More bad news for Delta smelt

No surprise here, but an annual spring survey that is an important indicator of the Delta smelt’s ability to spawn shows the species has hit another record low.

Read the ugly details here.

“I am not optimistic that the smelt can make it through the next year or two. Love to be proved wrong,” California native fish expert Peter Moyle said in an email today after reviewing the survey results from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The spring survey estimates the population of adult smelt, which gives us some idea how many smelt have the potential to spawn. Most Delta smelt live just one year, so it’s critical that there are enough fish each spring that they can find each other and take care of business.

Alas, this spring’s population index — a number that represents the estimated population — is a mere 1.8. That’s less than 10 percent of last year’s index (which, by the way, was also a record low). The index is down from 130 in 2012, which was actually a pretty decent year because it was so wet (a rarity in California over the past decade).

In raw numbers, 13 fish were found at eight collection stations this spring. Eighty-eight fish were found last year, and the average catch going back more than a decade is 311 fish.

These are not superficial surveys. Crews sample 40 stations across the Delta once a month, usually spending about four or five days to get the work done. They use a 25-foot-wide net to catch the fish.

While the smelt — as Donald Trump recently pointed out — are small and seemingly insignificant, scientists consider the fish to be an indicator of the estuary’s overall health.

The last Delta species to go extinct was the thicktail chub, last seen in 1957.

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‘Drought’ not so easily defined

The fact-checkers had a field day with Donald Trump’s pronouncement last week that, in effect, there is no drought in California.

“Lies Trump reality,” blared the headline in Slate.

I realize that because he’s running for president, and because of his track record, everything Trump says will be — and should be — closely scrutinized.

But everyone who has expressed outrage over Trump’s comment should understand that it’s absolutely nothing new. The “there is no drought” sentiment has been expressed many times over the years, and it is not exclusive to south San Joaquin Valley water exporters.

There are at least three ways to define drought. There’s the hydrologic definition, in which case, according to scientists with the U.S. Drought Monitor, we are clearly still in a drought, albeit less severe than last year.

There’s the dictionary definition: “A prolonged period of dry weather; lack of rain,” according to my Webster’s. Does that definition still apply? Maybe, if you live in Bakersfield. Maybe not, if you live in Redding.

Then there’s the political definition, which of course, is the trickiest of all. Politicians in areas where water supplies have been slashed to protect endangered fish in the Delta are fond of referring to a “man-made drought,” although the fish account for only a portion of their shortage.

But I can also recall when, during the drought of the late 2000s, environmentalists complained that then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was overstating the problem, perhaps to push his peripheral canal plan. Reservoirs weren’t in such terrible shape, they said. ”What (expletive) drought?” one enviro told me at the time.

The bottom line: No matter what you think of Trump, the definition of “drought” is — and always has been — in the eye of the beholder.

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In defense of stripers

A striper taken from flooded Mildred Island in the Delta. File photo by Pete Ottesen

Striped bass “are not the problem” in the Delta, writes California native fish expert Peter Moyle and other experts with the U.C. Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

South-of-Delta water users have long said that it makes no sense for the state to maintain fishing limits on stripers, because the fish are not native to the Delta and chomp down on fish that are native, which in turn crimps water exports.

But the solution may not be as simple as lifting those limits and allowing fishermen to wipe out stripers. Such an action might have “unintended consequences,” Moyle says.

For example, while stripers eat native fish they also eat other fish that eat native fish. Like the Mississippi silverside, which Moyle says preys on Delta smelt eggs and larvae.

No more stripers means more Mississippi silverside, which might actually be bad for Delta smelt, he writes.

He also affirms what striped bass defenders have been saying for a long time: That the species has coexisted with native fish species for well over a century, and both were once far more abundant, suggesting other factors are at play here in their decline.


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The reward for saving water…

No, not a rate hike this time.

The California Water Service Co. threw a huge party for its central Stockton customers on Saturday at the Stockton Civic Memorial Auditorium.

About 750 people attended, according to the San Jose-based company.

Courtesy the California Water Service Co.

Cal Water Stockton customers saved 22 percent from June through February, exceeding their state mandate of 20 percent. Cal Water customers already used less water per capita than most other local providers, making the 22 percent reduction even more impressive.

It took some aggressive new policies to get the job done. For the first time, each Cal Water household was assigned a water “budget” based on previous usage. If you exceeded your budget, you paid a surcharge.

Cal Water was also one of only two local water providers that I’m aware of that started a cash-for-grass rebate program.

“Cal Water commends our Stockton customers for their exceptional response to the drought, and we wanted to take this opportunity to thank them and let them know how much we appreciate their hard work,” Stockton District Manager John Freeman said in a prepared statement.

I haven’t heard of any other water provider going so far as to throw a party to reward its customers. Let’s hope it will be the last such celebration for many years.

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Delta land buy still a ‘go’

Southern California’s huge water wholesaler declined to reverse course Tuesday on the purchase of roughly 20,000 acres of land in the Delta, a $175 million deal that has Delta advocates worried.

A vote to pull out of the deal failed 54 percent to 29 percent, with another 10 percent abstaining.

The decision came despite Stockton-based Restore the Delta’s delivery of 10,223 signatures from those opposing the purchase. Restore the Delta has argued that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s primary interest in buying the land is to facilitate the construction of Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin tunnels.

“We ask, ‘Does it make financial sense for Metropolitan to spend $175 million to purchase land to support an infrastructure project that will not meet Southern California’s water needs?” Esperanza Vielma, with Restore the Delta, asked Metropolitan’s Board of Directors.

Metropolitan hasn’t denied that the tunnels are part of its interest in the property, but says it has other motivations as well, such as shoring up levees and restoring wildlife habitat, actions which in turn could help protect the agency’s water supply.

When Metropolitan first approved the deal earlier this year, some board members made clear they wanted another bite at the apple before escrow closed in June. Representatives from Los Angeles, Santa Monica and San Diego voted to block the deal altogether.

Sure enough, after an informational briefing on Tuesday, Keith Lewinger, one of Metropolitan’s San Diego board members, moved to pull out of the deal.

Suja Lowenthal, who represents Long Beach on the board, supported the motion, saying that a position on the tunnels should come before purchasing the property, which would be “premature” at this point.

“I think it would be wise for us to wait,” Lowenthal said.

Other board members disagreed. Gloria Gray, a former member of the state’s Delta Stewardship Council, said Metropolitan’s consideration of the land buy had been “thorough.”

“I think it is a good investment,” she said.

Litigation to stop the deal is still pending, with a key court date scheduled for May 19.

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Hyacinth hassle

In case you missed it, the state Department of Water Resources has purchased nearly 23 acres of waterfront property in Stockton but is declining to allow its sister agency, the Division of Boating and Waterways, to use the land to dispose of water hyacinth.

Here’s an interactive version of the map pictured above.

The blue dot farthest to the right depicts where the hyacinth has been accumulating at the head of the downtown channel. The dot just west of Interstate 5 shows where the new DWR property is located. The dot to the left is where the hyacinth harvesters have been going to dispose of their loads — about a two-hour round trip from the channel head, according to one boater’s estimate.

The claim, obviously, is that the current system is inefficient and that DWR should allow the use of its land for at least temporary disposal of the floating plant.

But DWR has other plans for the property, including storage of rock for future flood-fighting efforts in the Delta. Construction on the site, which is highly visible from southbound I-5, may begin even this week.

DWR's plans for its Stockton waterfront property

Here’s a shot of one of the loaded harvesters cruising past the DWR-owned land on the far bank.

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‘We cannot afford further delay’

Add state Sen. Lois Wolk and 10 of her colleagues to the list of those who want state officials to complete a long-overdue update Delta water quality standards.

Wolk, D-Davis, sent a letter last week to the State Water Resources Control Board asking it to take action within one or two years. “We cannot afford further delay of updated standards that sufficiently protect our fish and wildlife and water quality,” she wrote.

While the twin tunnels get a lot of public attention, the flow standards are hugely important in determining how much water flows through rivers and how much can be diverted. The standards are wonky, which is why they don’t get as much publicity. Expect to hear a lot more in the months and years to come.

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Tragic picture

It’s strange to think that this little spindly tree — the one bent toward the ground — started the devastating Butte Fire last summer.

Courtesy Cal Fire

70,868 acres burned. 549 homes destroyed. Two lives lost. Such a weak little tree.

That weakness was precisely the problem, Cal Fire found in its investigation report released last week. The agency alleges that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. cut down two larger trees, exposing this more vulnerable interior tree which was more prone to fall.

An independent arborist found that the smaller tree was “unable to stand” on its own, and yet, because of its 44-foot height, was “guaranteed” to strike the power lines if it ever did topple.

Such spindly, weak, inconsequential little tree.

Courtesy Cal Fire

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No debate about water

It seems surprising that there were no questions about water at Monday night’s U.S. Senate debate, considering what is happening in Washington, D.C. right now.

There were but two passing mentions of water in the span of 90 minutes:

• Asked about income inequality, Democratic candidate Loretta Sanchez, of Orange County, talked jobs and, ever so briefly, water. “We need to work on our infrastructure,” she said. “Transportation. Conveyance of water for all Californians. And a transition to energy independence… And if we do it right we can protect our environment.”

• And in closing statements, Republican Duf Sundheim offered, “I will fight every day and every night to end high-speed rail and solve our water problem.” How, he didn’t say.

That’s it. Those were the only references to water — a bread-and-butter issue in California.

To be sure, 90 minutes isn’t as long as it seems when you’ve got five candidates sharing the stage and myriad issues to delve into. But we certainly didn’t learn much about their platforms in this one critical area.

We probably learned more today, in fact, than we did on debate day. And hopefully, we’ll have opportunities to learn more in the weeks to come.

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The rarest of documents

Updated to fix link

You don’t see this every day — an application for a permit to export groundwater from San Joaquin County.

That’s a big deal. A county ordinance forbids exporting precious groundwater unless a permit with specific conditions can be issued. And no such permit has ever been approved.

For the nitty gritty details, read the application itself, public comments for which are accepted through May 18.

This is part of a modest and yet ambitious pilot project to see if roughly 1,000 acre-feet of Mokelumne River water can be banked underground and shared between San Joaquin County and the East Bay Municipal Utility District.

Small though the quantity of water is, this has big implications and we can expect to hear much more about it in the coming weeks.

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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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