Tuesday, March 1, 2016
Los Angeles Times
Drought hasn’t been all bad—we’ve learned some things too, California water chief says
By Peter H. King
It was the final Wednesday of a warm, dry February, and here as in much of California it seemed that spring had made an early arrival.
The sky was blue, temperatures mild. Almond and fruit trees were ablaze with blossoms. Along the highways, poppies were in full flower, competing for attention with ubiquitous Caltrans message boards that warned: “Severe drought/Limit Outdoor Watering.”
Indeed, however pleasing in the abstract, the early turn of seasons has been not so welcome to those who keep watch on California water — and, in particular, to the Sacramento official who spent the last year cajoling the state’s urban residents to cut back significantly on their water consumption.
“Crazy-making” is how Felicia Marcus, chair of the state water board and the political face of the ongoing drought, characterized a February in which nature suddenly turned off its taps. “Nervous-making.”
This had been relentlessly ballyhooed as the year of El Niño, and the hope for a drought-busting winter tended to obscure caveats from climate specialists that, with long-term weather prognostication, there never is a sure thing.
December and January storms did create enough snow and rain to build the Sierra snowpack to somewhere near normal. Yet Marcus rated the wet year to date a “C-minus.”
“After what felt like a deluge, and what felt like a massive snowfall, we now find ourselves at about average for this time of year,” she said in an interview. “Obviously, the hot and dry February is disheartening for everyone. It feels weird.”
That said, she is not without hope for what March and April might produce. At the mention of the drought-easing “March Miracle” of 1991, she placed her hands together as if in prayer and lifted her eyes toward the heavens, or at least the ceiling — a human emoji to aptly depict where California stands as it contemplates the possibility of a fifth year of drought.
“We will be grateful for every raindrop and every snowflake that we get,” she said. “We’ll be counting them. But we just can’t know, so we have to cross our fingers. And hope.”
She noted that the state is in better shape than a year ago, when the crucial Sierra snowpack went missing altogether.
Still, without a late-breaking miracle, the wet year has not brought enough relief to fill the major reservoirs, replenish the over-tapped aquifers or allow suburbanites to ditch their shower buckets and turn on the sprinklers full bore.
On the bright side, Marcus can look back on the last year and see any number of advances being made in how Californians capture, use and even think about water — lessons forced by drought, but with longer-term applications as the state grows and climate change alters the water landscape.
For example, that half of all urban water consumption is spent on landscaping seems to have sunk in, as has a greater appreciation for the hardiness of lawn grass. In Northern California at least, lawns that went brown in the summer and fall are now green — following the natural cycle of the foothills.
“It is hard to kill grass,” Marcus said. “And while I don’t think in the long run it’s realistic to think people are going to keep their lawns brown forever, I do think folks have learned they don’t need as much water as they have been dumping on them.… So that is a real ‘aha’ for people.”
Also demonstrated through eight months of mandatory cutbacks is that reducing consumption by nearly 25% is doable — a mark Marcus feared would be unattainable when the order went out.
Marcus grows most animated when discussing a movement underway at many local agencies up and down the state — one aimed toward integrating traditional water delivery with enhanced recycling, storm-water capture, underground storage and the like.
Not the stuff of statues and naming rights, perhaps, but collectively these efforts have the potential to create a new day for California water.
“This is a high-value, low-glamour play,” Marcus said, ticking off multiple efforts underway from the Southland to Santa Clara. It is essential work, she said, if climate change as predicted undermines the Sierra snowpack in the not-so-distant future.
“All of the conflicts we have today are going to seem like a picnic if we don’t change how we use water,” she said. “And that means everything. It means conservation. It means recycling. It means storm-water capture. It means desalination in the appropriate circumstances. And it means more storage, above ground and below.”
In the meantime, there is the looming dry season to address.
Is she worried?
“I worry that we are going to be in another year of drought. I am worried about those communities, particularly small rural communities in the Central Valley, that are out of water and need a respite from that.…
“I worry about small farming families that don’t have senior water rights and have to fallow their fields and the citrus growers who don’t have groundwater they can rely on.
“I worry about how those tensions exacerbate nonproductive rhetoric that pits urban versus agriculture, or fish versus farmers, or fish versus people. Or picking on a given crop when what we really need to be doing is embracing an all-of-the-above strategy so we can all get better together, rather than wasting time vilifying a number of very legitimate needs.”
The emergency declaration that allowed mandatory conservation was extended earlier in February, a move that met with some resistance but with each dry day seems a bit more prescient.
The amount of mandated conservation, if any, will not be decided until the end of April, giving nature, and El Niño, a last chance to get busy. If it becomes necessary, Marcus is not worried that Californians, drought fatigue or not, will fail to rise to the moment, again.
“I think folks can do it again if the situation is as dire,” she said. “If it is not as dire, you don’t want to make them do it.”
So for now it is a waiting game.
“Is this rain and snow we have gotten just a punctuation mark in a longer sentence, a longer paragraph, a longer story? Or are we going to get a year or two breather before the next one?”
Only March and April are left to provide an answer.
Marin Independent Journal
Marin assemblyman Levine’s bill uses Australian approach to address drought
By Richard Halstead
Assemblyman Marc Levine has introduced a bill that could put California on the road to developing a water trading market similar to one pioneered by Australia during its “millennium drought.”
“I looked at how Australia dealt with its 14-year drought and saw that water transfers had a good deal to do with them using their water more efficiently,” said Levine, a Democrat who lives in Marin. “I wanted to take the best lessons from how other countries have struggled with drought and apply them to California.”
Under state law, the Department of Water Resources is required to facilitate the voluntary exchange or transfer of water by maintaining a list of entities seeking to enter into water supply transfers, leases, exchanges or similar arrangements, and to keep a list of the facilities available to carry out water supply transfers.
Levine’s bill, AB 2304, would mandate that this information be made available in real-time via a website.
“Water transfers are important,” said Tim Anderson, who manages state legislative programs for the Sonoma County Water Agency and serves on the board of the California Groundwater Coalition. “They are a means to efficiently allocate our limited resources to where we have the greatest need. The bill that is being proposed would help create a more transparent, accessible system, which would allow us to make better decisions about water allocation.”
Creation of the website would be the job of a new California Water Market Exchange that would operate within the state’s existing Natural Resources Agency and be overseen by a five-member board.
The board would be charged with streamlining and expediting review and action on water transfer applications. The bill also directs the board to prioritize projects that provide environmental and community benefits, such as clean drinking water.
“Simply improving the ability to transfer water between users in California through more accessible water markets could unlock over 4 million acre feet of water,” Levine said. “That is the equivalent of a new Lake Shasta.”
David Festa of Mill Valley, senior vice president at Environmental Defense Fund, said Levine’s bill will lay the foundation for a modern water transfer system in California. He said the state already has a set of rules for conducting water transfers.
“The problem,” Festa said, “is over time those rules have become more and more complicated so it has become expensive to participate in a water transfer market.
“Also, there is not a lot of good information about who has water to sell or who wants to buy water,” he said. “It’s very much like the olden days before there was an Internet and you wanted to sell your car.”
Under California law, the first person historically to appropriate a quantity of water from a water source for “beneficial use” holds the right to continue using that quantity of water for that purpose. Under appropriative rights systems, such as California’s, rights holders may forfeit their rights if they use less than their full water allocation.
“Agricultural users have the lion’s share of the usage rights for water that California currently dedicates to human use,” Festa said.
Festa said greater trading would foster more trading between farmers as well as freeing up more water for the environment and urban dwellers.
“When you have more water moving around,” Festa said, “you don’t have to draw on ground pumping or taking more water out of rivers so right there you create an automatic benefit for the environment.”
In addition, he said there may be cases where environmental groups will purchase water to ensure that there is water in a particular stream during a time that is important to fish.
Levine said in Australia, “The government actually purchases at market cost water for the environment. Environmental advocates in Australia supported this move because they were able to know with certainty how much water they were going to have for environmental purposes.”
The Australian government also purchased senior water rights from landowners. Levine said he doesn’t see that happening any time soon in California.
Monterey County Herald
Rain brings worries of toxic runoff into Monterey Bay
By Ramin Skibba
As winter rainstorms are forecast to return to the Central Coast in March, they are fueling concerns about polluted stormwater runoff pouring into the nearshore waters.
State officials will discuss increasing monitoring of irrigation runoff at a California Board of Food and Agriculture meeting in Sacramento on Tuesday, when debates about water quality and farming regulations will also crop up.
“Toxicity is a big deal here on the Central Coast,” said Steve Shimek, founder of the Monterey Coastkeeper Alliance. “After a storm event, you end up with this toxic soup washing out into streams and the ocean.”
Some stormwater is absorbed by the ground through aquifers, but most of it flows downhill, causing erosion along the way. In Monterey Bay, the Salinas River, Pajaro River, Elkhorn Slough and other waterways channel the water, as well as silt and any pollutants, toward the coast.
A variety of pollutants come from both agricultural and urban sources. Agricultural runoff produces far more chemicals than runoff from urban areas in Monterey Bay, said Shimek, while the San Jose area experiences much more urban runoff.
Some pollutants don’t dilute in ocean waters, ending up in mussels that people eat. The pollutants work their way up the food chain, starting with plankton and becoming embedded in the fatty tissues of orcas and sea lions, according to Bridget Hoover, director of the National Marine Sanctuaries’ Water Quality Protection Program.
From farms to homes, “the water is the conduit for everything,” said Hoover. “Everything flowing down to the corner gutter can end up in the ocean.”
“First flush” storms at the beginning of the rainy season are of greatest concern, as they wash off pollutants that have accumulated over a long dry period. These storms have come and gone, but later storms still create spikes in pollution. Toxic chemicals from pesticides can be buried in or adhere to sediment, and they get whisked into the water during a storm.
Fertilizers applied to fields also result in nutrients and nitrates being washed out to sea, some of which can affect people or fisheries in the coastal environment. Oceanographers at UC Santa Cruz are studying whether such nitrates fertilize blooms of algae, such as the algae that produced a toxin that contaminated Dungeness crab this winter. That algal bloom may have been caused by warmer waters offshore, however.
In urban areas, pollutants from cars, yards and construction sites collect on streets and parking lots, only to get washed away during big rains.
“After any storm, surfers and swimmers have to be careful going out near storm drain outflows,” said Michael Thomas, assistant executive officer of the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.
Major rain storms are expected to hit Monterey Bay this weekend, according to National Weather Service forecasters. When El Niño returns, one thing is for certain: It will be accompanied by runoff.
Although polluted water can be treated, many people are trying to reduce pollutants at their source and prevent them from entering the water in the first place. Sweeping streets and parking lots and minimizing waste from construction areas help lessen the pollution that could accumulate in urban stormwater. Catch basins can be installed at the bottom of hills to collect contaminated urban runoff before it enters storm drains.
“Our cities take this very seriously and work together to come up with solutions that work for everybody,” said Jeff Condit of the Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency.
Tuesday’s Food and Agriculture board meeting will continue the conversation about the types of farming practices and monitoring systems that can reduce polluted runoff and keep it separated from vital waterways.
“You can manage this stuff in a way that ameliorates their negative impacts,” said Mark Silberstein, executive director of the Elkhorn Slough Foundation.
Devastated salmon population likely to result in fishing restrictions
By Ryan Sabalow
Northern California’s commercial anglers are bracing for restrictions on the upcoming salmon-fishing season after federal regulators projected there are half as many Central Valley Chinook salmon in the ocean compared to this time last year.
Last week, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council released its annual population estimates for Chinook off the Pacific Coast. The council estimates about 300,000 adult fall-run salmon from the Sacramento River system are swimming off the coast this year. For the past several years, the forecasts have predicted more than 600,000 salmon.
Fishing trade groups say they’re expecting potentially severe curtailments to the upcoming fishing seasons for both recreational and commercial anglers. The estimates will be used by regulators in the next few weeks to set catch limits for both seasons, which tend to run from spring to fall.
Officials blame the poor numbers on unfavorable ocean and river conditions following years of drought.
The disappointing population estimates follow a challenging year for California’s commercial fishermen. Last year’s salmon-fishing season was restricted in some areas to protect endangered winter-run Chinook whose numbers have plummeted in California’s record drought.
Professional anglers had hoped a robust Dungeness crab season would help offset the losses. But California officials announced in November they were suspending the crab season because of a toxic algae bloom off the coast. The commercial Dungeness season remains closed statewide.
“It’s a 1-2-3 punch,” said Tim Sloane, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “We had a pretty poor 2015 season. We’ve had zero income from crabbing, and now we’re looking at 2016 that’s projected to be – just by sheer numbers in the ocean – half what 2015 was.”
Jennifer Simon, an environmental scientist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the salmon numbers are worse farther north. She said just 142,000 Klamath River fall-run Chinook salmon are expected to be available to catch this year, a third of last year’s estimates.
Salmon fishing in California is dependent on fall-run salmon that mostly are reared in hatcheries. While government hatcheries have been breeding salmon in robust numbers, the fish face a gantlet on their runs to the ocean and their return a few years later.
Meanwhile, the status of the wild winter-run Chinook that spawn in the heat of summer along a short stretch of river below Shasta Dam also signals trouble. The National Marine Fisheries Service said recently that only 3 percent of the wild juvenile salmon survived long enough to make it out to sea last year. It marked the second straight year that the vast majority of juvenile winter-run Chinook were cooked to death in the Sacramento River. In 2014, only 5 percent of the juveniles survived.
Because winter-run Chinook can swim in the same schools as nonendangered fish, regulators say they’ll have to consider the poor winter-run numbers as they set the upcoming season.
“There’s no doubt there’s widespread concern,” said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. Still, he said he’s hopeful the season won’t be closed outright as it was in 2008 and 2009 because of poor returns of fall-run Chinook. State officials estimate the closures those years led to a nearly $549 million hit to California’s economy.
Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown asked the Obama administration to declare a federal disaster tied to the state’s closed crab season. In a Feb. 9 letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Brown said the closure has caused more than $48 million in economic losses.
San Luis Obispo Tribune
Paso Robles groundwater district vote is being watched closely statewide
By Bruce Gibson
Eyes all over California are trained on San Luis Obispo County to see what residents of the Paso Robles basin are going to do about managing their groundwater.
Recently, I was in Sacramento to testify to a Joint Oversight Committee of the State Legislature on behalf of the California State Association of Counties. I was assigned to deliver a progress report on county efforts statewide to implement the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), historic legislation passed in 2014 to protect our precious groundwater resources.
While listening to other witnesses and the reaction of the committee members, I learned something that surprised me: Many state legislators, agency staff members and other public groups and individuals are paying close attention to our efforts in the Paso basin.
They’ve been impressed with our county board majority’s willingness to take on the crisis — from our urgency and permanent ordinances requiring water-use offsets to our efforts to get a unique local water district considered by the basin’s voters. They think we are on the right track and hope that we will succeed.
At that hearing, I also heard again the clear-cut realities of our situation. Most importantly: If local agencies don’t manage their groundwater, the state will step in and local landowners will pay the bill. There was no debate or doubt about that.
State Water Resources Control Board staffers reported they are preparing a schedule of fees to recoup their costs, should they have to intervene. The staff also noted that they are prepared for more work and other fees in the future, where they, for instance, might need to restrict pumping in a basin. No one disputed that approach.
Everyone in the room understood the challenges we face going forward. The effort to reconcile competing local water agency interests has been time-consuming and, in many places, contentious. The state Department of Water Resources has provided facilitation services that have been well-received.
How to fund these essential management efforts is also a concern. The state has provided some start-up assistance, but SGMA is clear that in the long term, those who benefit from a groundwater resource will bear the management cost. Gaining voter approval for a funding measure (as required by Proposition 218) will require a thoughtful public discussion.
Promoting a thoughtful public discussion has its own challenges. Those I talked with were sympathetic when I described the denial and anger that we hear regularly in public commenters. Baseless conspiracy theories are easy to manufacture and commonly heard. And they must be refuted.
In various places, dealing with all these issues has been more difficult because of inaction or outright opposition by some elected officials. Implementing significant change takes political will, and such courage is essential now.
It’s human nature that accepting significant change is often difficult. But we must — individually and collectively, politically and financially — accept responsibility for our groundwater, sooner rather than later. As a representative of the California Farm Bureau Federation put it, “Unnecessary conflict is going to be everyone’s enemy.”
Accepting this responsibility is a matter of accepting reality. Specifically in the Paso Robles groundwater basin, reality is that residents and landowners there will need to fund the management effort, and not expect the county’s General Fund to cover it. Neither will money appear from somewhere else, as if by magic.
Similarly, reality is that the cost — as outlined in Measure A, now before basin voters — will be the same for the local hybrid water district as for the county’s Flood Control District. And, the cost of state intervention will assuredly be higher. There’s no cut-rate deal around.
Sacramento sees more than its share of inaction and dysfunction, but people I talked with there see our county as ahead of most as we deal with the Paso Robles basin. They realize it hasn’t been easy, but are impressed that we understand the realities and are trying to solve the problem locally. They are also well aware of the stakes should we fail.
One person summed it up by saying we are being watched intently as the “poster child — for good or bad.”
Folks in the Paso Robles basin have a chance to shape their own future by accepting their responsibility.
And California is watching.
Bruce Gibson is the District 2 supervisor for San Luis Obispo County.
New York Times
Tracking a Parasite That Turns Bees Into Zombies
By Nicholas St. Fleur
Call it “The Buzzing Dead.” Infestations of what scientists have dubbed “zombie bees” have spread across both the West and East coasts in recent years.
The honeybee hordes, while not actually undead, are the unwilling hosts to a parasite infection that researchers think drives the drones to act erratically, or “zombielike,” in the moments before they die.
To better understand the parasitized swarms, John Hafernik, an entomologist at San Francisco State University has recruited people countrywide to join his hunt.
“The big question for us was, ‘Is this a San Francisco thing?’ Or something that is taking place all over the country that has not been noticed by biologists before,” he said.
Since he began the project four years ago, he has concluded the answer is the latter. Volunteers have helped identify infected honeybees in California, Washington and Oregon as well as Vermont, Pennsylvania and New York. More than 800 bee observations have been uploaded to the ZomBee Watch online database.
Dr. Hafernik first discovered something eerie was happening to the bees on his campus in 2008 when he stumbled upon several of them staggering in circles along the sidewalk. For weeks he picked a few up and placed them in a glass vial with plans to feed them to his pet praying mantis.
One day he came across a vial he had forgotten on his desk for a couple of weeks. The bees inside were dead, but the vial was overwhelmed with small brown fly pupae. He came to the realization that the bees were parasitized.
After further exploration across San Francisco Bay, he and his colleagues found several bees that were also behaving strangely. They would fly from their hives at night, which was something bees would normally never do, and then circle around a light fixture. After their nocturnal dance the bees would drop to the ground and start walking strangely. They were succumbing to their overlord, larvae of the fly Apocephalus borealis.
The life cycle of the parasitic fly is straight from a horror story. The female fly uses something called an ovipositor, which is like a hypodermic needle, to inject her eggs into the abdomen of the honeybee.
About a week later the larvae lurking within the abdomen wriggle into the bee’s thorax and start liquefying and devouring its wing muscles. Then, like in the movie “Alien,” they burst through the bee’s body, erupting from the soft space between its head and shoulder area.
“As far as we know this is a death sentence,” Dr. Hafernik said. “We don’t know any bees that have survived being parasitized by these maggots.”
As many as 80 percent of the hives that Dr. Hafernik examined in San Francisco Bay had been infected. Understanding more about how the infection spreads is important, he said, because although the infestations are not the main driver behind honeybee declines across the country, they could help collapse an already vulnerable colony.