Sturgeon rescue

Check out the patience of state fish and wildlife officers, who spent 20 minutes reviving this large white sturgeon on the Sacramento River near Clarksburg last week.

The fish was taken by a poacher who had thrown the fish in the back of his truck, officials said.

Officers stopped the car and found the 61/2-foot-long fish, which was oversized and untagged. Eric Solden, 34, of Hood, was cited, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife said.

More remarkable was what happened next, as officers put the “nearly lifeless” fish back in the river in an attempt to resuscitate it. Other fishermen took video as one officer moved the fish back and forth to force water over its gills.

Finally, the fish gained enough strength to swim away, and there’s one more beautiful, giant sturgeon in the Sacramento River as a result.

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Counting salmon

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Times are tough enough for salmon without a reporter shortchanging them.

In last weekend’s story recapping the fall salmon run, I reported that just 1,832 adult salmon migrated up the Stanislaus River this past season.

But that number refers to the salmon carcasses that were later counted by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Obviously not all carcasses are located after the fish spawn and die, so the better number to rely upon is the 5,507 salmon that were seen swimming upstream past the weir near Oakdale. That’s only a couple of dozen fewer fish than the previous year, and is actually a relatively high number in the context of the past decade or so.

The point of the story doesn’t really change, though. The full effect of the drought on our state’s salmon populations has not yet become apparent. Next year and the year after that should be interesting.

In the meantime, sorry ’bout that, fishies.

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Zombies: Good news and bad news

Some smart people at Cornell University found a way to simulate a zombie attack.

And they prepared a nice little interactive game where you can place a single zombie anywhere in the United States and see how quickly the invasion would spread.

Like so:

Apologies for the quality of the video, but you get the idea.

I’m strangely comforted by the results. After all, it takes quite a while for those staggering zombies to take over an entire city, let alone region or state. Stockton is effectively overrun within 15 or 16 hours, but it’s a full day and a half before the zombies begin to infiltrate the east Bay Area, two full days before metropolitan Sacramento is mostly gone, four days before Fresno feels the bite and 15 days before the undead belatedly hit up L.A.

In other words, unless your luck is extraordinarily bad and that first zombie is your neighbor or mailman, you ought to be able to take your sweet time packing up your belongings, herding your family into the SUV — don’t forget the cat — and taking the scenic route out of town.

Forget the mad panic you saw in World War Z.

OK, now the bad news.

The Cornell study specifically calls out the San Joaquin Valley. Yes, the hard-luck Valley, with all of its economic hardships and environmental disparities, also faces a special risk from zombies.

That’s because the Valley is sandwiched between two major metro areas — the Bay Area and L.A. While those cities face the most immediate risk because of their dense populations, it’s the Valley — particularly the south Valley, near Bakersfield — that will inevitably get hammered within about four weeks, as zombies spill over from at least one of those two cities.

Seems like every story has a Valley connection. Here’s the study itself if you want to see for yourself.

Bottom line: Forget every zombie movie you’ve ever seen. Keep calm, take your time, get a good night’s sleep, but at some point get the heck out of the Valley.

Good luck.

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Competitive climate

Expect tough competition for the hundreds of millions of dollars in cap-and-trade funds now being made available across California.

Case in point: About $130 million is offered for “affordable housing and sustainable communities” projects. Visionary Home Builders of Stockton has already applied for its Grand View Village downtown development, pictured below.

Proposed Grand View Village development in Stockton

But the state’s Strategic Growth Council, which will decide who gets the money, told me today that it has received 146 applications totaling $760 million dollars — more than five times as much money as is available.

Regionally, Los Angeles led the way with 50 applications. The Bay Area was next with 44 applications, and the San Joaquin Valley followed with 21 requests.

Time will tell where the money is actually spent and which regions benefit the most.

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Deep roots

Daffodil Hill. Public domain image from California Photo Scout.

Daffodil Hill’s early bloom this year got me thinking that it’d be fun to share some of the history of the place.

So I emailed the Ryan family, which owns the property, and they sent a document that I’ll both paraphrase and quote from liberally here:

The whole thing started with Dutchman Pete Denzer, who owned the land and planted daffodils in a garden at the foot of the hill to remind him of his homeland.

The property had been used as a way station for teamsters and travelers using the road from Kit Carson Pass (now Highway 88). The land had also been used to supply vegetables for early gold miners in Volcano.

Then, in 1877, Arthur Burbeck McLaughlin (from Ohio) and Elizabeth Van Vorst (from New York) married in Volcano. They were 24 and 23 years old, respectively.

They bought Daffodil Hill from Denzer — and continued his tradition, taking “great pride” in the flowers.

The ranch sounds like it was a busy place. It continued to function as a stage stop with stables for mules, which hauled heavy timber to the nearby mines. Charcoal was also manufactured at the ranch.

The young couple took over operation of the 17-room boarding house. They rented out rooms, cooked homemade meals and sheltered animals. Breakfast cost 25 cents. Dances were held on Saturday nights in the loft of the huge barn, which is still in use today.

Arthur McLaughlin died in 1912, and Lizzie died in 1935. The ranch passed down to their three children: Mary, Jesse and Ann.

The daffodil planting continued, now in memory of Lizzie. New varieties were added — a few hundred, then a few thousand as the first visitors began arriving in the late 1930s. No irrigation or fertilizer was used.

The hill was officially opened to the public in 1940. On Easter Sunday in 1953, about 500 visitors enjoyed the scene.

Planting continues in this day, mostly in November and December, with an average 12,000 bulbs added each year to areas that have died out or are weak in bloom.  Family, friends and caretakers do all the work.

More than 300 varieties of daffodils have now been planted, totaling more than 300,000 bulbs.

Mary McLaughlin’s daughter, Mary Lucot Ryan, told a reporter in 1995: “We have never charged an admission. To me that would defeat the purpose. This started out as a memorial to my grandparents, parents and the other pioneers who traveled this way. We don’t do it for money. We do it for our family.”

Mary Ryan and her husband Martin Ryan died in 2008, two months apart. The hill has now passed to yet another generation. The faces change; the tradition does not.

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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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    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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