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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Delta islands lawsuit: Read for yourself

Here’s the lawsuit filed by San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties, Delta farmers and enviros to block the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California from buying 20,000-plus acres in the Delta.

And here’s a letter that accompanied the lawsuit.

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Diverse voices on Delta flows

In case you missed it, Delta advocates recently sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency asking for a long delayed update of Delta water flow and water quality standards. (A similar letter was also sent to the State Water Resources Control Board.)

Somewhere around 150 organizations signed on, including a number in the Stockton area. And it’s not just enviros. The Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce signed. So did the San Joaquin Council of Governments, which works on local habitat conservation issues. So did Catholic Charities. So did River Boat Marina. So did Lao Family Community Empowerment and the Asian Pacific Self Development and Residential Association.

So did the Downtown Comeback Club of Stockton. I didn’t even know what that was.

The point is that while flow standards are an incredibly arcane subject for the general public, that doesn’t mean regular people aren’t interested. It would be a mistake — and I am guilty of this many times over — to cast these stories simply as a clash between water-wonk environmentalists and thirsty San Joaquin Valley farmers or southland residents or whatever.

It’s much more complex, much more nuanced than that. And water writers need to do a better job conveying that fact.

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Spreading the wealth

Mother Nature must have finally realized that she didn’t equitably distribute El Niño’s wealth this winter. Check out the rainfall from over the weekend:

National Weather Service

It was the other way around most of this year, with far Northern California reservoirs receiving most of the wet stuff, and places farther south — like New Melones — recovering much more slowly.

Stockton received 1.78 inches of rain from Friday through Sunday, easily exceeding the city’s average for the entire month of April.

Inflow bumped up at New Melones, though not enough to put a big dent in the deficit there. Up Highway 88, Kirkwood Ski Resort got about a foot of new snow, though the overall snowpack in the central Sierra bumped up from 75 percent of normal to just 76 percent over the weekend.

Not a game-changer, but it’s nice to be in the game.

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An exotic souvenir

My always thoughtful boss, deputy metro editor Barbara Zumwalt, brought me the loveliest gift from her recent trip to Senegal.

I mean, really, Barbara, you shouldn’t have.


Yes, Barbara brought me a toilet paper tube.

No coffee mug, no keychain. Don’t they have overpriced airport gift shops in Senegal?

OK, here’s why she brought me a toilet paper tube:

Supposedly, the tube is biodegradable. When you’ve used up the toilet paper you throw the empty tube into the toilet.  Nifty, huh? Barbara knew I’d find it interesting.

From what I can tell, these suckers aren’t available in the states. The movement (if you will) is happening in Europe. In a press release, Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific calls Aqua Tube “the first ever fully flushable, biodegradable bathroom tissue center tube, replacing the traditional cardboard core and offering consumers enhanced comfort and convenience.”

The company conducted research suggesting more than 80 percent of “consumers” say the tubes will make their lives easier. “No more fuss or annoyance” dealing with those pesky old cardboard tubes, which, in my house, take an average 1.2 seconds to dispose of in the bathroom trash can.

Georgia-Pacific goes on to note than women replace the toilet paper roll more often than men (83 percent to 62 percent), and that many of those surveyed believed a biodegradable tube was more likely to compel certain other household members to take care of the matter themselves.

Not everyone thinks this is such a grand idea. “Paris declares war on biodegradable loo rolls,” says the headline in The Telegraph, which quotes Paris officials complaining that, biodegradable or not, the tubes may clog the city’s wastewater treatment plants.

I will leave that debate for greater minds to process.

But thanks again for the gift, Barbara. It’s the pot that counts.

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Smelt population ‘alarmingly small’; pumping cut

Federal pumping plant in the south Delta. Pumping will be reduced to protect threatened fish. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The federal government is increasing protections for vulnerable Delta smelt, which will require Delta export pumping to be ratcheted back even more.

Friday’s decision came one day after U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote to President Obama, asking him to crank up the pumps at a time when rivers are flowing high with runoff.

“If we can’t increase pumping during an El Niño year, then when else can we?” Feinstein wrote.

Problem is, Delta smelt are at record low numbers, and this year’s newly hatched population — still only in larvae form — is threatened by pumping that causes the Old and Middle rivers in the south Delta to run backward, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says in its formal determination.

Most smelt live only one year. If you don’t protect the babies, there won’t be any adults to spawn later this year, and that’s that.

The rivers still will flow backward under the new rules, but not as rapidly as before.

This will no doubt add to the concern south of the Delta over pumping limits which, combined with the drought, have reduced supplies for cities and farms.

Environmentalists counter that most of the precipitation falling on California has been captured in upstream reservoirs or diverted upstream;  how the Delta pumps are operated right now, in other words, doesn’t tell the full story of how we’re managing our water in California.

Interestingly, for the first time that I am aware of, Fish and Wildlife is estimating the actual number of smelt that exist today.

That number, spokesman Steve Martarano said Friday, is anywhere from 13,000 to 46,000 fish throughout the entire Delta. That might sound like a lot for a fish that is said to be on the brink of extinction. But the Delta is a big place.

The estimate for last year’s population, Martarano said, is 112,000 to 129,000 smelt. Before the smelt population really tanked, in 2002, the population is believed to have been just shy of 600,000, he said.

“13,000 is alarmingly small for a fish that only lives one year in a body of water as large as the Delta,” Martarano said.

Pumping from the Delta has been reduced to protect smelt since January, though scientists at times have said that even more stringent cuts are needed to lower the risk.

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Delay in water rights hearings

State water officials have indefinitely postponed ongoing hearings about alleged illegal diversions from the Delta during the drought last summer.

Who knows what this means, if anything. The hearings started on Monday and were expected to last 11 days. But the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, which faces a possible $1.4 million fine, moved for dismissal on Tuesday, and the hearing officers — members of the State Water Resources Control Board whose role is like a judge — canceled hearings for the rest of the week.

Now, they’ve suspended the hearings entirely and cleared out the whole schedule.

The board’s statement: “The additional time will allow the board members to deliberate further on certain factual issues presented so far in these matters, with the intent of providing orderly, efficient and fair proceedings.”

“This ruling is not a determination on the merits.”

While the hearings have been postponed, the issue has been placed on the closed session for next week’s full water board meeting.

Conclude from all of this what you will.


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New polling on Delta tunnels

Who knows if the twin tunnels will be put to a public vote.

But it’s worth noting that, according to the latest poll from the Public Policy Institute of California, 80 percent of Californians believe the tunnels proposal is either “very important” or “somewhat important” for the future of the state.

Not surprisingly, the highest level of support was found in L.A. (61 percent “very important”). But the Bay Area wasn’t that far behind, with 49 percent of residents giving the same answer. And Democrats were more likely than Republicans and independents to say “very important.”

Of course, it’s important to note how the question was presented to poll respondents. The exact language:

“The governor has proposed to improve the reliability of water supplies by building tunnels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. How important is this proposal for the future quality of life and economic vitality of California — is it very important, somewhat important, not too important, or not at all important?’

I’m not sure how a tunnels opponent would answer that question. The question, after all, is whether folks think the proposal is important, which tunnels opponents surely do, or they wouldn’t be fighting it. There’s no “I don’t like the tunnels” option.

Anyhow, it’s neither the first nor the last poll we’ll see on this subject. We may never know how accurate they are.

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A farm community pulling together

Record file photo

The takeaway from a new state report is that Delta farmers voluntarily cut their diversions by 32 percent, or about 153,000 acre-feet of water, last summer.

But beyond the numbers, the report offers some interesting details about how the estuary’s farming community rallied together in response to an unprecedented challenge — and what state officials learned from those farmers as well.

Here are some of those details, straight from the report, mostly in the words of Michael George, a state official who serves as the Delta “watermaster”:

• When it comes to really understanding farming, “there is no substitute for riding shotgun in a pickup driven by the guy who farms the field.”

• Farmers were asked to save 25 percent, but most actually aimed higher than that.

• Faced with a need to get creative in how they would achieve those savings, the farmers learned from each other, “sometimes only by observation of a neighbor’s practices, other times by swapping stories at the coffee shop, sometimes through intermediaries like lawyers, engineers, pest management advisors, regulators and vendors.”

• While men are still predominantly working the fields, women “contributed greatly” to the success of the diversion reduction effort in the Delta. “Mothers, wives, daughters and helpers often wrote the plans, coordinated with their farm advisors, kept the records, fielded our calls and filed the reports.”

• “Delta farmers took pride in their efforts to ameliorate impacts of the drought. In fact, several farmers requested that we schedule and carry out inspections of their fields, because they wanted their efforts both understood and documented.”

• Some farmers looked at the reduction program as an opportunity to conduct experiments or “test their ‘hunches’” about the interaction of soil, water and nutrients on their fields.

• These farmers faced “real costs” associated with taking less water: higher operations costs, lower crop yields, shifts in prices, the burden of reporting and recordkeeping and their own time.

• While farmers had “generally favorable” views of the program once they got into it, “farmers remain skeptical that we (the state) know enough about their practices to be intelligent regulators of their water rights.”

• And finally: “The farmers with whom we interacted over the course of the program — in the teeth of the drought, under the cloud of curtailments, enforcement actions and resulting litigation, and fearful that their water rights are under long-term attack — were almost universally eager to show us around, answer our questions, and help us understand their practices.”

Read the full report here.


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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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