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Lodi crane advocates say tunnel project threatens birds

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Posted: Friday, November 1, 2013 3:04 pm

Organizers of Lodi’s annual Sandhill Crane Festival are worried state plans to build two tunnels through the Delta will harm the threatened species that gives the festival its name.

As part of the state’s Bay Delta Conservation Plan — a 50-year conservation and habitat restoration plan of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta — two 40-feet diameter tunnels will run through the Delta from just south of Sacramento to just north of Tracy to deliver water from the Sacramento River to other parts of California.

The plan also calls for restoration of 100,000-plus acres of habitat to maintain the well-being of 57 species, including the threatened greater Sandhill crane.

However, a remap of the project over the summer now has the tunnels running under Staten Island, which is the site of a state-owned crane refuge. The cranes fly down from their breeding grounds in Washington and Oregon in mid-September and spend the winter in the region before heading back north in March.

Despite state promises to limit and fix damage done to the cranes’ winter habitat, festival organizers and other crane enthusiasts believe the construction of the tunnels will decimate the Sandhill crane population on the island.

Sally Shanks, a member of the Lodi Crane Association board who used to farm on Staten Island before the crane refuge was created, believes that the construction of the tunnels will disrupt the crane colonies, and that 15 miles of new transmission lines in the Stone Lakes Wildlife Refuge in southern Sacramento County will lead to hundreds of crane deaths.

“It’s not credible that this project won’t have negative impacts on the cranes,” Shanks said at a press conference at Hutchins Street Square on the opening day of the Sandhill Crane Festival on Friday. “It is essential that the project do no damage to Staten Island. It is not acceptable to do damage and then mitigate that damage, because it will be too late for the cranes.”

In late August, the Lodi Sandhill Association board, which normally stays neutral in political battles, voted to oppose the BDCP.

Shanks said she wonders whether there would be a reason to hold the festival — which brings thousands of people to Lodi every November — if the cranes are gone from the region due to the project.

“If the project drives the cranes away with the noise, the power line strikes, the ground-shaking and the construction, there will be no festival,” Shanks said.

Nancy Vogel, spokeswoman for the California Department of Water Resources, said about 20 percent of the Sandhill crane population — including both the greater Sandhill crane and the lesser Sandhill crane, which is not a threatened species — that winters in California roosts on Staten Island.

She said the Department of Water Resources, which is overseeing the BDCP, is working to meet a standard that would have no net loss of roosting time for the birds.

The department has been working with crane experts and interest groups to make sure there is no threat to the greater Sandhill crane population, she said.

In the end, she said, the BDCP will create a net increase of 504 acres of roosting and foraging habitat for the cranes around the Delta, with at least 180 acres of that in the Stone Lakes Wildlife Refuge.

Other measures in the BDCP aimed at minimizing disruption of the cranes’ habitat include restricting the time and location of construction during roosting season; placing barriers around construction sites that will limit noise; storing excavated materials from tunnel service shafts on the northern part of the island — the birds mostly roost on the southern side — or removing them from the island completely; and keeping power lines from running through the island.

Mike Savino of Save Our Sandhill Cranes said his organization has not been able to find any examples of other communities around the world using similar techniques to protect a crane population during a big construction project.

“That means that right now it’s an experiment,” he said. “We’re gambling. That experiment — the many techniques used — if even one of them is wrong it could flush out the cranes.”

Contact reporter Todd Allen Wilson at toddw@lodinews.com.

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