Author Archives: Sasha Khokha

Sasha Khokha is Central Valley Bureau Chief for KQED’s  statewide public radio program, The California Report. Based in Fresno, she covers a vast geographic beat, including the nation’s most productive farm belt, some of California’s poorest towns, and Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks. Whether trekking up a Sierra glacier with her microphone, interviewing farmworkers in Spanish, or explaining complicated air or water quality issues, Sasha translates rural California to the rest of the state. She is a graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Brown University, and the mother of two young children.

Fish vs. Farms Conflict Escalates in Central Valley

Proposed law would stop salmon restoration, deliver more water to Central Valley farms

The San Joaquin River flows from the Sierra Nevada to the Central Valley, where much of its water is diverted to aqueducts.

UPDATE: The House has passed the bill, with a vote of 246-175. It now goes to the Senate.

Meandering through the halls of Capitol Hill is a bill that would dramatically change California’s water picture. Sponsored by Tulare County Congressman Devin Nunes, the sweeping proposal would pipe more water to farms, and challenge the largest river restoration project in U.S. history.

Environmentalists and farmers tangoed for 18 years in federal court over the fate of the San Joaquin River, finally agreeing to restore water to some 60 miles of dry riverbed, and bring back the salmon that died off when the river was dammed just above Fresno.

“Most people associate the San Joaquin as a dry toxic river,” says Chris Acree, director of Revive the River, a Fresno-based non-profit. “Now that this water is back in that river, it allows us to identify ourselves with this river as a living river. This restoration program really is the broadest collaboration between agencies, landowners, stakeholders, and water users, where everybody has a voice.”

But Congressmen Devin Nunes says many Central Valley farmers have been left out of water decisions that put fish before farmers. His bill would not only reverse plans to restore salmon to this river, it would relax pumping restrictions in the Delta designed to protect other endangered fish.

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After a Dry February (sigh), Drought Looms on Central Valley Farms

Farmers, used to water shortages, prepare for bad news

Pistachio trees on a drip irrigation system. Drip systems can dramatically reduce water loss from evaporation.

UPDATE: Despite snow closing Interstate 5 over the Grapevine Pass on Monday, state snow surveyors returned from the Sierra today with more forlorn figures. The third snowpack measurement of the season showed water content in the accumulated snow at just 30% of the average for this date and 26% of the average for April 1, typically when the snowpack reaches its peak for the season.

Even though more snow is on the way, as I explain in my radio story for The California Report, Central Valley farmers are getting ready to face a fourth dry year in the last five.

I visited with Fresno County farmer Ryan Ferguson in his pistachio orchard near the Lemoore Naval Air station, to ask him how he’s coping with the news that he may get just 30% of the water he’s asking for from the canals of the federal Central Valley Project. Continue reading

Alpine Chipmunks’ Habitat and Gene Pool are Shrinking

One of the few mammals unique to California is also one of the most threatened by climate change.

The alpine chipmunk only lives in California, and its habitat is shrinking.

The alpine chipmunk, found in Yosemite’s high country, has moved upslope as temperatures have warmed over the last century.

Now a new study out yesterday from the journal Nature Climate Change shows a warming climate may also be affecting the species’ genetic diversity. Listen to my radio story about the study on today’s California Report.

The alpine chipmunk is one of the smallest chipmunks in California. It’s also got a uniquely striped face. It’s hard to see these chipmunks in the wild unless you strap on a backpack and climb some 10,000 feet high in the Sierra.

That’s what study author Emily Rubidge did as a PhD student at UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Geology. She’s part of a team that’s been ambitiously updating Joseph Grinnell’s historic survey of Yosemite’s wildlife from the early 1900s.

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Making Hay While the Sun Shines: A Flap over Solar Panels in Farm Country

The same things that make the San Joaquin Valley ideal for growing crops, plenty of sun and land, is also attracting large-scale solar power developers.

Hear the companion radio feature Wednesday morning, on The California Report.

Aaron Barcellos and his yellow lab, Maddox. Barcellos hopes to plant rows of pomegranate trees next to rows of solar panels.

Farmer Aaron Barcellos bristles at the idea that putting solar panels on his land is “paving it over,” as some critics have contended. Harvesting electrons, he says, is not the same as pouring concrete to build houses or a shopping center. Solar isn’t permanent: he can simply pull out the posts holding up the panels when he wants to plow the land under again. In the meantime, using a small part of his farm to generate power for the grid is a good way to bring in some guaranteed income, helping him weather the ups and downs of drought and crop prices.

But on Barcellos’s farm, the ground closest to a PG&E substation is considered “prime” farmland. That means he has to get permission from county supervisors to take his land out of the Williamson Act, which gives farmers a tax break for keeping prime farmland in agriculture. I explore that controversy in my radio story on today’s California Report.

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Planting Seeds for a New CA Nuclear Plant

Could California’s next nuke be on the horizon?

Backers of a new Fresno “clean energy park” aim to use nuclear power to clean up salty irrigation water in California’s Central Valley.

The twin cooling towers of the decommissioned Rancho Seco nuclear power plant. Could the Central Valley see another nuke constructed near Fresno? (Photo: Craig Miller)

They see the state’s 35-year-old moratorium on expansion of nuclear power as a mere speed bump in the road. They wouldn’t be the first. There have been several attempts to challenge the ban over the years – in the courts, in the legislature, and even a couple false starts through the initiative process.

But the idea of simply drawing up plans for a plant and gearing up to build it – without getting permission from the state – that’s a new approach, which I explain in my Wednesday radio feature for The California Report.

Fresno Nuclear CEO John Hutson told me he thinks it would be much more profitable to sell precious clean water to farmers than to generate electricity for the grid. Continue reading

Snow Surveys of the Future

A white fir outfitted with snow sensors in the Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory. (Photo: Sasha Khokha)

Trying to interview guys who wear backcountry skis to work can be tough…especially when trudging behind on snowshoes with a pack full of recording equipment. But my visit to the Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory was worth the slog.

It’s a patch of forest at about 6,000 feet near Shaver Lake in the Southern Sierra, in what’s known as the rain-snow transition zone. The snowpack at this elevation is likely to be the first to reflect climate change as temperatures warm and snow turns to rain. Scientists at UC Merced’s Sierra Nevada Research Institute, in conjunction with UC Berkeley, have developed new, high tech sensors to intensively monitor snow melt and runoff here. Continue reading

Dumbfounded by “SmartMeters”

UPDATE: In late January, 2011, The New York Times published a good overview of how the controversy over smart meters has evolved since this post.

When utilities and the California Public Utilities Commission hatched plans to bolt a “smart meter” onto every household, the premise–and the promise–was that by digitally tracking just how much they were using and spending, customers would be able to make smarter choices about their energy use, ultimately saving money and cutting carbon emissions.

Smart meters are also a critical component of the nascent but much vaunted “smart grid,” in which household appliances and electric cars communicate with the vast power transmission network, and optimize things like when to recharge.

But as I report in my radio story for The California Report, many PG&E customers consider them more bane than boon (PG&E uses the trademark “SmartMeter,” whereas I may refer to them generically as “smart meters”).

Part of what’s riled up customers in Bakersfield and elsewhere in California is that PG&E hasn’t provided the devices to help watch the watts. Customers can go online to track their energy use over the last 24 hours, but that’s about it. And in the meantime, consumers are paying the cost of the new meters, and in some cases, higher bills that they blame on those meters.

Liz Keogh shows me the "SmartMeter" outside her Bakersfield home. Photo: Sasha Khokha

Liz Keogh shows me the "SmartMeter" outside her Bakersfield home. Her summer 2009 bills went up by half after it was installed. (Photo: Kristin Torres)

Julie Fitch, who heads the energy division of the California Public Utilities Commission, told me she thinks those real-time tracking gadgets won’t actually change consumer habits that much. “There’s a certain percentage of us who are interested in seeing what our energy use is at all times, and are fascinated by it, but I think it’s probably a small percentage in the grand scheme of things,” Fitch said.

Fitch says consumers will see more of an advantage from smart meters when home appliances can communicate with the devices.

“The reality is the grid right now is that it’s actually fairly dumb,” Fitch said. There’s a lot of manual decisions that need to be made in order to get the electricity from a generator to your house. I think what we’re looking at is a much more automatically controlled situation where appliances are automatically linked in with smart devices.”

For example, a fully integrated system could “decide” to run your clothes dryer at off-peak times, to relieve strain on the grid and possibly save money. But the whole idea of charging more for power at different times of day, known as peak pricing, troubles consumer advocates like Mark Toney. He heads The Utility Reform Network (TURN), a consumer advocacy group based in Oakland.

“We want to make sure this doesn’t unduly harm seniors, for instance, who are home bound,” Toney told me, pointing out that folks don’t have a choice sometimes about whether to run their air conditioner in the sweltering Central Valley heat.  “We don’t want them to be faced with the choice of being safe in their home or being subject to heat stroke because they shut off their AC because they can’t afford it,” he said.

Toney is also concerned that struggling customers are more likely to see their power shut off,  if they can’t keep up with the bills.  Smart meters allow utilities to turn off power remotely, without having to send a crew out to someone’s home–and that, he says, gives the company less incentive to negotiate payment plans.

The CPUC’s response? Utilities will still have to follow standard procedures, including advance notice of shut-offs.

Meanwhile an independent lab appointed by the CPUC continues to test PG&E SmartMeters to try to determine why some of them are malfunctioning. Some customers now have “side-by-side” test installations, with both analog and digital meters tracking electricity use in tandem. Strangely enough, the deployment of smart meters by Southern California’s two major utilities has gone relatively smoothly, with just a fraction of the complaints that PG&E has logged.

In my radio story, I interviewed Bakersfield Resident Liz Keogh, who saw her electric bill spike after her SmartMeter was installed.  Keogh is very energy-conscious; her home is a veritable showcase of energy-saving gadgetry. There could be any number of technical reasons why the new meters led to larger bills. Keogh developed her own personal theory (since disproved by independent tests), which she demonstrates in the video below, using some unlikely props. It’s a good example of the broad spectrum of consumer objections to the technology.

The Backlash Against “SmartMeters”

A "SmartMeter" mounted on a Fresno home. (Photo: Sasha Khokha)

A "SmartMeter" mounted on a Fresno home. (Photo: Sasha Khokha)

The California Public Utilities Commission says it will name a consultant sometime this week to start testing PG&E digital “SmartMeters,” which customers have blamed for spikes in their utility bills.

The announcement came after state Senator Dean Florez (D-Shafter) held a press conference in Bakersfield to question why the CPUC hadn’t taken action. Last October, the Commission agreed to quickly hire an independent contractor to test the meters.
Florez got involved in the flap last year after some of his Central Valley constituents saw their bills triple with the new meters, even if customers bought energy saving appliances, or in some cases, when no one was living at the home. “The biggest savings recognized so far has been to PG&E, who were able to lay off numerous meter readers,” said Florez in a press release.

PG&E has blamed the higher bills on rate increases and hot weather (not a new phenomenon in the Central Valley, where people coddle their air conditioners as if they were household pets).

The Bakersfield Californian reported last month that the backlash here in the Central Valley is catching the attention of industry analysts and utilities nationwide, who want to avoid a spreading backlash against the new technology.

One of the groups sounding a warning is the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, an independent consumer advocacy division of the CPUC. Last week, it advised the Commission to reject a Southern California Gas application to fund its own $1 billion smart meter program. DRA argued not that utility bills would spike with new digital meters, but that money could be better spent on energy efficiency measures and appliances. DRA says SoCalGas is overestimating how much customers will reduce their usage if they can see a digital display of how much energy they’re paying for.

Part of the concept behind smart meters is to help utilities with “demand response” strategies; providing timely feedback to customers, who can use their home computers to see exactly how and when they’re using power, customers might then alter their consumption patterns to avoid peak demand periods, and cut utility bills.

But some of that strategy has already backfired. The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that a document PG&E filed with the CPUC says the advanced digital smart meters will let the company shut off power to more customers who fall behind on their bills, since they can do so without having to send a crew to a customer’s home. The meters may be smart but consumer advocates say it’s a dumb strategy that will make it easier for the utility giant to leave customers out in the cold.

State Water Deliveries May Set New Low

State water officials have announced they are likely to release a record-low allocation of water to cities and farms next year– just five percent of what water contractors have requested. Though still preliminary, it’s the lowest allocation since the State Water Project began delivering water back in 1967.

The announcement may have caught some by surprise, since Department of Water Resources (DWR) data would seem to show reservoirs at higher levels than last year at this time, with major reservoirs at 69% of storage capacity, compared to 57% last year.

When I asked DWR Deputy Director Susan Simms about it, even she was stumped at first. But then she called me back to say that the data includes both federal and state reservoirs, and the state’s storage levels at both Lake Oroville and San Luis Reservoir (shared with the feds) is actually lower than last year (52% and 48% of “normal,” respectively). And, she says, the state has to contend with pumping restrictions to protect both salmon and delta smelt this time around.

DWR Director Lester Snow told reporters this morning that there’s nothing in the recently passed bundle of state water bills that can provide any immediate relief. And if you thought the prospect of increased precipitation from El Nino could save the day, don’t get out the umbrella just yet. David Rizzardo, Chief of the state’s Snow Survey section, estimates there’s only a 50-60% chance of a stronger El Nino kicking in this year. December and January will be the most telling months–but precipitation from El Nino would likely be concentrated in the southern half of the state. Officials say that would provide more “flexibility” in meeting water needs systemwide, but all of California’s biggest reservoirs are located in the northern part of the state.

December water delivery estimates almost always get a boost once it starts snowing. Last year’s initial projection was 15%, and that was later revised upward, eventually to 40 percent. Snow called today’s estimate “very conservative.”

If you think the five percent figure is supposed to scare us, it is. Water officials want to send a message that Californians need to be prepared to conserve. The state’s drought coordinator, Wendy Martin, just returned from a water tour in Australia, where she says she saw water-saving measures in place that California has yet to fully develop: storm water recapture, water recycling, and more. Martin also observed that the Australians now wish that they’d taken the epic drought of the last several years more seriously, sooner.

Starving Sea Lions: A Climate Connection?

Photos by Victoria Carpenter

Photos by Victoria Carpenter

I thought the highlight of my trip to Point Reyes last week would be the cows grazing on spectacular cliffs covered with yellow lupine. I was visiting a historic dairy there for an upcoming story on crashing milk prices.

But then I noticed a white van marked “rescue” driving down to a dock near the Pt. Reyes lighthouse, and decided to follow it. Turns out, I stumbled upon an incredible scene: rescue workers releasing baby sea lions and elephant seal pups back into the waves.

Volunteers lugged what looked like over-sized pet carriers out of the van and slid them onto a cement boat dock. Then a trio of sea lion pups poked their heads out, sniffed the salt air, and flippered their way across the cement and into the water, playfully nuzzling each other.

They seemed exhilarated–but thin. These pups had been rescued near Monterey, revived in the Marine Mammal Center’s Sausalito hospital, and were now healthy enough to return to the ocean, though you could still see their rib cages poking through their fur.

The sea lions swam out quickly but the elephant seals were a little more sluggish. One pup kept swimming back toward the humans, begging for fish. Then a giant female came out of the waves, perhaps offering herself as an adoptive mom, nudging the baby into the water.

Jim Oswald of the Marine Mammal Center (MMC) says the staff is seeing an unprecedented spike in rescue calls. In just the first two weeks of June, nearly 1,300 people phoned in, worried about stranded sea lions and other mammals. Most of them are malnourished sea lions who can’t seem to find enough anchovies, herring, or sardines to snack on.


Researchers aren’t quite sure why–but haven’t ruled out some kind of climate connection. The MMC is reporting its findings to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to try and figure out the cause. Possible El Nino Conditions? Warming oceans sending schools of smaller fish northwards? No one quite knows at this point.

“If it’s a climate change variable, that’s going to affect the fish the animals feed on,” says NOAA Wildlife Biologist  Joe Cordaro. “That could be a very long temporary shift in the bait fish distribution, or it could be long-term depending on how severely climate change affects the surface temperature of the ocean.”

But Cordaro says at this point, the sea lion strandings are “one big puzzle,” with climate change as just one possible factor. We could simply be witnessing a high-birth year for sea lions, with  a lot more pups than usual, or early signs of a returning El Nino weather pattern. Meteorologists won’t know until the fall whether California actually meets the criteria for a strong El Nino year. If so, Cordaro predicts “things are going to get a lot worse for the sea lions this fall and next spring.”

[Editor’s Note: The case for a return to El Nino was advanced on Wednesday, when the Australian Bureau of Meteorology reported that indications are almost certain at this point]

Regardless of the cause, the MMC’s Oswald says it’s cause for concern.

“These young sea lion pups get to the point where they’re so weak, they end up on the land and they’re too weak to go back,” Oswald explains. “It’s easier for them to waddle along, hoping they’ll find another waterway where they can find some food. They’re using up all their reserves if they stay out in the ocean.”

Stranded sea lion pups have even turned up on Bay Area freeways. Last week, rescuers found one on the 880 freeway in Oakland.

“His name is Fruitvale,” reports Oswald, “for the district in Oakland he was rescued from. He seems to be doing okay. He’s still being tube fed. I’m told from veterinarians that he’s feisty, moving around, and nippy, which is a good sign.”

The Marine Mammal Center’s Sausalito headquarters lets visitors watch volunteers in action. There’s an interactive exhibit with a sea lion on a gurney, where you can see its x-rays and test results. You can watch volunteers prepare fish meal, or even witness a post-mortem in the necropsy room.

Sounds grim, but until sea lion pups start finding more fish to eat–and humans start to figure out what’s causing the food chain to collapse, the Marine Mammal Rescue Squad plans on a very busy summer.
Sasha Khokha is chief of KQED’s Central Valley Bureau and a frequent contributor to Climate Watch.

And for more about the Marine Mammal Center’s sea lion rescue efforts, listen to Amy Standen’s recent radio report on KQED’s Quest. You can also view her slideshow and read her Reporter’s Notes on the Quest blog.