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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Just another long road trip

A Baltimore Oriole. Photo taken by Andy Reago/Chrissy McClarren at Emmenegger Nature Park in St. Louis.

Most often, the only Baltimore Orioles you’ll find in Northern California are the 6-foot-tall variety that migrate to the Oakland Coliseum a couple of times each year.

Members of Stockton’s Audubon Society, however, are excited about a Baltimore Oriole — the bird, that is — spotted recently at Westgate Landing Regional Park just north of Highway 12, in the Delta west of Lodi.

The bird was first seen by Dave and Pat Croft last Friday, according to local birder David Yee. Several others have since seen him. Apparently he is a very loud fellow, and quite active flying back and forth between the trees in the park.

“Here in San Joaquin County, this is only the second time a Baltimore has ever been found,” Yee wrote me in an email. “The first was back in the early 80s… There are probably less than 10 records total of Baltimore Orioles for the entire Central Valley, so it is a rarity indeed.”

Baltimore Orioles are typically found east of the Rockies, but they do nest as far west as central Alberta in Canada.

And, like any bird that migrates long distances, they sometimes stray far from their typical range. Often, young birds will simply go the “wrong way” and fly west toward California, instead of east where the majority of the population goes, Yee said.

Clearly, these birds need smart phones.

Speaking of which, if anyone gets a photo of our wayward friend, send it my way. Otherwise, it’ll be a long wait for the next opportunity — the rest of the Orioles aren’t due to arrive until early August for a three-game series against the A’s.

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Despite drought, new lawn at Delta College

(Photo courtesy Delta College)

Unlucky timing?

With water use in California coming under more scrutiny each day, San Joaquin Delta College is installing a grass lawn for the new plaza that has long been planned next to the new math and science building on the northeast side of campus.

Perhaps sensitive to public impressions of water waste, the college sent out an email today letting us know that the seeded area must be watered 10 minutes to 15 minutes a day for three or four weeks, followed by watering two or three times a week for another month.

Only then will the grass be established enough to further reduce watering in light of the drought, wrote Delta Vice President of Operations Gerardo Calderon. He noted that the grass was “desired by many” on campus.

For the water-aware, however, he adds that the college is reducing all other landscaping to a two-day watering schedule on Monday night/Tuesday morning and Thursday night/Friday morning. (The Stockton City Council, by the way, is set to consider twice-weekly watering citywide on Tuesday.)

And, Delta’s looking for ways to get rid of turf in other areas.

“Facilities is currently working to identify areas to remove existing turf and convert to drought tolerant planting,” Calderon wrote. “Facilities is working with the California Department of Water Resources to determine if (the college) qualifies for its lawn replacement program.”

And he adds, ominously, “A number of trees on our campus are perishing. Staff will consider possible removal of those trees.”

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Good news on groundwater?

San Joaquin County engineers check the water level at a well on the west side of Oak Grove Regional Park last summer. Photo by Craig Sanders.

Strange to see “good news” and “groundwater” in the same sentence, but San Joaquin County could be close to resolving a reporting problem that right now makes the county ineligible for millions of dollars in water-related grants.

Background: Last fall, the state Department of Water Resources determined that not enough information was available about local wells. The county was judged to be out of compliance with a state monitoring program, making the county ineligible for grants from previous voter-approved bond measures as well as the new Proposition 1 water bond.

That put the county in a tight spot. Local officials wanted state money for water projects, obviously, but they also didn’t want to upset private property owners who have allowed San Joaquin County access to monitor well levels for better than four decades.

Well construction details are a sensitive subject for some landowners. They don’t want the information to be released to the public. (It can’t be, under the law, but that’s a subject for another time.)

Anyway, the county sent out 160 letters asking well owners if they would allow the county to provide those details to the state.

And here’s the news: Brandon Nakagawa, the county’s water resources coordinator, said in a meeting this morning that the response was “overwhelming.”

The county got 85 or 90 responses, he said. Many well owners agreed that the information could be shared.

So, a plan to get back in the state’s good graces was submitted on Friday. If the plan is accepted, local agencies can once again apply for water-related state grants.

“Hopefully we’ll have good news soon,” Nakagawa said.

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For Delta smelt, eight is not enough

After locating just one Delta smelt in extensive surveys last month, officials apparently found eight this month, clustered in the area of the Sacramento Deep Water Channel.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife

That’s still a very poor showing. Last year’s May survey turned up 28 fish. The year before that, 19. The year before that, 121.

But there was only one way the results from April could have gotten any worse. And that, at least, didn’t happen.

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Everyone wants to fix something these days

As if sorting through the different interest groups in California water wasn’t complicated enough, we now have opposing causes that go by virtually the same name.

The governor’s twin tunnels plan has been renamed “California WaterFix.”

If that sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because independent engineer Bob Pyke already had a website called “Fix CA Water,” where he promotes his Western Delta Intakes Concept, an alternative to the governor’s plan.

I won’t even get into the California Water Fix Coalition, the little-known group that Fritz Grupe helped convene to search for common ground on water (that group took no position on the tunnels).

This reminds me of the confusion a few years ago over Restore the Delta vs. the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta. Similar names. Opposite interests.

The water wonks might be able to keep all of this straight. But can the public?

 

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‘Substantial’ ad buy for twin tunnels supporters

A group supporting the twin tunnels has a new TV spot, airing as of yesterday.

Here it is:

A spokeswoman for Californians for Water Security said the ad is running in targeted markets statewide, including a “substantial buy” throughout the Bay Area. Asked what “substantial” meant, she said, “well into the six figures.”

Californians for Water Security is one of several entities engaged in a social media war over the Delta. It claims support from business  and agricultural groups, labor and water users, among others.

Its primary opponent, Stockton-based Restore the Delta, has accused Californians for Water Security of being an astroturf group carrying water for south Valley growers intent on sucking the estuary dry.

Bottom line: The tunnels plan might have a new name, but the arguments sure look the same.

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Scary trend at New Melones

Last Thursday, about 9 p.m., New Melones Lake east of Stockton dropped below 500,000 acre-feet for the first time since 1991.

What’s the significance of that number?

CDEC

This graph — it kind of reminds me of one of those bumpy slides at the playground — shows storage at New Melones dating back to spring 2011, when the reservoir was full almost to the brim.

What’s happened since? Well, the reservoir has lost on average about 500,000 acre-feet per year.

That wouldn’t be such a problem if New Melones was rebounding by 500,000 acre-feet per year. Obviously, it’s not. You can see in the graph how small the bump is each wet season, compared with the decline the following spring and summer as water is released for farms, cities and the environment.

So here’s the bottom line. The deal reached recently between senior water-right holders on the Stanislaus and the federal government calls for about 150,000 acre-feet of water to be left in New Melones at the end of September, after all users have had their (reduced) share. 150,000 acre-feet is roughly 6 percent of capacity. The reservoir could bottom out even lower, if fall rains are late arriving.

If next winter’s another dud, New Melones won’t have 500,000 acre-feet of water to lose.

The reservoir would go broke. And there is no overdraft protection.

Those bumpy slides always have a bottom.

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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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