Tunnels and standards: Enough water for both?

The length of Sunday’s story on the state’s track record complying with Delta water quality standards forced me to leave a lot of material on the cutting room floor.

Including comments from Craig Wilson, the former Delta “Watermaster” who, until his retirement in 2014, worked for the same state water agency that is now holding extensive hearings that may decide the fate of the twin tunnels.

I asked Wilson his view of the state’s performance keeping the Delta fresh.

“I have to say that in general they have done a pretty good job in compliance with standards,” Wilson said.

When violations do occur, they are often inadvertent, slight, and quickly corrected, he said.

But here’s the rub: Wilson believes that if the tunnels are built, diverting much of the Sacramento River’s flow before the water reaches the heart of the Delta, that it will become that much more difficult in the future to meet downstream water quality standards.

“It’s going to take a whole heck of a lot of water,” he said.

Water which, if left in the Delta to satisfy the water quality standards, makes the $15 billion project less attractive financially for water users who must pay for it. “I don’t see how the customers are going to get much of a deal on that,” Wilson said.

That’s why Wilson has advocated for a smaller diversion on the west side of the Delta. That would allow water to flow through the estuary and satisfy water quality standards before getting slurped up and sent south.But so far, Wilson said, his proposal doesn’t seem to have gained traction.



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MWD boss on being a ‘good neighbor’

Now that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California officially owns 20,000 acres of Delta farmland, a question asked of General Manager Jeff Kightlinger at a public forum last week becomes even more relevant.

The question: As an absentee landowner in the Delta, what does it mean to Metropolitan to be a “good neighbor?”

Here is what Kightlinger said:

“That is a good question — what does it mean to be a good neighbor? I guess you could look at us an absentee landlord. That’s certainly not an unfair characteristic. What we want to do is figure out what is a good value use of that land in a way that also doesn’t have any impacts on locals and neighbors. Metropolitan owns 20,000 acres in the Palo Verde Valley, over by Blythe on the Colorado River. We have owned half of that land since the early 2000s, so for about 15 years now. We have worked very closely with both the the city and community there as well as the local water district. We’ve maintained it in farming but we’ve also fallowed parts of it to move water to us. We meet with them regularly to tell them our plans and we try to make sure it works in a way that works for both the community and for us. There’s been tensions at times. Sometimes they feel we’re operating it a little too much for a water benefit and they’d like to see more of a community benefit. We listened to that and try to work closely with them. So, that is what our board has said. We want to find ways that we can use this (Delta) land, assuming we do close on this land, in a way that’s locally beneficial and provides benefits to us. And we would want to hear from the community: Are we being successful in doing that?”

To which the moderator asked, “So how will they (the community) be able to reach you?”

Kightlinger paused, before joking, “Gmail.”

For the record, Delta Protection Commission Executive Director Erik Vink asked the question at a public forum hosted by The Sacramento Bee.

And yes, it’s a good question. Doubtless, folks will be vetting Kightlinger’s answer for decades to come.

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Farewell to a ‘river pioneer’

George Wendt, a legend in central Sierra Nevada river rafting, has died. But it’s not too late to get to know him:

Wendt took a chance leaving his job as a math teacher to start Angels Camp-based OARS, which eventually became a worldwide outdoors adventure company. Heartbroken by the flooding of the Stanislaus River after New Melones Dam was built, Wendt made it his mission to introduce as many people as possible to wild rivers, believing that if the people saw those places they wouldn’t want to destroy them.

Wendt was 74 years old.

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Smelt ‘resiliency plan’ or ‘last-ditch effort?’

State officials this morning released an “aggressive” plan to immediately help the Delta smelt, which may soon become the first species to go extinct in the Delta in nearly 60 years.

Most notably, the plan calls for additional summer flows through the Delta, this year ranging from 85,000 acre-feet to 200,000 acre-feet followed by up to 250,000 acre feet in 2017 and 2018. That’s on top of the regularly required flows. It’s a decent amount of water.

Smelt, most of which live only one year, do have a history of quickly bouncing back when flows increase. After 2011, the state’s only real wet year over the past decade or so, the smelt population soared. Then, of course, it promptly crashed again.

“With the best available science as our guide, we’re moving fast to improve conditions so that more young Delta smelt survive this year and reproduce,” said Chuck Bonham, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Not sounding so optimistic was Jon Rosenfield, a biologist with environmental group The Bay Institute, who told me that today’s plan is a “last-ditch effort to prevent extinction because we didn’t actually implement what the science said we should have done up to this point.”

In other words: Where was this water a few years ago?

During the worst of the drought, the state actually weakened Delta flow standards (temporarily)  in order to hold back more water in diminished reservoirs. And while Delta exports have at times been curtailed to protect the 3-inch smelt, those curtailments have not always gone as far as federal biologists thought they should.

Even the extra water promised as part of today’s plan is not likely enough to push saltwater far enough west to create suitable freshwater habitat, Rosenfield said.

He also criticized the timing of the plan, saying some of that additional water might have been helpful in June.

“Why is it taking them until mid-July to figure these things out?” Rosenfield said.

The plan says that the extra water could be purchased from willing sellers or could be made available through changes in Delta exports or releases from upstream reservoirs.

Other strategies include targeting invasive weeds in areas that are especially critical habitat for smelt, increasing flows into the Yolo Bypass to produce more fish food, restoring better than 5,000 acres of habitat over the next four years, and temporarily discontinuing the practice of dumping back into the Delta all of the nonnative fish that are collected at the export pumps.

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McNerney on VA clinic/flood issue

Here’s a comment from U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, on the situation with the long-awaited VA clinic and the possible complications due to flood concerns:

“The construction of a new VA medical facility in French Camp to serve the many veterans in the San Joaquin region is one of my top priorities. Since being elected to Congress, I have worked consistently to secure a location and funding for the clinic, and I have worked closely with our community, keeping an open line of communication with the VA and the Army Corps of Engineers to ensure the project moves forward without delay. This includes addressing any issues related to flood protection at the French Camp site. Establishing a VA clinic in our region has been a community-wide effort and it’s important that we keep working together to see the project through to completion. As the member of Congress who represents 60 percent of the legal Delta, I also have a keen understanding of the importance of flood control and levee maintenance. All Californians deserve flood protection, and I will continue to work to make that a reality.” 

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Read the latest Delta lawsuit

South-of-Delta water users say the federal government has failed to take a hard look at the human impact of reductions in water exports from the estuary.

Here’s a copy of the lawsuit that the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority and the Westlands Water District filed on Friday.

This all goes back to the biological opinions of 2008 and 2009, rules that were put in place to protect Delta fish like smelt and salmon. The “BOs” require pumping to be ramped down when fish are in danger. Some years, including this past winter, this has reduced exports to San Joaquin Valley farmers and southland cities.

After a long battle, the BOs were eventually upheld by the courts, though the feds were blamed for failing to consider human impacts.

Years later, those human impacts still haven’t been addressed, the water users say in their lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the federal Department of Interior.

“Once again,” the plaintiffs write, “litigation is necessary to hold Reclamation responsible for its obligations under federal law.”

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Survey says… it’s DWR

If you spot a couple of government-types cruising around San Joaquin County this summer, they might be surveyors with the state Department of Water Resources.

No, they’re not plotting to build the tunnels. For more than half a century DWR has conducted routine land use surveys all over Northern California in an effort to better estimate agricultural and urban water demand.

This is the first time in 20 years that the agency has surveyed San Joaquin County as a whole, though the Delta was surveyed in 2007.

The “regrettable” delay in returning to San Joaquin County was due to a lack of staff combined with requests for surveys in other counties, Kim Rosmaier, chief of land and water use for DWR, wrote in a letter to the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation last month.

The survey team consists of just two people, a driver and someone with a laptop for mapping. In addition to crop acreages, they’ll try to determine what kind of irrigation system is used and whether the water is coming from a river or from belowground.

Eventually, the results will be posted here.

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Judge: Delta Plan is ‘invalid’

A judge clarified today that the Delta Plan — a broad management plan for the estuary through the end of this century — is invalid and must be set aside until it can be partially rewritten.

If that sounds familiar, it’s pretty close to what we reported one month ago when Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny issued his initial ruling in the case, which had so many litigants that one of my editors labeled it “lawsuit-palooza.”

That initial ruling, however, had been interpreted in widely different ways.

“This is a victory for folks in the Delta,” Thomas Keeling, an attorney for some plan opponents, said at the time.

The council also announced that it had won, reporting in a press release that “the court… ruled in favor of the Delta Stewardship Council on the vast majority of issues” and had upheld the plan, calling only for a pair of “refinements.”

The conflicting reactions had some observers scratching their heads.

I suppose victory is in the eye of the beholder, but the judge’s clarification today did compel the Stewardship Council to change its tone a bit today, saying it was “disappointed.” Invalidating the entire plan, when the judge found fault with only a few of its provisions, means that even the noncontroversial policies within the Delta Plan cannot be enforced, the council warned.

“The Delta remains in crisis and now isn’t the time to set aside the state’s only comprehensive management plan for the Delta,” executive officer Jessica Pearson said in a prepared statement.

To one environmentalist, the judge’s invalidation of the plan was — well, a validation of opponents’ original interpretation. Most significantly, the judge has found that the plan failed to include quantifiable targets for California to reduce its reliance on the Delta for drinking water, as required by law.

That’s an important finding, said Bill Jennings, head of the Stockton-based California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, one of many litigants in the case. Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin tunnels have been described as allowing exporters to take not more water, but rather about the same amount of water as they take today. Will the tunnels pencil out financially if a newly revised Delta Plan makes less water available?

“This will force the state and federal contractors to reassess whether they wish to expend tens of billions of dollars for a project that will supply less water from the Delta,” Jennings said.

The judge’s clarification is tentative, with further hearings scheduled for Friday. We’ll see how it all shakes out.



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Why surface water matters

In an email, Stockton East Water District board member Mel Panizza makes a good point about last week’s story on declining groundwater levels.

The story talks about how most local wells sank again this spring, even though precipitation was at least somewhat improved over the previous year.

Here’s what I failed to mention: While rainfall is one important factor, another is the ability to take surface water in lieu of groundwater.

And while the Calaveras River did provide more water this spring, for the second straight year farmers east of Stockton have not been able to import a single drop from the overtapped Stanislaus River basin.

“Shows the importance of using surface water as opposed to wells,” Panizza wrote. “It is an indication of surface water’s importance regionally.”

Stockton East did recently make arrangements to buy 10,000 acre-feet of water from Stanislaus River irrigation districts. Will that help the groundwater? Stay tuned.

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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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    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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