Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Why study expansion of a nearly empty reservoir?

A federal leader last week mentioned a study to raise San Luis Dam and expand the nearly empty San Luis Reservoir in western Merced County, raising eyebrows all around. Why study expansion of a reservoir holding 16% of its capacity? And why now?

First, a little context. San Luis Reservoir is an important hub in California’s waterworks — supplying both west San Joaquin Valley farmers and Southern California cities. The reservoir has no natural stream to fill it, so water is pumped there from the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

San Luis Reservoir at 16% this month.

When pumping was restricted this year to protect dying fish species and water quality, California lost the opportunity to send a lot of water into the reservoir. The lost pumping and the drought have turned the reservoir into an August mud puddle.

So why look at expanding San Luis Reservoir now?

Half of the answer: It’s part of the ongoing efforts under the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, a 1992 environmental reform law that includes a section to improve water supply.

The other half: The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is going through a dam safety study. The planning division is appraising a project to both reduce earthquake risks and improve deliveries to the federal Central Valley Project.

At the same time apparently, water customers began asking about expanding the capacity of the reservoir.

By sometime next year, the appraisal study will let federal leaders know if they should do a full-blown feasibility study.

This is all part of a bigger fight, pitting Northern California against Southern California over water. It’s a story that has played out over decades. Another chapter is about to be finished as the state prepares the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, touted as a way to fix this marathon problem. It’s a nerve-racking process.

The short-term solution makes everyone even more nervous: Hoping for a wet winter. This problem could get much worse if California gets a third year of drought.

Bay Delta Conservation Plan more than tunnels, state leader says

I listened to the state’s top water leader talk for an hour Thursday about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Then I tried to check some of his data online.

The download of so many documents crashed my computer. Let’s just go straight to the talk at The Fresno Bee editorial board meeting, which did not break any news.

Mark Cowin, director of the state’s Department of Water Resources, said the controversial plan is more than tunnels and arguments. Nonetheless, he had to spend time explaining the two huge water tunnels being proposed at the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The tunnel idea is to move Sacramento River water south in tunnels so the water doesn’t pass through the delta. The idea is the epic issue for California natural resources these days, easily on a par with the Peripheral Canal fight I covered 30 years ago.

Some Northern Californians have told me it’s simply a water grab for Central Valley farmers and Southern California. The delta’s ecosystem and Northern California will suffer, they say.

Some farmers and Southern Californians argue it would give the state a more certain water supply. Plus, the delta would get the chance to heal, they say.

Cowin said he supports the $25 billion tunnels, but the plan is equally about restoring the faltering delta.

He and Karla Nemeth, outreach and communications manager, said saving the delta’s dying fish species and declining habitat is a linchpin of the plan. They mentioned such projects as rebuilding flood plains and fattening up migrating salmon.

We asked tunnel questions, such as: How much difference would the tunnels have made for west Valley farmers who lost water this year in environmental cutbacks for the threatened delta smelt?

Cowin and Nemeth said the tunnels probably would have resulted in about 700,000 acre-feet of additional water.

The draft of this plan should be available in the next few months, they said. I’m not sure that will give you enough time to read the 27,000 pages of documents related to it.

Temperature records fell all over state

Meteorologist Steve Johnson, a private consultant in the Fresno area, posted a list of California records set on warm Wednesday this week.

It was topped by Fresno’s 85 degrees, which broke the 2007 record for the day by one degree.  Burbank broke its record by eight degrees.

From reading the list, it looks like 2007 was pretty warm, too. But there are also some very old records that were broken. The Riverside record was more than a century old.

Here’s the list, which includes the place, the new record and the old record:

Fresno,  85°  (84° set in 2007), South Lake Tahoe, 69° (64° set in 2007), Burbank,  93° (85° set in 1951), Sandberg,  77° (76° set in 2007),  Woodland Hills, 94° (92° set in 2007), Ramona, 86° (84° set in 2007), Riverside, 95° (90° set in 1902), Thermal, 97° (96° set in 1997), Alpine, 84° (81° set in 1994), El Cajon, 86° (81° set in 2004), Elsinore, 92° (88° set in 1926), Escondido, 87° (86° set in 1951).

If warm weather continues, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada will come rolling down a little sooner than usual. The snowpack is about 60% of average right now — better than last year when it was about 45% as spring began in late March.


Kern gets bad news: Court stops voter-approved sludge ban

Kern County got bad news Wednesday from a state appeals court in Fresno about its voter-approved Measure E, which outlaws the importation of treated human sewage sludge from other counties.

The Fifth District Court of Appeal sided with a lower court that stopped the measure, saying the county was overstepping its authority. Kern voters approved the measure in a landslide on June 6, 2006, and it has been in court for years.

The decision means the flow of treated human sewage will continue over the Tehachapis from Southern California to Kern County, as it has for many years. The sludge is spread on the ground where animal silage crops are grown. People have complained about flies and odor.

It also might mean that Kings County won’t get as much sludge. A sanitation district representing many Southern California cities bought land in Kings and is set to begin biosolid composting soon.

Meanwhile, Kern authorities said they are weighing their options at this point, but had no further comment. Among the options would be an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Southern California leaders and some Kern land owners had filed the legal action for the preliminary injunction against Measure E. The plaintiffs include County Sanitation District No. 2 of Los Angeles County and Orange County Sanitation District.


Bad air in Houston, Phoenix? Not compared to Valley

The phone conversation started with a question: Which city has worse ozone — Fresno or Bakersfield?

It’s a good question, but I told the reader that we have this conversation far too often around here. It’s like debating the difference between drowning in 15 feet of water and 17 feet of water.

Fresno? Bakersfield? They’re both among the worst in the country.

I think it’s more interesting to compare the Valley with cities outside of California that have a national reputation for dirty air — like Houston and Phoenix. The pollution in Fresno, Bakersfield and other Valley cities is far worse than in cities several times larger.

Look at 2012 violations of the federal eight-hour ozone standard. Phoenix has 1.46 million people, according to the U.S. Census, and the city recorded 30 violations. Houston with a population of 2.1 million had 35.

How many Valley locations had more violations? Clovis, Fresno, Parlier, Arvin, Bakersfield, Oildale, Edison, Porterville and, oddly enough, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

In fact, Houston and Phoenix combined didn’t have as many as the Ash Mountain site in Sequoia National Park, which recorded 82 violations. Parlier with a population of about 15,000 in Fresno County had 60. In Southern California, Crestline in the San Bernardino Mountains led the nation with 88.

Back to Bakersfield and Fresno.

In Fresno with population of about a half million, there were 51 violations last year at one monitoring site. In Bakersfield, population 352,000, one monitor showed 56.

Compared to the rest of the country, the Valley is really in another universe. Fresno and Bakersfield are just part of a bigger picture here.