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When Padre Juan Crespi first sighted the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in 1772, he thought he would be able to walk around it.

The Spanish missionary and his party of 15 soldiers had been dispatched to find a land route from Monterey to Point Reyes, where Spain hoped to build a port. But 10 days into their journey, in the heart of Alta California, Crespi and his men encountered a maze of water, mud and swamp. It was the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas.

Crespi expected the estuary to function like others he had seen, fragmenting into dozens of small braided channels fanning out toward the sea. Upstream, he figured, they would find a single channel to cross.

But this estuary did the opposite: As Crespi traveled upstream, the water spread out.

“Crossing these rivers by boat or canoe would be apt,” a chastened Crespi wrote in his diary. “Because if you do not, it’s (necessary) to climb the mountains to the southeast and seek the path of the large river. To climb such a high pass certainly requires a greater number of soldiers and more provisions, which is why I withdrew.”

Crespi was the first known European to glimpse this odd California landscape, and the first of many to be confounded by it. Sixteen rivers and hundreds of creeks converge from all over California on the Delta’s vast central plain—all mud, tules and marsh—finally forming one mighty river that drains the state’s whole churning belly. It’s called an “inverted” estuary, because its waterways unite before reaching the sea. The only comparable place on Earth is the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

When Crespi encountered the estuary, its floodplain extended 100 miles north and south, filling the Central Valley with a wealth of snowmelt, all of it destined to squeeze through the land gap later called Golden Gate. Today, the Delta is crossed by three state highways and hundreds of miles of railroad tracks and county roads. There are 1,100 miles of navigable channels, and 72 islands ringed by levees. Modern charts detail where to anchor, where to catch the best striped bass, where to find the most convenient bridges and ferries.

But the levees may be vulnerable to earthquakes. If they fail, the water supply would be compromised by a flood of salty water from San Francisco Bay. And rising sea levels could taint the water supply permanently.

The Delta, which still covers an area the size of Rhode Island, provides half of all the freshwater consumed by a thirsty state, serving 3 million acres of farmland and 25 million Californians, from Silicon Valley to San Diego. Gov. Jerry Brown hopes to better serve the state by spending $15 billion on a new water-diversion system. It would shunt a portion of the Sacramento River out of the estuary into two giant tunnels, 30 miles long and 150 feet underground. The intent is to divert freshwater in a way less harmful to imperiled native fish species, while protecting those diversions from floods, earthquakes and a rising sea. The tunnels would serve existing state and federal canal systems that begin in the south Delta, near Tracy, and divert water to cities and farms, mostly in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley. Another $10 billion would go to wildlife habitat improvements, in part to breach levees and restore tidal action to some islands.

But after seven years of study, state officials acknowledge that removing so much freshwater upstream may cause “unquantifiable” water-quality changes. Meanwhile, critics say taking so much freshwater from the estuary could harm Delta farms and perhaps concentrate pollutants in a way that hurts the same fish state officials hope to restore.

The Delta continues to confound.

Forty-five years after Crespi turned back, Padre Narciso Durán came through with two small boats on an expedition led by Lt. Don Luis Arguello. Their trip through the watery maze began on May 13, 1817, and lasted two weeks. Durán, who kept a journal, came along to baptize Indians.

They set out in a storm, and the boats became separated at the confluence. When the storm finally quit, and the boats were reunited, another challenge arose: It was snowmelt season, and the downstream current in the Sacramento River was so strong that it nearly halted their progress. Without wind, days of brutal rowing followed, with little upstream progress.

The party soon encountered a variety of branching side channels, and they could not be sure which one was the river itself. Because the Delta was in flood, the true riverbanks and many of the natural islands were submerged. They took a wrong turn, but eventually got lucky and recovered their course.

Familiarity with this labyrinth benefitted the locals, who fled as soon as they spotted the expedition boats. The Europeans found two villages vacated; occupants of a third village “fled at the noise of the launches, leaving only two old women, more than 60 years old.” Durán felt obliged to baptize both women.

Durán, who was no naturalist, does not mention any animals. But the Delta was teeming with wildlife in a way that is difficult to imagine today: Vast herds of elk and pronghorn antelope roamed here, hunted by wolf and grizzly bear. The maze of curving sloughs was a nursery for one of the world’s most productive fisheries.

The Delta remains the most important salmon fishery on the West Coast, producing most of the wild-caught king salmon in the Lower 48. Yet there are 57 endangered species here, including steelhead trout and two runs of salmon.

Modern-day Californians are as oblivious to the region’s natural wealth as Durán seemed to be. A January 2012 survey found that 78 percent of California residents don’t know where the Delta is, or even what it is.

The day after baptizing the two women, Durán and his party reached their turnaround point. They hoped to find a place to erect a cross, “and there to end our quest and retreat downriver.” After rowing upriver three more leagues, they pulled ashore to rest, where they spotted a village of Natives, “who came out at them armed with their customary fierce clamor.”

Arguello mustered his soldiers to confront the Indians, who “calmed down, to everyone’s relief, and said they had armed themselves believing we were hostile people.” The travelers were invited to visit a larger village one league upriver.

But Durán and his cohorts never found the second village. And amid the flood, they could find no solid ground to erect a cross. So they carved one on an oak tree.

The exact location of that cross is unknown today. But according to Durán’s diary, they carved it about 80 miles upstream from the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers—or near today’s state capital, Sacramento, where Gov. Brown weighs the fate of the Delta today.

Matt Weiser covers environmental issues for The Sacramento Bee and has written about the Delta and California water for 15 years. The contemporary translation of Crespi and Durán’s journals is by Alexa Mergen. This essay originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

Despite last weekend’s helpful storms, it’s a fact: There’s a water shortage in California.

Depending on your news source, we’re told that the state is suffering either through its worst drought ever, the worst since the 1880s, or—at the least—the worst in the last 15 years.

“Not only was 2013 one of the driest years on record in California; it followed two dry years in 2011 and 2012,” said Craig Ewing, the Desert Water Agency’s president of the board, during his opening remarks at a recent DWA public workshop regarding water conservation and management.

Concern is highest in communities farther north, like Santa Barbara, where water restrictions mandated by a Stage 1 drought alert were initiated on Feb. 4. Customers there are being asked to reduce water usage by 20 percent. But even as such measures are being taken, some projections say that available water resources for that city could run out as early as July. “I am not calm and collected,” said Ray Stokes, manager of the Central Coast Water Authority, the agency responsible for importing state water into Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, to the Santa Barbara Independent.

Here in the Coachella Valley, the news is comparatively good news for Desert Water Agency customers. The agency serves customers in Palm Springs, Cathedral City and Desert Hot Springs. “We have underground storage called the aquifer here,” explained Ewing at the workshop. “Ninety percent of our water comes from that; 10 percent comes from snows and the creeks. So we aren’t in the desperate condition they’re in up north.”

The good news continues. Due to the combined efforts of the DWA on the west end of the valley, and the Coachella Valley Water District agency—which services most of the communities from Cathedral City to the Salton Sea—the water level in the aquifer has been supplemented frequently since 1973 through “recharging” of the supply with water obtained from the Colorado River as part of an agreement with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

“We started banking natural runoffs during wet years,” Ewing said. “Now we’re trying to maintain a stable supply. But we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, since they’re telling us that the 21st century will be drier than the 20th. This comes down to some big issues around climate and geology and water availability, and your role as a human being to leave a smaller water footprint as we go forward.”

Ewing noted the fortunate reality at play in the Coachella Valley. “We live in a desert, and yet we have direct access to the California State Water Project, so we don’t pay a middle man,” he said. “We have this aquifer that actually filters the water so we don’t have to spend money on treatment, and it provides a valuable natural storage resource. We have to recognize that we are probably the most fortunate people out there with regard to water—but that’s no reason to ignore the drought problem.”

Also in attendance at the public workshop was Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez, who is currently running for the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. “I’m here because I felt it was important to hear about the concerns that our constituency may have and to hear from the DWA what they are proposing. Everyone has to do their part at the end of the day. We have to do everything we can to protect our most important natural asset.”

DWA officials discussed some of the water-conservation efforts currently under way. The first is operational efficiency, which involves the water agency’s efforts to make sure it saves water in the way it’s delivered to the customer. This includes replacing damaged water mains, providing homeowners with smart water meters, and identifying irrigation-system leaks, among other initiatives.

Other efforts include educational outreach, customer incentives or rebates, and regulatory restrictions on water usage. Another conservation strategy, tiered-rate billing, is under serious consideration and study by the DWA.

For CVWD customers, tiered-rate billing is already business as usual.

“We started tiered rates in 2009,” said Heather Engel, CVWD director of communications and legislation. “And we didn’t get a lot of resistance from our customers. We did a pretty heavy education campaign, which included sending ‘shadow bills’ to every customer for three months prior to implementation. They got to see if their bill would go up, down or stay the same. And for 80 percent of our customers, the bill actually went down by a couple of pennies.

“Some people did accuse us of just trying to make more money,” Engel continued. “But it really was an education program. People maybe thought they were being very conscientious with their water use, but here was a guide that they could look at and say, ‘Wow! I’m being excessive.’ Maybe they had leaks they didn’t know about and could now address.”

Are tiered rates definitely in the future for DWA customers?

“If you ask me, I’d say yes,” said DWA board president Ewing. “But it will be a discussion for the board. I think we need to go there.”

Barbara Ojena, a Palm Springs citizen, seemed pleased that she attended the workshop.

“I was very impressed how on top of things the organization is. Personally, I’d like to see a few more regulations put in place at this time, because we are in a severe situation statewide. I think we need to make people more aware of that and conserve what we’ve got.”

Published in Environment

If you want to make it rain in wine country, you can try the usual magic rituals—like washing your car, planning a sunny picnic or forgetting your raincoat.

Or you can simply decide to write about the impact of drought on the wine industry.

The sky was clear when I started thinking about water and wine, as I drove up the bone-dry Interstate 5—desert dry, crispy dry, whispy dry—in late January. I’d been jarred by stark images from NASA’s Terra satellite, showing a swath of tan mountains reaching up along the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valley, juxtaposed with a 2013 shot of a snowy white Sierra Nevada

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in California on Jan. 17. A few days later, state health officials released a list of 17 communities and water districts—from Mendocino County to Kern County—that could run dry before summer if no action was taken.

Then in early February came rain—up the coast from Monterey to Crescent City, in Napa and Sonoma, on the coast and in the foothills. It snowed over Lake Tahoe and the Sierra. Even here in SoCal, we had a couple of overcast days and a few rain sprinkles.

Ahh. The sweet smell of hydration.

Of course, the drought’s still on. Just as record freezing spells in the Midwest don’t negate the reality of global warming, a nice soaker isn’t going to make up for several months of missing precip. California’s still having the driest year ever, according to state climatologist Michael Anderson. Anderson noted in January that, statewide, only 1.53 inches of rain were recorded from October through December, the lowest aggregate total since record-keeping began in 1895. The average for that period is 7.87 inches.

From the narrow perspective of a grape-lover: That’s a lot of thirsty vines.

Did I say narrow? I meant it. Obviously, so much more is at stake than delicious fermented grape beverages. Several species of fish, including salmon and steelhead populations, are at risk. Farmers’ livelihoods are on the line. Worse, the wealthy could end up washing faces with Evian, like that reporter tweeting from a crappy hotel in Sochi.

As usual, the less-affluent would be screwed.

What are folks in the wine biz thinking on the topic of drought?

One of my favorite Sierra Foothills winemakers, Ted Bechard has a plan for this season’s challenges, which includes savvy pruning around the vernal equinox and earlier-than-usual irrigation.

When I talked to him, Bechard was in his winery, putting foil tops and labels on bottles. Rain was drizzling over his small vineyard in Somerset, Calif., about an hour east of Sacramento.

“We’re still quite a ways behind,” Bechard says. “But it’s not unlike this area for us to get some rain in April and May. We may make up the difference at that point.”

Like many others in the wine industry, he’s thinking that 2014 might not be the most-prolific year for grapes. But with the generous harvests in 2012 and 2013, California’s not going to run out of wine anytime soon. Unless some unforeseen new demand kicks in, the sizable wine inventory at many California wineries should be sufficient, says Ben Drake, president of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association

“We’ve come off two good years,” Drake says. “I think we’re going to be in good shape.”

Drake’s in a good position to know. He runs Drake Enterprises, a farm-management company that handles avocado- and citrus-farming, as well as vineyards. He’s also on the state’s Drought Task Force.

Drake attended the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in late January in Sacramento and drought was absolutely on the agenda. Farmers are worried, and rightfully so. Northern California’s water supplies are on-stream, from rivers to reservoirs—and that requires government officials to make hard choices about who gets water and when. Sound like a political football? Yeah. Stay tuned.

Drake notes that Southern California wineries are in the enviable position of having the chock-full-o’-water man-made Diamond Valley Lake. The 800,000-acre-foot offstream reservoir near Hemet contains the Colorado River harvest. Between Diamond Lake and other water resources for Southern California, Drake predicts that 2014 won’t be a problem.

But 2015? That’s another story.

Here’s something for winos to appreciate: When it comes to efficient use of water, wine grapes are much better than other popular Southern California crops. Growing wine grapes requires less than half the water needed to grow most citrus trees, and about one-fourth of the water required for avocados.

Let them eat wine!

Drake suggests that the governor’s suggestion for Californians to reduce water use by 20 percent is an important step toward change. We need to evaluate how we live and what we grow—rethinking luxuries like lawns and landscaping, for starters.

“Realizing the climate is changing, we’re going to have to look at a new pattern for what we’re doing in our households—and by changing crops,” Drake says.

I was heartened to read that the state government plans to lead the way on efficient water use, turning off decorative fountains and not washing government vehicles as often. Those moves are mostly for show, true. A bigger water-saver will come from not irrigating highway vegetation. That saves 6 billion gallons of water annually, as much as a year’s supply of water for a city of 30,000.

At Bechard’s winery in Somerset, winemaker Ted reminds me it’s too early to predict what the year will bring.

“Who knows?” he says, “Maybe it will sort itself out and be a wonderful year.”


Did I mention a prolific wine supply? Here’s a chance to taste it all: The Temecula Valley’s World of Wines Barrel Tasting Weekend runs Saturday and Sunday, March 1 and 2 with barrel-tastings and more exciting shin-diggery at 35 wineries along Rancho California and DePortola Roads in Temecula. Tickets are $99, with various discounts. And for much less than the price of a DUI attorney, you can hire a VIP shuttle or wine tour guide to drive you around. For more information, visit www.temeculawines.org/events/index.php?events_id=51.

Published in Wine

In 1913, Los Angeles’ legendary chief engineer William Mulholland watched water flow from the L.A. Aqueduct for the first time and proclaimed, “There it is. Take it.”

The project drew water from the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, more than 200 miles away, across deserts and mountains, drying up the Owens River and the once-vast Owens Lake, and dangerously lowering eerily beautiful Mono Lake. Over time, it also made modern Los Angeles possible in all its awful glory: sprawling suburbs linked by clogged freeways underneath a blanket of smog.

Later, L.A. tore out its rail system to make room for a booming car culture. And even today, despite the dramatic natural setting—10,000-foot mountains, 30 miles of Pacific beaches and one of the nation’s largest urban parks smack-dab in its middle—many of L.A.’s 4 million residents have no easy access to nature, making the city one of our most park-poor.

And yet, last year, as the city celebrated the centennial of its original sin—that Owens Valley water grab—it also marked a turning point in its history: Under cover of one of the worst environmental reputations on the planet, Los Angeles is becoming an unlikely model of sustainability.

This coincides with a political transition. In 2013, L.A. elected Mayor Eric Garcetti, 43, who as a City Council member was a strong advocate for localizing water sources, cutting energy use, promoting efficiency, confronting climate change and providing access to parks and nature. His first official mayoral portrait, taken in a kayak on the Los Angeles River last summer, will greet visitors at LAX. That the L.A. River—a trash-strewn, concrete-lined channel famous as a backdrop for murders and movie car chases—has become an official symbol of Los Angeles says a lot about the city’s transformation. The river, like its city, is slowly but surely being rehabilitated.

Los Angeles has a solid foundation for this effort. Its 329 days of sunshine a year and ocean breezes give it an advantage, making heating and cooling more energy-efficient. The sprawling city is also, paradoxically, already the nation’s densest, with more people on average living in every square block than even New York, thanks to the number of duplexes and apartments in what you might call the suburbs. And it has not one downtown, but many—88 cities in Los Angeles County, a sort of new urbanist’s dream.

Meanwhile, California’s overwhelmingly Democratic political landscape is famously friendly to environmental initiatives. The state has moved well beyond debates about whether climate change is happening to begin implementing the country’s most-progressive policies. Locally, decades of grassroots advocacy to restore the L.A. River—initiated by poet Lewis MacAdams—have been embraced by the political mainstream. The city is also home to RePower L.A., a coalition of environmentalists, labor unions and economic-justice activists that works with the city-owned Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to train workers to retrofit homes at no cost to homeowners.

L.A.’s bid to become a 21st-century sustainable city starts where its environmental sins began—with water. Despite their hot, dry climate, Angelenos use less water than residents of any other American city with more than a million people, according to the Water and Power Department. Aggressive conservation measures during droughts have led to savings in wet times, too: The metropolitan area currently uses the same amount of water that it did in 1970, even though several million more people live here. Still, L.A. imports approximately 89 percent of its water from hundreds of miles away—the Owens Valley, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Colorado River. But the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has been forced to leave more water in the Owens Valley, raising the level of Mono Lake, returning water to the Owens River, and keeping down dust at dry Owens Lake. With other imported supplies likely to be pinched by climate change and increasing environmental demands, the municipal utility is working to capture more stormwater and store it in depleted groundwater basins; clean up contaminated groundwater; and recycle and reuse wastewater.

Woodbury University’s Arid Lands Institute estimates that aquifers underneath the city could absorb up to 95,000 acre-feet of stormwater a year—the amount of water the Water and Power Department is now leaving in Owens Lake—if the surface landscape were re-engineered with porous paving, drainage systems, infiltration basins and urban forests, instead of shunting the water into concrete channels and out to the ocean. That’s already happening in neighborhoods and parks around the city.

Meanwhile, the utility has committed to phasing out coal-powered electricity in the next 12 years, ending long-term power purchase agreements with plants in Utah and Arizona, and inspiring the climate-advocacy group 350.org to call Los Angeles “the national leader in the fight against climate change.” L.A. already has the largest solar-rooftop incentive program in the country, and the best feed-in-tariff rules, which allow consumers to sell power back to the grid. The city itself has realized an energy savings of 57 percent by installing 36,500 LED streetlights. It’s working to reduce energy consumption by at least 20 percent overall across 30 million square feet of existing buildings. The City Council recently made L.A. the first major city to require all new and remodeled homes to have “cool roofs” that reflect rather than absorb sunlight.

L.A. is also building a new rail system that is creating a different backbone for a city long defined by cars and freeways. Within a couple of years, you’ll be able to ride a train 25 miles from Pasadena to the beach at Santa Monica for the first time in nearly a century. L.A. is also, incredibly, becoming more bike-friendly, with 350 miles of bike lanes and paths and more on the way. Major city thoroughfares are shut down several times a year for CicLAvia events that attract tens of thousands of riders. And 19 new parks have been opened in recent years as part of the city’s “50 Parks Initiative,” many in L.A.’s most park-poor neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, the city has dramatically reduced smog: You can see the mountains here more often now than you could when I was a kid, visiting my grandparents in Pasadena. That said, L.A. has a long way to go. We still have the worst air quality of any major U.S. city. Many local communities suffer from disproportionate environmental health risks because of their proximity to freeways and other polluters. And like everyone else, the city still needs a strategy for kicking its addiction to fossil fuels.

As a newcomer—I moved here a little more than a year ago from Northern California—I’ve been surprised not only by L.A.’s recent accomplishments, but also by the serious self-reflection behind them. Los Angeles is taking more responsibility for its past wrongs and actively tackling current challenges.

Last fall, the University of California at Los Angeles announced a major research initiative. “Thriving in a Hotter Los Angeles” aims to wean the city off imported water and make it fully reliant on renewable energy by 2050, while preserving biodiversity and improving local quality of life. More than 70 campus researchers—from law, policy, conservation biology, engineering, humanities, climate science, public health, urban planning—are contributing to the plan, to be presented in 2019.

The necessary partnerships with local, state and federal government, businesses, other universities, and community groups are already coming together. “Let’s get it done!” Mayor Garcetti told a group of local leaders, researchers and donors, who gathered to kick off the $150 million fundraising campaign in November.

Can we get it done? With the impending impacts of a hotter climate and rising sea level, more wildfires, and reduced snowpack, one could simply argue that we have no choice. We have to get it done.

Jon Christensen is an adjunct assistant professor, senior researcher and journalist-in-residence in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and History Department at University of California at Los Angeles. This article originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Community Voices

As all eyes in the West turn to the skies for relief from 14 years of “mega-drought,” as Gov. Jerry Brown put it when he declared a drought emergency in January, this is as good of a time as any for those of us in the West to ask: “How did we get caught between a rock and a dry place, and what, if anything, can we do about it now?”

To answer that question, we have to go back to the boom-boom years of America’s dam-building. No politician in the West was a bigger believer in the transformative power of impounded water than Arizona’s favorite son, Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was the Bureau of Reclamation’s biggest booster in Congress when the agency proposed mind-boggling water projects to tame the mighty Colorado River.

Never mind that the Hoover Commission, in a report commissioned by Congress, warned in 1951 that the Bureau of Reclamation would bankrupt the nation with senseless dams and irrigation projects, while holding future generations of Americans hostage to unpaid bills and unintended consequences.

At a time when Goldwater and the Bureau of Reclamation were enjoying a Golden Age of water projects, their chief nemesis was an environmental crusader named David Brower. Brower, president of the Sierra Club and founder of the Earth Island Institute, single-handedly led the fight against building Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. And lost. He called that defeat “the darkest day of my life.”

Time and old age have a way of bringing people to their senses. Toward the end of his life, Goldwater took political positions that left most of his libertarian allies scratching their heads in bewilderment. Is Barry going senile? Did somebody poison his soup?

No, Goldwater’s public epiphany came about when PBS aired Cadillac Desert, a series based on Marc Reisner’s eponymous book. In the third episode, when Goldwater and Reisner were discussing the adjudication of the Colorado River, the silver-haired Goldwater looked out across the sprawling megalopolis of Phoenix and asked, “What have we done to this beautiful desert, our wild rivers? All that dam-building on the Colorado, across the West, was a big mistake. What in the world were we thinking?”

That admission reverberated across the high mesas of the Southwest like summer thunder. A few months later, when Brower and I talked over lunch, I asked him, “What did you do when Goldwater said it was all a big mistake?”

He cackled and then let out an expletive. “I reached for the phone and called (Goldwater), and I said, Barry, let’s do the right thing: Help me take out Glen Canyon Dam. He said he would! Then he died a few months later.”

Brower died a few months after that.

Taking out Glen Canyon Dam would not have altered today’s water crisis in the Southwest, but it would have made a resounding statement. It would have said: “Wild rivers rock.” It would have said, “We should have left well enough alone.”

We can’t go back to that America any more than we can return to the days before the Civil War, or to the Indian Wars, and fix things. We’re stuck with the aftermath of those decisions, many of them poorly informed, unwise or downright bad. And, sadly, as the Hoover Commission warned 63 years ago, the consequences will be with us for generations to come.

The Colorado River, though, is a special case. It has always been a special case—now more than ever. The drought that grips the Southwest today is the worst in 1,250 years, say some experts, and it shows no sign of releasing its grip. No doubt, the region’s leaders despair over vanishing options. The Bureau of Reclamation has announced it may start rationing water to downstream states by 2015. And no climate model is predicting rain.

What in the world were we thinking?

Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in Portland, Ore., and is the author of Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America’s Road to Empire through Indian Territory.

Published in Environment

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