The ‘blob’ is back

NOAA image. The orange blob toward the left indicates warmer-than-normal temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, which is characteristic of El Nino.

Federal officials report a 60 percent chance that El Nino conditions will persist in the Pacific Ocean through next fall, which of course is generating the usual speculation about what this means for drought-stricken California.

This past winter it meant nothing. After months of toying with us, an El Nino did finally materialize in March, but it wasn’t a strong one. Wet years in Northern California correlate only with strong El Ninos.

You’d think the public might be more skeptical this time around.

But state officials have the opposite fear. They worry that the public might become complacent. After all, we associate “El Nino” with months and months of nonstop rain. The drought will get kicked to the curb and we can all go back to our wasteful ways… right?

“It really sends the wrong message when we’re encouraging people to do conservation programs and really focus on that,” said Jeanine Jones, a drought manager for the state Department of Water Resources. “We have to plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

Spring forecasts of El Nino are “notoriously not very reliable,” she added.

So don’t plan your sprinkler schedule this weekend around a forecast that might or might not materialize six months from now. In this case, a little skepticism is a good thing.

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A purple lining amid the drought

Photo by Jim Marsh

Calaveras River enthusiast Jim Marsh had an unusually upbeat take on the drought at least week’s State of Our Rivers symposium in downtown Stockton.

He pointed out that Stockton is better than 3 inches ahead of last year when it comes to rainfall. And as a result, a 3-acre native grass restoration site along the Calaveras is flourishing.

“You can talk about drought as a regional phenomenon, or you can talk about it as a microclimatic phenomenon,” Marsh said. “From my experience, at the 3-acre site, this year compared to last year is exceptionally diverse. The growth has been phenomenal this year.”

It’s easy to forget that our precip numbers here in the Valley aren’t as bad as last year (though they’re still below normal). Overall, of course, California’s drought has worsened because of the lack of snow in the High Sierra.

But if you take Marsh’s advice and keep your eyes peeled, you might see signs of hope around Stockton.

“It’s been really surprising,” he said.

Photo by Jim Marsh


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One Delta smelt. One.

That’s what researchers found during the state’s most recent smelt survey last week.

Not for a lack of effort, mind you. The state typically spends four days on this particular survey, sampling 40 smelt-friendly sites throughout the Delta. A 25-foot net is spread between two boats, which then trawl the waters and collect all sorts of fish, shrimp and jellyfish.

Four days. Forty sites. One Delta smelt.

In 2012, the same April survey captured 143 smelt. In 2013 there were 22. In 2014 there were 36.

Looking solely at this year, the January survey turned up 21 fish, followed by 72 in February, 6 in March, and now… one measly male smelt hanging out in the Sacramento Deep Water Channel.

State Department of Fish and Wildlife

Peter Moyle, a leading expert on California’s native fishes, told me in an email tonight that the April results are “shocking but not unexpected.”

Typically the number of smelt found by researchers declines as the season progresses, possibly as smelt die off after spawning, he said.

But it’s simply “sad” to see that no smelt were found in 39 of the 40 locations sampled, Moyle said.

True, the areas surveyed represent only a small fraction of the smelt’s total habitat, but Moyle says the surveys are effective at targeting where fish are most likely to be as they gather and spawn.

“The main hope now for the smelt is that some of these remaining fish spawned successfully and the young will survive for a year despite unfavorable conditions,” he wrote.

In March, when the same survey turned up six smelt, Moyle warned that extinction may be unavoidable.

Smelt are considered a bellwether of the health of the Delta as a whole, and they suffer during a drought. Less flow through the Delta means a saltier estuary; smelt need relatively fresh water for breeding purposes. When they don’t find that in the western Delta, they move farther east, into areas where they are more likely to fall prey to predatory fish or become exposed to pollution or pumps.

Struggling to balance environmental needs against “substantial human suffering,” state officials bypassed some of the water-quality requirements for smelt and other species last year and again this year. Skirting those rules would likely harm fish, they found, but not to an unreasonable extent.

Environmentalists disagree, and the latest survey numbers — or number, as in singular, one fish — means the debate won’t end anytime soon.

A Delta smelt at a captive breeding facility. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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What’s on tap — Earth Day edition

It’s been ages since I posted a calendar of events, but if I’m ever going to do it, this is the time — there are all sorts of outdoorsy events coming up. Earth Day events are highlighted in green.

(This list will be updated as more comes in, so if you’re aware of any events that aren’t listed… please drop me a line.)

Happy spring!

Tuesday, April 14: San Joaquin Audubon Society meeting. David Yee will talk about the top challenges he faces in identifying birds in San Joaquin County. 7:30 p.m. at Central United Methodist Church on Pacific Avenue in Stockton. More details here.

Wednesday, April 15: U.C. Berkeley environmental science professor Carolyn Finney will talk about how African Americans relate to the great outdoors. 7 p.m., Grace Covell Hall, University of the Pacific. More details here.

Thursday, April 16: Annual State of Our Rivers symposium. 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the San Joaquin Council of Governments, 555 E. Weber Avenue. This year’s focus is on the drought and how it affects San Joaquin County rivers. For more details call (209) 922-8215.

Friday, April 17-Saturday, April 18:Yosemite National Park kicks off Earth Day with a bike ride and family night on Friday. The official celebration is from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Valley Visitor Center. Plus, entrance fees to the park will be waived on Saturday and Sunday. More details here.

Saturday, April 18: Earth Day city garage sale in Tracy (east of Tracy Boulevard). Registration details and more information here.

Saturday, April 18: River walk hosted by Friends of the Lower Calaveras River. This month’s walk will focus on wildflowers along the uppermost reach of the lower Calaveras at New Hogan Lake and the River of Skulls trail. Meet at 10 a.m. at New Hogan headquarters, 2713 Hogan Dam Road in Valley Springs.

Saturday, April 18: Guided paddle tour at the Cosumnes River Preserve. Bring a canoe or kayak and a life jacket. More details on this and other refuge events here.

Tuesday, April 21: Presentation, “Lake Tahoe Birding and The Tahoe Big Year.” Kirk Hardie, co-founder of the Tahoe Institute for Natural Science, will talking about the “big year” birding event that brings together beginners and experts alike. 7 p.m., Stockton REI. More details here.

Friday, April 24: Green fashion show at the University of the Pacific. Designers of all ages will test their skills by creating environmentally, economically or socially sustainable outfits. In the past, pieces have been created from organic or local textiles, plant matter, garbage and more. 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. at Long Theatre, University of the Pacific. More details here.

Friday, April 24: “Sky Tours” astronomy event at San Joaquin Delta College. Come peer through amateur astronomers’ telescopes. 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Free. Hosted by the Stockton Astronomical Society.

Saturday, April 25: Astronomy in the Park at Oak Grove Regional Park. Starts at sunset. Free with admission to park. Hosted by the Stockton Astronomical Society.

Saturday, April 25: Earth Day event in Manteca. Residents can shred old documents at the solid waste yard, and can pick up free cpomost too. Electrnoic waste will also be accepted. 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. More details here.

Saturday, April 25: Earth Day beautification event in Lathrop. Volunteer for a cleanup project, participate in a recycling fair or fly a kite, among other activities. More details here.

Saturday, April 25: Guided walk at Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Enjoy a two-mile trail that leads to a wildlife viewing platform. Meet at 9 a.m. at the Elk Grove gate. More details here.

Saturday, April 25: Guided photography walk at Cosumnes River Preserve. The one-mile trail winds past wetlands and riparian forest. More details on this and other refuge events here.

Sunday, April 26: Stockton Earth Day celebration. Theme: “Bee Aware.” 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Victory Park. This is San Joaquin County’s premiere environmental event each year. Entertainment, educational booths and hands-on activities are planned. Free. More details and a full schedule of activities here.

Sunday, April 26: Earth Day celebration in Angels Camp. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Utica Park. Entertainment, arts and crafts, music. More details here.

Monday, April 27: Sierra Club meeting. Topic: “Plastic Paradise, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” Learn about an area of the Pacific Ocean where plastics frmo three distant continents gather. 7 p.m., Central United Methodist Church in Stockton. More details here.

Tuesday, April 28: Presentation, “The Way to Santiago de Compostela.” Art Negrette will talk about routes associated with the Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, traveled by more than 250,000 people each year. The two most popular routes offer distinctly different features, experiences and challenges. 7 p.m., Stockton REI. More details here.

Thursday, April 30: Restore the Delta membership meeting. 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Ambler’s Club, 2000 N. Amblers Lane in Stockton. For more details email or call (209) 475-9550.

Thursday, May 7: Class, “Bike Maintenance Basics.” Learn how to maintain your bike and prolong its life. 7 p.m., Stockton REI. More details here.

Saturday, May 16: “Walk on the Wild Side” festival at Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Live animal presentations and more. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free. More details here.

Tuesday, May 19: Presentation on the Desolation Wilderness. Learn how to plan your visit to this rugged landscape west of Lake Tahoe. 7 p.m., Stockton REI. More details here.

Thursday, May 21: Presentation, “International and Adventure Travel Basics.” Learn about how to plan and prepare for an exciting adventure abroad. 7 p.m., Stockton REI. More details here.

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A calm voice, amid the controversy

Record file photo

Trevor Atkinson never told me much about his past, before the astronomer/civic activist brought his telescopes and smart-growth vision to Stockton.

Atkinson, who died last week, wasn’t the type to focus on himself.

But his wife, Rosemary, was kind enough to call on Tuesday and share a few details about Trevor. Did you know:

–Trevor was British. He served in the Royal Air Force and was stationed in Canada. He learned to fly during the Korean War. “Though that ramped down before he did much flying,” Rosemary told me.

–Trevor later married and settled in the Bay Area, where he worked as a real estate appraiser. His first wife died of cancer in the mid-70s.

–His real estate work helped lead Trevor into his civic advocacy role in Stockton, as a founder of the slow-growth growth Campaign for Common Ground. “He was the one who had the facts and figures and knew how to read the fine print of things,” Rosemary said “There were so many lawsuits going on — he and I thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’ CCG came from that.”

–For 23 years, Trevor edited Valley Skies, the newsletter of the Stockton Astronomical Society. “He was always an editor,” Rosemary said, laughing. “I had to remind him quite regularly that I hadn’t married him so he would be my editor.”

Fellow activist Eric Parfrey emailed with a few more thoughts:

“As an Englishman, Trevor emigrated to Southern California in the early 1960s and saw first-hand how the orchards of endless orange trees were being bulldozed to build low density subdivisions. This experience deeply affected his attitude toward growth in California and helped explain why he was unwavering in his support for compact development, downtown revitalization, and agricultural preservation.”

And then Parfrey added one more detail, something I did actually know about Trevor’s philosophy, after years of watching him work:

“Trevor was always convinced that we could engage in a rational, civilized dialogue with the other pro-growth side… Those of us who are fierce environmental advocates are often skeptical that middle common ground is where we make our greatest advances, but Trevor convinced us constantly that it was worth the try.”

Here’s to rational, civilized dialogue — something I believe we could use more of, not less. Thanks, Trevor.

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April access to Sierra backcountry

In late June 1982, or maybe 1983, my dad backpacked up the little-used Horse Canyon trail just east of Silver Lake. His group spent its first night at tiny Scout Carson Lake, elevation 8,900  feet.

A storm rolled in. Six inches of snow covered the ground when Dad poked his head out of the tent the following morning, and the flakes were still coming down.

He and his friends dashed back down the hill and got the heck out of there, somehow finding the trailhead despite near white-out conditions.

Fast-forward to April 3, 2015. Well aware of the pathetic snowpack, Ann and I decided to retrace Dad’s steps up Horse Canyon and see just how far we could go with mere hiking boots and trekking poles.

We started at 6,800 feet. Each image in this slideshow represents a roughly 200-foot elevation gain:

Of course, the scene was utterly transformed 48 hours after our hike, as an Easter storm dumped rain in the Central Valley and snow in the Sierra.

Still, I never would have dreamed that we could hike that far into the backcountry on April 3 of any year, drought or no. We got within a quarter-mile or so of Scout Carson Lake — where it had snowed on Dad in late June more than 30 years earlier — before we finally encountered 100 percent snow cover and were forced to turn back.

Speaking of June, that’s what it felt like up there. Sunny. Warm. Dry. Granted, this particular trail is on a west-facing slope and thus sheds its snow earlier than other locations. But in general, I’ve seen more snow in the Sierra in May or even in June of a wet year, than I saw on the third day of April 2015.

It was a Good Friday for a hike. Spectacular, even. But hiking is about all this meager snowpack is good for.

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Green menace

This blog will be silent for a few days. I leave you with this image provided by the Port of Stockton, showing what the hyacinth-clogged Deep Water Ship Channel looks like on the radar of an oceangoing ship.

Here’s hoping your week is free of entanglements.

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Last word on #TracyBear

The crowd. This was only the beginning.

After 10 years as an environment reporter at two newspapers, I’ve done my share of urban wildlife stories.

Mountain lions hiding in trees. Huge salmon lurking in the smallest city streams. That dolphin in Stockton’s Deep Water Ship Channel.

Never have I seen the kind of community interest generated by Tracy Bear. (Lodi’s Tom Kettleman turkey comes close.)

The scene in Tracy on Wednesday night was electric as wildlife officials tried to safely remove the bear out of a tree right in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

Yeah, the bear was interesting, but the crowd? Amazing.

People lined up 10 or 15 deep behind the yellow caution tape. They finagled their way as close to the action as possible, even as community service officers tried to keep them back.

One family climbed atop an RV in their driveway for the best possible view. Dads lifted their sons and daughters up on their shoulders, and hundreds of cameras documented the action from hundreds of different angles.

The crowd gasped with each rustle of the tree leaves. Many outright screamed when the bear finally let go.

And then, with the apparent blessing of law enforcement (I think), the crowd surged closer as biologists checked the bear’s condition on the ground. A mass of people descended onto the intersection of Bessie and Whitter avenues from four directions.

Then, another rush as firefighters lifted the bear and placed her in a trailer. Kids squeezed in as close as they could to peer through tiny portholes.

Amid the surge, I saw a few people turn back, evidently fearful they could be trampled. Eventually firefighters were able to clear enough people away from the trailer that the truck towing it was able to leave the scene.

Who says people don’t care about nature?

Who says we’d rather stick our noses into electronic devices?

Who says we’re apathetic about anything outside of our own skin?

The “Nature Deficit Disorder” theory holds that less exposure to the outdoors can lead to serious behavioral problems for children, while also disconnecting them from the natural world and leaving them with less interest and less respect for wild things.

But after Wednesday night’s excitement, I have to wonder if interest in nature is inherent in all of us, even if we don’t often notice it.

Granted, a bear is a particularly charismatic critter. And the cynic might say the crowd was driven more by the news cameras than the furry guest of honor.

I’d prefer to think that Tracy residents experienced a reawakening of what, for some, might have been a long-dormant connection to nature. Maybe their enthusiasm was a reflection of the fact that it had been so long since that connection had been felt.

The trick, of course, is getting people to care about less astonishing natural events. Earthworms in the garden, blackbirds on the back fence, hummingbirds hovering on a Sunday afternoon, etc.

But if what I saw last night is any indication, we still love the world around us.

Thanks, #TracyBear, for reminding us.

Courtesy the California Department of Fish and Wildlife

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Where our hyacinth headache started

Poster for the 1884 World Cotton Exposition in New Orleans, where water hyacinth samples were handed out to patrons, sealing the fate of the Delta and many other hyacinth-clogged water bodies.

Someone asked me on Twitter what the most viable plan is to attack water hyacinth.

Here is my expert opinion:

First, invent a time machine.

Second, travel back in time to one day prior to the 1884 Cotton States Exposition in New Orleans.

Third, hogtie whichever knucklehead dreamed up the idea of handing out hyacinth samples to thousands of visitors from across the country, and

Fourth, throw all those plants on the first boat back to the Amazon.

That’s what I’d do.

Is it just me, or would that make for kind of a cool action flick — a little Back to the Future, a little Terminator? And with the proceeds from the film, we could build a state-of-the-art bioenergy facility here in Stockton where our hyacinth could be collected and put to good use.

OK, scratch the time machine plan. Anyone got a number for James Cameron?

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‘Everything seems to be accelerating’

NOAA's April-through-June temperature outlook, released on Thursday

Daffodil Hill is closing for the season before it normally even opens. The flowers are already past their prime. Such is the weirdness of this “winter” (it is still winter, no?).

Everything’s early this year. Stockton has already hit the mid-80s (84 degrees on March 14).

December was 7 degrees above normal, January was 3 degrees above normal, February was 4 degrees above normal and March so far is running 5 degrees above normal.

Without the late-season storms we had last year, reservoirs are already close to topping out for the year and will begin to drop soon, state and federal officials said earlier this week. Usually, thanks to snowmelt, those reservoirs don’t start declining until later in the spring.

Overall we’re about six weeks to two months ahead of schedule, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Ron Milligan said at a meeting of the State Water Resources Control Board on Tuesday.

“Everything seems to be accelerating,” Milligan said.

The earliest Stockton has ever hit triple digits is April 30 (it happened in 1981). Could we break that record this year?

Just asking.

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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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