Stopping the Steelhead 

A plan to build a new Alameda County dam could block the restoration of a historic steelhead trout run. Plus, the port bans old, dirty trucks.

No one disputes the fact that the Calaveras Dam should be replaced. Built in 1925, the earthen dam near the Sunol and Ohlone wilderness areas in southeastern Alameda County is seismically unsafe and would likely collapse in a strong earthquake. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which owns the old dam, hopes to complete a new one by 2012. But the Alameda Creek Alliance, an influential environmental group, says that while it supports the new dam, the commission's plans contain some serious flaws — including blocking a long-time effort to restore a historic steelhead run from San Francisco Bay to the headwaters of Alameda Creek.

Over the past decade, the alliance has worked hard to remove — or build fish ladders over — a dozen barriers on Alameda Creek, and has received millions of dollars in funding from several public agencies to make it happen. The group had hoped its efforts were about to pay off. In just a few years, steelhead were going to be able to swim freely from their spawning grounds near Little Yosemite in Sunol Regional Wilderness down to the bay and back again. The twenty-plus-mile run was to be the first restoration of a migratory steelhead habitat in East Bay history.

But the effort may have been all for naught. Jeff Miller, executive director of the alliance, says the SFPUC is threatening the habitat restoration by proposing to horde too much water behind the new 210-foot-tall dam and refusing to release adequate flows for the fish in dry and normal years. As a result, there likely won't be enough water in Alameda Creek for a sustainable steelhead run. "The proposed flows for steelhead are clearly inadequate," Miller said.

SFPUC officials did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story. But in the past, the commission has contended that it needs to keep as much fresh water behind the dam as it can for its customers in San Francisco and around the Bay Area. Although the SFPUC gets most of its water from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir on the Tuolumne River in Yosemite, Calaveras is its largest Bay Area reservoir. The commission recently released its draft environmental impact report on the new Calaveras Dam and is accepting public comments through November 20.

According to the draft environmental report, the SFPUC plans to abide by an agreement it made with the state Department of Fish and Game in the 1990s, concerning releasing water from the dam. However, Miller contends that the water flows outlined in the agreement for dry and normal years won't be enough for the fish. He said that over the past few years, a group of environmentalists and biologists have been studying the issue to determine exactly how much water the steelhead will need. But he said the group is still about a year from "getting that question answered." Nonetheless, the SFPUC plans to plow ahead with its plans, citing the urgency of replacing the old dam.

The creek alliance also is unhappy with some of the measures in the SFPUC's proposal to mitigate the environmental damage caused by building a large new dam. Miller observes that the commission is effectively proposing to become a better steward of the land it already controls. "They're supposed to be protecting that land anyway," he said. "What they should be doing is trying to protect private land that is at risk for development."

The Port Bans Old, Dirty Trucks

The Oakland Port Commission approved a strict ban on dirty, old trucks last week that will take effect on January 1. The ban will mean that truckers whose big rigs were built before 1994 will be turned away at the port and prohibited from doing business there, as will trucks manufactured between 1994 and 2003 that have not been retrofitted with tailpipe filters. The ban is good news for environmentalists and West Oakland activists who have fought to clean up the dirty air around the port for years. But it also will be tough on the small, independent truckers who can't afford new trucks or to retrofit their old ones.

Lorenzo Fernandez, who has been driving his rig in and out of the port for the past three years, told Eco Watch that the new ban will put him out of business. The San Pablo resident and father of three said he doesn't have the money to replace his 1993 Freightliner. "As of January 1, 2010, me and a bunch of other guys — I don't know exactly how many — are going to be out of work," he said.

Fernandez said he can't make the payments on a new truck, which would cost $80,000 to $125,000, nor can he afford to buy a used one built after 1994 and then get it retrofitted so that it will pass the tough new standards. The tailpipe filters, which capture diesel particulates, cost between $15,000 and $25,000. The port has offered financing for truckers, but many of them, including Fernandez, can't afford the upfront sales taxes on new or used trucks or the filters. "The reality is that business has been slow because the economy is horrible," Fernandez said. "And the little money that we make is just barely enough to pay the maintenance on our trucks."

According to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, only about 200 port truckers out of 2,500 to 3,000 independent owner-operators had bought new rigs or obtained retrofits by last week. "While the ban is very good from an environmental and public health perspective, there's no question that it's going to be a crushing blow on the owner operators at the port," said Doug Bloch, director of the local chapter of Coalition for Clean & Safe Ports. The coalition is made up of environmentalists, activists, and labor unions.

The plight of the small truckers is why the coalition has been pushing for a change in federal law that would grant the port greater control over its trucking industry. The coalition wants the port to adopt a so-called concession/employee model in which most small owner-operators would be replaced by larger truck companies that can afford the costs associated with the ban. Fernandez said he would happily go to work for a big trucking company that would foot the bill for a new truck, but such businesses have expressed no interest in the Port of Oakland because they can't compete with the small, owner-operators who underbid them.

Nonetheless, the truck ban represents a major environmental improvement for the port. Kids in West Oakland are seven times more likely to be hospitalized with asthma or asthma-related diseases than those living in the rest of California. And it's about time that the port recognized its role in that ugly fact and did something about it.

Plug-in Hybrids Get Cheaper

East Bay Prius owners have been slow to convert their cars to plug-in hybrids, even though the retrofit boosts gas mileage to 100 mpg or more. The primary reason is probably the cost — $6,500 to $10,000 for the conversion, depending on the dealer. But a Berkeley-based dealer announced last week that it can now convert hybrids for about half the current price, thereby raising hopes that more car owners will choose to become fuel efficient.

Daniel Sherwood, co-owner of 3Prong Power on San Pablo Avenue, says his company can now transform Priuses into plug-in hybrids for $3,499, which is believed to be the lowest price in California. The small company also can now convert Ford Escape hybrids to plug-ins for the same cost. Sherwood said 3 Prong recently signed a deal with Enginer, a Chinese-manufacturer that can make lithium-powered batteries much more cheaply. The new batteries also come with a five-year warranty, which is far superior to the one-year warranty that 3 Prong offered with its more expensive lead batteries.

The only downside to the cheaper conversions is that that new batteries are weaker than what 3 Prong traditionally has sold, so your car won't get quite as good gas mileage, especially going up hills. That's because the weaker battery will prompt the car to engage its gas-powered engine sooner. Nonetheless, the cheaper plug-ins will still get 90 to 100 mpg or more during most trips around town — far better than the 50 to 60 mpg of a regular Prius. But if car owners aren't satisfied with only getting 90 mpg, then 3 Prong is still offering its more expensive conversions for $6,700.

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