water plant. Pesticide drift from farmers’ fields could sicken nearby residents.

I can’t look into my crystal ball and tell you which of all those “coulds” will become a “did.”

But I think it’s important to at least talk about this stuff.

If I was an “Environmental Zealot” as Mr. Gonzalez says, I wouldn’t point out in that story that many of these crude oil trains are likely bypassing Stockton. I wouldn’t include a statement from a Burlington Northern Santa Fe spokeswoman that only two crude oil trains enter the state of California on that railroad in an entire month. And I wouldn’t include statements from the Port of Stockton’s director about taxes and jobs benefits from a proposed petroleum terminal here.

Context. The other side. More often, multiple other sides.

That’s the difference between journalism and “fairy tales.”

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All of San Joaquin County, and 58 percent of the state, is now considered to be in a state of “exceptional” drought, federal officials said today.

That’s the most severe of five categories.

Until today, only the southern and western portions of the county were classified as “exceptional” by the U.S. Drought Monitor. New maps have greatly expanded that area.

Officials said it is increasingly clear that conditions are not any better in Northern California than they are in Southern California.

Total water storage in the state’s reservoirs is about 17.3 million acre-feet, they said, about 60 percent of average. The state is short more than one year’s worth of reservoir water after drawing down reservoirs more than usual in 2012 and 2013, according to the Drought Monitor’s analysis (click on California tab on right).

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‘It’s up to all of us’

San Joaquin County pieced together a 30-second water conservation commercial that aired recently on Comcast.

The ad cost about $9,000, county Public Works staff recently told water commissioners. Check it out:

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‘We’re heading for Venus, and still we stand tall’

This blog will be silent until Wednesday, July 30. So, in honor of Tuesday’s twin tunnels comment deadline, here’s a little something to motivate any last-minute letter writers.

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Fish passage above dams “incredibly foolish?”

I asked Doug Demko, a fisheries biologist who consults for water districts, what he thought about plans to restore migratory fish above large California dams.

Demko called the idea “incredibly foolish.”

“It creates more problems than it solves, and it’s hugely expensive,” Demko said.

You’d have to either trap both incoming and outgoing fish and truck them around the dams, or build some kind of passage facility like a massive fish ladder, he said..

After all that effort, predatory nonnative fish are still going to gobble up the baby salmon and steelhead as they swim downstream toward the ocean, Demko said. (To be fair, the recovery plan unveiled earlier this week does address predator control — passage above dams is only one aspect of the broad plan.)

But an unrealistic aspect, in Demko’s opinion.

“There are so many significant issues, lower hanging fruit that need to be resolved or fixed” before discussing passage above the dams, he said.

The recovery plan recommends at least studying fish passage above Camanche, New Hogan and the Stanislaus River dams, including New Melones.

Decide for yourself; read the recovery plan. And here’s my write-up focusing on how Stockton’s little Calaveras River fits into the big picture.

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Water surpasses air quality as No. 1 concern

For the first time since the Public Policy Institute of California began environment surveys in 2000, residents are more worried about water than air pollution.

And it’s not even close.

That interesting tidbit comes from the depths of the PPIC’s latest poll, released tonight.

Thirty-five percent of poll respondents said that water supply or drought is the most important environment issue facing California today. That’s an increase of 27 points since July 2011, the PPIC reported.

Just 14 percent of respondents named air pollution as the top concern in this latest survey, a decline of 13 points during the same time period.

A large majority (75 percent) favors local water districts requiring residents to reduce water use, PPIC reports. And the current $11 billion water bond has a slim 51 percent support from likely voters (61 percent support from all adults).

Read the full survey.

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(Ground)water on the brain

San Joaquin County's latest groundwater trends. The red arrows represent wells where water levels are dropping.

Responding to Sunday’s story about groundwater levels dropping in east San Joaquin County, reader Robert Lee offers this suggestion:

“Groundwater is subject to the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ whereby an aquifer theoretically owned by all those who own land above it may be drained by the farmer with the biggest well. But there is a way to ensure that the water, or its value, is fairly shared.

“Let us say that an aquifer is defined by geological experts. Then we can clearly say that this water is ‘owned’ by all those whose property overlies the aquifer so defined, in proportion to the acreage they own.

“Let an elected body decide how much water can be sustainably pumped out of this aquifer, this season.

“Then those who want water can bid for this water, each requesting so many acre feet at his offering price.

“The bids are accepted, starting from highest to lowest, until the ‘safe’ amount of water to be drawn that season is allocated, and the total funds received, less the amount required to operate the water management district, is distributed to all the landowners who ‘own’ the aquifer.

“Simple enough, though safeguards would have to be applied to prevent one entity from purchasing all the water, and thereby creating a seller’s market.

“I have been working for a water district for over 40 years, so I know a little about water.”

Any more ideas? If you send them, I’ll post them. This state can use all the ideas it can get.

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‘Better pay attention to your mail’

That’s some free legal advice from Delta water attorney Dante Nomellini.

Nomellini pointed out at a meeting last week that farmers or other water users who fail to respond to curtailment notices could face fines.

It’s true that the State Water Resources Control Board ultimately decided that senior water rights holders — those whose rights predate 1914, or whose land directly abuts a river — are not subject to emergency rules bypassing the normal curtailment process.

But those growers may still receive notices telling them to stop taking water. The difference is that the normal, lengthier appeals process will be available to them.

“We’re not out of it yet, but it appears there won’t be a slew of threats against the pre-1914/riparian water right holders until the irrigation season is over,” said another Delta water attorney, John Herrick. “That’s an optimistic view of it.”

Still, Nomellini added, “You’d better pay attention to your mail from now on. Anything that looks like it might relate to water could have a penalty associated with it” for failing to respond.

“…The excuse that my wife didn’t pick the mail up, or my husband got it in his pickup and didn’t look at it,” might not hold water, he said.

(That’s my pun, not Nomellini’s.)

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What’s on tap — week of July 21 and beyond

Tuesday, July 22: Stockton East Water District weekly board meeting. Noon, 6767 E. Main St., Stockton. Agenda available here.

Wednesday, July 23: San Joaquin Bike Coalition’s weekly ride. 7 p.m. behind the Empire Theater in Stockton. Anyone with basic bike riding skills welcome. More details here.

Thursday, July 24: Community workshop on Stockton’s general plan. Share your views how the city should grow into the future. 6 p.m., City Hall, 425 N. El Dorado St. More details here.

Friday, July 25: Delta Stewardship Council meeting. Agenda includes discussion of Delta flows and salinity issues. Agenda available here.

Saturday, July 26: Guided photo walk, Cosumnes River Preserve. One-mile loop trip takes visitors through wetlands and riparian forest. 9 a.m., visitor center. More details here.

Saturday, July 26: Wildlife paddle tour, Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. 8 a.m. View river otters, egrets, herons, hawks, pelicans, beavers and turtles while learning about the refuge. The tour takes place in an area that is normally off-limits. More tours scheduled throughout August and September. More details here.

Friday, Aug. 1: Evening opportunity! Wildlife paddle tour, Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. 6 p.m. View river otters, egrets, herons, hawks, pelicans, beavers and turtles while learning about the refuge. The tour takes place in an area that is normally off-limits. More tours scheduled throughout August and September. More details here.

Saturday, Aug. 2-Sunday, Aug. 3: Woodbridge Wilderness Area open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. The area is typically open the first three weekends of each month. Explore a quarter-mile of Mokelumne River frontage. Free. More details here.

Saturday, Aug. 9: Electronic waste collection event hosted by Onsite Electronics Recycling. 9 a.m., San Joaquin Delta College Shima 2 parking lot. More details here.

Saturday, Aug. 9: Full-moon “bat paddle” at the Cosumnes River Preserve. Visitors will paddle to the Franklin Bridge to watch 70,000 Mexican free-tail bats fly out into the sky at sundown. Space is limited; RSVP required. More details here.

Tuesday, Aug. 12: Class, “California Camping Basics.” 7 p.m., Stockton REI. Class will cover camping essentials, gear and equipment, and locations. More details here.

Wednesday, Aug. 13: Green Team San Joaquin meeting, hosted by the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce. Guest speakers are James Bohon, assistant sacretary of rthe California Environmental Protection Agency, and the city of Stockton’s David Stagnaro, who will talk about Stockton’s Climate Action Plan. 9 a.m., 445 W. Weber Avenue Suite 220.

Monday, Aug. 25: Sierra Club meeting. Theme: “Diary of a Steelhead Trout: From River to Sea and Back Again.” Stacy Luthy, a marine biologist and coordinator of Friends of the Lower Calaveras River, will talk about how rivers connect to the ocean and the fish that make the journey. 7 p.m., Central United Methodist Church, 3700 Pacific Avenue in Stockton.

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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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