California Road Trip: Yolano Wandering


As earlier recounted, Kate and I went up the Delta on Friday, the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend, in search of ferries. After riding back and forth on the Real McCoy II (just outside Rio Vista) and the J-Mack (at a non-place called Howard’s Landing, across Steamboat Slough between Ryer and Grand islands), we started thinking about getting something to eat. We both had the same thought: a hamburger. One place to procure a decent one–OK, everyone’s got their own idea of decent–In N Out Burger in Davis.

So we set out north from Rio Vista, ignored signs that we were trespassing as we crossed onto Hastings Island, then hit state Highway 113 somewhere south of Dixon. My knowledge of the farms roads in that part of the world, earned from cycling on some of them day and night, told me we ought to head east off 113, in the general direction of Davis, which still lay to the north. I turned on Midway Road and at every crossroads looked for names that looked familiar. Pedrick Road–I knew that would take us up to Interstate 80 a few miles southwest of downtown Davis; I kept heading east on Midway. At one corner, I saw a sign for Yolano–my favorite kind of name, a hybrid of two places (Yolo and Solano counties, in this case) and probably right on their border. I headed east thinking there might be a town out there I had never seen. We got to Midway and Yolano roads–farms in every direction (looking at the map now, the hamlet is south and west of this intersection).

Eventually I started to get the feeling I’d driven too far east. Way off in the lowering sunlight to the northeast, I could see some tall buildings that had to be downtown Sacramento. I kept east but decided to turn north at the next opportunity, no matter what road I came across. It was Levee Road, and it was gravel.

I turned, and just north of the intersection with Midway, on the lefthand side of the road, the west side, just at the edge of the right of way, there was a big stand of eucalyptus, maybe a shelter belt for a nearby farm. And there were dozens of turkey vultures in the trees, getting ready to roost for the night. We stopped to take a look. The birds stirred. Then Kate pointed up to a tree that had a pair of big white egrets, right in among the vultures. I grabbed my camera and opened the door to climb out and take pictures. And doing only that much prompted a mass takeoff of the vultures–50, maybe 100 of them, along with the egrets and maybe a stray hawk or two. Some turkeys that were roosting nearby started to gobble. It was a full on big-bird party.

Here’s a snippet of the sound, and after that, a couple more pictures:

Picture above: Vultures (and maybe others) above eucalyptus grove in Yolo County, south of Davis. Below left: turkey vulture at same location. Below right: turkey vulture at same location and airliner far above (I’m having trouble identifying the plane, though: It looks like a four-engine jet, and the colors look like a United scheme; as it turns out, there was a United 747 to Frankfurt passing over the area right about this time, so maybe that’s it.)

vultures052413b.jpg vultures052413a.jpg

Friday Ferries: Delta Edition


I’ve known for a while about ferries in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, barge-like little boats that run across the side channels to the main rivers and at a couple of points actually provide continuations for state highways (84, a rather long one, and 220, a very short one). But the Delta isn’t really next door. The closest gateway is Antioch, in eastern Contra Costa County, about 50 miles northeast of Berkeley. So the ferries up there were just little dotted lines on the map.

We both had the day off today, got up late, did a couple chores, and early in the afternoon headed up to the Delta by way of Antioch and Highway 160. We caught the Real McCoy II ferry, which crosses something called Cache Slough (apparently the outflow of Cache Creek, which flows out of Clear Lake, about 80 air miles and a lot more stream miles to the northwest) onto the west bank of Ryer Island. We drove around to the east bank of Ryer Island and took the J-Mack ferry across Steamboat Slough (so called, I’ve heard, because it was the favored route of early river boats that ran from the Bay Area up to Sacramento) to Grand Island. (That’s the picture above, looking east toward Grand Island.)

And then we noodled around a little, stopping in Walnut Grove, a little town on the Sacramento River, and puzzling over the map trying to see a way of getting north from where we were to Davis while avoiding the capital city and suburbs. The only way was to head back down across the ferries to Rio Vista, then double back north to the west of Cache Slough and the Yolo Bypass. We managed that and eventually came to a bridge shown on the map between Liberty Island and Hastings Island. There was a sign declaring the bridge was a private road. I walked across it and saw a couple big signs declaring the road and land beyond to be private. Back at the car, I decided to see if anyone who had come out this far–we were on a gravel road atop a levee, surrounded by fields full of hay, wheat and corn–had posted anything about whether the road ahead was really private. I came across a posting from a hunting club that told visitors to ignore the “no trespassing” signs and just head across the bridge. So, that’s what we did, and drove onto Hastings Island.

After crossing to the west side of the island, we were back up on a narrow levee road with a view of Mount Diablo maybe 30 or 40 miles to the south. We approached a farm, and right there on the side of the road, a horse looked like it was leaning against the side of a red barn. The sun was low and even though I just glanced over, the light and shadow were dramatic. I kept going, but decided to turn around to take another look. And that’s what you see below. I’ll add that the horse looked spent. Old, tired. Skin and bones. Someone’s good friend, I hope. Waiting on sundown.


Filling in the Map

Sunday was spent noodling with HTML in the morning, then in the afternoon getting in the Tiny Car (the Chicago-bred Toyota Echo) and driving from Berkeley out to Antioch, up the Sacramento River to the Delta Cross Channel, then east to where our local utility district stores our water as it flows out of the Sierra Nevada. The destination was chosen because the East Bay Municipal Utility District runs a fish hatchery on the Mokelumne River, and I wanted to see that. The route was dictated because the Delta Cross Channel is the route by which much of the water exported from Northern California down to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California is diverted from the Sacramento. I’ve driven past and ridden my bike by the Cross Channel gates dozens of times, but, not knowing what the heck they were, I never took note of them. Anyway, the drive was part of a long-term project I think of as filling in my map–touring what is largely terra incognita and figuring out how the pieces relate to each other.

It was a beautiful day, anyway, even with no end in mind. I saw water. I saw levees. I met a lonely bridgetender and photographed him and his antique bridge. I encountered a dead skunk and a curious ostrich. And then when I got out to the hatchery, I was hours too late — it had closed at 3 p.m.

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.”