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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Drill down: Read rulings on PG&E/SSJID dispute

Want to get into the nitty gritty on South San Joaquin Irrigation District’s efforts to take over retail electric service from PG&E?

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

A San Joaquin County Superior Court judge sided in favor of the water district in two separate issues, though the litigation continues. Here’s ruling one and ruling two.

This is nowhere near over.

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More grim news for smelt

Annual spring surveys for the elusive Delta smelt are well underway. The surveys give us some idea how the adult population is doing as spawning commences.

Last year — which was by no means a good year for smelt — the extensive surveys turned up 21 fish in January and 68 fish in February.

This year crews found seven fish in January and six fish in February.

The February numbers, in particular, are lousy. They represent a 90 percent decline from what were already historically low levels last year. And a 98 percent decline compared to 2012, when smelt numbers briefly spiked thanks to a single very wet year.

Most Delta smelt live only one year. If no spawning takes place in any given year, it could be sayonara.

So the question this spring is: Can the smelt find each other?

Here are maps showing the survey results so far this spring. For the big picture, look under “report type” and click on “sex ratio.”

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Mosquitofish vs. chloramines: Fish win one round

Mosquitofish. Record file photo.

One of myriad concerns I’ve heard about chloramines in the drinking water is that they will derail efforts to control mosquitoes.

The San Joaquin County Mosquito & Vector Control District distributes mosquitofish that residents can dump into their ponds or pools. The tiny fish eat mosquito larvae and help control the skeeter population.

Chloramines are toxic to fish. So, the thinking goes, if the mosquitofish go belly up because of chloramines, mosquitoes will thrive and spread disease.

I asked the mosquito district about this a month or two ago, and officials there said they would look into it. The results of their unscientific investigation are promising.

They put water from north Stockton, where the chloramines are used, into five-gallon buckets. And they introduced some mosquitofish.

The end result: “We found that there was little, if any, mortality to fish introduced to the treated water,” says a brief report from the general manager (see pg. 14).

Again, this wasn’t a scientific study. But it would seem to be good news.

Mosquito officials do intend to remind residents about this change in the water when they distribute mosquitofish this spring. They plan to advise residents to let water sit for a couple of days in ponds or pools before introducing the fish. (Chloramines are long-lived; it can take days for them to dissipate from the water.)

And when they deliver mosquitofish to people’s homes, officials will take a look at the circumstances and make case-by-case recommendations, said district spokesman Aaron Devencenzi.

Whether chloramines are a problem for mosquitofish or not, in many cases it’s a moot point. The mosquitofish tend to be used most often in stagnant ponds and pools where the water has already been sitting for a long time, Devencenzi said. So those fish shouldn’t have a problem with chloramines unless new water is added, and even then, the bucket investigation suggests there might be little to worry about.

Eat away, friendly fish. I’ve been seeing mosquitos all winter and it’s not going to get any better this spring.

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Still paying off drought debt… from 1977?

Stockton’s water rates may soon climb substantially because residents are buying less water.

Blame it on the drought. But someone’s got to pay for the city’s new $220 million Delta drinking water plant.

Buried in bond documents associated with the plant, however, I found this depressing fact: Stockton is apparently still paying off debt associated with a drought relief loan issued in — wait for it — 1977.

(See the bottom of page 10 if you dare.)

That’s right. As of late 2013, the city was still paying off a 5 percent, 40-year loan from the U.S. Department of Commerce. At that time the city still owed $334,633, with a final due date of July 1, 2017.

According to this report, the money — a $1.8 million loan augmented by a $1.9 million grant — paid for a transmission line, wells, pumps and conservation kits. Not sure why the debt is just now coming due. But it is.

I was born in the summer of ’77. The debt is as old as I am.

Is this a bit heavy for a Friday afternoon? Cheer up. The Delta Water Supply Project will be paid off somewhere around 2040.

 

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Tunnels process slogs forward

Hearings that could give the state permission to operate the proposed twin tunnels will move forward mostly as planned, but opponents still found glimmers of hope in last week’s decision by the State Water Resources Control Board.

The board rejected their requests to delay the tunnels proceedings until a longer-term review of the Delta’s freshwater flow needs can be completed, most likely in 2018.

The decision does acknowledge a “lack of clarity” from tunnels proponents on why it is important to move forward now. But, the water board concluded, “…It is in the public interest to resolve without further delay whether and how the (tunnels) will be part of the solution to longstanding problems in the Bay-Delta.”

Among the tidbits that opponents like, the decision gives them a bit more time to soak up complex details this spring before they present their opposition to the state’s arguments, which will proceed as scheduled.

The decision also predicts that interim flow requirements that must accompany any change in the water rights to operate the tunnels “will be more stringent” than the rules that are currently on the books, and “may well be more stringent” than what tunnels proponents themselves will propose. To environmentalists, those are significant statements.

Finally, the water board’s decision acknowledges that, ideally, the tunnels issue would not be decided until the bigger-picture review of the Delta’s flow needs is done. But that study has been delayed as officials scramble to deal with the drought.

Bottom line: So far, this is all about process. Mark April 7 on your calendar. That’s when the state begins to present its case for the tunnels. And that’s when it gets real.

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Will tunnels lead to toxic algae?

We don’t typically hear much from the U.S. Geological Survey about the governor’s twin tunnels plan, though the agency is loaded with water quality experts.

This fact sheet released last month isn’t about the tunnels, per se, but on the fifth page USGS does touch briefly on some of the issues that may arise from changing flow patterns in the Delta:

“If (the tunnels are) built, net flows throughout the north and western Delta would be proportionately reduced by the amount withdrawn into the conveyance facility, increasing the influence of the tides throughout the Delta.”

And

“If the conveyance facility is built, the north-to-south draw of water across the Delta that has existed for decades would likely be reduced as a result of compensatory reductions in pumping from the south Delta, creating much longer average residence times.”

And

“Longer residence times are associated with higher rates of algal growth, which could fuel eutrophication in some regions, including increased blooms of nuisance algae, such as Microcystis, which is toxic to humans and other organisms.”

USGS isn’t saying the tunnels are bad; the fact sheet is about monitoring flows in the Delta, and how improved monitoring can help  experts better understand what’s going on — whether in response to the tunnels or some other project.

Still, it’s interesting to hear what what the agency believes some of the side effects might be of siphoning off a share of the Delta’s freshwater supply.

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No good deed goes unpunished

City officials warned this day might come. And it did: Stockton faces a proposed 26 percent water rate hike to make up for reduced water sales during the drought.

This will be controversial, of course. Many will feel they are simply being punished for doing the right thing.

But there is nothing simple about water rates. So for folks who really want to dig into the city’s rationale and better understand the numbers, here’s a PowerPoint presented by a city consultant last week.

A full report is apparently coming soon, and I’ll post when I get it. Happy digesting.

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Where does Erin really stand on the tunnels?

Erin Brockovich’s visit to Stockton on Monday was about the city putting chloramines in the drinking water. But of course, any water conversation in this town gravitates toward the Delta tunnels, too.

Knowing that the tunnels would come up at the town hall meeting that night, I asked Brockovich earlier that afternoon how she felt about them.

She told me she had no position on the tunnels.

Five hours later, as the sometimes raucous event was winding down, Restore the Delta’s Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla addressed Brockovich directly on the subject of the tunnels.

“We have been trying to reach out to you,” Barrigan-Parrilla said, then asking Brockovich directly if she would join in the fight.

“If that’s an invitation,” Brockovich said, “the answer is yes.”

The answer earned a huge ovation from the anti-chloramines and presumably anti-tunnels crowd.

But given Brockovich’s clear answer to my question earlier in the day, her response that night raises questions about where she really stands.

Here’s how Stockton environmentalist Bill Jennings put it: “If you have no position on the tunnels in the afternoon, and then in the evening — before your faithful audience — you say ‘I’m against them,’ what does that say about her?”

Brockovich’s right-hand man, Bob Bowcock, told me Monday that he thought the tunnels were a “ridiculous, stupid idea” but also said he wants to learn the science behind the proposal. Bowcock’s consulting firm, Integrated Resource Management, has among its clients Southern California water providers that support the tunnels, but Bowcock said he has not consulted with them on the issue of Delta conveyance.

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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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