Swimming upstream on chloramines

Stockton Mayor Anthony Silva, in a screen shot captured from Facebook video

With the election closing in, Mayor Anthony Silva continues to question the use of chloramines to disinfect Stockton’s drinking water despite assurances from multiple levels of government that the chemical is generally safe.

“We haven’t finished the discussion on chloramines,” Silva says in a video posted to his Facebook page on Tuesday. “Do we know it’s truly safe for us to drink? Other cities out there disagree. I would like to look at more research. I would like the City Council to revisit this. Right now I don’t know if it’s safe for us to drink, or if we should be drinking bottled water.”

I responded to the mayor’s post with a link to some chloramines information from the Environmental Protection Agency, but my response appears to have been deleted. So I’ll repost it here. In the words of the feds:

“Water that contains chloramines and meets EPA regulatory standards is safe for:

• Drinking

• Cooking

• Bathing

• Other household uses.”

Here’s the reality: While no water treatment method is perfect, chloramines are not an issue of serious concern in the mainstream scientific community. Just a few weeks ago, I “attended” a webinar on chloramines hosted by the American Water Works Association — a nonprofit research group funded by water agencies — where experts addressed some of the very concerns that Silva, Erin Brockovich and other advocates have raised.

Among them, that chloramines cause health problems like mouth ulcers, skin rashes, digestive problems, etc.

“There is very little peer-reviewed information to support any of the claims,” said Ben Stanford, an environmental scientist and director of applied research with New York-based Hazen and Sawyer, an engineering firm.

Stanford said he didn’t want to be dismissive of people who have reported such symptoms.

However: “If we’ve got 45 percent of people on public water supplies — or 100 million Americans — being exposed to chloraminated water, we just simply don’t see those massive rates of issues out there,” he said.

This finding isn’t limited to industry-funded groups like the AWWA. As I reported last January after the chloramine issue exploded literally overnight in Stockton, the federal Centers for Disease Control went to Vermont in 2007 to investigate possible health problems after a similar community controversy ignited in Chittenden County. You can read the CDC’s final report here.

Unfortunately, the feds learned that anti-chloramine advocates had been “coaching” Vermont residents, telling them that their health problems were related to the drinking water and prompting them how to respond to investigators’ questions. So the results of the study were considered biased.

The controversy didn’t end when the CDC left town. So, a few years later, Vermont’s state toxicologist conducted a review of all the available scientific literature on chloramines and human health impacts. She found that chloramines use “is not likely to result in adverse health effects” and that the only reason a larger-scale epidemiological study hadn’t been done was that there wasn’t enough underlying science to justify the time and expense.

So what’s good about chloramines?

Chloramines are a weaker disinfectant than chlorine, which Stockton has relied upon for decades, but they stay in the pipes longer and are more effective at reducing concentrations of cancer-causing disinfection byproducts. Mark LeChevallier, AWWA’s chief environmental officer, used the ol’ tortoise and the hare analogy: Chlorine is the fast-moving but over-reactive hare, while chloramines are the slow and plodding (but ultimately victorious) tortoise.

Chloramines can form other potentially harmful byproducts which are not yet regulated, but here’s the important part: Water systems that switch from chlorine to chloramines, as Stockton just did, have seen an overall decrease in byproducts, LeChevallier said

As for lead, while Washington, D.C. suffered through a spike in lead contamination after converting to chloramines, that was at least partially a result of the city’s older lead pipes (which Stockton doesn’t have) and failure to put an adequate corrosion control plan in place.

“Many factors influence metal release from pipes,” LeChevallier said. “The type and amount of disinfectant is one of them. But it’s far more complex than saying, ‘If you switch to chloramines you’re going to have a lead problem.’”

Chloramines can eat away at rubber plumbing fixtures, but so can chlorine. Parts that are resistant to both disinfectants are now widely available.

Both are toxic to fish. Chloramines persist longer in the water and may be a greater threat as a result, but still, reports of chloramine-related fish kills in rivers and streams appear to be fairly rare even though large cities might experience hundreds of water line breaks in a single year, Stanford said.

“The key is not to minimize this and say, ‘You’ll never have this in your city,’” he said. “But what’s the risk?… What we are doing is evaluating and balancing risks and tradeoffs. There is no perfect solution anywhere.”

I’m certainly no expert on water treatment or water chemistry. But on the science of chloramines, Stockton’s mayor is swimming upstream.

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Tunnels an ‘insurance policy,’ economist says

Twin tunnels economist David Sunding, a consultant for the state, ventured into hostile territory (well, San Diego) on Thursday where he pitched the project as a prudent investment.

I say “hostile territory” because the San Diego County Water Authority and its wholesale provider, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, don’t get along. The Met supports the tunnels in principle, while the folks in San Diego are openly skeptical at best.

Sunding’s appearance came a little over a month after tunnels opponents released a draft analysis in which Sunding suggested the tunnels project might require a federal subsidy of close to $4 billion. That ran contrary to longstanding assurances that the water users who actually benefit from the project will pay for it — not taxpayers at large.

Sunding told San Diego officials that the report that was the subject of so much scrutiny was one of about half a dozen drafts, and that his comments about a subsidy were mere “conjecture.” State officials have since said they do not intend to seek a subsidy.

“An outside contribution by the state or federal government does not appear to be an economic imperative,” Sunding said Thursday. “There certainly is a strong economic and political argument to have a public contribution to pay for the modest portion of the overall project for the public wildlife refuges in the San Joaquin Valley, but that’s a narrow issue that I’m sure will be addressed over time.”

Sunding says the tunnels will provide about 1 million acre-feet more water. Not 1 million more than is exported from the Delta today, mind you, but 1 million more than will be available in the future due in part to the likelihood that government regulations and sea level rise will further crimp the amount of water that can be sent south.

In that sense, the tunnels are “essentially like an insurance policy” that would maintain water supplies close to where they are today, Sunding said.

Altogether, he said, the benefits of the project would outweigh the costs (this is disputed by University of the Pacific economist Jeff Michael).

Here’s the tricky part, though: Those purported benefits are not universal to all parties.

Sunding says that for urban water users, benefits will outweigh the costs by better than $7 billion.

Not the same for San Joaquin Valley farmers. In that case, it may be the other way around — the costs may outweigh the benefits by $600 million to $1 billion, Sunding said.

He said the agricultural numbers were “striking and, to be honest, somewhat concerning, though I think it’s what people had been expecting.”

So, absent a subsidy, will farmers be willing to shoulder their share? Water agencies are discussing their options right now, Sunding said, adding that there are a number of potential ways to work through the disparity.

San Diego authority board members sounded unconvinced. Vice Chair Jim Madaffer asked when someone is going to analyze the cost and benefits of building a string of desalination plants along the coast, as opposed to relying on one massive facility to convey an unknown quantity of Sierra Nevada water.

“It’s a pig in a poke,” Madaffer said. “A crapshoot. I don’t know that we should be spending $14 billion on a crapshoot.”

There may be alternatives for San Diego. But if farmers balk and the tunnels aren’t built, the farmers will have only one choice, Sunding said: Land retirement.

“And that has impacts for farmers, for farm owners, and it has community impacts on farmworkers and all sorts of businesses that transact with agriculture,” he said.

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Stockton got its rivers back

One year ago today, Record photographer Cliff Oto took photos of the hyacinth infestation in Buckley Cove, at the west end of March Lane. The city had taken the unprecedented action of closing the public boat ramp there because the floating green menace was a threat to boaters’ safety.

Cliff returned today to the same spot, and the results are pretty incredible. Check it out (2015 on the left, 2016 on the right). Don’t want to jump the gun, but it seems fair to ask if 2016 might be the year that we turn the corner on water hyacinth.

Also, for a cool interactive before-and-after shot, click on my story and scroll all the way to the bottom.

Enjoy our rivers this fall! You never know how long a respite like this will last.

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Stockton MUD water savings fall to 11 percent

Record file photo

Add Stockton to the long list of communities where water conservation efforts are waning.

Stockton MUD officials have released numbers for August showing 11 percent savings. One month earlier, residents saved 23 percent.

In August 2015, during the worst of the drought, the number was 25 percent. And in June of that year it was 41 percent.

The city’s 11-percent performance in August marked the lowest savings rate in this  region. A more useful way to look at it, however, is that Stockton MUD customers used about 141 gallons per person per day — less than Tracy (151), Lodi (173) and Ripon (299), but substantially more than Cal Water customers in central Stockton (86 gallons per person).

The increase in water use comes two months after Stockton MUD and most other suppliers in California were allowed to ditch their mandatory state-imposed conservation targets. Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, said earlier this month that the state is now on “yellow alert” as a result.

Officials have warned that mandatory targets could be imposed once more next year if the state continues to move in the wrong direction. That’s why September’s numbers, which should be released just after the beginning of November, will be so interesting. Stay tuned.

(For those who really pay attention to this stuff, for some reason MUD’s numbers weren’t included with the water board’s usual monthly report. I asked MUD for the numbers independently, and city staff provided them.)

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Cowin on tunnels subsidy: ‘I can put that to rest’

9:50 a.m. — Updated to fix typo in Cowin’s quote

Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources, told water planners in Los Angeles on Monday that the state will not seek a federal subsidy for the Delta tunnels.

Cowin’s comments came after tunnels opponents last month released a draft economic analysis of the project by economist David Sunding, a consultant for the state. Sunding’s report suggested that a hefty government subsidy would be needed for the tunnels to pencil out, which would run contrary to the state’s longstanding position that water users who benefit from the tunnels must pay the full cost.

Here’s what Cowin told board members of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California:

“There’s an overwhelming amount of public benefit in this project relative to the cost. So it’s not surprising to me that Dr. Sunding, an economist, would look at that great benefit and ponder why there wouldn’t be a governmental investment in this project. Certainly it wouldn’t be the first time there’s been a direct state or federal investment in a big water project.

“But I want to be clear: This was Dr. Sunding’s suggestion. You will not find that suggestion in any future draft or final report that comes from the state of California. So I can put that to rest. We’re not asking for a big $4 billion federal subsidy for this project.”

Cowin called the tunnels a “no-brainer” for urban water users but acknowledged they’re a tougher call for farmers.

At the same meeting, a member of MWD’s Water Planning and Stewardship Committee attempted to make a formal motion requiring staff to return in November with information about how tunnels costs would be allocated among Metropolitan’s water agencies. He said requests for that important information have been ignored dating back six months.

The motion never made it to a vote, however; instead, the committee chair responded that the allocation issue was not on the agenda as an action item. After an angry outburst from his colleague on the board, the chair said it would be considered as a future agenda item.

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Easy does it

Photo courtesy Port of Stockton

This undated photo, which I grabbed from a recent Port of Stockton presentation, shows the view from the bridge of a massive oceangoing ship as it attempts to navigate a hyacinth-choked Deep Water Ship Channel.

Would you want to steer that thing in those conditions?

The photo goes a long way toward explaining why the port has followed hyacinth issues so closely in recent years. Sometimes, at night in October or November when hyacinth concentrations tend to increase, the ships cannot move through the channel at all because their radar can’t distinguish between mats of floating hyacinth and dry land. And lost time equals lost money.

At a legislative oversight hearing chaired by state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani last week in Stockton, state officials said they continue to work on the hyacinth with the help of satellite images that are now helping them better target their spraying efforts. They said they are on track to reach their maximum allowed spraying acreage once again in 2016, thanks to the hiring of new technicians and the purchase of new boats and equipment.

So far, so good.

“This year the season appears to be better,”said Claude Pellarin, owner of Village West Marina, which hauled 500 tons of hyacinth out of its own marina last year alone.

Galgiani agreed that there has been improvement.

“I’ve had people tell me it’s been visibly much better in our area.,” she said. “We are making progress, and that’s wonderful news.”


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Would you walk down this street?

"Walk more" billboard along East Market Street near Aurora Street

This photo begs the question: Would it be wise to create walkable communities before spending money to promote walking?

Moments before I snapped this picture of a larger-than-life San Joaquin County Supervisor Bob Elliott smiling down from a billboard, I watched as a little girl with a backpack carefully stepped across the mattress and box springs that blocked the sidewalk on Market Street just east of Aurora Street in downtown Stockton.

When it comes to walking this neighborhood, navigating discarded mattresses may be the least of the little girl’s problems. This is a rough part of town. Drug paraphernalia litters the gutters. Questionable characters inhabit the park across the street. Maybe a year ago, my car was broken into less than two blocks to the west.

Sure, there are sidewalks. But does that alone make this a walkable neighborhood?

Elliott serves on the governing board of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, which commonly uses billboards to advertise its clean-air mission. And the district’s efforts don’t end with PR: Policies require employers of a certain size to encourage carpooling and other clean-air habits. Developers are required to build homes in a way that encourages less driving and more walking.

Sadly, the corner of Market Street and Aurora Street is not a blank slate.

If people in this neighborhood walk the streets, my guess is it’s not because they want to. They walk because they don’t have a choice. This billboard is targeted toward those who drive, and all the outreach in the world might not be enough for them to step out of their vehicles — at least, not here.

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Meet the new neighbors; MWD comes to town

Polite pleasantries were exchanged. A chocolate brownie was offered as a “welcome to the neighborhood” gift.

But in the end, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s visit to the belly of the beast — i.e., downtown Stockton, where the Delta Protection Commission met on Thursday night — revealed few new insights about the southland’s recent purchase of 20,000 acres of land in the Delta.

Randy Record, chair of Metropolitan’s Board of Directors, acknowledged that portions of the land could help facilitate Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin tunnels project, which the commission opposes.

But he also said the islands might be even more important if the tunnels aren’t built. Possible uses include fortifying levees to protect L.A.’s water as it passes through the Delta, and restoring wildlife habitat in an effort to improve the Delta’s ecosystem.

Why would the Met care about the health of the Delta? Because the amount of water it can squeeze out of the estuary has been limited by the collapse of the environment.

“We need to help figure out what’s going on here as far as the ecosystem is concerned,” Record said. “We want to be part of a project that helps get things back on track.”

Little has changed since the $175 million purchase was consummated two months ago, he said. Metropolitan has not terminated any farming leases. The land manager who worked for the previous owner is still on the job.  “It’s business as usual,” Record said.

Asked by commissioners about property taxes, he said Metropolitan has “every intention” of paying them.

Steve Arakawa, the Met’s manager for Delta initiatives, said there is “no blueprint” for what to do with the islands. “We don’t have a master plan,” he said.

And, he said, Metropolitan doesn’t want to isolate itself from its new neighbors.

“We hope this is a start in terms of talking about these things,” he said.

Critics of the Met did some talking of their own on Thursday. Delta levee engineer Chris Neudeck asked the commission why Metropolitan did not support a recent bill to indefinitely extend state funding to bolster levees.

“Now that they bought four islands, why aren’t they participating as a good neighbor?” Neudeck said.

(Arakawa responded that Metropolitan opposed the bill because the district wants to see the state’s separate process to prioritize levee investments play out first.)

Others were skeptical that Metropolitan’s intentions were as benevolent as they sounded. A speaker, whose name I didn’t quite catch, began by saying he wanted to quote Mark Twain. Thankfully, it wasn’t the old “whiskey is for drinking” cliche that Twain may never even have uttered.

Instead, the quote was, “When somebody comes explicitly to do you good, you should run like hell.”

All in all, though, it was a civil, if not terribly enlightening, discussion. Solano County Supervisor Skip Thomson even brought a brownie for Record, the Metropolitan chairman. Record accepted it with thanks.

Alas, he took it for the road, leaving before he had a chance to hear public comments, much to the dismay of some Delta advocates.

They’d been hoping to get to know their new neighbor just a bit better.

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I’m ready for this — are you?

Snow falls on Sonora Pass today. Photo courtesy the Dodge Ridge Ski Area

Snow fell at Sonora Pass today, the first sandhill cranes have arrived in the Delta and the high temperature in Stockton is in the upper 70s.

If we haven’t turned the corner after another long summer, we’re darned close.

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The man who spread straw, and hope

Michael Kriletich in 2009

Calaveras County farmer and activist Michael Kriletich died a few days ago.

I’m hardly the one to write a news obituary about him. I only met Michael once, in fact. But the impression that he left with me — and the fact that I’d exchanged emails with him just a couple of weeks ago — left me stunned at his passing.

I met Michael last fall on a scarred and blackened hillside outside Mountain Ranch. He and his son, Sean, and a handful of other volunteers, were spreading straw to prevent erosion in the wake of the Butte Fire.

Most of the Butte Fire burned on private land. It was up to property owners to prevent erosion. But many, understandably, felt paralyzed in the wake of the fire. They didn’t know what to do next.

In stepped Michael and Sean. They secured the straw from a rice farmer in the Valley. They arranged for a trucker to pick it up for next to nothing. They stockpiled the straw in the fire area, and then the best part: They rolled up their sleeves, strapped on their boots, and got dirty.

Michael and I chatted while he tossed heavy bales of straw from the back of a pickup. He wasn’t a young man, and it was hard work. Not that he was complaining. Michael spent the time talking about the importance of saving the watershed, of preserving the soil before winter storms washed it into the river.

He also spoke poignantly of all of the people he had encountered while doing this work. Their stories. The carpenter who lost everything in the blaze, down to his very last hammer. The family who lost their stunning, Eden-like landscaping.

Despite the sad stories, Michael told me, he saw a lot of joy as well.

“People are so appreciative of it (the straw),” he said. “They say it gives them hope.”

Michael and the gang were still working when I left late that afternoon. By then the ash was smudged across their faces, broken only by tiny rivulets of sweat.

I hardly knew Michael, really. But I learned everything I needed to know about him that afternoon. The best part is that every town, every community has someone like that ready to step up during the darkest of days. And that should be a comfort to us all.

Michael Kriletich and friends spread straw on a Butte Fire-blackened hillside last fall.

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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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