Twin tunnels redux

On Friday the state announced changes to the governor’s twin tunnels plan, most notably the elimination of previously proposed pumping plants at the intakes along the Sacramento River.

Read the state’s news release here.

Here’s a visual simulation of the “new look” at intake No. 3:

The state says changes were made to “respond to the concerns of Delta landowners and others.” But the fundamental nature of the project — a diversion of up to 9,000 cubic feet per second of water away from the Delta — does not change.

Nor has the opposition from Delta-area lawmakers changed. Tweeted Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, D-Stockton:

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Stagg journalist tackles hyacinth problem

Stagg High student journalist Devin Wickstrom has produced a multimedia report on this year’s hyacinth infestation. You can watch the video here.

Devin did a similar report earlier this year on the governor’s proposed twin tunnels.

At the risk of sounding like an old geezer, it sure is great to see young ‘uns taking an interest in the Delta and our waterways in general. Hopefully Devin can reach some of his fellow students at Stagg, seeing as the school is perched on the edge of the Calaveras River, where this year’s hyacinth invasion was particularly nasty.

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McNerney: Water bill would have ‘terrible consequences’

U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, comments on the Drought Relief Act of 2014, which cleared the House last week but is likely to advance no more:

“I voted against Rep. Valadao’s bill for quite a few reasons. First off, it would have terrible consequences for the people I represent and for our environment. The bill would allow environmental law to be suspended so that new water flowing to the California Delta could be shipped south of this region, negatively affecting the families, farmers, and small businesses that depend on this invaluable resource.

“The California Delta was originally fed by two mighty rivers: the San Joaquin and the Sacramento. The San Joaquin River is now a dry riverbed because the water has been diverted south for decades, and much of the Sacramento River is now diverted south. The Valdao bill does not incorporate input from stakeholders here in the the Delta itself – the fishermen who depend on Delta salmon, the farmers whose water is threatened by saltwater intrusion, the marina owners whose business will suffer, and other interests of the north and central Delta.

“This issue should be decided in California by all stakeholders, not in Washington. In fact, the state is already taking action on the drought – including passing a water bond and working in real time to determine water distribution in the state. Even though Rep. Valadao’s bill passed the House, it thankfully did not pass the Senate or get the President’s signature.”

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Half full, half empty

You can look at this week’s big storm in two ways.

The positive: Thursday was the wettest day in Stockton in 18 years. Our seasonal rainfall total jumped from 108 percent of normal to 171 percent of normal. We’re one more big storm away from surpassing our precip total for all of last year. On Thursday and Friday, New Hogan Lake went up 2.5 feet in 24 hours.

The negative: Stockton’s three-year rainfall deficit of almost 16 inches is now a deficit of roughly 13.5 inches. Even after “#hellastorm,” as it became known on Twitter, we’ve still lost almost one full year’s worth of rain since the start of the drought. New Hogan may be going up, but as of Friday it had improved from 34 percent of normal to just 37 percent of normal.

So what’ll it be? Is California’s collective glass half full or half empty?

I dunno, but I’m getting kind of thirsty just thinking about it.

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Triumphant and terrifying

Photo by Larry Lew of Ceres. Courtesy the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center

There’s no better place than the Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada for a wildlife photography contest.

Little wonder, then, that the Twain Harte-based Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center hosts such a contest every year. The staff uses the images that it collects from the public in presentations to thousands of elementary school children, including many in the Stockton area.

I’m withholding two of the winning photographs taken by local photographers, because we just might run them in the paper soon.

But you’ve got to love that bull elk shot, posted above, by Larry Lew. It’s sometimes hard to believe that such large and majestic animals still inhabit the Central Valley, but they do.

And how about this little kitty:

Photo by Rollie Rodriguez. Courtesy the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center

Rollie Rodriguez of Mammoth Lakes caught this image of a bobcat in Yosemite Valley. I’ve been outdoors all of my life, and the elusive bobcat is one critter I’ve still never seen.

And finally, the image that will haunt your dreams:

Photo by Zane Halsey. Courtesy the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center

Yes, that’s a rattlesnake, swimming merrily along in the waters of Lake McClure east of Modesto. Thirteen-year-old Zane Halsey of Oakdale was in a boat when he saw the thing go sliding past.

Might be a couple of years before I swim in a mountain lake again. Thanks, Zane.

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Hyacinth smoothies, anyone?

The state’s latest plan appears to be to pulverize water hyacinth, as you can see in this video shot Friday by Calaveras River landowner Roger Kelly.

“The plan is to shred the hyacinth and then pick up remaining floating pieces with a harvester,” Kelly says.

This is not the first time, actually, that the state has brought in mechanical harvesters. It spent about $1.5 million on a similar effort last year — more, in fact, than it spent on spraying hyacinth with herbicides.

The big storm coming later this week may clear out some channels, but until it gets colder don’t expect this problem to be resolved once and for all.

More shots from Kelly:


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Salmon in north Stockton

Photo courtesy Bill Ries-Knight

It’s both terrific and tragic when salmon appear in our local creeks and streams. Terrific, because the folks who see them realize that even some of the degraded waterways around Stockton have the potential to harbor life and should be respected as such. Tragic, because in many cases the salmon that veer off into these smaller waterways and glorified irrigation ditches will become stranded and die, before finding a suitable place to spawn.

Bill Ries-Knight took these photos late this week on Mosher Creek, in northeast Stockton.

Bill counted five dead fish, and said there were another dozen or so resting or thrashing about in the shallow water.

A dead fish, somehow wedged under what appears to be a shopping cart. Photo by Bill Ries-Knight


Salmon flopping in the shallows. Photo by Bill Ries-Knight

Sometimes fish are drawn into small creeks and streams after a big storm. That jet of fresh water is kind of like the “green light” to head upstream.

Stranding can occur, however, as things dry out and water levels start to drop once again. Salmon can find themselves stuck in small pools with no way to advance upstream. Whether that’s what happened on Mosher Creek, I can’t say.

Sometimes the state Department of Fish and Wildlife attempts to rescue fish in situations like these. If you see stranded salmon — and this time of year, you very well might — call your regional Fish and Wildlife office. East of Interstate 5, call the Region 2 office at (916) 358-2900. West of Interstate 5, call Region 3 at (707) 944-5500.

Photo by Bill Ries-Knight

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More than one culprit

The tricolored blackbird. Courtesy the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A dairyman contacted me yesterday about this week’s emergency listing of the tricolored blackbird, whose numbers have dwindled in part because of the harvesting of dairy silage fields while the birds breed.

“I know that 30 or 40 years ago we saw a lot more of them than now, but what is the reason for their dwindling numbers?” he asked. “It can’t be dairies alone.”

What about the conversion of agricultural land to permanent crops, which offer less habitat? What about urban expansion?

And what about starlings?

The dairyman is certainly right about permanent crops and urban sprawl, and starlings seem like a plausible theory given how they have been known to literally darken the sky in the Delta at about dusk.

Eariler this year, I asked Bob Meese, a foremost tricolored blackbird expert at U.C. Davis, about that idea. And he said the starlings likely aren’t to blame.

Meese’s response:

“Unlikely that the starlings have any effect.  Starlings are cavity nesters and territorial, so very very different than tricolors, although they flock together and roost together in winter and likely eat similar things in the non-breeding season.  The primary driver is habitat loss, with the known mortality sources (harvest of nesting substrate in SJV and shooting in rice in autumn) being contributing factors.  The alternative energy industry is poised to take a lot of essential foraging habitat in southern California, so that’s a big issue, and no one knows how important a factor the neonicotinoid insecticides are; they scream for additional research.”

So starlings are off the hook, but still, the dairyman is right — like most controversies involving natural resources, the story behind the demise of the tricolored blackbird is far more complex than the cliche critter vs. farmer narrative.

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We’re still saving water, but…

Regular as rain, the State Water Resources Control Board today released another month’s worth of urban water conservation statistics.

The gist: Californians used less water in October 2014 than they did in October 2013, but conservation efforts appear to be tapering off.

Residents were at their best with 11.6 percent water savings in August. That number declined a bit to 10.3 percent savings in September, then plummeted to 6.7 percent savings in October. The statewide decline that month was driven mostly by less conservation in Southern California, officials said.

The weather may be a factor. In many areas it was warmer in October 2014 than in October 2013, meaning people were still using their sprinklers liberally. Outdoor irrigation can amount to half of a typical household’s water use.

On a related note, it rained more in Southern California last October than it did this year, which could also help explain why folks there didn’t save as much water as everyone else.

Then there’s the theory of “conservation fatigue,” as explained by Mark Emmerson with the Office of Research, Planning and Performance.

“Over time the message is getting blurred a little bit and people are kind of just falling back into old ways, not being as diligent maybe as they were initially during the summer,” he said. At least, that’s one theory.

Close to home here in San Joaquin County, most communities continued to save water, albeit not at the same pace they might have earlier this summer.

The lone exception was Lodi, where water use actually increased yet again.

Cal Water Stockton customers take the prize for the overall lowest water use, and the city of Tracy wins once again for the largest percentage decline.

The per capita numbers (in gallons per person per day, comparing October 2013 with October 2014):

Lodi: 164 gallons last year; 176.4 gallons this year; 6.9 percent increase.

Stockton Municipal Utilities Department: 130.6 gallons last year; 123.1 gallons this year; 5.7 percent decrease.

• California Water Service Co. (Stockton): 80.2 gallons last year; 71.8 gallons this year; 10.3 percent decrease.

• City of Manteca: 146.5 gallons last year; 126.2 gallons this year; 13.8 percent decrease.

• City of Tracy: 137.6 gallons last year; 110.8 gallons this year; 19.5 percent decrease.

• City of Lathrop: 115.9 gallons last year; 102.3 gallons this year; 11.7 percent decrease.

• Calaveras County Water District: 153 gallons last year; 134.6 gallons this year; 12 percent decrease.

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Bring on the crowds

Photo by Chris Sanderson, courtesy the Pacific Crest Trail Association

Thanks to former Stocktonian Suzanne Finney for allowing me to tell the story of her 2008 almost-through-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail.

I touched only briefly on the upcoming movie “Wild” and the concerns some PCT hikers have that the trail will suddenly become overrun with wannabe Suzanne Finneys.

Suzanne’s not worried about that. The trail’s there to be used, after all.

And she was a wannabe once, too.

For what it’s worth, while I’m no lover of crowded trails, I’m not worried about this either. The PCT is immense, totaling 2,650 miles across three states, from the Southern California desert to the High Sierra and the Cascades of Oregon and Washington. Since the early 1970s, just 3,344 people have managed to hike the whole route in a single season, according to the Pacific Crest Trail Association. (Read the list here.)

So… even if you put every through-hiker from the past 40-plus years on the trail, you’d have just 1.25 hikers per mile, on average.

Yes, some of the most spectacular stretches of trail are already crowded, like the PCT/John Muir Trail through the Southern Sierra. But most of that area is subject to trailhead quotas that will limit the number of potential newbie hikers.

What’s more, most stretches of the PCT are not exactly pristine. Outside of the designated wilderness areas, the PCT crosses roads and highways. It parallels aqueducts. It passes through towns. This is not Alaska. You will see people.

In Suzanne’s view, more people using the trail equals more dollars to maintain and protect it.

“If more people can enjoy it, I think that’s better for everyone,” she said.

And anyhow, “Wild” isn’t really about the PCT. It’s not a trail guide. It’s not written for tourists. It’s about a woman struggling with grief, and how she overcomes it. Some people who read the book or see the movie might be drawn to the PCT, sure. But others might be inspired to find their own avenues, their own adventures.

This ain’t the only trail in town.

But we sure are lucky to have it.

Looking south from Forester Pass in Sequoia National Park. Photo by John Landis, courtesy the Pacific Crest Trail Association

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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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