State relaxes some conservation standards

Some cities won’t have to save as much water as they originally thought this summer, after the state revised its standards based on new and better data.

Fifty-nine water suppliers were changed to a new conservation tier based on that new information. All but three of those water suppliers moved to a lower tier, meaning they won’t have to save as much water to comply with the State Water Resources Control Board’s mandatory regulations.

Locally, Lodi was moved from 36 percent — the highest possible tier — to 32 percent. That’s good news for a community that has struggled to save water over the past year or so.

The Calaveras County Water District was moved from the 32 percent tier all the way down to the 16 percent tier. The change was made after officials excluded the district’s wholesale water and took into account seasonal tourism.

Here’s the updated list for each water supplier in California. Starting on page 16 you’ll find a list of those whose tiers were changed.

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Delta farmers ‘eager’ for inspections

State officials on Thursday will begin inspections of those Delta farms that voluntarily agreed to cut back 25 percent on water diversions or crop plantings this year.

The farmers who signed up are protected from deeper cuts that could happen later this summer.

Not only was there a high response rate — a “very substantial majority” of all the riparian ag lands in the central and south Delta are enrolled, the state said Tuesday — but farmers apparently want the state to come and take a look.

When it comes to state inspections, that’s not what you normally hear from private landowners.

“We’ve got people who are eager to have us out there to see what’s going on,” said Delta Watermaster Michael George. “In response to one request I made for a meeting on Thursday, we’ve got neighbors calling and saying, ‘Well, while you’re out there, come and see us.’

“People are proud of what they’re doing and they want the story to get out that the Delta is not just business as usual,” he said.

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Am I a ‘drought shamer?’

Photo shot on Wednesday, a no-watering day for everyone in Stockton.

There’s an interesting piece today on “drought shaming” — the practice of self-deputized water cops who take video of every little dribble from some schmuck’s front yard and gleefully post it to YouTube.

There’s even an app. Gotcha!

I read the story with some disdain, only to recall that last night I took a photo of illegal watering at Stagg High School and immediately posted it to Twitter. Not only was irrigation taking place on a Wednesday, when all watering within city limits is illegal, but it was also happening within 48 hours of measurable rainfall. No-nos, both of those.

I took similar pictures on Saturday of more wrong-day watering outside the Grupe office building at March Lane and Brookside Road. (Where, incidentally, the sprinklers were running again last night.)

So… am I a drought shamer?

Don’t answer that. Here’s my own take:

No, I’m not a drought shamer. I am, however, interested in establishing some reasonable level of accountability.

First, I didn’t go out and start posting photos 15 minutes after the Stockton City Council voted to restrict watering to certain days of the week. I could have, but I didn’t. It’s only been a couple of weeks. People need some time to soak this up, so to speak.

Second, when I do post photos they’re not usually of private yards or homes. And I don’t post addresses. After all, there may be circumstances I’m not aware of. I heard recently, for example, that a local family whose sprinklers were running in the middle of the day had just purchased their house; they were having trouble figuring out the automatic watering system.

No shame there.

Third, it’s possible some are still unaware of the new rules. The Stockton Municipal Utilities Department bill that I received last night included some great water conservation tips, but no mention of the new and unprecedented day-of-the-week restrictions passed in late May.

For a while, at least, it seems citizens should continue to get the benefit of the doubt.

I have somewhat less tolerance for large agencies, organizations or businesses that are should be role models for the community. Their grace period should be a bit shorter, IMHO.

In the end, citizen reports made in a reasonable manner should have a part to play this summer. If we don’t keep an eye on each other, then who will? The city of Stockton responds to water-waste complaints but is not increasing enforcement (though some other communities, like Manteca, have added new patrols).

Bottom line: There’s no shame in trying to be a good citizen.

As a side note: Stockton Unified School District spokeswoman Dianne Barth said the district has been a “good steward,” saving 19 percent on water usage last year and 30 to 40 percent so far this year. The district didn’t turn on its sprinklers until mid-May, she said.

Watering at Stagg is automatic, and district staff were looking into what happened on Wednesday.

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Asphalt plant proposal surprises Stockton East

The district that provides Stockton with much of its drinking water from the Calaveras River was evidently not told that an asphalt plant had been approved below New Hogan Dam, 30 miles east of the city.

The plant was approved by Calaveras County on April 30. The proposal didn’t get widespread media attention until a few weeks later.

In an appeal filed by Stockton East, the district’s general manager, Scot Moody, says he learned about the proposal watching television news on May 20. The district says it had received no notice and no letter from Calaveras County.

The water district filed its appeal on June 1, claiming that the addition of an asphalt plant upstream of its intake “is likely to cause significant environmental impacts to the district’s downstream water supply absent sufficient review and mitigation.”

Calaveras County promptly rejected the appeal, saying the deadline had passed.

Apparently, however, Stockton East’s appeal was late because no one at the district knew about the proposal.

An attorney for Stockton East says it’s not the district’s intent to interfere with business, but added that the district must be sure that the operation of the plant won’t harm water quality.

The matter is scheduled to go before a Calaveras County planning commission on June 25.

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‘Very close’ on Calaveras habitat plan

A long-delayed plan to enhance fish habitat on the Calaveras River may be nearing completion, a federal official told me last week.

We’ve heard similar statements before. This “habitat conservation plan” has been on the verge of being released, it seems, for the better part of a decade. The first story I ever wrote about it was nine years ago, and even at that point, I wrote that the plan was “five years in the making.”

Here’s the latest update: Apparently the goal was to have a draft plan on the streets this month, but a lawsuit on a different plan prompted the National Marine Fisheries Service to start a legal review of all of its pending HCPs, said the agency’s Rhonda Reed.

That review continues, she said.

Of course, her agency has also been busy with this little thing we call The Drought.

Nevertheless, said Reed, “We’re close. We’re very close.”

The HCP is basically an agreement between NMFS and the Stockton East Water District to improve the river for threatened steelhead. In return for taking certain actions, Stockton East would be protected in the event that some of the threatened fish are killed as a result of its water-diversion operations.

The HCP is supposed to include a multimillion-dollar fix at Bellota Weir, which prevents some fish from gaining access to quality spawning habitat below New Hogan Dam. Stockton East told me last week that the district is already pursuing grants to fix the weir, HCP or no, but without a plan there is no firm deadline

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Spreading the word

Ripon is San Joaquin County’s thirstiest city, at 162 gallons per person per day in April.

And it’s not even close.

But give the south county community some credit on the public relations front. I haven’t seen anyone else putting up signs like these.

Photo by Michael Cockrell

Good timing, since last week marked the start of the state’s mandatory conservation program. Cities that fail to meet per-capita cuts could face steep fines. Ripon residents might want to heed the warning.

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S.J. County’s great enforcer

Just about choked on my PB&J the other day while scanning drought enforcement statistics for California during the month of April.

City of Stockton: 111 water-waste warnings issued.

City of Lodi: 213 warnings issued.

City of Manteca: 2,006 warnings issued.

Whaaa? Out of hundreds of water suppliers in California, that would rank Manteca as No. 2 in the finger-wagging department (though no actual penalties were issued).

And we’re talking about a city of less than 75,000 people. The L.A. Department of Water and Power, serving 4 million people, issued 30 percent fewer warnings than Manteca.

Could it be a typo? I asked Mark Houghton, the city’s director of Public Works.

“It’s not a typo,” he wrote back.

The city in April reduced the number of watering days from four to three. For the first time, no watering was allowed citywide on Mondays.

“So for the first couple of Mondays in April, we actually had staff out patrolling early on Monday mornings, and giving out warnings to anyone that was irrigating,” Houghton wrote. “Hence the majority of our ‘enforcement actions’ were actually warnings to residents who had not changed their timers to eliminate watering on Monday.”

The response was good, he said.

So while other cities are reporting warnings that resulted from water-waste complaints — and therefore fewer of them — Manteca’s proactive approach made its numbers a bit more, uh, awe-inspiring.

Check out the statewide statistics for yourself.

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Farm jobs: Going up or going down?

A report from U.C. Davis economists today predicts the consequences of the drought in 2015. About 18,600 full-time, part-time and seasonal jobs will be lost, the economists say.

But what about last year?

In 2014 the economists predicted 17,100 jobs would be lost. And yet, the state Employment Development Department says agricultural employment actually bumped up by 2 percent last year.

What gives?

The two numbers are not in conflict, the Davis economists say. The shift to higher-value crops in California has fueled a long-term increase in farm employment. The relatively small 2 percent increase last year “should be seen as a slowing of this long-term growth trend, and is consistent with a loss of agricultural jobs because of drought,” they write.

In other words, the positive long-term trend of strong global and national markets helps to mask the negative and (hopefully) short-term trend of drought.

There is regional variability, too, of course. Much of the 2 percent increase last year can be attributed to relatively water-rich regions like the Sacramento Valley and the Coast, which improved the state’s performance as a whole. The economists also noted job growth during the winter in several regions, a phenomenon that apparently was not drought related.

Areas that are not rich in water, obviously, faced proportionately larger impacts — and will again this year. Think San Joaquin Valley.

While relying on groundwater will once again “substantially” ease the pain of a dramatic decline in river supplies, expect this year’s drought impact to top $2.7 billion with 564,000 acres fallowed — an area larger than the entire Delta.

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Looking for a loophole?

Record file photo

As some callers have pointed out, Stockton’s new twice-a-week watering rules aren’t exactly, uh, watertight.

While limiting the days on which people can water, the rules do not attempt to limit the duration of watering. So, if your habit in the old days was to water 15 minutes four days a week, you could now water 30 minutes two days a week, use the same amount of water and arguably not run afoul of the law.

Stockton’s not alone in this. In San Joaquin County, at least, I have not heard of any water providers attempting to limit the number of minutes a customer can apply water.

A representative of one of those providers confirmed to me his concern that conservation gains from daily restrictions could be offset, at least partially, by more liberal watering on days when it’s allowed.

So, yeah, it’s a loophole.

However…

Emergency regulations passed by the state in March prohibit runoff from lawns. Precise language: “The application of potable water to outdoor landscapes in a manner that causes runoff such that water flows onto adjacent property, non-irrigated areas, private and public walkways, roadways, parking lots or structures” is prohibited unless needed for health or safety.

Taken literally, even the tiniest trickle of water from a lawn onto a sidewalk or driveway is illegal. I don’t know about you, but rarely do I see sprinklers that are in absolute compliance with that mandate.

So, if you attempt to compensate for these new day-of-the-week restrictions by drowning your lawn, you’re more likely to have copious amounts of runoff. Which is illegal.

Loophole closed? I don’t know.

We’ll have at least some idea how effective these daily restrictions really are at saving water later this summer, as water conservation statistics for 2015 emerge.

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Oriole addendum

You never know in journalism.

Sometimes you work hard on complicated, in-depth stories and don’t hear a peep from the public. Other times you do a fluffy little story on a rare bird, and spend half of the next day responding to emails and phone calls from people who say the bird isn’t as rare as you said it was.

Such was the case with a blurb about a wayward Baltimore Oriole, adapted from this blog, which ran in Sunday’s Record.

From Tracy to Ripon to Lockeford, people are telling me they’ve seen Baltimore Orioles in their backyards and that the recent sighting at Westgate Landing Park off Highway 12 isn’t so remarkable, after all.

“We’ve had these orioles for five or six years,” one woman from Linden told me. “They eat at the hummingbird feeder all the time.”

One resident sent a photo, which I forwarded to Audubon Society birder David Yee.

Turns out that bird, at least, is a Bullock’s Oriole, a close cousin to the Baltimore Oriole but an altogether different species (though they are known to interbreed and produce hybrids).

“For many birds on the North American continent, this is a common occurrence,” Yee says. “There are these so-called ‘sister species’ that occur in the eastern and western portions of the continent… The theory is that there was a parent species, then when geographical changes occurred over a period of time, this parent species was split into different populations with little or no places where they could connect, thus becoming distinct over time.”

So west of the Rockies we have Bullock’s Orioles, and east of the Rockies we have Baltimore Orioles, with some mixing action in the middle.

Here’s how to tell them apart: The Baltimore Oriole has a completely dark head, while the Bullock’s has lots of orange on the head and more white in the wings.

Bullock’s:

Bullock's Oriole. Photo by Kevin Cole

Baltimore:

Baltimore Oriole. Photo by Andy Reago/Chrissy McClarren

Now, the bombshell news (for birders): Experts now believe the bird spotted in San Joaquin County may not be a pure Baltimore Oriole after all, but an ever-so-slight hybrid. It has some white in the wings and a bit of orange “bleeding” into the black head.

“From a pure birding standpoint, this is very disappointing news,” Yee says, because a hybrid — even a slight one — cannot be counted as an official sighting.

“But, from a pure science/discovery standpoint, it’s most fascinating, and stands as one of the few Baltimore/Bullock’s Oriole hybrids ever well documented in California,” he adds.

Bottom line: Whether Baltimore, Bullock’s or a little of both, they’re fun to look at.

As one reader put it: “About the most beautiful bird we’ve ever seen.”

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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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