Spreading the wealth

Mother Nature must have finally realized that she didn’t equitably distribute El Niño’s wealth this winter. Check out the rainfall from over the weekend:

National Weather Service

It was the other way around most of this year, with far Northern California reservoirs receiving most of the wet stuff, and places farther south — like New Melones — recovering much more slowly.

Stockton received 1.78 inches of rain from Friday through Sunday, easily exceeding the city’s average for the entire month of April.

Inflow bumped up at New Melones, though not enough to put a big dent in the deficit there. Up Highway 88, Kirkwood Ski Resort got about a foot of new snow, though the overall snowpack in the central Sierra bumped up from 75 percent of normal to just 76 percent over the weekend.

Not a game-changer, but it’s nice to be in the game.

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An exotic souvenir

My always thoughtful boss, deputy metro editor Barbara Zumwalt, brought me the loveliest gift from her recent trip to Senegal.

I mean, really, Barbara, you shouldn’t have.


Yes, Barbara brought me a toilet paper tube.

No coffee mug, no keychain. Don’t they have overpriced airport gift shops in Senegal?

OK, here’s why she brought me a toilet paper tube:

Supposedly, the tube is biodegradable. When you’ve used up the toilet paper you throw the empty tube into the toilet.  Nifty, huh? Barbara knew I’d find it interesting.

From what I can tell, these suckers aren’t available in the states. The movement (if you will) is happening in Europe. In a press release, Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific calls Aqua Tube “the first ever fully flushable, biodegradable bathroom tissue center tube, replacing the traditional cardboard core and offering consumers enhanced comfort and convenience.”

The company conducted research suggesting more than 80 percent of “consumers” say the tubes will make their lives easier. “No more fuss or annoyance” dealing with those pesky old cardboard tubes, which, in my house, take an average 1.2 seconds to dispose of in the bathroom trash can.

Georgia-Pacific goes on to note than women replace the toilet paper roll more often than men (83 percent to 62 percent), and that many of those surveyed believed a biodegradable tube was more likely to compel certain other household members to take care of the matter themselves.

Not everyone thinks this is such a grand idea. “Paris declares war on biodegradable loo rolls,” says the headline in The Telegraph, which quotes Paris officials complaining that, biodegradable or not, the tubes may clog the city’s wastewater treatment plants.

I will leave that debate for greater minds to process.

But thanks again for the gift, Barbara. It’s the pot that counts.

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Smelt population ‘alarmingly small’; pumping cut

Federal pumping plant in the south Delta. Pumping will be reduced to protect threatened fish. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The federal government is increasing protections for vulnerable Delta smelt, which will require Delta export pumping to be ratcheted back even more.

Friday’s decision came one day after U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote to President Obama, asking him to crank up the pumps at a time when rivers are flowing high with runoff.

“If we can’t increase pumping during an El Niño year, then when else can we?” Feinstein wrote.

Problem is, Delta smelt are at record low numbers, and this year’s newly hatched population — still only in larvae form — is threatened by pumping that causes the Old and Middle rivers in the south Delta to run backward, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says in its formal determination.

Most smelt live only one year. If you don’t protect the babies, there won’t be any adults to spawn later this year, and that’s that.

The rivers still will flow backward under the new rules, but not as rapidly as before.

This will no doubt add to the concern south of the Delta over pumping limits which, combined with the drought, have reduced supplies for cities and farms.

Environmentalists counter that most of the precipitation falling on California has been captured in upstream reservoirs or diverted upstream;  how the Delta pumps are operated right now, in other words, doesn’t tell the full story of how we’re managing our water in California.

Interestingly, for the first time that I am aware of, Fish and Wildlife is estimating the actual number of smelt that exist today.

That number, spokesman Steve Martarano said Friday, is anywhere from 13,000 to 46,000 fish throughout the entire Delta. That might sound like a lot for a fish that is said to be on the brink of extinction. But the Delta is a big place.

The estimate for last year’s population, Martarano said, is 112,000 to 129,000 smelt. Before the smelt population really tanked, in 2002, the population is believed to have been just shy of 600,000, he said.

“13,000 is alarmingly small for a fish that only lives one year in a body of water as large as the Delta,” Martarano said.

Pumping from the Delta has been reduced to protect smelt since January, though scientists at times have said that even more stringent cuts are needed to lower the risk.

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Delay in water rights hearings

State water officials have indefinitely postponed ongoing hearings about alleged illegal diversions from the Delta during the drought last summer.

Who knows what this means, if anything. The hearings started on Monday and were expected to last 11 days. But the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, which faces a possible $1.4 million fine, moved for dismissal on Tuesday, and the hearing officers — members of the State Water Resources Control Board whose role is like a judge — canceled hearings for the rest of the week.

Now, they’ve suspended the hearings entirely and cleared out the whole schedule.

The board’s statement: “The additional time will allow the board members to deliberate further on certain factual issues presented so far in these matters, with the intent of providing orderly, efficient and fair proceedings.”

“This ruling is not a determination on the merits.”

While the hearings have been postponed, the issue has been placed on the closed session for next week’s full water board meeting.

Conclude from all of this what you will.


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New polling on Delta tunnels

Who knows if the twin tunnels will be put to a public vote.

But it’s worth noting that, according to the latest poll from the Public Policy Institute of California, 80 percent of Californians believe the tunnels proposal is either “very important” or “somewhat important” for the future of the state.

Not surprisingly, the highest level of support was found in L.A. (61 percent “very important”). But the Bay Area wasn’t that far behind, with 49 percent of residents giving the same answer. And Democrats were more likely than Republicans and independents to say “very important.”

Of course, it’s important to note how the question was presented to poll respondents. The exact language:

“The governor has proposed to improve the reliability of water supplies by building tunnels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. How important is this proposal for the future quality of life and economic vitality of California — is it very important, somewhat important, not too important, or not at all important?’

I’m not sure how a tunnels opponent would answer that question. The question, after all, is whether folks think the proposal is important, which tunnels opponents surely do, or they wouldn’t be fighting it. There’s no “I don’t like the tunnels” option.

Anyhow, it’s neither the first nor the last poll we’ll see on this subject. We may never know how accurate they are.

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A farm community pulling together

Record file photo

The takeaway from a new state report is that Delta farmers voluntarily cut their diversions by 32 percent, or about 153,000 acre-feet of water, last summer.

But beyond the numbers, the report offers some interesting details about how the estuary’s farming community rallied together in response to an unprecedented challenge — and what state officials learned from those farmers as well.

Here are some of those details, straight from the report, mostly in the words of Michael George, a state official who serves as the Delta “watermaster”:

• When it comes to really understanding farming, “there is no substitute for riding shotgun in a pickup driven by the guy who farms the field.”

• Farmers were asked to save 25 percent, but most actually aimed higher than that.

• Faced with a need to get creative in how they would achieve those savings, the farmers learned from each other, “sometimes only by observation of a neighbor’s practices, other times by swapping stories at the coffee shop, sometimes through intermediaries like lawyers, engineers, pest management advisors, regulators and vendors.”

• While men are still predominantly working the fields, women “contributed greatly” to the success of the diversion reduction effort in the Delta. “Mothers, wives, daughters and helpers often wrote the plans, coordinated with their farm advisors, kept the records, fielded our calls and filed the reports.”

• “Delta farmers took pride in their efforts to ameliorate impacts of the drought. In fact, several farmers requested that we schedule and carry out inspections of their fields, because they wanted their efforts both understood and documented.”

• Some farmers looked at the reduction program as an opportunity to conduct experiments or “test their ‘hunches’” about the interaction of soil, water and nutrients on their fields.

• These farmers faced “real costs” associated with taking less water: higher operations costs, lower crop yields, shifts in prices, the burden of reporting and recordkeeping and their own time.

• While farmers had “generally favorable” views of the program once they got into it, “farmers remain skeptical that we (the state) know enough about their practices to be intelligent regulators of their water rights.”

• And finally: “The farmers with whom we interacted over the course of the program — in the teeth of the drought, under the cloud of curtailments, enforcement actions and resulting litigation, and fearful that their water rights are under long-term attack — were almost universally eager to show us around, answer our questions, and help us understand their practices.”

Read the full report here.


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Drill down: Read rulings on PG&E/SSJID dispute

Want to get into the nitty gritty on South San Joaquin Irrigation District’s efforts to take over retail electric service from PG&E?

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

A San Joaquin County Superior Court judge sided in favor of the water district in two separate issues, though the litigation continues. Here’s ruling one and ruling two.

This is nowhere near over.

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More grim news for smelt

Annual spring surveys for the elusive Delta smelt are well underway. The surveys give us some idea how the adult population is doing as spawning commences.

Last year — which was by no means a good year for smelt — the extensive surveys turned up 21 fish in January and 68 fish in February.

This year crews found seven fish in January and six fish in February.

The February numbers, in particular, are lousy. They represent a 90 percent decline from what were already historically low levels last year. And a 98 percent decline compared to 2012, when smelt numbers briefly spiked thanks to a single very wet year.

Most Delta smelt live only one year. If no spawning takes place in any given year, it could be sayonara.

So the question this spring is: Can the smelt find each other?

Here are maps showing the survey results so far this spring. For the big picture, look under “report type” and click on “sex ratio.”

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Mosquitofish vs. chloramines: Fish win one round

Mosquitofish. Record file photo.

One of myriad concerns I’ve heard about chloramines in the drinking water is that they will derail efforts to control mosquitoes.

The San Joaquin County Mosquito & Vector Control District distributes mosquitofish that residents can dump into their ponds or pools. The tiny fish eat mosquito larvae and help control the skeeter population.

Chloramines are toxic to fish. So, the thinking goes, if the mosquitofish go belly up because of chloramines, mosquitoes will thrive and spread disease.

I asked the mosquito district about this a month or two ago, and officials there said they would look into it. The results of their unscientific investigation are promising.

They put water from north Stockton, where the chloramines are used, into five-gallon buckets. And they introduced some mosquitofish.

The end result: “We found that there was little, if any, mortality to fish introduced to the treated water,” says a brief report from the general manager (see pg. 14).

Again, this wasn’t a scientific study. But it would seem to be good news.

Mosquito officials do intend to remind residents about this change in the water when they distribute mosquitofish this spring. They plan to advise residents to let water sit for a couple of days in ponds or pools before introducing the fish. (Chloramines are long-lived; it can take days for them to dissipate from the water.)

And when they deliver mosquitofish to people’s homes, officials will take a look at the circumstances and make case-by-case recommendations, said district spokesman Aaron Devencenzi.

Whether chloramines are a problem for mosquitofish or not, in many cases it’s a moot point. The mosquitofish tend to be used most often in stagnant ponds and pools where the water has already been sitting for a long time, Devencenzi said. So those fish shouldn’t have a problem with chloramines unless new water is added, and even then, the bucket investigation suggests there might be little to worry about.

Eat away, friendly fish. I’ve been seeing mosquitos all winter and it’s not going to get any better this spring.

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Still paying off drought debt… from 1977?

Stockton’s water rates may soon climb substantially because residents are buying less water.

Blame it on the drought. But someone’s got to pay for the city’s new $220 million Delta drinking water plant.

Buried in bond documents associated with the plant, however, I found this depressing fact: Stockton is apparently still paying off debt associated with a drought relief loan issued in — wait for it — 1977.

(See the bottom of page 10 if you dare.)

That’s right. As of late 2013, the city was still paying off a 5 percent, 40-year loan from the U.S. Department of Commerce. At that time the city still owed $334,633, with a final due date of July 1, 2017.

According to this report, the money — a $1.8 million loan augmented by a $1.9 million grant — paid for a transmission line, wells, pumps and conservation kits. Not sure why the debt is just now coming due. But it is.

I was born in the summer of ’77. The debt is as old as I am.

Is this a bit heavy for a Friday afternoon? Cheer up. The Delta Water Supply Project will be paid off somewhere around 2040.


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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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