No extension on tunnels comments

State officials have rejected a request from Northern California members of Congress to extend the comment period for the California Water Fix, commonly known as the governor’s twin tunnels project.

In a letter to those members of Congress, John Laird, the state’s secretary for natural resources, said that a previous draft of the plan was up for comment for 228 days. The comment period on the current plan has already been extended once and will total 113 days when the window of opportunity closes on Oct. 30.

“It is important to allow for good public understanding of this document,” Laird wrote. “… It also is important to move forward in evaluating the (plan), given the critical need to mitigate the potentially catastrophic risks faced by 25 million people who rely upon Delta conveyance facilities.”

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Twin tunnels poll: ‘Solid majority’ support

A group that supports Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin tunnels has released a new poll which it says indicates the project has “solid majority” support  in California.

In the poll, commissioned by Californians for Water Security, 1,500 voters were asked a series of questions about the drought and the proposed tunnels. Few were familiar with the details of the tunnels project — now known as California Water Fix — but when read a short description, 55 percent expressed support.

That description says the tunnels would “replace the infrastructure that currently delivers water from the Sierra Nevada mountains through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, to homes, farms and businesses throughout the state.”

Most voters also expressed some level of support for moving water during wet years and storing it for dry years, and for “making seismic upgrades to the water distribution system so it can withstand future earthquakes.” Those are two of the project’s stated purposes.

Presented with pro and con arguments — including a statement that the tunnels would cost “tens of billions of dollars” — about 68 percent were inclined to be supportive, according to the poll. Only one region — Sacramento and Northern California — came in below 50 percent support (45 percent).

Of course, we may never know how the public would actually vote on the tunnels, because the state intends to build them without such a vote.

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Doug Wilhoit, quote machine

Doug Wilhoit, head of the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce, wasn’t expecting to take the mic at Monday’s rally against the twin tunnels.

But when he did, he had a zinger ready to go.

“I hope I don’t insult anybody,” said Wilhoit, who served on San Joaquin County’s Board of Supervisors when Gov. Jerry Brown pushed the original peripheral canal in the late 1970s and early 80s.

“Everybody’s talking about the legacy of Jerry Brown,” Wilhoit said. “Jerry Brown and I are about the same age, so I can relate. This tunnel project is the peripheral canal on Viagra. Let’s tear up Jerry Brown’s prescription and flush it down the toilet.”

The home-town crowd applauded.

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In case you didn’t know why the lawn is brown…

One of many neighborhood drought signs posted by the Brookside Master Association.

They say that during a drought, a brown lawn is a “badge of honor.”

And yet, across Stockton, I’m seeing people and organizations erecting signs to explain why their lawns are brown.

Apparently those badges of honor are not self-explanatory.

Cal Water customers can order signs like these to explain why their lawns are brown. Take that, neighbor with a green lawn!

Maybe I’m overestimating the public’s understanding of the drought (though polls show it is now considered to be a greater problem than the economy, which suggests there is no lack of awareness).

Maybe people are still calling their neighbors, homeowners associations or schools and complaining about brown lawns (though I suspect these days it’s most often the other way around).

Or maybe being a good steward of water is simply good publicity these days.

Stockton Unified put this banner up outside Stagg High, along Brookside Road.

I guess it doesn’t really matter. If you want to put a sign in your yard, then put a sign in your yard.

In this terrible drought, however, you should be able to set a good example without feeling like you have to explain your behavior.

Or perhaps California’s mindset about water hasn’t changed as much as we think it has.

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Judge rules against Delta water districts

Quick update on this summer’s endless water litigation.

Less than two hours ago, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge ruled against two water districts that were hoping to block the state from taking enforcement action against them.

The water districts — the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District and the West Side Irrigation District — had asked the judge to first address objections they raised in lawsuits filed earlier this summer. Those lawsuits were filed before the State Water Resources Control Board announced it would take enforcement action.

Byron-Bethany faces a possible fine of $1.5 million for allegedly diverting water when there was none available under the district’s century-old water right. West Side hasn’t been fined but was on the receiving end of a cease and desist order to stop future diversions.

The districts argued that the water board is not an impartial arbiter, and, in the case of Byron-Bethany, had “pre-determined BBID’s guilt,” among other issues.

Judge Peter H. Kirwan didn’t buy it and will allow the state’s enforcement process to continue.

“Clearly, this Court has authority to review any final decisions made by the SWRCB once they are made,” Kirwan wrote. “(Previous case law) does not go as far as to mandate a stay of the administrative proceeding.”

There are “sound policy reasons” for allowing the state’s process to move forward, Kirwan wrote. Both water districts will be able to present evidence at their upcoming hearings before a board that is “required to be impartial, fair and neutral, and has the specific expertise to adjudicate these issues,” he wrote.

If the districts disagree they can argue that before the court, “but there simply is not enough evidence at this point for the Court to reach that conclusion,” Kirwan wrote.

So the hearings will proceed as planned. Byron-Bethany faces what could be a three-day hearing starting Oct. 28; West Side’s hearing begins Nov. 12.

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It’s settled.

A dead fish in the Calaveras River after one of Stockton's frequent "first flush" fish kills.

As reported today, the city of Stockton has settled a lawsuit brought by Kern County landowners over polluted stormwater releases into the Delta.

For those interested, here are the terms of the settlement. The city has estimated it could cost about $360,000 to implement. Each side is paying for its own attorney fees.

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Scientists renew criticism of tunnels documents

Update: The Department of Water Resources has issued a statement in response to the Independent Science Board’s comments.

Remember that pesky math teacher who kept insisting that you “show your work?”

That’s essentially what the Delta Independent Science Board is telling proponents of Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin tunnels plan, in the scientists’ latest strong criticism of that effort.

The scientists are not so much critiquing the project itself as they are the way in which the project is presented in complex environmental documents.

A revised environmental impact report out for public comment right now is supposed to explain the rationale for building the tunnels, justify the proposal and outline the environmental impacts; instead, it “falls short as a basis for weighty decisions about natural resources,” the scientists found.

They noted some improvement from a previous draft, but also quite a few problems, including:

• The report is “marred by key gaps in information, analyses and summaries… The various gaps impede evaluation of the science that underpins the proposed project.” In other words, as my math teacher might’ve said, “Show your work.”

• Details are lacking on how officials would adjust or change course if unexpected results occur (so-called “adaptive management”).

• And on a related note, conclusions in the report contain an “exuberant display of optimism,” even though the 50-year timeframe for the project has been shortened considerably. There aren’t enough details on what actions will be taken in the “likely event that such optimism is unfulfilled.”

• The report “offers no analysis of how levee failures would affect the short-term and long-term water operations…” Nor does the report give adequate consideration to climate change, sea level rise, future groundwater availability, the impacts of construction noise on sensitive birds like sandhill cranes, and the loss of Delta wetlands.

• It is “unclear how (and how well) the fish screens would work.” This is a reference to the fish screens that would be built along the intakes at the northern end of the tunnels, to protect Sacramento River fish from the new diversions there. “Despite the lack of specific data on how well screens function, the conclusion that there will be no significant impact is stated as certain… Here, as in many other places, measures are assumed to function as planned, with no evidence to support the assumptions.”

• The report lacks helpful summaries and graphics. “Far-reaching decisions about (the tunnels) should not hinge on environmental documents that few can grasp,” the scientists found.

And, I might editorialize, if the Ph.D.s on the Delta Independent Science Board have difficulty understanding the environmental impact report, what chance do the rest of us have?

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Water districts ask judge to block state

Two water districts facing drought-related enforcement by state regulators are asking a judge to intervene.

Read the legal documents filed by the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District and the West Side Irrigation District.

The districts want the Santa Clara Superior Court judge to prevent the state from moving forward with its enforcement process. They want the judge to address the concerns they raised in lawsuits that were filed before the enforcement actions started.

Byron-Bethany faces a possible fine of $1.5 million, with hearings before the State Water Resources Control Board scheduled for next month. Board staff accuse the district of diverting water when there was no water available under its century-old water right.

West Side has not been fined, but was given a cease and desist order to stop future diversions.

The districts say the court should intervene because the water board is not an impartial arbiter. The water board has “pre-determined BBID’s guilt,” Byron-Bethany says in its latest filing.

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Thirsty son of a…

Photo courtesy the National Park Service

An anonymous caller the other day claimed that star thistle — scourge of scourges, among the worst of weeds — sucks up 1 million acre-feet of water a year statewide, an amount nearly one-quarter the capacity of Lake Shasta.

That couldn’t be right. Could it?

I asked Joseph DiTomaso, a U.C. Davis weed scientist. He said in an email that star thistle does, indeed, “significantly alter water cycles and deplete soil moisture reserves… in California,” and that a 2004 study found that the weed probably sucks up about 46,000 acre-feet in the Sacramento River watershed annually. The economic loss? About $16 million to $75 million.

I don’t know if anyone has tried to quantify star thistle’s impact in other watersheds. Sounds to me like the guy who called was a mite overly excited.

Still, 46,000 acre-feet in the Sacramento River watershed alone is a lot of water. By comparison, in 2010, homes and businesses in the Stockton metropolitan area guzzled about 58,000 acre-feet of water. So, that damn weed is almost as thirsty as this entire city.

Of course star thistle causes all sorts of other problems, too. It’s toxic to horses and crowds out important native plants.

Here’s what you can do about it (see page 3).

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Questions over acquiring land for twin tunnels

Delta advocates want more details about the mysterious “property acquisition plan” (part 1, part 2) that received quite a bit of attention last week.

In a letter to state and federal officials on Thursday, the Local Agencies of the North Delta asked loads of questions about the origin of the document and what it might mean for Delta property owners whose farms lie within the footprint of Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed twin tunnels.

Among other concerns, the group said that the existence of such a plan while the environmental review process is still underway suggests that alternatives are not being seriously considered. The plan “is concerning on many levels,” the group said.

The extent to which the contents of the plan remain relevant is subject to debate, however.

The document itself is undated. State officials say they didn’t even have it until tunnels opponents recently obtained it from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and posted it online.

Apparently the document dates back to August 2014 and is “very similar” to a 2013 document that was based on discussions starting in 2012, said Nancy Vogel, a spokeswoman for the state’s Natural Resources Agency.

In other words, it’s dated. The tunnels plan has since been tweaked to reduce impacts in the Delta; the “new” document doesn’t reflect that, the state says. (In fact, the document refers to the tunnels project as the “Bay Delta Conservation Plan,” a moniker that as of last spring is no longer the formal name.)

While the acquisition plan lists 300 properties as potentially being impacted by the project, state officials say the current, up-to-date number is 192 properties.

And the implication that hundreds of farms would be taken in their entirety through eminent domain is also inaccurate, the state says. (“State plans to take hundreds of Delta farms” was the headline in an Associated Press story that appeared in Tuesday’s Record.)

About 70 or the 192 properties are “impacted” only in the sense that easements would be required to build the tunnels beneath those properties. For those 70 properties, there would be no disruption on the land surface.

As for the others, according to a fact sheet provided by the state, “most of the parcels with potential surface impacts would involve a partial acquisition, not a complete parcel acquisition.”

Those clarifications aside, Osha Meserve — an attorney with the LAND group — told me Friday that the document remains relevant because the fundamental nature of the tunnels project hasn’t changed.

“There are some different properties, perhaps, but it’s pretty much the same,” she said.

And if nothing else, the mere existence of the document is a reminder to Delta residents that after four decades of talk about some kind of “isolated conveyance” through or around the Delta, the idea, at this point, is far more than just conceptual.

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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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