New report details 45 years of wildfire trends in 11 Western states, predicts a fiery future.
2015 was the worst year on record for wildfires in the United States, with over 10 million acres burned.
PRINCETON, NJ – Climate change is producing conditions ripe for wildfires across the American West. Temperatures are rising, snowpacks are shrinking, and summers are heating up, drying out forests earlier in the season. Combined with abundant fuel in many locations, these climate-driven changes have produced startling increases in acres burned and the number of large fires across the West.
A new report by Climate Central details 45 years of state-by-state wildfire trends on U.S. Forest Service lands and provides the first-ever, state-based projections of the increase in high wildfire risk days by 2050. The report, Western Wildfires: A Fiery Future, may be found here: http://www.climatecentral.org/news/western-wildfires-climate-change-20475.
And in the not-so-distant future, there will be many more days with high wildfire potential, particularly in Southwestern states. Climate Central’s analysis of localized projections from 29 different global climate models found that in most Western states the changing climate will dry out forests and produce substantially more days in the next several decades with high potential for wildfires:
“As spring and summer temperatures in the West have gone up and alpine snowpacks have gone down, the potential for wildfire has been steadily increasing, at tremendous risk to our health and the economy,” said Alyson Kenward, Ph.D, wildfire expert and Vice President of Research at Climate Central. “Our study predicts that climate change will continue to exacerbate these conditions between now and 2050, putting more land — and people — at risk.”
State-by-state wildfire data is available in the report, including ranked lists of Western states with the most residents vulnerable to wildfire and states that have seen the biggest increases in wildfires.
In addition to the report, Climate Central has created a first-of-its-kind Wildfire Tracker tool, using satellite monitoring to track, in real time, major fires currently burning across the Western United States. The tracker’s unique “smoke visualization” feature reveals the true extent of how far the plume of a wildfire can stretch, potentially impacting air quality for millions of Americans.
Gov. Brown’s twin tunnel plan has raised ire since its inception, but the battle has grown more heated with the publication of its latest economic report. Melinda Terry, manager of the North Delta Water Agency, called the document outright fraud, while state water contractors praised it with a fact sheet pointing out its strong points (primarily, its page length). Continue reading
Of the 38 million people affected by the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), at least 60 phoned in to get an update last week. The public meeting held in Sacramento was chaotic, with sounds of dogs barking, neighborhood chit-chat and the double-toilet-flush from the call-in listeners who forgot to mute their lines.
Despite the bizarre atmosphere, serious clarifications were made regarding the big-picture plan to build two giant tunnels through or around the Delta—the largest estuary on the West Coast.
Gov. Brown’s tunnel conveyance plan continues to dance around the science, although the project’s leaders have publicly claimed to embrace it.
The latest news? The current plan being pushed ahead is an operations proposal known as Alternative 4. That alternative intends to raise the limit on exports for south of delta contractors from an average of 4.9 million acre-feet to 5.3 million acre-feet.
And that may be a problem—4.9 isn’t an arbitrary number. It’s a vetted biological opinion put in place to keep key species, such as delta smelt, chinook salmon and steelhead from perishing forever. Among other things, water diversions and pumping have severely impacted the beleaguered estuary. Giant pumps sit in the south Delta and send water uphill to drier parts of the state, including Los Angeles, the Central Valley and Santa Clara. When the pumps operate, rivers flow in the reverse direction and entrap fish trying to spawn. On average, 95 percent of juvenile San Joaquin River salmon and 60 percent of Sacramento River salmon don’t survive migration through the Delta. The biological opinion limits the damage.
“It was widely recognized that the alternatives analyzed in the February effects analysis would lead to further fishery declines and the likely extinction of several salmon runs,” said Kate Poole, Senior Attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The state has promised that BDCP would be a science-driven process and would recover the ecosystem and imperiled salmon and other fisheries.” Choosing Alternative 4 means that the process is not being driven by science, Poole added.
What’s driving the process seems to be the state and federal contractors who are funding the BDCP, and their interest lies in increasing water exports.
Regardless, fish and other wildlife need fresh water flowing through the system, and a lot more than they’re getting. The public trust recommendations for flow, as set forth by the State Water Resources Control Board, would limit exports to 3.7 to 3.9 million acre-feet. That’s more than a million-acre feet less than the current proposal.
But there is a caveat. The current plan suggests that by increasing land habitat more water can be exported—although it is unclear whether scientific studies will validate that.
“They keep saying trust us; we will build it now and figure out the science later,” said Bill Jennings,the Executive Director of California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA). “We no longer trust those who guided these species to the brink of extinction to do the right thing. The science and assurances must come first.”
State and federal wildlife agencies are responsible for permitting the BDCP, and they are trying to ensure that science does come first, but they’re still working out the numbers. Remediating habitat is an important part of that process as well. The Delta has only five percent of its original wetlands intact.
The costs are another matter. It’s an expensive project and who will pay for it appears to be in flux.
“At least they are being honest that they expect more water,” said Dr. Jeffrey-Michael, Director of the Business Forecasting Center at the Eberhardt School of Business. “But from a benefit-cost perspective for the state, 5.3 million acre-feet is still not enough to justify the costs of the project. It is not a good project for the state. The fact that they won’t do an official analysis shows the truth to that. If they could prove its value, believe me, they would do it.”
The project cost hovers around $23 billion, with an additional $1.1 billion in debt servicing for 35 years. The debt costs nearly double the price. Currently, contractors are set to pay 75 percent of the costs, and taxpayers the other 25 percent. But those percentages will be adjusted in the future, as noted at the meeting.
Funds from state bonds provided 78 percent of the financing for the construction of the original State Water Project.
Other details were not discussed, in particular, the total capacity of the system to export water. The topic makes local delta farmers nervous. They rely on fresh water from the Sacramento River to irrigate their crops, and the tunnels may affect that. At the meeting, one commenter verbalized his concern that the project would “bleed the river dry.”
The current alternative decreases the intake size of the proposed tunnels and limits tunnel exports to 6.5 million acre-feet a year. But that’s an incomplete picture of the system. The pumps in the southern end of the Delta will still be there, and they also have a similar export capacity.
Thus, the only physically limiting factor is the size of the California Aqueduct. The system would have the capacity to export nearly 10 million acre-feet a year.
Mike Taugher, Communications Director for the California Department of Fish and Game, carefully noted that the state pumps have always had the capacity to export more water, but they’ve always been limited by operational regulations.
What next? More meetings and a forthcoming Environmental Impact Report.
Water lazily rolls by, acres of pear trees blanket the horizon, and tiny communities dot the landscape. Walnut Grove is a Delta town with 1,500 residents, just one ice cream shop and a mom-and-pop grocery store. It feels sleepy, humid and slow—like the Sacramento River. Brett Baker, a sixth-generation pear farmer who lives nearby, on Sutter Island, describes the area nostalgically:
“I enjoy the peace and quiet, the landscape and scenery,” he said. “I have a personal relationship with almost everyone in my town. I have known them all my life, played sports with them, was coached by them growing up. Out here, there is a real sense of community. When tragedy strikes, your neighbors pick you up and help support you.”
Tragedy might be striking. Just 10 minutes away is the roar of Interstate 5, one of California’s major freeways. Twenty minutes farther is Sacramento and the buzzing State Capitol, where the fate of this farming community, the Delta, the state’s river system, and the largest estuary on the West Coast will be determined.
The Delta is the heart of the state’s water resources. Most rivers flow into it, the ocean meets it, key species migrate in and out of it, 25 million people draw water from it, and a large portion of agriculture relies on it to irrigate crops. And now, Gov. Jerry Brown wants to forge ahead with a $23 billion plan to build two massive tunnels underneath or around the Delta.
The stakes are enormous.
The governor’s proposed Bay-Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), also known as the tunnel conveyance system or peripheral canal, would carry part of the Sacramento River underneath the Delta in two 35-mile long tunnels to the California Aqueduct. There, the water would be pumped uphill to cities and farms in more parched regions of the state, including the southern Central Valley, Los Angeles and Santa Clara.
The canal plan has been kicking around for decades. Brown’s original peripheral canal project was voted down in a referendum in 1982, but he is back in the saddle again. “We’re going to take into account the opposition,” Brown vowed, “but we’re not going to sit here and twiddle our thumbs and stare at our navel. We’re going to make decisions and get it done.”
But it’s unclear what Brown is trying to get done. The project would continue to move water from one part of the state to another, with questionable benefits for citizens, farmers, fish, fishermen and even state and federal water contractors, who have funded the project thus far. The differing perspectives of a Delta farmer, a seasoned environmentalist and a Republican supervisor show the complexities and contentiousness of what lies ahead.
“The Delta is the largest contiguous acreage of prime farmland in California,” said Baker. “It has a naturally reliable supply of high quality water and sufficient drainage. Basically, you are taking water from land that has proven to be sustainably productive for over 150 years and moving it to lands with toxic drainage impairments.”
Acre to acre, Delta land is one the most productive farm areas in the state.
The toxic land that Baker refers to is on the west side of San Joaquin River in the Central Valley. The area has long had problems with salinity and selenium, and it’s also a primary importer of Delta water. Salinity on the west side can be flushed out with water, provided there is drainage. But there isn’t excess water or drainage, and there may never be. The taxpayer cost of fixing the drainage problem is $2.6 to $7 billion. Only $346 million in funds are currently allocated.
Selenium presents a more significant problem for the west side. It cannot be safely dispersed into the environment. It bio-accumulates and in large quantities is toxic to wildlife, livestock and humans. In the 1980s, Kesterson Reservoir had to be closed, because of the mass bird and livestock deformities that were discovered there due to selenium build-up. The area has since been cleaned up, but pollutants are still flowing into the San Joaquin River, and more water will not fix the problem.
So why construct a canal or tunnel conveyance system and route water there?
A portion of that water flows elsewhere, to the Metropolitan Water District and the Kern County Water Agency, for example. The giant pumps that sit in the southern part of the estuary entrap and kill thousands of fish annually. The pumps also alter the habitat of the estuary by creating a north to south flow across a tidal ecosystem, which would naturally flow east to west. The proposed tunnels would move the intake upstream to locations that might be less harmful to smelt, salmon and other endangered species. They also might avoid delivery disruptions associated with salt water intrusion and climate change.
But under the microscopes of science and regulation, even those benefits begin to look dubious. And that’s because moving intakes upstream will affect water quality for fish and farmers downstream. “If we allow the canal to be built it will ultimately result in the salting up and ruination of one of our state’s most valuable assets,” Baker said. “Research has continued to reveal that shunting more water from the system stands to condemn the canary in the coal mine.”
And Baker is right. The birds are in trouble too. Although endangered fish species get more attention because of their effect on water exports, the Delta is a primary habitat and migratory stop for millions of birds, like tundra swans and sandhill cranes. Nearly 50 percent of the Pacific Flyway’s migrating or wintering waterfowl depend on it.
Altogether, the Delta is home to more than 750 species of plants and animals, 33 of which are endangered, and likely to go extinct within the next 25 to 50 years, if not sooner. Those species includes chinook salmon, smelt, steelhead, splittail, sturgeon and river lamprey, all of which are supposed to be protected by state and federal agencies.
And California hasn’t left much breathing room for its once abundant wildlife, particularly in the Central Valley and the Delta, where most of the land is privately held and about 95 percent of natural wetlands are gone. And water, the other primary habitat, has been over-allocated to such a high degree that little is left for plants and animals. All total, water rights exist for 531 million acre-feet, which is nearly 10 times as much as is annually available (63 million acre-feet).
Leo Winternitz, associate director of Delta Restoration and Policy for the Nature Conservancy, has been living amidst these water wars for the past 30 years. He has worked for CALFED, the Sacramento Water Forum, the Department of Water Resources, and the State Water Resources Control Board—all major players in water management.
As to how things are going – he says simply, “The situation is more acute. The environment is really suffering from the overuse. We need to think in terms of migratory corridors,” he continues. “If you acquire any piece of property, without a strategic plan then you have postage stamp approach and that doesn’t work. You need to have a corridor of different habitats interconnected.”
But putting that into action is no easy task. The Delta region has more than 500,000 acres of agricultural land, most of which was formerly wetland habitat. About five percent of the original environment is left.
To restore a portion, the Nature Conservancy acquired a 9200-acre tract in the Delta, called Staten Island. The area provides prime habitat for sandhill cranes and other migratory waterfowl. But the $35 million land purchase has been criticized. Half of the money for the acquisition came from the state funds for flood protection, and today, it’s managed primarily as a farmland and wetland—not as a flood plain. The island is below sea level, and it isn’t ideally located for tidal marsh restoration. Still, 15 percent of the Sacramento Valley sandhill crane population and thousands of birds use the area as a winter habitat.
The BDCP, at least, has a cohesive plan for restoration. It may include 80,000 acres of tidal marsh habitat and up to 45,000 acres of agricultural and grasslands habitat. But that makes Delta farmers nervous, as does changing the position of the water intake system and increasing exports, which was originally part of the plan.
And that’s where the project starts to hit serious trouble.
The BDCP sets off a series of agency interactions between the Department of Water Resources (DWR), the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), the California Department State Fish and Game (DFG), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Delta Stewardship Council (DSC). Each agency is tasked with a particular aspect of protecting and managing the state’s natural resources. And there is a lot to protect:—California is one of the most bio-diverse places in the world.
Among these water agencies, there is a confusing array of regulations and interactions. But there are clear guidelines. “It is now state policy that we have co-equal goals of ecosystem restoration and water reliability,” Winternitz said, regarding the Delta Reform Act of 2009. “Any solution has to include environmental consideration. That is a big positive. We just have to communicate better about what this means and how to implement it.”
But what’s being communicated is tough medicine for everyone.
The public trust recommendations for the Delta are the hub of public policy, and the agencies are circling around it. To resuscitate the system, scientific research indicates the need to increase river flows and decrease Delta water consumption by nearly 50 percent, or 13.7 to 14.6 million-acre feet. Those recommendations are supposed to play a primary role in water planning and policy—and to some extent they have.
In July, when Brown made his public announcement, he endorsed a 55-page joint set of agency recommendations for the BDCP. The latest version includes a smaller intake system and no guaranteed export amount; instead, continued scientific studies over the 15-year construction period will determine whether exports are higher or lower than they are today. But notably, the joint recommendations also state: “Only a small percentage of research in the Bay Delta is controversial.”
Right now, what keeps the Delta ecosystem intact are court-ordered flow criteria. The current rulings limit south of Delta exports to an average of 4.9 million acre-feet. If you applied the public trust recommendations exports would drop to 3.7 to 3.9 million acre-feet, about 25 percent. That also means that the rest of the state, including cities, irrigation districts and farms, would have to reduce use and put water back into the system.
What would we gain?
Winternitz explains, “The species we are concerned about evolved in the habitats we need to restore. Those ecosystem processes, which provide for water quality and other important benefits, are the same ones that we humans need. And that’s why there is this whole effort to get these species turned around. If we can repair their world, we can repair our world. We’ll have better air, better places to swim and play, better places to live. It’s really our own system that we are trying to clean up.”
But can California clean up? The quick and easy answer is yes. With water recycling, conservation, efficient technology and better water management, California can meet the needs of the environment, agriculture and a growing population. There is a mountain of data, coming from nearly every water agency, suggesting that improvements can be made. Conservation is the cheapest and easiest way to create to a new supply. There is more new potential water from these investments than California regularly exports from the Delta, and they come without the damage to fish or farmers.
But the long hard truth is that change is difficult.
Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini knows first-hand just how difficult. In his office in Modesto, just south of the Delta, pictures of George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger hang from the walls. DeMartini is a Republican farmer pushing to preserve prime farmland from sprawling development.
“There is no other place in the world like this; we can grow 200 types of crops here,” he said. “We have good access to water, and right now, there is no permanent protection of agriculture.”
DeMartini owns 1200 acres between Ceres and Patterson and grows a mixture of almonds, walnuts, peaches and grapes on the east side of the Central Valley. Three miles of his land borders the Tuolumne River, a primary tributary to the San Joaquin River, which flows into the Bay-Delta. He has voluntarily remediated about 120 acres and turned it back into wetlands. “Wilderness and agriculture can co-exist; there is no reason we can’t work it out,” he said, “We have 43 species of birds out there, and I want to keep it that way. It’s beautiful.”
Stanislaus County has adopted a land use plan for agriculture, but the cities within the county haven’t come up with their own plans and agreed to control sprawl. “They just want to keep growing out,” DeMartini said. “You can’t keep eroding the farmland and stay self-sufficient. The building association doesn’t want any policy adopted at all. They don’t want any restrictions.”
DeMartini planned a workshop with the Mayor’s Association to create a land use policy for each of the nine cities. “Everyone had a scheduling problem, and I never did hear from them again,” he said. “It’s been more than a year now.” It’s surprising, since sprawl has never worked for the region. Stanislaus County has double-digit unemployment and high foreclosures—all remnants of the housing crisis.
Still, the area is on the forefront of innovation. The Oakdale Irrigation District is improving its water delivery system, and the Patterson Irrigation District is building a cross-valley channel, which could transport water east to west without going through the Delta. More recently, Modesto farmer Bill Lyons sold 1,603 acres along the Tuolumne River, to be used for wildlife and wetland restoration.
In general, what DeMartini is advocating has little to do with the peripheral canal or the tunnels. But his plans aren’t far from what’s likely to become state law. His proposals mirror the legally-mandated policies set forth by the state’s overarching water plan. California’s 88-year Delta Plan focuses on wetland preservation, habitat restoration, farmland protection and reduced reliance on Delta water. The agency putting the plan together, the Delta Stewardship Council (DSC), has an appellate role regarding the canal and conveyance system. If the BDCP is approved, it will automatically be folded into the Delta Plan without review, unless someone makes an appeal.
Regarding the peripheral canal, DeMartini remains skeptical. “I don’t think the plan is going to make it past environmental review,” he added. “I don’t know how they will pay for it either. It seems like it’s come out of nowhere.”
The question remains: Where will it go?
Note: This South of Delta Exports chart was updated on August 30, 2012 for clarity. The tunnel intake capacity is 6.5 million acre-feet. The total physical capacity to export water is 11 million acre-feet. A detailed explanation will follow in a forthcoming article.
STOCKTON, CA (July 20, 2012) — San Joaquin County Health Officer, Dr. Karen Furst, confirmed that a 48-year old male living in Stockton is the first human with West Nile Virus (WNV) infection in San Joaquin County this year. Continue reading
WASHINGTON, D.C – More than 150,000 additional Americans could die by the end of this century due to excessive heat caused by climate change, according to a detailed analysis of peer-reviewed scientific data by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The “Killer Summer Heat” report, projects heat-related death toll through the end of the 21st century in the most populated U.S. cities.
The projected deaths are based on the widely-used assumption that carbon pollution will steadily increase in the absence of effective new policies, more than doubling the levels seen today by the end of the century.
“This is a wake-up call. Climate change has a number of real life-and-death consequences. One of which is that as carbon pollution continues to grow, climate change is only going to increase the number of dangerously hot days each summer, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of lives lost,” said Dan Lashof, director of NRDC’s climate and clean air program.
Temperatures in San Joaquin County rose above 100 degrees last week. County public health officials urge residents to take precautions for hot weather.
“Groups especially at risk for heat stress are the elderly, adults with disabilities, chronically ill, children under 4 years old and anyone who works or exercises vigorously outdoors,” said San Joaquin County Health Officer, Dr. Karen Furst.
The kinds of consequences of climate change highlighted in NRDC’s report are already evident:
SACRAMENTO—Northern California legislators pushed for a delay in the $23 billion water conveyance project through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta until more details are available on the state’s revised Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP). Continue reading
California has hundreds of irrigation districts and more than 1400 dams, which divide, divert and route water all over the state, but one district in particular is garnering national attention.
The Merced Irrigation District (MID) is in a relatively small town of 80,000 people, but it manages the famous Merced River, which runs through Yosemite Valley and is formed from its world-renowned waterfalls. The river has long been protected by federal Wild and Scenic status, which means it can’t be encroached on by a dam, as Yosemite’s Tuolumne River was long ago. But that status is now threatened due to bill H.R. 2578, a measure that among other things would amend the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to make way for a spillway project. The project would flood 1700 linear feet of the wild river, a small section, but in doing so could rollback protections on all Wild and Scenic Rivers.
This could set a dangerous precedent. First, it might be 1700 feet, then it might be 17 miles, and then Yosemite’s El Capitan and Half Dome might be accessible only by power boat. And there is the vulnerability of the rest of America’s rivers to consider.
And the project doesn’t make sense.
MID’s New Exchequer Dam has a capacity of a million acre-feet, which is more than the annual average flow of the Merced River. The project would add 70,000 acre-feet of storage, but in critical dry years, it would yield only 15,000 acre-feet. By California standards, that’s not enough water for one-thousandth of one percent of the state’s population. And it’s expensive. The stated capital cost is $40 million, not including operation and maintenance costs, or debt servicing, which can double the price.
So why make such a costly proposal?
The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, has publicly stated in a McClatchy News Service story, “It’s a small step. We need thousands of jobs in the Central Valley, and we need many more projects like this.”
The claim is that more water storage will bring jobs, help farmers and provide a reliable supply. But California’s 1400 dams have rarely fulfilled that promise. Instead, in the last 20 years, Merced County’s unemployment was, at its best, 10 percent, and, at its worst, 20 percent. Today, the rate hovers around 17 percent, and it’s not for lack of water. In the drought years of 2007, 2008 and 2009, California agriculture generated the highest revenues on record, and agricultural work increased by 2 percent, while construction work decreased by 44 percent and trade work by 46 percent. Drops in employment were related to the recession and the housing crisis, not the drought.
There is little correlation between increased water supplies and a better living for most Central Valley residents, as poverty rates remain high in both wet and dry years.
So again, why is MID advocating another dam project? The simplest answer is to manage more water to serve its customers. “My goal is to store water in a wet year and use it in a dry year,” said MID General Manager John Sweigard. One of his primary concerns is replenishing the underground aquifer, which is being depleted.
That’s a valid concern, but it overlooks the major problems caused by surface water storage. It’s well documented that dams are destructive to the natural environment. The Central Valley once had natural wetlands, rivers and seasonal lakes. The Merced River was part of an ecosystem that connected the Sierra Nevada to the sea and brought life to the valley, in all forms, for all species. In the last century, 95 percent of Central Valley wetlands have been lost. Once plentiful salmon are heading towards extinction, and the area is now home to 91 threatened and endangered species. And dams and diversions are a major contributor to the deterioration of California’s Bay-Delta ecosystem, where more than 750 species live. Thirty-three delta species are endangered, and likely to go extinct within the next 25 to 50 years, if not sooner. Scientists have clearly established the need to increase in-stream flows to resuscitate the system.
And how is California going to do that? It will have to reduce use, and the cheapest, most cost effective way to do that is via conservation, improved efficiency and better water management.
An enormous amount of water is lost in its delivery. Many water districts lose about 40 percent of their water just sending it down leaking canals or decaying irrigation ditches.
According to MID’s annual report, in 2010, MID delivered 277,789 acre feet of irrigation water to approximately 1,900 fields farmed by 1,400 customers. An operational loss of 40 percent is about 100,000 acre-feet—which is significantly more water than can be provided by new surface water storage.
That said, much of that water goes into replenishing the aquifer, which is used by farmers in dry and wet years. But the aquifer continues to get depleted despite MID’s recharge efforts, which sets up a never ending cycle of overuse, followed by increased surface water demand.
Meanwhile, MID is not compensated financially for replenishing its aquifer, which forces it to sell water out of district to compensate for losses. This March, MID voted to transfer 15,000 acre-feet of water to the San Luis Water District (SLWD) at $176 per acre-foot. Notably, that’s the average amount of water that will become available from the dam spillway project in critical dry years. The in-district cost of water is $18.25 per acre-foot.
Water management problems can be solved, but not with the build-now, plan-later approach. Charging for ground water use would be a start. And there are many more ways to become efficient, as demonstrated by existing technologies already in use. But instead, the issue has escalated to the political realm and is tied to a bill passed by the House, where fair dialogue and subtle detail gets drowned out by loud rhetoric. The devil isn’t in the details. It’s in ideology of winners and losers, and we’re all going to lose if we continue down that route.
MID is asking Congress and the people of the United States to rollback protections on all Wild and Scenic Rivers, by allowing a spillway project to encroach on the Merced River for a relatively small amount of water. This direction has never led to enough supply, only more consumption and demand.
Since the creation of the act in 1968, no protections have been removed from any of these rivers, and less than one-quarter of one percent of America’s rivers are protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, while more than 75,000 large dams have encroached on 600,000 miles of American rivers.
“The designation is a promise to the American people. We will protect this river from new dams and diversions, not just today, but for generations to come,” said Katherine Evatt, a 23-year-river-activist working to protect the Mokelumne River, north of Yosemite. “The most recent Mokelumne dam proposal was the sixth in the last 30 years,” she said. “We have to constantly fight them off, when we’d rather concentrate on restoring the river and getting the salmon and steelhead back. We need a way to secure permanent protection, and the wild and scenic designation is the only way.”
There are many ways to solve our water management problems, but encroaching on America’s last wild rivers isn’t one of them.
Escalon, CA – May 25, 2012 lavender Season began for lavender Hallow Farms in Escalon, CA.
Selenium is Still Leaking into the San Joaquin River
Chris Eacock stands with his hands on his hips and looks out over the Central Valley’s sunny expanse of farms and wetlands and tries to explain the situation. As a natural resource specialist for the Bureau of Reclamation for the past 30 years, he began his career doing soil surveys and handling grazing leases on Bureau-owned land. Today, he manages the tougher side of that equation, the tainted drainage water now coming from farms. Salt and selenium from irrigated land on the west side of the valley have poisoned wetlands, damaged ground water and rendered farms unproductive. Eventually, the waste reaches the San Joaquin River and flows into the Bay-Delta, endangering wildlife and the state’s water supply.
Eacock insists that the situation has improved. “There is less pollution, people are still in business, and we’re all still talking to each other out here,” he said.
But more than a few are critical. “The discharges have gone down significantly, and they get a lot of credit for that,” said Tom Stokely, water policy analyst with the California Water Impact Network. “But there is still contamination happening in the wildlife refuges, and there is virtually an unlimited supply of selenium in those soils.”
In high concentrations, selenium is toxic to fish, livestock, humans and birds.
On the west side of the San Joaquin River, an area of large farms and agribusinesses stretch from Bakersfield to Patterson. The land, about 1.2 million acres, was once an alkaline desert, a sagebrush basin filled with coyotes, foxes, fish and watering holes. The city of Los Banos, in its center, was called the baths in reference to the artesian pools that once existed near the area. But in the 1960s, state and federal projects brought water to the desert via the construction of large reservoirs, water pumping facilities and canals. The Central Valley now has a complex network of interconnected channels and irrigation districts that move water all over the state.
The west side’s warm climate is great for year-round growing, but the land is also naturally rich in salt and selenium, and irrigating it creates a waste water problem and land-use issue, as salt and selenium progressively build up in the soil.
To address this, the Bureau began constructing the San Luis Drain in 1968; it was supposed to ship agricultural waste water to the Delta and the ocean. Instead, the drain was partially constructed and ended at Kesterson Reservoir, north of Los Banos and within a national wildlife refuge. The continuous flow of selenium tainted water poisoned bird, livestock and aquatic life, and in 1984, bird deformities were discovered there.
Kesterson was filled and the drain was closed, but since then, farming has continued on the west side, and selenium has continued to flow into the Grasslands Ecological Area, a 370,000-acre parcel that is the also largest freshwater wetland ecosystem in California. Most of the contamination now comes from the Grassland Drainage Area (GDA)—97,000 acres of irrigated farms within Charleston Drainage District, Pacheco Water District, Panoche Drainage District, part of the Central California Irrigation District (CCID), and Firebaugh Canal Water District.
After Kesterson closed, the drainage flowed into Salt Slough and Mud Slough, and then it flowed into the San Joaquin River. (Sloughs are swampy waterways.)
Today, the drainage water mostly flows into Mud Slough, but discharges are still regularly 5 to10 times higher than recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Eacock says this is still an improvement, “We’ve done better than expected,” he said. “The EPA and the Regional Board established the metrics, and the grasslands area farmers are meeting those limits.” The EPA has removed several water bodies from its impaired waters list, including Salt Slough in 2008 and three segments of the San Joaquin River, and declared the program a success. But the waste is still flowing into Mud Slough via the Grassland Bypass Project (GBP), which is a comprehensive plan to address the problem.
According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Report and the analysis of Dr. Dennis Lemly, a USDA biologist, specializing in contaminants and aquatic ecosystems, the current selenium concentrations in the San Joaquin River put juvenile salmon and steelhead at risk. Lemly writes, “USBR wants it both ways, to identify a problem and then say there is no problem. The correct conclusion is that available data and a reasonable interpretation of it clearly show that significant risks of substantial selenium toxicity exist, which will not be eliminated or substantially lessened by the GBP.”
He continues, “The success of salmon reintroduction depends on good water quality, and the selenium is going to create a significant hazard for those fish. It has to be below 2 parts per billion, anything above that endangers fish. In this case, because of bioaccumulation, the solution to pollution is not dilution. We have known this for decades. This is no secret. They have to stop the selenium at the source.”
That is the plan—eventually. By 2019, discharges to Mud Slough and the San Joaquin River are supposed to be eliminated altogether, with fees charged per pound of selenium over the limit beginning in 2015. That limit, however, is still 5 parts per billion, more than double the recommended amount.
Westside Farming Salting Up – Is There a Cost-effective Solution?
On a larger scale, the Bureau is under court order to provide drainage to the entire San Luis Unit, which includes part of the Grasslands area and Westlands Water District, which is the largest water district in the nation. The current plan includes land retirement, drainage reuse facilities, treatment systems and evaporation ponds.
But it has significant problems. First, it’s pricey.
The official Bureau estimate of the capital cost is $2.6 billion. However, the total taxpayer cost could be more than $7 billion. The annualized cost is estimated at $141 million for 50 years.
“Their own report shows that the project fails most of their standard benefit-cost tests by a wide margin,” said Dr. Jeffrey Michael, Director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific. “It is absurdly expensive, but it really isn’t optional as the courts have ruled that the government is obligated to provide drainage according to the 1960 Act.”
Notably, the money hasn’t been appropriated by Congress; new legislation is required for that. Instead, only $364 million (or 5 to 14 percent of the total) remain from the original authorization.
Second, the plan doesn’t entirely fix the environmental problems caused by selenium and salt. The minerals will have to go somewhere. But where? Some suggest that more land retirement is a better alternative than trying to manage the waste. Lawsuits have ensued; the farming community is demanding drainage service, and the environmental community is calling for discharges to stop. In addition, according to a National Academy of Sciences report on Bay-Delta stressors, the latest version of the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan may increase exports to the area and exacerbate conditions.
No clear resolution is in sight.
A few, frustrated after 30 years of political wrangling and litigation, have stepped up and decided to deal with the issue directly, individually. One of them is Westlands Farmer, John Diener. “The question is, how are we going to solve this problem?” Diener said. “The Bureau of Reclamation is in the middle of this political situation, and everyone goes back and forth, and nothing is happening. So let’s get something done here.”
Diener is getting something done on his own land, Red Rock Ranch in Five Points, CA, located southeast of Fresno; he farms about 3,000 acres of fruit and vegetable crops including almonds, grapes, wheat, alfalfa, tomatoes, onions, garlic and spinach. The combination of continuous irrigation and poor drainage has resulted in concentrated levels of salinity and selenium in the soils. Trapped irrigation water forms a shallow, or perched, water table. With nowhere to go, the salty water rises closer to the surface towards the root zone and affects the fertility of the soil. In Westlands Water District, more than 200,000 acres have saline groundwater within 10 feet of the soil surface. More than 100,000 acres have already been retired.
Diener manages a 640-acre parcel on his ranch that has no discharge at all. He uses a subsurface drain tile system that leaches salt out of the soil and water table, and then returns land to production. The drainage water is then re-cycled several times to irrigate blocks of increasingly salt-tolerant plants (halophytes), such as wheat grass and prickly pear cactus.
“Ultimately, the goal is not exposing the drain water to the community at large, whatever that is – the ducks, people or whatever. It’s a matter of how we treat resources that we have at our disposal and how we manage those things for the best benefit of everybody,” Diener said.
But the situation is anything but easy. “We need to find a way to keep the land productive, but that becomes difficult when you have environmental concerns stemming from soils with naturally high levels of these mineral deposits,” said Dr. Gary Bañuelos, an Agricultural Research Service plant/soil scientist. “We’re hoping to produce crops on unproductive land with minimum water and slowly manage the selenium content out the soil.”
Still, there is no way with typical plants that sufficient quantities of selenium can be removed. All the selenium does is regenerate from a deeper soil depth and slowly migrate towards the surface, Bañuelos added. “Instead, we’re changing the perception that these soils are not useful,” he said.
Prickly pear cactus, a salt-tolerant crop, naturally produces antioxidant rich fruit and adding selenium makes it even healthier. (Selenium is essential to good health in small amounts.) But even with mineral absorption from cacti and other salt-loving plants, eventually, it all gets super concentrated, and Diener ends up with a big pile of salt on his ranch, which is the case for many farms on the west side. Water supplied by the federal and state projects brings the equivalent of 40 railroad cars of salt into the area every day, about 4,000 tons of salt daily.
Diener hopes to sell the excess salt to glass producers, since sodium ash is used in the glass manufacturing process. “The glass factory in Madera needs 20 tons a day, and we can generate that in a minute,” Diener said. “The idea is make the waste into marketable products.”
The next article in this series looks at the big picture – how California’s water plans and projects fit together or don’t.
STOCKTON, CA- San Joaquin County provided a safe method of disposal for accumulated unwanted, expired prescription drugs on Saturday, April 28, 2012 with the Department of Public Safety at the University of the Pacific as part of a National Take-Back Initiative.
“Pharmaceuticals have become a source for recreational drug users, especially young people. Expired medications lose potency, which may pose a serious risk for the user. If a doctor changes a prescription, the old ones [pharmaceuticals] can be accidently taken.” says Elisa Moberly, Management Analyst at the San Joaquin County Public Works Department.
The other four locations—the Police Department of Lodi, Manteca, Ripon and the Tracy City Hall—for disposal throughout San Joaquin County were also available to the public.
Many people toss expired or unused medications in the trash or flush them down the toilet which can potentially compromise the water systems.
“The water treatment facilities cannot remove the drugs from the water. Tests of water systems around the world, and particularly in the US, show the presence of various drugs. Not only does this affect our drinking water, but it also has adversely affected wildlife that lives in and around these water systems,” said Moberly.
Last year, San Joaquin County collected 325 lbs of unwanted pharmaceuticals at an event where fewer cities participated. In October 2011 the Tracy Police Department and University of Pacific also hosted events, and collected 1100 lbs total.
The Drug and Enforcement Administration plans on holding “National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day” events twice per year until federal legislation is passed to provide permanent collection sites, explained Moberly.
“The amount of prescription drugs turned in by the American public during the past three Take-Back Day events speaks volumes about the need to develop a convenient way to rid homes of unwanted or expired prescription drugs,” said DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart in a press release. “DEA remains hard at work to establish just such a drug disposal process.”
More information is available at (209) 468-3066 or www.sjcrecycle.org.
STOCKTON, CA – Stockton joined world-wide event to protect the environment and the earth as thousands of families gathered at the annual Earth Day Festival held on Sunday, April 22nd at Victory Park. Continue reading
EDITORS NOTE: Earlier this year, Investigative Reporter Deanna Lynn Wulff discovered the Peripheral Canal‘s 12 Billion dollar projection may be closer to 40 billion.
SACRAMENTO – Assemblyman Bill Berryhill announced April 24, 2012 that the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife passed out two common sense water measures, Assembly Bills 2421 and 2422.
AB 2421 requires that an independent third party Cost/Benefit analysis must be completed on any plan that is submitted as part of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP). Many in the Delta have strongly expressed skepticism to the BDCP’s ability to achieve the co-equal goals that were mandated by the Legislature in 2009. Nearly all of the options being studied, including a tunnel that could divert the entire Sacramento River around the Delta, will have a significant financial burden on California. Continue reading
STOCKTON, CA – Prior to 2011 the Downtown Stockton Alliance held a farmers market in downtown Stockton
Stockton, CA– The City of Stockton was home to the 8th annual REXPO, whose theme this year was “Unplugged,” on March 14, 2012 between the hours of 7:00 AM until 2:00 PM at the Hilton Hotel. The event was hosted by Green Team of San Joaquin, a program of the Stockton Chamber of Commerce.