Mercedian researching Pacific's 'garbage patch'...JONAH OWEN LAMB
In the late hours of Aug. 3, Darcy Taniguchi was trawling for plankton from a research vessel somewhere off the coast of San Diego.
The Merced native and doctoral student was collecting samples of phytoplankton as part of her study of how the organisms fit into the larger oceanic ecosystems.
Plankton are just one of the many species Taniguchi and a team of scientists have been collecting as they head farther into the Pacific. So far they have plucked from the waters crab, fish eggs, flying fish and a vampire squid.
And plastic. Lots of plastic.
Taniguchi, still at sea, is headed to a spot roughly halfway between Hawaii and California. Seventeen scientists, volunteers and technicians -- Taniguchi included -- are on the research vessel New Horizon for a three-week cruise to study a huge swale of garbage floating in the mid-Pacific, know as the The Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch.
A convergence of wind and currents pulls garbage into this still zone which acts like a black hole in the ocean's center.
The cruise, called the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition or SEAPLEX, set out in the early morning hours of Aug. 2 and headed west. By Friday, the expedition should be complete and make landfall in Newport, Ore.
The $374,000, 1,360-mile cruise out of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego is the first extensive scientific study of the "garbage patch" and its impacts on life in the Pacific, said Alison Cawood, a doctoral student involved with the project.
For Taniguchi, this expedition is just one more phase in what has been a lifelong quest for all that's in the deep.
Taniguchi's curiosity about the ocean began when she was 4, said her mother, Nancy Taniguchi. A family trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium opened up the world of the ocean to Darcy. She's been drawn to it ever since, said her mother.
In a letter written by Taniguchi in 2006 when she began her doctoral program at Scripps, she described her first spark of wonder. "Starring, completely absorbed, at the striking exhibits of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and wetting my feet and hands in the tide pools of Asilomar Beach, instilled in me a lasting curiosity about the ocean," she wrote.
That curiosity has taken her to field work at low tide in the middle of the night in tide pools along the California coast, as well as frog-tracking and nocturnal animal spotlighting in Australia.
But her search for knowledge of the sea also reaches into computer modeling, where her current thesis work concentrates on the study of phytoplankton, a microorganism at the bottom of the oceanic food chain. Cawood said these organisms produce, through photo synthesis, most of the earth's oxygen. "So they are incredibly important," she said.
Taniguchi's goal, said Cawood, is to understand the system plankton are part of.
Back aboard New Horizon, the research team has been posting daily blogs about life and research at sea.
On Aug. 5, Jessie Dubler, a member of the team aboard the ship, wrote about pulling aboard a huge squid. "Earlier today the crew brought aboard what seems to be a very large colossal squid that was already dead and half-eaten," he wrote. "When I woke up, the only evidence left was a few plastic bags of its flesh and an eyeball staring out at me."
By Aug. 6 they had finally sailed into the edges of the gyre, which is what they call the garbage patch.
Jesse Powell, a graduate student at Scripps, wrote, "During the last day or so, as we've started to enter the gyre, we have begun to see more and more plastic debris floating in the water as we steam along at 10 knots."
Meanwhile, Taniguchi continues her own work. On Tuesday, she posted her first blog, which was mostly all business. "Everyone is working at various shifts around the clock to make sure all the jobs get done. So it's certainly a team effort, but it's what we have chosen to do to help determine how much plastic is out here and how it may be affecting the natural world."
A generation after "The Graduate," one of the movie's famous lines has assumed a scientific meaning for one Mercedian.
Mr. McGuire: "I want to say one word to you. Just one word."
Benjamin: "Yes, sir."
Mr. McGuire: "Are you listening?"
Benjamin: "Yes, I am."
Mr. McGuire: "Plastics."
Calif. lawmakers shift focus to water problems...SAMANTHA YOUNG, Associated Press Writer
SACRAMENTO, Calif. With California mired in a third year of drought and thousands of farm acres lying fallow, lawmakers are turning their attention from the state's budget crisis to another issue that is equally as charged: state water policy.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and lawmakers of both parties want sweeping reforms that would overhaul how the state manages its water supplies. The difficulty, as with solving California's continual fiscal crises, will be finding compromise.
While the nation's most populous state has been growing, a half century-old delivery system that stores snowmelt in dozens of reservoirs and funnels the water to farms and cities throughout the state is showing signs of stress.
The growing demands on California's water supply also are wreaking havoc with the environment.
Water quality and conditions for fish have worsened in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, prompting federal restrictions on how much water can be pumped out of a region that serves as the hub of California's water-delivery network.
Even as problems grow more apparent with each year, state lawmakers have failed repeatedly to find common ground. Farmers, urban water districts, environmentalists, fishermen and others offer competing visions of what needs to be done.
"It's like trying to solve peace in the Middle East," said Laura Harnish, a San Francisco-based water expert at the Environmental Defense Fund. "People are very wedded to their water rights."
Lawmakers will return from their summer recess on Monday with their party leaders and the governor saying they want a comprehensive solution that will ensure adequate water supplies while protecting the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The debate comes as farmers throughout the Central Valley are struggling to grow crops with less water after three years of below-average rain and snowfall in the Sierra Nevada. Federal pumping restrictions intended to protect vulnerable delta fish also have curtailed water deliveries. Thousands of acres have been taken out of production, orchard trees cut to stumps and farm workers laid off.
At the same time, cities throughout the state have imposed mandatory water rationing and limited the number of days homeowners can use outdoor sprinklers or wash their cars. Others have raised rates and imposed drought surcharges.
Farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, supported by Schwarzenegger and Republican lawmakers, have argued for more dams to supply the needs of a growing state. California's population is expected to grow from 38 million to 49 million by 2030.
Southern California water districts want to find a new way to funnel drinking water around the estuary, in part because of the court-imposed pumping restrictions and worsening water quality that becomes more expensive to treat.
The existing pumping system changes river flows in the delta and sucks fish in, killing them in large numbers. Water managers also are concerned about a breach in the 1,115 miles of earthen levees throughout the delta, which could disrupt water deliveries for months.
"Everybody understands if we don't act we will have disaster in the delta," said Department of Water Resources director Lester Snow.
Last year, a Schwarzenegger-appointed panel recommended changing how the state moves water through the delta. A separate state-federal task force also has suggested finding a new way to send water south to protect wildlife and ensure reliable water deliveries.
Reengineering the water-delivery system is a top priority of the Schwarzenegger administration and the nation's largest provider of treated drinking water, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. About a third of the water distributed to 18 million Californians by the district passes through the delta.
"If you're going to truly achieve water supply reliability and restoration of the delta, you've got to change where you divert water from the delta," said Roger Patterson, the district's assistant general manager.
The federal government curtailed delta pumping after a federal judge blamed state and federal water operations for some of the declines of the threatened delta smelt and endangered salmon.
Meanwhile, sport-fishing groups and environmentalists, bolstered by the federal court decisions, are demanding that habitat for the more than 750 species of wildlife be improved in the delta and its tributaries. Some also worry that building a canal to reroute fresh water will degrade delta water quality and lead to further declines of its fish and other species.
Assembly Speaker Karen Bass and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, both Democrats, have said they hope to reach a water deal with the governor by Sept. 11, the end of the legislative session.
Steinberg, of Sacramento, said lawmakers are under pressure this year to overcome the complications that have stalled past negotiations. Schwarzenegger also would like to claim a victory on water before he leaves office in January 2011.
"I think there is an even greater recognition that we must take action to solve California's water challenges," Steinberg said. "This is an opportunity to achieve something positive for California and to build."
A joint Assembly-Senate working group, which included lawmakers from both parties, has written a package of bills intended to restart water discussions.
Many of the reforms could be adopted directly by the Legislature and signed by the governor. Any proposal that requires money would have to win voter approval, leading the governor and lawmakers to consider a 2010 ballot measure.
Democrats have proposed rethinking how the state manages the delta, a fragile maze of levees, islands, river channels and sloughs that channel water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers to massive pumping plants. Those plants send drinking water to farms and roughly 25 million Californians in the south and San Francisco Bay area.
The 1,153-square-mile delta covers a land mass about the size of Rhode Island.
Democratic lawmakers want to create an independent, seven-member council to oversee habitat restoration and decide whether a new system to move water through or around the delta is needed.
In its current form, the Democrats' package is missing key elements long advocated by Republicans.
It omits authorization for new dams, as well as a bond proposal to pay for the long list of projects lawmakers envision. That's a deal-breaker for Sen. Dave Cogdill, a Republican from Modesto who has seen farmers in his Central Valley district fallow their fields this year because they are not receiving enough water.
"At the end of the day, it continues to be our position we need a comprehensive solution and we need it quickly," Cogdill said. "We've had more than enough time to analyze the situation."
Delta farmers and fishermen are lining up against the package and have organized demonstrations leading up to the hearings, including a "Million Boat Float" on Sunday from the delta town of Antioch up the Sacramento River to the state capital.
At issue for many delta communities is the growing support behind a proposal to build a canal that would divert water out of the Sacramento River and move it around the delta, where fresh water from the state's northern rivers mixes with tide water from San Francisco Bay.
Delta-area farmers and fishermen fear the loss of too much fresh water would lead to a saltier delta, harming fish and crops.
It's an idea that was rejected by voters in 1982, in part over fears that it was a veiled water grab for Southern California.
"The delta is not just a plumbing system. It's not just an aquarium," said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, campaign director at Restore the Delta, a nonprofit community group that opposes a canal. "We have living, breathing communities here."
Delta peripheral canal protest comes up short...Hudson Sangree and Matt Weiser
What was billed as a "million boat float" to protest plans to build a peripheral canal in the Delta looked like it might wash up short Sunday.
A rubber dinghy carrying protest signs was the only boat obviously connected to the event at a riverside press conference at Sacramento's Robert T. Matsui Waterfront Park.
Organizers pointed out two or three other watercraft with protesters aboard. Small green pennants identified them as part of what had been promoted as a "mass flotilla" of hundreds of boaters.
A spokesman insisted more boats were on their way from Antioch, Rio Vista and other areas in the Delta – and would arrive by evening.
"They just haven't gotten here yet," said Roger Salazar.
A trip down river to Courtland revealed fewer than two dozen other watercraft – amid all the water skiing and fishing boats – that were clearly linked to the event by signs and flags.
One motorboat pulled a small barge with a red farm tractor on board. Pear grower Tim Neuharth waved from beneath a sign that read "Delta Farmers, Sutter Island."
Sunday's event may have fallen short of the organizers' hopes for a show of force. But opposition leaders from the Delta made their message clear: They feel shut out from the planning process that has led to the canal proposal.
"The government process that brought us to this point has excluded stakeholders in the Delta," said Bruce Connelley, a city councilman from Oakley who coordinated the Million Boat Float.
Connelley and others are worried the Legislature will push through a package of contentious water bills without sufficient public debate. They call the canal plans a water grab by agribusiness in the San Joaquin Valley.
An informational hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday before a joint session of Senate and Assembly water committees in Room 4202 of the state Capitol.
The proposed canal has been endorsed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a task force he assembled to study the issue. The task force said a canal could help restore the Delta's strained environment.
The canal is a centerpiece of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which includes state and federal agencies, water users and environmental groups. Its goal is to obtain approval for the canal, and habitat protection projects, under the Endangered Species Act.
The group's steering committee, however, has no local government representatives. Its meetings are public, but its outreach has been limited.
Karla Nemeth, state liaison to the BDCP, said a number of community workshops are planned in the Delta this fall.
Connelley said Sunday the boating protest was meant "to wake up everybody." He still had hopes of seeing 200 or more boaters cruise upriver from Delta communities to Sacramento for an overnight stay.
Today, as state lawmakers reconvene after their summer recess, the boaters planned to take their protest to the Capitol steps.
The canal would divert a portion of the Sacramento River's flow directly to the Delta's state and federal water export pumps near Tracy.
Isolating fresh water in a canal would prevent the pumps from killing fish, and would protect the water from floods and earthquakes.
A canal also would end the need to maintain the Delta as a freshwater environment to serve water diverters. Biologists say the Delta should have more frequent pulses of salt water, an idea that worries Delta residents.
What's envisioned are actually two canals: a completely contained canal skirting one edge of the Delta, and a "through-Delta" canal assembled from existing levees running down the estuary.
Each canal would be enormous – at least 1,000 feet wide and 40 miles long – with potential environmental effects that remain unknown.
The project is similar to the ill-fated peripheral canal rejected by California voters in 1982. This time, the Schwarzenegger administration claims it doesn't need voter approval to build the canal, which is likely to cost $10 billion.
Contra Costa Times
Package of State water bills seek to balance thirst of water users and environment...Mike Taugher
With the state's budget resolved for now, lawmakers this week will take up a comprehensive reform package that is the most ambitious attempt in at least a decade to revamp management of the increasingly unreliable Delta.
Though the package is certain to draw debate, supporters say it is the best attempt in years to resolve the intensifying conflict between the thirst of California's cities and farms and the needs of a severely damaged Delta ecosystem.
"These bills collectively are the closest thing I've seen in my career to a coherent plan for the future of both water supplies and the Delta," said Phil Isenberg, a former legislative leader and former mayor of Sacramento. He led a Delta Vision task force that recommended rebalancing the state's thirst and the Delta's health.
The bills largely reflect the Delta Vision goals, especially its insistence that the Delta ecosystem has played second fiddle to water demands for decades and that the two goals should have equal footing.
Still, the bills would completely reshape management of California's biggest watershed, and for that reason the effort is receiving support from those who say it is time for dramatic change, caution from those worried about the details, and skepticism from those who say the bills go too far or who contend the state is incapable of complying with existing laws.
Taken together, the bills:.
· Establish new authorities to run water systems and protect the Delta environment. A Delta "stewardship council" made up mostly of gubernatorial appointees would set the rules and a "water master" would police water management day to day. The council would decide whether to approve a canal to divert water around the Delta.
· Impose fees on water users to finance water administration, new water investments and habitat restoration. The fees would apply to agencies that pump water out of the Delta and to water agencies, such as the East Bay Municipal Utility District and the San Francisco Public Utility District, that take water upstream and have traditionally watched Delta controversies from the sidelines.
· Requires the Bay Delta Conservation Plan that is being written to support a new canal and protect the environment to both defend species from extinction and to meet a higher standard of recovery for endangered species. It also sets a number of other conditions before the plan, a high priority of the governor's office, is approved.
· Strengthens the role of local governments, such as Contra Costa County's, though it is unclear whether that role will be strong enough to satisfy the local governments. That issue is important because local governments generally oppose construction of a new Delta aqueduct and their power could make or break the canal plan.
· For the first time would regulate and monitor how groundwater is used in California. The bills would also take a closer look at water rights in a state where some users are under scrutiny for possibly using water without legal rights to it.
What is not in the bills is also potential for debate. Although they would set fees for water agencies, there is no larger financing tool to restore wetlands, build dams, clean up pollution or pursue other projects that water users say are the public's responsibility.
"We recognize that we are responsible for paying the costs of projects that will directly benefit us," said Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District, the nation's largest irrigation district and one that is particularly vulnerable to water-supply cuts in the Delta. "But the state and federal contractors should not be viewed as the ATM for the state of California."
Birmingham, like one of his staunchest critics, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance executive director Bill Jennings, compared the drive to reform state water policy to the Legislature's disastrous deregulation of the electricity industry in 1996.
Like the electricity sector, water deliveries are complex, vital and often taken for granted, and lawmakers say they will move quickly with water reform, as they did with electricity.
In each case, lawmakers turned to a legislative process that bypassed the normal reviews by policy committees in favor of an expedited path that relies on a conference committee of senators and Assembly members.
"They're approaching this like they approached the deregulation of the electricity industry," Birmingham said. "We will have the same type of unintended consequences."
Jennings also doubts the state's capacity to succeed where so far it has failed.
"If we can't enforce the existing laws, how are we going to enforce the new ones?" he said.
Despite criticism, the effort is gathering cautious support from a number of players.
Another major importer of Delta water, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, is pleased with the general direction of the plan.
"The major elements of the plan are consistent with where we want to go," said Roger Patterson, the Metropolitan Water District assistant general manager. "Some of the details, and we're still sorting through them, are a concern. "... We would like to see something passed this session if that's possible."
A leading environmentalist found promise in the package itself and in the fact that legislative leaders are paying attention to the water supply problem.
"It has plenty of flaws that need to be addressed, but it's a terrific opportunity," said Barry Nelson, a water policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "A major opportunity comes around every 10 years. This is an extraordinary opportunity."
Although the state Senate's top leader, Sen. Darrell Steinberg, has said he would like to pass water reform legislation this year, it is unclear whether that is possible given the session ends next month. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger could call a special session for water issues, but observers note election year politics could get in the way of such a complicated and potentially debatable package next year.
The last attempt to fix California's troubled Delta-based water system was "CalFed" that developed a plan in 2000 that cost more than $3 billion but failed to reach its goals of improving the Delta ecosystem. It failed in large part because it lacked authority to implement the plan, lacked stable funding and failed to link progress on water supply goals with environmental restoration goals, several reviews have concluded.
The bills address those shortcomings by establishing the Delta Stewardship Council and watermaster with clear authority, assessing water user fees and explicitly setting the equality of environmental protection and water deliveries.
Protest of canal is small but determined...Dana Sherne
A flotilla of 16 speedboats, yachts and a commercial salmon troller floated out of the Delta toward Sacramento for the "Million Boat Float" on Sunday.
Oakley Councilman Bruce Connelley planned the protest to bring national attention to the Delta's environmental problems and what he calls the lack of local representation in proposed water reforms.
About a dozen boats, ranging from the recreational to the commercial, left the Sportsmen Yacht Club in Antioch on Sunday morning, and they picked up other boats as they journeyed up the river.
Carrying green banners reading "Million Boat Float," 15 boats spread across the Delta as the flotilla passed the Rio Vista Bridge.
Bringing up the rear of the flotilla was a commercial salmon troller from San Francisco. Commercial salmon vessels have been unable to fish for the past two years in the wake of California's water and environmental issues.
The protesters were to be joined further up the river by boats from the Sacramento Yacht club.
Before Sunday, Connelley said he expected between a few hundred and a few thousand protesters.
Roger Mammon, Oakley's representative for Delta affairs, said the bad economy might have kept people from participating.
"I can understand why the participation might be a little on the slow side because people have to work," he said, adding that rising gas prices mean that the cost of protesting could be hundreds of dollars in boat fuel.
Speaking at a news conference Sunday afternoon, Mammon said he still hoped for a showing of 100 boats in Sacramento.
Protesters hoped to bring attention to proposed legislation that they say will negatively hurt agriculture, business and the ecosystem along the Delta. Today, they will hold a rally on the steps of the Capitol at 11 a.m. before Tuesday's hearing of five water-related bills.
"The legislative process is excluding Delta stakeholders and ramming through legislation that could seriously harm the Delta," Mammon said.
One of the goals of the protest is to make legislators listen to critics and local voices. Even with a smaller showing at the protest than expected, protesters hope they will change minds in Sacramento.
"We're not fatalists," said Cindy Mammon as she watched the boats sail away. "We still think we have a right to say what we need to say."
Some of the bills would further the plan for a peripheral canal, a conduit siphoning freshwater from below Sacramento as it heads to the Delta.
"We don't begrudge them some water. But they're taking 60 percent of the flow, and they want to take more," said Cindy Mammon.
She added that if the Delta loses too much freshwater, it could become a saltwater marsh. Critics of the canal fear that farmers who depend on the Delta for their irrigation would have to find another source, and a changing ecosystem could harm native fish species.
But proponents of the canal say that millions of fish are killed by Central Valley pumps under the current water system and the canal will avoid such fatalities.
San Diego Union Tribune
Democratic water package at a glance...The Associated Press
Democratic lawmakers in the state Legislature have proposed five bills intended to overhaul how the state manages its water supplies.
The drafts came after months of bipartisan meetings between the Assembly and Senate but omit key provisions desired by Republicans. Those include authorization for new dams and a bond to pay for various water improvements around the state.
Here are some proposals contained in the legislative package:
– Creates a seven-member Delta Stewardship Council to oversee the ecosystem and water supplies in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta and its tributaries.
– Mandates a management plan by the council that addresses whether to build a canal, dams and other water storage. The plan also must restore wildlife habitat, establish migratory corridors, restore delta river flows and improve water quality.
– Begins a study to determine whether the State Water Project, which runs the state's water-delivery system, should be run by another agency or utility instead of the California Department of Water Resources.
– Appoints a watermaster to direct the daily operations of all water diversions within the delta.
– Establishes a Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy to advance environmental protection and assure prosperity for delta residents.
– Requires California to achieve a 20 percent reduction in per capita water use by 2020.
– Requires agricultural water suppliers to report how much they deliver to farms and implement efficient water-management practices.
– Establishes a groundwater monitoring program.
– Requires each region that depends on water from the delta to increase supplies through water efficiency, water recycling and regional coordination.
– Imposes an annual fee on each person or entity that holds a right, permit or license to divert water within the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed. The money would be used to implement the delta plan.
– Requires those who receive water from the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project to pay for the environmental review, planning, construction and operation of any system to move water around the delta.
– Increases penalties for illegal diversions of water.
Source: The bills are AB1, AB2, SB1, SB2, SB3.