California Water: The Judge’s Questions

The judge’s questions: Last Friday, federal Judge Oliver W. Wanger issued questions to a panel of experts he appointed to consider the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s biological opinion on endangered smelt in the Delta. To really make sense of the list, which focuses on a narrow range of issues concerning the service’s scientific conclusions about smelt migrations and the effect of Delta pumping on the fish, you’ll need to go and wade through the evidence presented in the trial so far (when you get done with all the motions, declarations, statements, and supporting research, you might be looking at tens of thousands of pages). But the list is interesting even without that file trek, because it sheds some light on what subjects Wanger sees as central to the case. (Here’s the order, in PDF form: Judge Wanger’s Questions).

Who are the “706 Experts” he refers to therein? They’re a group of scientists Wanger chose last November after nominations from the water contractor plaintiffs who are challenging the smelt biological opinion and from the federal agencies who are defending it. “706” is a reference to Federal Rule of Evidence 706, which provides for court appointment of expert witnesses. The panel is: Paul Fujitani, an employee of the Bureau of Reclamation, as an expert on Central Valley Project operations (the bureau is a defendant in the case); Thomas P. Quinn, a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington; Andre Punt, another UW professor, an expert in fish population dynamics and statistics; and, “if necessary,” John Lehigh, an employee of the state Department of Water Resources, as an expert on State Water Project operations.

California Water News Flash: The Pumps Are On

Allowing that one person’s misconception is another’s gospel truth, I still have the impulse to correct others when I hear them say something that I know or believe to be, well, wrong. So here’s something from the current battle over California water that always makes me want to say, “Hey, wait a minute.”

San Joaquin Valley water interests and their allies, including members of Congress, want more water than they’ve gotten the last few years. Their biggest problem is that nature has not cooperated. The previous three winters were drier than normal, and the amount of rain and snow that fell on the state’s watersheds were far below normal. That circumstance happened to coincide with Endangered Species Act litigation that has led, for the time being at least, to limits on the amount of water the state and federal water projects are allowed to pump from the Delta to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Those limits, set by federal wildlife agencies and designed to protect the Delta smelt and runs of chinook salmon, have led the aforementioned water interests to scream that the Delta pumps have been shut down, that farmers are being wiped out and valley communities sacrificed for a few lousy fish.

Now, whatever you happen to think of the last part of that formulation–that those who are trying to figure out how to save the fish want to see the San Joaquin Valley “dry up and blow away” (as Rep. Jim Costa, a valley Democrat, put it)–you shouldn’t have to think much about the first part, that the pumps have been shut down. That’s because it’s not true. The pumps are running, day in and day out. The major destination for a lot of that water is the San Luis Reservoir, a key storehouse for valley water, and it’s filling up.

But despite all the readily available data on Delta water shipments, the untruth that the pumps have been switched off is too good a propaganda point for some people to pass up. Rep. Devin Nunes, who represents much of Fresno and Tulare counties in Congress, says about water resources policy: “Its [sic] Simple: Turn on the Pumps.” Since last session, he’s been pushing a bill called the “Turn on the Pumps Act.” (The bill is, in fact, very simple: “In connection with the operations of the Central Valley Project, neither the Bureau of Reclamation nor any agency of the State of California operating a water project in coordination of the Central Valley Project shall restrict operation of their projects pursuant to any biological opinion issued under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, if such restrictions would result in levels of export less than the historical maximum levels of export” (italics mine).

Got that? No limits on pumping to protect endangered species, period, unless the limit results in as much or more water being pumped out of the Delta than the projects have ever pumped.

Rep. Tom McClintock, a Southern California Republican who relocated to and won the northeastern California congressional seat in 2008, is also a source of unrelenting “turn on the pumps” rhetoric. Earlier this month, he issued a broadside against Democrats in the House Water and Power Subcommittee for blocking consideration of Rep. Nunes’s excellent bill. “For the sake of humanity, Madam Chairwoman and my Democratic colleagues, turn on these pumps.” You have to admire the way these folks keep their rhetoric on a short leash.

If I were in Congress myself, I’d rise to tell my good friends and respected colleagues, “I have good news. The pumps are on! Even as I speak, rain is sweeping over your districts and on your thirsty constituents, helping fill the reservoirs not just with water, but with hope. And in that spirit of optimism, here’s a nonpartisan, nonsectarian suggestion: Pray for more rain. I am. That way, the reservoirs will keep rising, agriculture will get its water, and maybe there will be some left over for smelt and salmon and the thousands of people who depend on them. And maybe we won’t have to hear you shriek ‘Turn on the pumps!’ again.”

Journal of Self-Promotion: Water and Fish, on the Rocks

My recent forays into the world of California water and fish, along with a couple recent stories I did, resulted in an invitation to be a panel member on KQED’s Forum program (a daily news discussion show we do). I was on an hour-long segment entitled Salmon vs. Jobs (if I had been editing that, I’d have added a question mark) that centered on Senator Feinstein’s announcement that she wants to amend a federal jobs bill to guarantee minimum water levels to a section of the San Joaquin Valley. That water must be delivered, she says, notwithstanding a drought and the threat to endangered fish and despite the fact a scientific review of actions taken to protect the fish–a review she instigated last fall–is still in progress. After being asked on the show Thursday evening, I stayed up late doing some homework on the issue, then followed that up with a nervous (i.e., lousy) night’s sleep. But the show went OK once I remembered that I had to breathe to talk. The audio is here:

And once I got through with that … I ran back to the newsroom and finished the prep work for a feature story I did on a short-track speedskating club in Oakland (I had done the reporting a couple weeks ago, didn’t managed to get the piece written in time for air before the Olympics, and finally got it done this week, and it was broadcast yesterday). The audio for that one is here:

What is the connection between those two stories. My good pal Coach Bobby Knight says the common thread is water, liquid, then frozen.

California Water: Face of the Drought

It’s California Water Saturday in these parts. Let’s see if I can keep it simple:

Continued wet weather means most of the state’s reservoirs are filling up. But if your definition of drought means all reservoirs brim-full, no, we’re not out of the woods yet. (My KQED Radio News colleague Amy Standen just finished a story that will air Monday: “Is the Drought Over?” (I have a starring role in her accompanying blog post.) Another take on our drought status comes from the U.S. Drought Monitor. Over the last couple of weeks, this report has shown a dramatic contraction of the area of the state affected by drought.

The face of the drought: At the end of January, the state Department of Water Resources issued its latest drought update (18-page PDF). The most interesting aspect of the document is the way it adopts the Westlands Water District as a proxy for the drought’s impact on agriculture throughout the state. It’s not a subtle touch, either: the front and back covers of the drought report contain dramatic photographs, courtesy of Westlands, of dead orchards. We’re to understand from the context that drought has killed these productive groves. Inside the report, there’s a writeup on Westlands, complete with a table on page 12 showing the reduction in planted acreage since 2006–a little misleading to use as an index year since it was a decidedly wet year when no one had to worry about water supplies. The table does show that virtually all field, seed, and truck crops have experienced dramatic reductions since ’06 (exception: wheat, for which acreage grew by 53.4 percent, and garbanzo beans, which had a 42.5 percent increase in acreage). At the same time, though, the Westlands table shows that the acreage in tree and vine crops–remember the dead orchards?–has increased by 20 percent since the drought began. Most of that jump has been in almonds, which grew from 55,000 acres in 2006 to 70,000 acres in 2008 before falling back to 67,000 acres last year.

Now, there is no question at all that the district, which includes about 1,000 square miles along the western fringe of the mid-San Joaquin Valley, has been hit hard by the shortage of water. It’s dry country and because the district was formed relatively recently (in the 1950s), it’s near the bottom of the totem pole for getting a share of the water pumped into the valley from up north. Yes, land has been fallowed and fieldworkers have lost jobs–pretty much the same way that’s happened during every dry cycle. The question is whether Westlands really represents the face of the drought across the state. Reading about the plight of the district, one would hardly guess that the state’s harvest of processing tomatoes–by acreage the biggest vegetable crop in California–hit an all-time high in 2009 (data by way of the U.S.D.A.’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, in its latest “California Vegetable Review“).

Of course, the processing-tomato harvest doesn’t tell you much, either–by itself. And neither does Westlands, if your interest is understanding the wide impact of California’s water challenges. Of course, if your interest is putting the grimmest possible face on the drought to scare up support for a new round of dam- and canal-building–which is exactly what many environmentalists say the Department of Water Resources is doing–then Westlands will do just fine as a poster child.

Delta pumps–turn up the volume: The biggest water news of the week came out of the Fresno courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Oliver W. Wanger (W. is for Winston, not Wendell; and those who know say his last name rhymes with “ranger”) in a case featuring Central Valley chinook salmon, federal fishery and water managers, and (again) the Westlands Water District. On Friday, Wanger issued a temporary restraining order that blocks a federal plan to protect endangered chinook salmon that migrate back and forth through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The plan limits, but does not halt, exports from the Delta to avoid sucking fish into the pumps that send water south. Westlands and other water districts argued that pumping limits are letting hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water escape into the ocean instead of being shipped to San Luis Reservoir, the main storehouse for San Joaquin Valley irrigation supplies. Letting the water flow out to sea would amount to irreparable harm to communities depending on it for growing crops and providing jobs.

Wanger agreed, issuing a 23-page decision that sets aside the federal protection plan for two weeks, pending a permanent ruling. He found a) that recent pumping in the Delta hasn’t killed enough endangered winter-run chinook to threaten the species’ survival; b) that our wet weather has caused flows that ought to be captured now; and c) that the federal defendants have brought this ruling on themselves by failing to assess the impact of their salmon plan on people. A portion of the ruling that’s gone generally unnoticed, as far as I can tell, acknowledges that it’s unknown what effect increased pumping will have on migrating juvenile winter-run salmon. That being the case, “the temporary restraining order … shall initially be for a period of fourteen days, subject to renewal by plaintiffs upon an affirmative showing that neither the species’ nor their critical habitat will be jeopardized by continued injunction” of the pumping limits (emphasis mine). In other words, Westlands and company will need to prove that the increased flow of water they’re getting hasn’t caused a big jump in the number of salmon killed off at the pumps. (You can follow the dead salmon count at home, if you’re inclined: the federal Central Valley Project, which runs one set of the pumps in question, publishes a daily report, Chinook Salmon Loss Data.)

The key piece of Wanger’s decision, though, is not really about the amount of water being pumped out of the Delta. It’s about the winning legal strategy (in this court, anyway) used by Westlands and its allies in arguing that the agencies trying to enforce the Endangered Species Act must weigh their actions’ impact on human communities. The judge seems to be saying, “Yes, you can protect plants and animals that we humans have driven to the edge of extinction–but only if protecting them doesn’t harm us humans.” Wanger made a similar ruling last year in a case involving endangered species protection for the delta smelt. Legal Planet, an environmental law blog from UC-Berkeley and UCLA, called his findings “curious” and said, “Judge Wanger is asking the agency to balance on an absolute knife edge, ensuring that it doesn’t deny farmers a single drop of water that the fish don’t critically require.”

Journal of Self-Promotion: Salmon Edition

The big project for the last three weeks has been my first radio feature–on Northern California’s coho salmon populations nearing extinction. The story involved lots of driving–too much for someone doing a story that in many ways is about the larger state of our environment. And it involved lots of anxiety over whether I could sort through all the “tape” (I actually used a flash recorder) and manage to tell a coherent story that reflects the complexity of the subject. Overall, I’m happy with the way it came out. The audio to the story is embedded below, and here are a couple other story links for good measure:

KQED’s Quest: Saving California’s Coho Salmon:
Quest blog: Rewriting the coho’s story


QUEST on KQED Public Media.

California Weather Art

The top image is the current National Weather Service radar mosaic for California (yellow and orange splashes represent areas of heavier rain). The image below that is the quantitative precipitation forecast from the California Nevada River Forecast Center.

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A Fan’s Notes on Water Supply

When you first move to California from someplace where rain is just a normal part of life all year round, some of the information that shows up on the newspaper weather page seems a little odd. I'm thinking especially of the rainfall totals, calculated between July 1 and June 30, and of the reservoir and snow-depth reports. Yeah, it's vaguely comforting to know some big lake somewhere is nearly full of water, and it's troubling when it's not. The snow report makes sense when you, the auslander, learn that a lot of the water that will wind up in the reservoirs starts out as vast quantities of white stuff in the higher reaches of the Sierra Nevada. The snow and water tables in the paper generally include references  to the total for a year ago and to what's "normal" for the date. If you spend any time at all on the weather page, you develop a sort of rooting interest. Wet years with more than 100 percent of the expected rain and snow can make you feel like the home team is playoff bound. Dry years resemble those lost seasons when all the supposed stars flop and nothing quite goes right.

If the precipitation and snowfall reports are the daily standings of the water year, then meteorologists  serve as both play-by-play announcers and analysts. If you're a serious fan and want to go beyond the entertainment offered by most TV weather presenters or the few vague words that make up most newspaper and online forecasts, then you have to go to the meteorological analyses published online by government weather services. Even in that world, there are circles within circles: for the interested generalist, there's the Area Forecast Discussion posted several times daily by most National Weather Service offices (for example, here's the AFD from the Monterey, California office). Informing those discussions are weather models–vastly complex, supercomputed pictures of the weather many days into the future; the true weather fanatic learns at least the rudiments of the models, their individual peculiarities, and what they might mean in terms of observable local weather.

Me, I haven't pushed the geek level much. I'm pondering the meaning of terms like "500mb heights" and  "pressure surfaces" but don't employ them in polite company or even bar-room conversation. However, my interest is real. We're nearing a key date in our water year–the California Department of Water Resources will take its first formal snow measurements of the season in a couple of days. Fans will be watching closely because frankly our 2009-2010 water year hasn't gotten off to a great start; while most reservoirs are a little fuller than they were a year ago, most are also well under average levels.

Now, while I'm waiting for the pre-measurement festivities to begin, I'm consulting the oracles of the sport. Among my newer winter weather reading is the California-Nevada River Forecast Center's daily "Hydrometeorological Discussion." Issued at 9:30 a.m. every morning, it summarizes rainfall and snowfall for the last 24 hours, then reviews what the weather models are saying about incoming storms for the next three days. Whereas the Area Forecast Discussion focuses on conditions in the geographic districts they cover, the CNRFC discussion looks at conditions in watersheds and river drainages. If you live in California and you're preoccupied with  water supply, the rain falling in the mountains above Lakes Shasta and Oroville, the state's two biggest reservoirs, probably means a lot more than whatever happens to fall on your neighborhood–where there's no place to store all the water that's coming down.