Administrator's blog

Lack of incentive

Submitted: Dec 30, 2005

It's very hard to see that the USDA has any incentive to properly monitor GMO crops, pharma or otherwise, considering they are so gung-ho in favor of them, along with the land grant universities whose "win-win public/private partnerships" with biotechnology corporations have produced them.

When the nation is going to wake up and discover this technology required serious public testing it never received remains a question based on the ability of lobbies and propaganda to bend perception. Using the example of genetic contamination, however, whatever is said from bent perspectives won't change inevitable facts. So far the critics have been right, every step of the way.
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Investigators say the USDA lacks details on what happens with pharma-crops.

By PHILIP BRASHER
REGISTER WASHINGTON BUREAU
Des Moines Register, December 30 2005
http://desmoinesregister.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20051230/BUSINESS01/512300334/1030

Washington, D.C. - The U.S. Department of Agriculture has failed to properly oversee field trials of genetically engineered crops, including plants designed to produce chemicals for medical and industrial uses, investigators say.

A report released Thursday by the USDA's inspector general said the department "lacks basic information" on where field tests are or what is done with the crops after they are harvested.

The report is the latest blow to prospects for developing an industry based on mass-producing pharmaceutical chemicals from genetically modified corn. Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack once called the idea the "future of our state."

During the inspector general investigation, auditors found that two large harvests of pharmaceutical crops remained in storage at test sites without the USDA's knowledge or approval.

The investigators also said that in 2003 the department failed to inspect fields of pharmaceutical crops with the frequency that officials said they would.

"Current (USDA) regulations, policies and procedures do not go far enough to ensure the safe introduction of agricultural biotechnology," the report said.

The report "confirms the public's lack of confidence in the USDA to oversee pharmaceutical and industrial chemical crops," said Susan Prolman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group that has been critical of the agricultural biotechnology industry.

USDA officials said they have made a number of improvements since the investigation was done but disagree with some of the findings.

"We were addressing many of the issues as they were looking at the same issues," said Cindy Smith, deputy administrator for biotechnology regulatory services in the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

She said violations cited in the report were minor. Also, the agency now does all the required inspections of pharma-crop sites, including one last summer near Burlington, Ia., she said.

The department is heeding one of the inspector general's suggestions and may make it mandatory for researchers to provide global positioning coordinates for test sites.

Smith's staff has grown from 23 to 65 since it was established in 2002.

The Agriculture Department oversaw 67,000 acres of biotech field trials in 2004, up from 8,700 in 1994.

Relatively little of that acreage is devoted to pharmaceutical or industrial crops, but there is special concern that those plants could contaminate conventional crops or get into the food supply.

A small biotech company, ProdiGene Inc., was ordered to pay more than $3 million in penalties and cleanup costs in 2002 after mismanaging field trials of pharmaceutical crops in Iowa and Nebraska.

Pharma crops are seen as a cheap way to mass-produce human and animal drugs. Corn has been the crop of choice because it is relatively simple to engineer and produces a lot of grain that can be easily stored and processed.

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University of Perpetual Anxiety

Submitted: Dec 25, 2005

I shouldn't have to be thinking about nuclear war on Christmas Eve. But we've got a University of California campus here in the San Joaquin Valley now. UC Merced has brought us a brand new perspective.

I read the news today, oh boy.

I read this week that after a period of uncertainty, the UC retained control over Los Alamos National Laboratory. The press speculates winning the Los Alamos bid will strengthen UC's chances for retaining Lawrence Livermore National Lab. My immediate concern was the numerous articles since the Wen Ho Lee affair, of security breaches, thefts, and accidents at UC's two nuclear weapons labs. The day before the decision was announced, workers were imperilled by a plutonium spill at Los Alamos.

I shouldn't have to be thinking about nuclear war on Christmas Eve because I am a war baby, taught to crouch under my little desk in grammar school to protect myself from the bombs that could fall on David Farragut Elementary School, near the ocean in San Francisco.Many of my classmates' fathers had recently returned from the Pacific Theater. Some, no doubt, had expected to invade the Japanese mainland. One of our neighbors had been in that PT boat with Kennedy.

I shouldn't have to be thinking about nuclear war on Christmas Eve but the decision, and all the hoopla around it, brought back memories of the Cold War, bomb shelters, the Cuban Missile Crisis, "acceptable losses," decades of nuclear disarmament negotiations and anti-communist campaigns, the Vietnam decade, Star Wars, the "Peace Dividend" and the recent marches against the invasion of Iraq -- the whole national insecurity in which I have lived all my life as a citizen of an aggressive imperial power that has lied to its citizens about its most basic foreign policies.

I shouldn't have to be thinking about nuclear war on Christmas Eve.

In the early 1950s, atomic fever gripped our burgeoning desert town. Bartenders served atomic cocktails. Hairstylists coiffed the atomic hairdo. Revelers danced to the "Atomic Bomb Bounce." Hotel marquees listed detonation times. And Candy King was crowned Miss Atomic Bomb. Tourists were even transported to Mount Charleston's Angel Peak armed with blankets, sunglasses and box lunches so they could watch in awe as the Atomic Energy Commission let 'em rip at the Nevada Test Site. -- Las Vegas Living, June, 2000.

Not being a scientist, I tend to see nuclear weapons as being like Checkov's shotgun on the wall. They aren't just for decoration. My view is Biblical: things come to pass. American corporations' long love affair with the rightwing has finally yielded its reward, an illegal, quasi-monarchy hell bent on imperial militarism and crooked voting machines to hold power. In the midst of this political play for absolute power, here comes UC down to the San Joaquin Valley to build it's "enviromental campus" with, incidentally, memorandum of understanding with Lawrence Livermore Lab in its purse and, now, the new contract to keep running Los Alamos. Locally, about all we've seen them do is corrupt environmental law and regulation and public process, bribe a failing newspaper, organize the local Mr. and Ms. Merceds, and lie about a bobcat. Now that they're riding high on the nuclear hog again, UC Merced's proximity to the Castle base and wide-open spaces, along with that little LLNL MOU in their purse, ought to ring alarms. But to Mr. and Ms. UC Merced, nuke-lab annex looks good for business. And there you have it: in a planet suffocating in the surfeit and waste of the products of man's industry, war is good for business. Mr. and Ms. UC Merced are already investing their anticipated profits. Meanwhile, nearly a billion people are chronically malnourished and little wars keep breaking out here, there, and everywhere.

Fortunately, not all the world is mad enough to regard control of the production of weapons of mass destruction is a cause for rejoicing at Christmas.

There is the story of a man at the UN, a specialist in nuclear proliferation, who disputed the Bush administration line that Saddam Hussein was building nuclear weapons. This man had been running inspection teams in Iraq for a number of years and had found nothing. He and several people working with him testified before the UN Security Council that they had found nothing. The US shouted them down and invaded Iraq anyway. Lately, President Bush has admitted that the intelligence he had that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons wasn't true.

On Dec. 10, Mohamed ElBaradei was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His lecture was an excellent antidote to the orgy of triumphalism surrounding the UC "victory."

In the real world, this imbalance in living conditions inevitably leads to inequality of opportunity, and in many cases loss of hope. And what is worse, all too often the plight of the poor is compounded by and results in human rights abuses, a lack of good governance, and a deep sense of injustice. This combination naturally creates a most fertile breeding ground for civil wars, organized crime, and extremism in its different forms.

In regions where conflicts have been left to fester for decades, countries continue to look for ways to offset their insecurities or project their 'power'. In some cases, they may be tempted to seek their own weapons of mass destruction, like others who have preceded them.

* * * * * * *
Ladies and Gentlemen.

Fifteen years ago, when the Cold War ended, many of us hoped for a new world order to emerge. A world order rooted in human solidarity – a world order that would be equitable, inclusive and effective.

But today we are nowhere near that goal. We may have torn down the walls between East and West, but we have yet to build the bridges between North and South – the rich and the poor.

Consider our development aid record. Last year, the nations of the world spent over $1 trillion on armaments. But we contributed less than 10 per cent of that amount – a mere $80 billion – as official development assistance to the developing parts of the world, where 850 million people suffer from hunger.

My friend James Morris heads the World Food Programme, whose task it is to feed the hungry. He recently told me, "If I could have just 1 per cent of the money spent on global armaments, no one in this world would go to bed hungry."

It should not be a surprise then that poverty continues to breed conflict. Of the 13 million deaths due to armed conflict in the last ten years, 9 million occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, where the poorest of the poor live.

Consider also our approach to the sanctity and value of human life. In the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, we all grieved deeply, and expressed outrage at this heinous crime – and rightly so. But many people today are unaware that, as the result of civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 3.8 million people have lost their lives since 1998.

Are we to conclude that our priorities are skewed, and our approaches uneven?

* * * * * * *
Ladies and Gentlemen. With this 'big picture' in mind, we can better understand the changing landscape in nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.

There are three main features to this changing landscape: the emergence of an extensive black market in nuclear material and equipment; the proliferation of nuclear weapons and sensitive nuclear technology; and the stagnation in nuclear disarmament.

Today, with globalization bringing us ever closer together, if we choose to ignore the insecurities of some, they will soon become the insecurities of all.

Equally, with the spread of advanced science and technology, as long as some of us choose to rely on nuclear weapons, we continue to risk that these same weapons will become increasingly attractive to others.

I have no doubt that, if we hope to escape self-destruction, then nuclear weapons should have no place in our collective conscience, and no role in our security.

To that end, we must ensure – absolutely – that no more countries acquire these deadly weapons.

We must see to it that nuclear-weapon states take concrete steps towards nuclear disarmament.

And we must put in place a security system that does not rely on nuclear deterrence.

ElBaradei spoke 11 days before Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Alamo,

rallied California lawmakers behind the UC-Bechtel team and said the announcement had her ``dancing in the streets.''

``I thought on the merits, they delivered a knockout punch, but the politics of this have always been trending away from us, to put it mildly,'' she said. ``This is a great day for Claifornia but it's also good news for the American people, who not only have the best science and national security but also the best management for Los Alamos.''

In moments like these, the essential barbarism shines through. Advanced evidence, if our growing poverty and the "Christian" heartlessness aren't enough, is the recent exposure of fraudulent payments to UC administrators, apparently involved in another intramural feeding frenzy for public funds. These frenzies occur regularly, about as often as security breaches and fatal accidents at UC's two nuke labs. Sitting on top of a mushroom cloud is bad for the mind. Everyone wants more money, but you get the impression with these people that they think if they don't fleece the public, they don't rank.

According to ElBaradei's priorities, UC has it backwards.

A recent United Nations High-Level Panel identified five categories of threats that we face:

1. Poverty, Infectious Disease, and Environmental Degradation;
2. Armed Conflict – both within and among states;
3. Organized Crime;
4. Terrorism; and
5. Weapons of Mass Destruction.

ElBaradei's closing remark starkly opposes the danse macabre of California business and political leaders.

Imagine what would happen if the nations of the world spent as much on development as on building the machines of war. Imagine a world where every human being would live in freedom and dignity. Imagine a world in which we would shed the same tears when a child dies in Darfur or Vancouver. Imagine a world where we would settle our differences through diplomacy and dialogue and not through bombs or bullets. Imagine if the only nuclear weapons remaining were the relics in our museums. Imagine the legacy we could leave to our children.

Imagine that such a world is within our grasp.

Probably, AlBaradei had in mind the anniversary of John Lennon's murder two days earlier.

"Imagine," Lennon sang:

Imagine there's no Heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

The song is an anthem for all those in the world who resist war and a view of science that holds that its greatest prestige is in the technology of mass destruction.

Notes:

www.austinchronicle.com/cols_ventura.html

I read the news today, of course, oh boy. Last year there were 21,256 murders in the United States of America. The number, and the percentage, is so staggeringly more than anywhere else in the world that you can't help but think we're at war with each other. The great majority of these people were killed not by burglars or muggers but by people they knew. We are at war with people we know. One broadcast said that what's-his-name – I don't even want to type his name – who killed John Lennon identified so strongly with Lennon that at times he used Lennon's name. He killed himself. -- Michael Ventura (LA Weekly article, December 1980)

Los Alamos in the right hands...Editorial
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/12/23/EDGU6GBNVD1.DTL&type=printable
AWARDING A NEW contract to the University of California for management of the Los Alamos National Laboratory is good for the nation -- as much as it upholds California's long-standing scientific renown. Keeping UC in charge of the nuclear weapons program it helped inaugurate more than six decades ago serves to recognize the university's unique credentials in a field vital to national security. UC was teamed with the Bechtel Corp. and a pair of other partners to win out over a bid submitted by Lockheed Martin Corp., the biggest arms-maker, and the University of Texas. The new seven-year contract is worth up to $512 million, but its greater importance to UC is the scientific prestige.

UC wins fight for Los Alamos - The Deal - University beats Lockheed Martin-Texas bid to manage nation's top nuclear weapons lab...Keay Davidson, Zachary Coile
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/12/22/MNG60GBT651.DTL&type=printable
The University of California, besieged by criticism over its management of Los Alamos National Laboratory, beat back a strong challenge Wednesday from a team headed by Lockheed Martin Corp. and the University of Texas for control of the storied weapons lab it has run for over six decades. The actual decision, Bodman said, was made by Tom D'Agostino, assistant deputy administrator for defense programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration, a quasi-independent agency that oversees the nuclear weapons department for the Energy Department. Loss of the contract by the UC group, officially known as Los Alamos National Security LLC, could have hurt not only UC but California's reputation as a world center of scientific and technological excellence. Danielle Brian, head of the Washington-based Project on Government Oversight, a frequent Energy Department critic, asked: "What does it take for UC to suffer the consequences of screwing up? Lockheed wasn't a great alternative, but it is hard to see how UC could possibly have been given a vote of confidence. We expect a continuation of the era of chaos at Los Alamos."

UC's problems at Los Alamos Lab...
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/12/22/MNG60GBT5H1.DTL&type=printable
From January 2003 to present

UC wins fight for Los Alamos - The Implications: Bechtel partnership will put lab on a more businesslike footing...James Sterngold
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/12/22/MNG60GBT691.DTL&type=printable
Now, the famed lab faces a challenge it has long resisted: the need to change fundamentally -- from an intellectual institution devoted to science, to a facility run more like a business whose product is nuclear weapons. "The academic and public service aura of 63 years of UC affiliation with Los Alamos ... may ultimately be compromised to some degree, as yet unknown, by the profit motive of a corporation, to whose pockets will flow an extra load of national debt from American taxpayers of the future," Brad Lee Holian, a Los Alamos scientist, wrote in a popular employee blog. But most inside the lab and outside understand that Washington has embraced an approach to nuclear weapons that will have a deep impact not only on Los Alamos but also on its sister institution, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Contra Costa Times
Partnership won't affect lab's research...Matt Krupnick
http://www.contracostatimes.com/mld/cctimes/email/news/13473171.htm?template=contentModules/printstory.jsp
Michael Anastasio said the public-private coalition is "positively, deeply" committed to scientific research. "Basic research is the fundamental core that we bring to the country," said Anastasio, who will step down as head of Livermore National Laboratory to take the new job. "This is not a de-emphasis on science. If we do this well, this will actually enhance the science we do." The university's next challenge is competing for management of the Livermore lab,... Also Thursday, the Department of Energy announced it would fine a contractor more than $190,000 for exposing its employees to radiation while removing waste from Livermore National Laboratory in 2004.

Hairstylists coiffed the atomic hairdo. Revelers danced to the "Atomic Bomb Bounce." Hotel marquees listed detonation times. And Candy King was crowned Miss ...
www.lvlife.com/2000/01/then/story01.html

UC hush money?...Editorial
http://www.sacbee.com/content/opinion/v-print/story/14006719p-14839657c.html
Every few years, the University of California mires itself in another set of scandals over outrageous pay and perks for top UC administrators. The latest scandals, brought to light by the San Francisco Chronicle, have created a stench that now stretches from the office of UC President Richard Dynes to the office of UC Davis Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef. Now we learn that UC paid Celeste Rose, a former UC Davis vice chancellor, to go away, keep her mouth shut... "separation agreement" not a litigation settlement...At the best, UC officials are playing word games in claiming this payoff didn't require top-level review. At the worst, they broke UC rules or exploited a vague policy the regents need to clarify. President Dynes, stop making excuses. Release the numbers.

UC's paid leaves called 'Betrayal," Regents' edict ignored, 3 top managers were given lucrative furloughs in violation of university policy...Todd Wallack, Tanya Schevitz
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/12/23/MNG6DGCJ9T1.DTL&type=printable
More than a decade after promising to end the practice, the University of California has given several top administrators lengthy paid leaves when they stepped down. In the past 13 months alone, at least three senior managers have received paid furloughs at their executive salaries before returning to teaching. UC granted the leaves despite a policy approved by the university's governing Board of Regents in 1994 limiting paid administrative leaves for senior managers to a maximum of three months. The regents reaffirmed the limit in September. UC spokesman Paul Schwartz said the senior managers who received the leaves were tenured faculty members, who otherwise would have qualified for yearlong academic sabbaticals at their faculty pay. The charge is the latest in a string of accusations that UC hid perks and pay from the public and lawmakers. The revelations come at a time when the university has said budget constraints have forced it to boost student fees, cut services, increase class sizes and freeze pay for thousands of lower-paid workers.

nobelprize.org/peace/laureates/ 2005/elbaradei-lecture.html - 14k - Dec 22, 2005

Lübeck's dance of death (as all other dances of death) were inspired by The Black
Death.
www.dodedans.com/Epest.htm

www.merseyworld.com/imagine/lyrics/imagine.htm

lanl-the-real-story.blogspot.com/

UCI misled Liver Unit regulators on staffing...Alan Zarembo, Charles Ornstein12-21-05
http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/la-me-uci21dec21,1,5056965,print.story
As regulators threatened to close the troubled liver transplant program at UCI Medical Center last year, the hospital's chief executive provided false information to keep the unit running, according to a government document. Details of how UCI misled regulators were included in a letter sent Monday from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration to Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who is investigating inequities in the national transplant system. The troubles caught up with UCI last month, when the federal Medicare program announced it would stop paying for transplants. The program closed the same day.

Holding UC accountable...Editorial
http://recordnet.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?Date=20051223&Category=OPED01&ArtNo=512230354&SectionCat=&Template=printart
Scrutiny of University of California admnistrators is intensifying. Rightfully so. Something must be done or UC will lose what Regents Chairman Gerald Parsky describes as its "unique public trust." Californians, thousands of whom sacrifice to educate their sons and daughters, deserve to know what's been going on and how university officials are going to control and justify compensation packages of top-level administrators. Especially those who no longer have jobs to perform but still are being paid. The more scrutiny the better.

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Who is Robert A. Lewis?

Submitted: Dec 22, 2005

The largest group of stories listed on the Merced Sun-Star’s website under City/County during the last two weeks concern growth. Since the arrival of UC Merced, Merced County has been widely reported to be one of the three fastest growing counties in California. Yet, neither Merced nor San Bernardino and Riverside have achieved the growth level of Clark County, Nev., home of Las Vegas, which, according to 2005 estimates, is the fastest growing county in the nation.

Nonetheless, one would have thought it somewhat important, at least to the Sun-Star’s readers, to report the county decision to hire Robert A. Lewis as its director of development services, and to demote Bill Nicholson to the position of assistant director.

Lewis’ arrival was a surprise to the county planning staff as well. One of them said they didn’t know anything about Lewis until he was appointed, Tuesday, at the board of supervisors’ meeting (Agenda item 31). Demitrios O. Tatum, county CEO, reported at that time, “Pursuant to the County’s Recruitment and Selection Resolution, Human Resources has conducted an open recruitment for the Development services Director. An offer of employment was extended to Mr. Robert A. Lewis on December 9, 2005, subject to confirmation by the Board.”

The board confirmed the appointment.

Rumors began to float about the county. Lewis came from Henderson, Nev., some said. North Las Vegas, others said. Another planner said he thought Lewis had been in the planning departments of both Henderson and Las Vegas. There is a reference on Google to a Bobby Lewis, of Tetra Southwest, representing Creative Choice West, an apartment developer, before the North Los Vegas City Council on July 5, 2005. The project was referred back to staff.

Henderson’s public information officer said Wednesday she did not remember him as a member of the planning department, but knew him in his capacity as a consultant for developers. She said she was pretty certain our new Robert Lewis wasn’t related to the Lewis Homes’ Robert Lewis, a major Clark County developer. A Clark County PIO said he never worked there. I wasn’t able to get through to the planning departments of the cities of Las Vegas or North Las Vegas. I'm not claiming Lewis’ resume is not as honest as the day is long. The question is, where is the resume? The newspaper seems completely indifferent to this appointment and the staff report on the confirmation was devoid of all information but the man’s name and Tatum's authority to hire him.

Members of the public who take a deep interest in county planning issues wonder how exactly Lewis was found and appointed with about as much fanfare as an ant breaking wind. Tatum informed the board of supervisors Lewis arrived via the CEO’s authority under county Ordinance Code Section 2.08.150 (B) “Selection of department heads and officers.

Appointment to the following positions shall be made by the county executive officer subject to confirmation by the board of supervisors … 12. Planning Director.

Lewis was appointed as director of development services. Nicholson was demoted from director of planning and community development to assistant director of that department. Nowhere, except on a county organizational chart, does the office of director of development services appear. Yet, everyone seems to agree that Lewis has been Nicholson’s boss since Tuesday.

In Merced County, there is a legal theory that a county ordinance is law, regardless of how it conflicts with state law. This theory was recently rejected in Superior Court when it was argued by county counsel, who is now looking for a new job. The secrecy behind the hiring of Lewis totally violates the intent of the state Brown Act, governing open meetings. The county planning department has habitually misused the state Public Records Act, requiring that anyone who wants any public information from it to file what amounts to a Merced County Public Records Act request. Presumably Tatum will require a state Public Records Act request to find out what the A. in Robert A. Lewis stands for. The public would like to know what Lewis knows about other peculiar California laws, like the California Environmental Quality Act, the Agricultural Preserve and the Williamson Act.

Lewis brings to five the number of non-elected officials with major, contending control of county planning and who can be counted on to recommend approval of any development project (if one considers that Nicholson will enjoy some advantage of information over his new boss and long-time involvement with most of the current projects).

· Nicholson, now assistant county planning director
· Lewis, director of development services
· Bob Smith, former county planning director, former director of the former County of Merced UC development office (University Community Plan), now with an office in the public works department
· John Fowler, director of commerce, aviation and economic development (Riverside Motorsports Park)
· Paul Fillebrown, director of public works (Campus Parkway)

Lest this list confuse you, be certain all are firmly under the control of CEO Tatum, who last year appeared, according to county documents, to buy a piece of property in Planada for an estimated $254,000 from Pacific Holt Corporation a day before the county Housing Authority sold the parcel to Pacific Holt for an estimated $509,000. The Sun-Star reportedly looked into the case but found it amounted to as little as the appointment of a county director of development services.

The word on the street, to which McClatchy’s local snoozers reduce us, is that the supervisors doesn’t know any more about Lewis than the public does. Under this ordinance, Tatum decides, period, and the supervisors have no responsibility for who runs planning in their county. Therefore, it really doesn’t matter who you elect.

Merced County supervisors have become developer pets. They serve without term limits, they vote themselves raises whenever they wish, and in this state they dominate our land-use planning. Developers indemnify them from any legal expenses arising from lawsuits challenging the legality of their land-use decisions. Their CEO decides – in consultation with whom? – who runs our planning department. The local paper doesn’t bother to challenge the racket. Predatory development investment swarms into the Valley demolishing farms and natural habitat for wildlife and the few remaining native plant species, and the warmth under greenhouse gases rises to the Sierra snow pack.

Notes:

http://www.mercedsunstar.com/local/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Vegas

www.cityofnorthlasvegas.com/MeetingsAndAgendas/ PDFs/CityCouncil/MinutesArchive/2000/Minutes070500.pdf

http://www.badlandsjournal.com/old/getarch2.php?title=The%20County%20Planada%20policy

http://www.ia.ucsb.edu/pa/display.aspx?pkey=397

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Reform mood hits Valley

Submitted: Dec 19, 2005

Appropriate for the worst air quality basin in the nation, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District last week decided the Valley would be the first region in the nation where developers must pay an air pollution fee for the new homes they build. While the amount of the fee, less than $800, which can be reduced by various mitigating factors, is a token that will be entirely passed on to home buyers, it establishes an important principle.

The Valley air pollution fee on new development acknowledges that the public has been subsidizing new development in the Valley as air pollution descended to Los Angeles standards and is now worse in some years. The Valley public has subsidized the new development with its own health, particularly the health of its most vulnerable citizens – children and the elderly. It has subsidized development with higher health care spending. The Valley public has subsidized growth in terms of deteriorating water quality and supply, sewer, water and road expansions. Valley children have subsidized growth by attending over-crowded, deteriorating public schools.

The Valley public has subsidized urban sprawl politically through the loss of representation of its elected officials, who for years have been distracted from their obligations to the general public by their obligations to developers, who make up the largest part of their campaign financing. The system whereby any developer, from the University of California to the national homebuilders to sand-and-gravel miners, automatically indemnifies the local land-use authority (city or county) from paying its own legal costs if the public sues the jurisdiction for violations of environmental law or public process has protected local land-use decision-makers from taking financial responsibility for decisions appellate court judges on occasion find absurd – unless the University of California is involved. How could UC say or do anything absurd?

Valley children are paying the highest price. Not permitted recess periods during the increasing number of bad air days; their asthma rate is a regional disgrace. What may be producing action on the air quality front is that childhood asthma has no decent respect for income levels, affecting the rich as well as the poor children of the Valley. But, due to developer political rigging in Sacramento, the children also pay because the developers do not pay an adequate amount of money for schools to keep up with growth.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board recently refused to be intimidated by a Hilmar Cheese legal/public-relations campaign to make it back off fining the “largest cheese factory in the world” $4 million for polluted ground water. The board will soon hold a scooping meeting and public workshop to examine agricultural pesticide discharges into the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.

Tracy, hometown of Rep. RichPAC Pombo, under national attack for months,

authorized spending $60,000 to hire a consultant to write a plan that will identify potentially available land encircling the city's limits and address how the city can pay to keep that land pristine. If adopted, residents may continue to see acres of farmland and trees around town instead of unbridled roadways, rooftops and restaurants. (1)

It might be that the Pombo dynasty of real estate farmers is losing its grip on Tracy government. The leader of the local slow-growthers is Celeste Garamendi, state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi’s sister.

The Stockton Record editorialized on Dec. 16 about preserving the Williamson Act to preserve agricultural land.

For 40 years, extraordinary measures have been taken to protect California farmland. This commitment is critically important now -- Since 1965, the Williamson Act has been the No. 1 device for conserving California's 30 million acres of agricultural land. More and more, its protections are under assault as homebuilders, developers and farmers seek ways to circumvent its restrictions. The Williamson Act is a relatively modest program that has been successful in protecting and preserving agricultural land in a state whose economy depends so heavily upon it. It's been especially important in the fertile San Joaquin Valley. There's no reason it shouldn't remain California's agricultural sentinel for 40 more years. (20)

Modesto Bee editor Marc Vashe wrote a tribute to Ralph Brown, former speaker of the state Assembly from Modesto, who wrote the Brown Act protecting the public’s right to access to governmental decisions. Brown retired after a successful legislative career of nearly 20 years, the last three as Assembly speaker. Jesse Unruh succeeded him. John Williamson was elected to the state Assembly in the early 1960s from Bakersfield. He seemed only to have served long enough to get the agricultural conservation law passed, when only years later came to bear his name.

Little is heard from the other half of the bipartisan environmental law gutting team that farmers are calling O Pomboza, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, Shrimp Slayer-Merced. A consortium of local, state and national groups filed suit against the US Fish and Wildlife Service yet again last week on its latest truncated, politically coerced, critical habitat designation for the 15 endangered and threatened species living in or close to the vernal pool wetlands. The largest fields of contiguous vernal pools in the nation lie in Cardoza’s district. So far, his several bills to damage or destroy the designation under the Endangered Species Act have failed but his finger prints are visible on the various slashed versions of the designation since Cardoza went to Congress in 2003.

Meanwhile, The Shrimp Slayer has a bit of a mess on his hands in his local office on the third floor of the Merced County Administration Building. A few weeks ago, the county announced Ruben Castillo, county counsel, would be leaving, after a lackluster defense of county policies in a number of lawsuits. Today, the rumor was that Planning Director Bill Nicholson has been demoted to assistant planning director. The new planning director, the story goes, comes from fast-growing Henderson, Nevada, where (s)he has doubtlessly burned the midnight oil studying the California Environmental Quality Act.

And UC Merced still does not have its Clean Water Act permits from the Army Corps of Engineers to expand northward onto the Virginia Smith Trust land where its Long Range Development Plan said it would. This leaves the option of expanding onto the land presently designated for the University Community.

Cardoza, whose political mentors appear to be Tony “Honest Graft” Coelho and Pombo, has worked hard to corrupt both the Brown and the Williamson acts in Merced County on behalf of UC Merced and developers. That kind of reputation might be coming around to bite him if the reform mood surfacing in the Valley gathers any momentum.

Notes:

(1) Tracy to plan for open spaces...Rick Brewer...12-18-05
http://recordnet.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?Date=20051218&Category=NEWS0101&ArtNo=512180351&SectionCat=&Template=printart

(2) Keep saving the land...Editorial...12-16-05
http://recordnet.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?Date=20051216&Category=OPED01&ArtNo=512160333&SectionCat=&Template=printart

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Environmental groups sue Interior again on vernal pool critical habitat

Submitted: Dec 17, 2005

December 13, 2005
Broad Coalition of Conservation Organizations Challenges Inadequate Habitat Protections for Wetland Species and Habitats
Note: A PDF copy of the complaint is available at: http://becnet.org/documents/complaint_vernal_pool_200512.pdf

Chico, CA – Butte Environmental Council, the California Native Plant Society, Defenders of Wildlife, San Joaquin Raptor/Wildlife Rescue Center, Vernalpools.Org, and Sierra Foothillls Audubon Society have filed a complaint against the U.S. Department of the Interior over its second, Final Vernal Pool Critical Habitat Rule for 15 endangered and threatened vernal pool plants and animals found in California and Oregon. On August 11, 2005 Interior designated 858,846 acres of critical habitat in the Final Rule, eliminating almost 900,000 acres that were proposed in the original 2002 Draft Rule. The 2005 rule is a result of litigation also filed by some the current plaintiffs over the elimination of more than one million acres of VPCH for the 15 species and five entire counties.

In the 2005 final critical habitat designation, Interior unlawfully relied upon a flawed analysis of economic impacts that overestimated potential costs of critical habitat designation, as well as underestimated and disregarded potential benefits of designation. Additionally, Interior unlawfully excluded many areas, including National Monuments, National Wildlife Refuges, and lands overlapping with habitat conservation plans, based on inadequate existing protections.

“While Interior added some VPCH to the five excluded counties, others like Placer and Stanislaus were decimated based on a political agenda, not economics, which leaves them open to this legal challenge,” stated Barbara Vlamis, Executive Director of Butte Environmental Council (see charts below). “Not only did Interior’s Economic Analysis overstate economic costs, it also ignored the economic benefits associated with the protection of vernal pool grasslands, such as providing educational and recreational opportunities, infrastructure support services, ranching, tourism, and economy of scale by covering 15 species in one rule,” declared Vlamis.

To illustrate the overstated conclusions in the Economic Analysis, Butte County’s projected costs were $152 million over 20 years. Even if one accepts the economic methods used, which the plaintiffs do not, this translates into a microscopic 0.17% per year when compared with the annual economic output of the county, $7.36 billion (IMPLAN 2001). “Excluding any of the proposed VPCH is not justified by the economic analysis that led to this Rule,” stated Carol Witham, President of the California Native Plant Society.

Designating critical habitat for federally listed species is important for the recovery of listed species because it clearly identifies the areas essential for their recovery. These critical habitat maps are essential to providing information for statewide and local conservation planning efforts. “The decision to eliminate nearly 1 million acres of vernal pool critical habitat, including lands in Fresno, Placer, San Luis Obispo, Stanislaus, and Tehama counties, may very well prevent the recovery of these 15 imperiled species,” stated Kim Delfino, California Program Director, Defenders of Wildlife. “At a minimum, it means its open season again for developers for those excluded vernal pool grasslands,” continued Delfino.

If recovery is to occur, the remaining range of the 15 vernal pool species must not only be protected, it must expand. Vernal pools are unique depressional wetlands that fill and dry every year. The eight endangered and seven threatened species are currently listed due to the severity of vernal pool destruction in California and Oregon. As the 2002 Proposed Rule indicated, noted vernal pool expert Robert Holland estimates that close to 75% of the Central Valley’s vernal pool habitat was lost by 1997; the central coast has lost at a minimum 90%; southern California’s losses exceed 95%; and Oregon has had 60% destroyed with 18% of the extant habitat considered intact (2002). More recent estimates place the habitat losses at over 90% throughout the historic range of vernal pools (Wright 2002).

Contacts
Butte Environmental Council
Barbara Vlamis, Executive Director
(530) 891-6424

California Native Plant Society
Carol Witham, President
(916) 452-5440

Defenders of Wildlife
Kim Delfino, California Program Coordinator
(916) 313-5800

San Joaquin Raptor and Wildlife Rescue Center
Lydia Miller, President
(209) 723-9283

Vernalpools.Org
Carol Witham
(916) 452-5440

Sierra Foothillls Audubon Society
Ed Pandolfino, Placer County Conservation Chair
(916) 486-9174

Background

A January 14, 2002 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ruling by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals affirming the protection of four federally listed fresh water crustaceans under the Endangered Species Act. The species were listed under the Endangered Species Act by the Interior Department’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) in September 1994. The California Building Industry Association sued to try to reverse the species’ protection in 1995. Two California organizations, the Butte Environmental Council (BEC) and the Environmental Defense Center of Santa Barbara, supported the listings as interveners all the way to the Supreme Court.

Judge Paul Friedman of the U.S. District Court of Columbia issued the initial ruling on July 29, 1997 that rejected the BIA request to de-list the shrimp, but his decision supported their petition requiring the Service to designate critical habitat for the shrimp species. When the Service failed to respond to the court’s direction, BEC sued on April 12, 2000 for critical habitat designation for the four crustaceans. On February 9, 2001, the District Court for the eastern district of California ordered the Service to complete a final critical habitat designation for the crustaceans. The Service requested an extension of one year past the court ordered deadline and BEC concurred when the negotiations created a more comprehensive benefit for the habitat by including 11 vernal pool plant species.

On August 6, 2003 the Bush administration issued the final critical habitat rule and justified the removal of one million acres and six counties on economic grounds. Their analysis was feeble and concentrated almost exclusively on the economic costs over the economic benefits, illuminating its bias. The list of economic benefits of the critical habitat designation that were ignored by Washington is quite extensive and includes flood control, water quality, tourism, animal husbandry, hunting, recreation, education, and all the species in the food chain. The counties omitted from the 2003 critical habitat designation are: Butte, Madera, Merced, Riverside, Sacramento, & Solano.

The counties with acreage in the 2003 critical habitat designation are: Alameda, Amador, Calaveras, Contra Costa, Fresno, Glenn, Kings, Lake, Lassen, Mariposa, Mendocino, Modoc, Monterey, Napa, Placer, Plumas, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, San Joaquin, Shasta, Stanislaus, Tehama, Tulare, Tuolumne, Ventura, Yolo, Yuba, and Jackson County, Oregon.

In January 2004, BEC, the California Native Plant Society, and Defenders of Wildlife filed suit challenging the 2003 VPCH Final Rule over the elimination of more than one million acres of VPCH for the 15 endangered and threatened vernal pool plants and animals and five entire counties.

Table 1. Covered Species Status and Listing Dates

Common Name Scientific Name Date Listed Status
Conservancy fairy shrimp Branchinecta conservatio September 19, 1994 E*
longhorn fairy shrimp Branchinecta longiantenna September 19, 1994 E
vernal pool tadpole shrimp Lepidurus packardi September 19, 1994 E
vernal pool fairy shrimp Branchinecta lynchi September 19, 1994 T*
Butte County meadowfoam Limnanthes floccosa ssp. Californica June 8, 1992 E
Colusa grass Neostapfia colusana March 26, 1997 T
Contra Costa goldfields Lastenia conjugens June 18, 1997 E
Greene's tuctoria Tuctoria greenei March 26, 1997 E
Hairy orcutt Orcuttia pilosa March 26, 1997 E
Hoover’s spurge Chamaesyce hooveri March 26, 1997 T
Sacramento orcutt Orcuttia viscida March 26, 1997 E
San Joaquin Valley orcutt Orcuttia inequalis March 26, 1997 T
Slender orcutt Orcuttia tenuis March 26, 1997 T
Solano grass Tuctoria mucronata September 28, 1978 E
Succulent (or fleshy) owl's clover Castilleja campestris ssp. succunlenta
March 26, 1997 T
(E* = endangered; T*=threatened)

Table 2. 2005 Rule acreage restored to counties indiscriminately omitted in the 2003 rule

County Proposed Acreage 2003 Rule Acreage 2005 Rule Acreage
Butte 58,849 0 24,247
Madera 95,802 0 48,359
Merced 194,335 0 147,638
Sacramento 68,820 0 37,098
Solano 67,961 0 13,415

Table 3. Counties that lost the valuable VPCH designation in the 2005 Rule

County Proposed Acreage 2003 Rule Acreage 2005 Rule Acreage
Fresno 32,218 32,228 19,200
Placer 58,849 32,134 2,580
San Luis Obispo 64,171 64,378 48,134
Stanislaus 132,708 128,035 67,462
Tehama 130,752 130,691 102,837

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The circus

Submitted: Dec 17, 2005

This week here in Merced we got into our drama about the proposed Riverside Motorsports Park. RMP chief, John Condren held informational meetings in Atwater and Merced and the Board of Supervisors voted to extend the comment period on the project draft environmental impact report, but not as long as opponents wanted it.

On Tuesday night, a group of track opponents expressed their passion with boos, hisses and catcalls when Board of Supervisor Chair Jerry O’Banion, whose district is across the Valley from the project, said the only reason he voted for any extension was because the applicants had already agreed to it. The comment period for this project, O’Banion reminded the crowd, is now longer than it was for the DEIR on the UC Merced Long Range Development Plan, and the track EIR is about half the size the UC document was. O’Banion, the Westside’s hereditary supervisor, had a lot of fun, I thought.

Condren made the same point during his pitch at the Boys and Girls Club in Merced on Thursday evening. Both O’Banion and Condren challenge track opponents for their hypocrisy of supporting one huge anchor tenant for growth, UC Merced, while opposing another, the racetrack.

Everyone followed their passions in a well-orchestrated manner. High quality rhetoric swirled in the storm of this absurd project, a Temple to the Automobile in the nation’s worst air quality basin and richest farming area. One teacher opposing the project noted that Tuesday was a critically bad air quality day and children were asked to stay indoors at school. On Thursday, one teacher in favor of the project said the racetrack brings hope to her students, who do not see UC in their future. Both statements are true.

O’Banion and Condren made much of the fact that racetrack opponents were in favor of UC Merced. In other words, after the university should come the circus. In fact, both projects are all about outside corporate investment for outside corporate profit. Merced was ripe for it. From the standpoint of local government, this is all good.

I oppose both projects because the east side of the San Joaquin Valley was where I learned the intrinsic value of nature as it is and because the doctrine of Public Trust is one of the oldest Western legal principles.

Bill Hatch

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Higher education as if students mattered?

Submitted: Dec 11, 2005

The study just released by the University of California, “Return on Investment: Educational choices and demographic change in California’s future,” (1) is a particularly specious bit of UC/corporate flak, reminiscent of the campaign for UC Merced. The study argues that if you have more college-educated people in your society, you will have less crime and more high-paying jobs. Many economists would suggest that job demand has something to do with the equation – but they didn’t get this grant. A supply of college-educated people of working age less than the job demand for them could be a recipe for extreme job competition, lower wages, higher rates of turnover, social discontent and emigration of a significant portion of a workforce whose education was subsidized by taxpayers. Since what is meant by education in this study is technological training, it’s fair to ask how Californians with technological training compete today with Indians and Asians with comparable training. Ask Silicon Valley, which has been off-shoring California jobs to India and Asia for several decades, as well as importing foreign high tech workers to the Peninsula. San Jose is today a true city of the world, a place larger than California, attracting the best and brightest technological workers of the world.

Training, inventiveness, intelligence and education aren’t the problems facing California. Funded by a group calling itself the Campaign for College Opportunity, which appears to be a front group for the California Business Roundtable, once again, UC is taking an opportunity to recycle unreliable demographic data to make a case for more public spending on UC, with a bit left over for the lesser public institutions of higher learning.

People are tired of this nonsense. It is highly conspicuous waste, meant to doll up a class of “leaders” for their next honoraria. The study was commissioned by the business roundtable, a cabal of banks, insurance companies, developers, land companies, energy companies, construction and engineering firms and miscellaneously wealthy companies like Gap and J.G. Boswell, involved in the world, cotton trade, and the J. Paul Getty Trust, headed by Barry Munitz, former Charles Hurwitz associate and (“chainsaw”) chancellor of the CSU system. The intervening group, Campaign for College Opportunity, is headed by the roundtable’s president, includes a San Francisco Chamber of Commerce vice president, several university officials, a UC regent, union officials and minority group representatives. But the state taxpayers paid for the salaries of the UC researchers to pimp the next college/university building boom, based on demographic assumptions already dubious when they were used to sell UC Merced (2). But, at least then, we knew they were just the usual state Department of Finance figures to support the coming speculative housing bubble. That is now rapidly fading. Evidently, the study indulges in them only because it can. Apparently, it is a UC affectation to demand more public funds, pay exorbitant executive salaries (3), sell its services to whatever the corporate buyer demands, and all without any responsibility to the public that pays for the salaries, the maintenance, repair, and for the thousands of other services, plants and equipment that go to making up public institutions of higher learning from the community college outpost in the remote rural town to UC Berkeley.

Perhaps the cogent business reason for promoting another higher education building boom, paid for by the public, is because new colleges and universities, particularly if located in remote areas, attract suburban development like stables attract horse flies.

Perhaps, the state’s enlightened business roundtable, representing 56 corporations, almost half on the Fortune 500 list, believe that it is essential for us to pay for enough new public higher education institutions so that not one – not one! – potential bio-technician or computer engineer escapes his or her destiny to be trained for entrance into the “new economy;” so that not one potential mortgage lender, predatory credit-card enabler, insurance agent or realtor will slip through the system to become a bum, a mechanic or a handiman in this economy, which our business leaders assure us will continue, generation after generation, through levee breaks, global warming, oil peak, waves of immigration and global competition. We should pay through taxes, tuitions and living expenses to educate the next generation so that not one, but five or ten shall be trained identically, to cut each others’ throats in the high-tech job marketplace of the eternally affluent future of technocracy, sure to continue if only we believe our universities, our business leaders and those they employ in elective governmental posts.

Since the propaganda is coming down so hard on us from this source, I think it might be fair for the public to request that California corporations clean up our air and water, stop building more slurbs, build colleges and universities in other states, subsidize our deprived youth to attend them, pay off the current state budget deficit, and provide adequate energy supplies as long as possible at non-profit rates.

At a time when the state treasury rests firmly in the hands of Wall Street, when rich Californians are not even taxed at the normal level prior to 1993, our business leaders urge more public investment in higher education. Following a period of immense profit-taking, unable to wrap themselves in the flag (sullied by total failure in Iraq), they wrap themselves in the Blue and Gold, the priestly garb of a public university reported to have misplaced 600 pounds of plutonium (3), another $6 million of public funds at Los Alamos National Laboratory (4), and the “distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars in administrative stipends, bonuses and other hidden cash compensation to employees” to be investigated by the Legislature in January (3).

Education as if the state’s youth mattered might begin by designing a curriculum around what they will need to survive the economy bequeathed them by our business leaders? This would involve the question: what does California society need from business rather than what business needs from society? This might lead to concerns about the problem of quality of life rather than income levels, in world where even stolen resources are rapidly shrinking and life satisfaction might well have to be found in living a life “simple in means, rich in ends,” as philosopher Arne Naess puts it. The problem of how to educate a generation of youth to face – not just the diminished expectations of our generation – but the radically diminished expectations compelled by resource depletion on theirs – would be worthy of a public university. But that might require a university that felt itself under some obligation to tell the truth to the people of the state rather than to flak its corporate funders’ line. It would require a look at where we are, rather than at the “statistical fantasies” offered by this study. (5)

By contrast, “Return on Investment: Educational choices and demographic change in California’s future,” seems redolent with privileged irresponsibility, people saying things because they can merely because they are who they are – the ones who got the grant. Perhaps it is a fashionably conspicuous form of madness cultivated in leading academic circles these days.

Bill Hatch

Notes:

(1) http://www.collegecampaign.org/CalROI-ExSum.pdf
(2) http://www.csun.edu/~hfoao102/@csun.edu/csun97_98/csun0223_98/features/wave.html

Said Paul Warren, director of the LAO's education division, "The academic world is saying, 'Panic, panic, panic.' We're saying it's not time to panic.

(3) www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/ c/a/2005/11/30/BAGGQFVT7J1.DTL
(4) www.californiaaggie.com/article/?id=7299
(5) http://www.sacbee.com/content/politics/columns/walters/story/13949532p-14784215c.html

The notion of studying the costs and benefits of public higher education is plausible. We should know what maintaining the system is costing taxpayers, what economic benefits flow to society and students from those dollars and what the eventual return to taxpayers might be. We should also be told how the public colleges and universities fit into the state's largely private economy - whether they are training the right number of professionals in the right kinds of fields, for instance, or whether their research is enhancing job creation.

Finally, we should know whether higher and lower education systems, maintained by taxpayers at immense cost - well over $60 billion a year - are meshing well or are wasting money on turf battles and incompatible priorities.

UC professors Henry Brady and Michael Hout, however, merely assume that attending college is a societal benefit and amass their synthetic evidence.

"California is sliding from exceptional to ordinary, from 'great' to 'good enough' (and) our study shows that educational investments can help restore California's greatness and preserve its high quality of life while returning more benefits to the state than they will cost the taxpayers," Brady said in a statement.

Brady and Hout don't tell us whether the economy could absorb the increased number of college attendees and graduates they advocate, or even whether there are substantially more youngsters capable of doing college-level work. While decrying the decline in California's high school graduation and college education rates in relation to other states, they don't explore the factors, such as the huge increase in non-English-speaking students or the immense changes in the California economy, that contribute to those trends. They assume, more or less, that there are many millions of Californians who would attend college if only the taxpayers would foot the bill and that expansion would generate big economic returns.

Finally, Brady and Hout fail to explain this phenomenon: There's no apparent shortage of college-trained workers in California (except in a few highly technical fields), but employers are having a heck of a time recruiting cops, carpenters, nurses, electricians, auto mechanics - even truck drivers. Who's going to do the real work if everyone is getting a college degree?

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Levee analysis: New Orleans and California

Submitted: Dec 10, 2005

More Katrina aftershocks; Levee analysis delivers bad news for Californians

Ventura County-Star – 12/8/05

By John Krist, staff writer

When the levees protecting New Orleans failed catastrophically in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, flooding 85 percent of the city and killing about 1,000 people, the devastation also focused attention on the West Coast's own nightmare-in-waiting: the flood-prone Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where a fragile network of earthen levees stands between California and disaster.

Like New Orleans, the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta is below sea level and under constant threat of inundation. New Orleans has the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico to contend with; California's delta is beset by San Francisco Bay and the mingled waters of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, which together carry nearly half the state's runoff.

Delta levees protect the pumps driving the state's two biggest water-delivery systems, as well as critical power lines, highways, oil and gas pipelines, and deepwater shipping channels. Widespread levee failure like that in New Orleans would deal a severe blow to the California economy and threaten thousands of people.

The danger in the delta has long been recognized, at least by those in California's water and flood-protection agencies. They have called repeatedly over the past decade for the state to address the problem, but the magnitude of the task has proved to be a paralyzing hurdle.

Katrina knocked some gaping holes in that barrier. And now, three months after the hurricane transformed New Orleans into a soggy rubble heap, preliminary conclusions of the expert team assigned to investigate the levee failures there are being made public. Those findings ought to demolish any remaining political obstacles to California levee rehabilitation.

The team's final report has not been released, but the draft conclusions were reported last week by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which interviewed the engineers and university professors hired by the state to analyze the levee failures.

The team found that only one of the New Orleans levees failed because the hurricane-driven storm surge washed over its top. Most of the flooding, the investigators found, was caused by the collapse of levees as their foundations were undermined by seepage and soil liquefaction, even though their concrete-armored tops remained well above the water level.

The reason for the foundation collapse was faulty design by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, according to the investigators. Steel sheet pilings that should have been driven deep into the ground to anchor the levees and prevent water from seeping through the weak soil underneath them were far too short to be effective.

The relevance of this to the situation in California's delta has little to do with the steel pilings but everything to do with the unstable nature of the ground beneath the levees and its potential to compromise an otherwise robust structure.

The ground beneath the New Orleans levees, the investigators noted, is mostly marshy soil and peat -- a very porous and weak medium. This is precisely the situation in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta. The levees there typically rest on peat, and the embankments are largely constructed of muck dredged from former marsh.

When flood experts talk of bringing the delta levees "up to Corps of Engineers standards" -- the costly goal of most rehabilitation scenarios being discussed -- that simply means making them a little bigger and using concrete to armor their surfaces against erosion.

But as Katrina demonstrated, none of that matters when a levee's foundation is undermined. And that's precisely the greatest threat facing California: that a moderate earthquake on one of the many faults west of the delta would liquefy or deform the ground beneath the levees, causing them to collapse.

The likely consequences of such a quake were described to California water managers at a conference last week in San Diego: at least 30 levee breaks, which would flood 3,000 homes and 85,000 acres of cropland, close the Port of Stockton and two highways, disrupt electricity and natural-gas supplies, and send 300 billion gallons of sea water toward the pumps supplying drinking and irrigation water to two-thirds of California.

It would take at least 15 months and $6 billion just to repair the breaches and restore a third of the water export capacity. The total repair bill over five years would be $30 billion to $40 billion. As many as 30,000 jobs would be lost, and some parts of the delta might never be reclaimed.

The chances of such an event? About one in 300, according to Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow.

"That was about what Katrina was," Snow said. #

http://www.venturacountystar.com/vcs/opinion_columnists/article/0,1375,VCS_223_4297715,00.html

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Sucker Punched

Submitted: Dec 09, 2005

Letters from the River, 2

Gary McMillen

Enough Doppler radar. It was Saturday afternoon when I drove out to Lake Pontchartrain to gather my thoughts and make a decision. Sitting on the seawall, listening to the splash of waves on the concrete steps, I noticed there were no seagulls. That's when I decided to evacuate. If the birds didn't want to be in New Orleans, I sure as hell didn't want to stay, either.

I soon became part of the human wave, looking for hotel rooms at any exit off Interstate 10. Standing in lobbies for hours, getting on a list to take a shower, chasing after rumors of vacancies and shelter, I began to accept that "normal" was something that did not exist anymore. On the outskirts of Lafayette a Vietnamese fishing family took me in. For three days and nights, we ate boiled crabs spread out on newspaper on the floor, drank beer, and watched the destruction of an American city unfold on CNN. Sleep was fitful. My son had promised he was evacuating to Atlanta, but I had not heard from him.

Excuse me for rambling, but in the days and weeks in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, thinking is a dull throb. The blurring effects of the storm's sucker punch have me wobbly. The rational mind, numb from the frantic pace of dislocation, avoids thinking of what was left behind: a home that got nine feet of water, books, business records, laptop computer, a samurai sword, music, and tapes. Levees can be repaired but not that photograph of my dad fly-fishing in a trout stream in California.

"Goodbye" to e-mail. "Hello" to life of the wandering gypsy. I live at the Best Western in Shreveport now. I eat biscuits, smoked sausage, and white gravy at the breakfast buffet before going to work. One morning, at the entrance to the Louisiana State University Medical Center there was a cardboard box at the door with a sign: "For Victims of Hurricane Katrina." I hate the word "victim," but went up and peeked in the box. At the bottom were a pack of diapers and a tube of toothpaste. I looked in both directions to see if anyone was watching and snatched up the Colgate. I am the first in the McMillen-Gallagher clan of Scots and Irishmen to have applied for food stamps.

In the midst of crisis, I have learned there are two kinds of people in the world. There are people who tell you that they have an extra room off the garage where you can stay for the weekend, and then there are people who throw you the keys to their house. There are people who bring you boxes of clothes that don't fit, and then there are people who ask for your waist size. There are people waiting for me to call them, and then there are people like New York trainer Danny Peitz, who kept punching my number into his cell phone until he reached me.

I'm drinking much more than usual: Old Forester, straight up, no ice. I have observed my state of mind and it's not all pretty. The dry wit, the smile, the appreciation for jokes and just plain silliness have dissolved. Pounded by the stress of uncertainty, I have turned into Joe Friday. "Yes," "No," "OK" are standard expressions from my new robotic personality.

My son and I found each other. That was a celebration with relief. But there is a long list of big and little things that I miss and am concerned about losing. I had some horses on my Virtual Stable. I imagine them all winning and paying $36.40. I wonder if I had flood insurance. I wonder if the Fair Grounds is still there. I miss my Q-tip moment after taking a shower. I'm still puzzled about why I threw my golf clubs in the trunk of the car instead of some socks and a comb. Here I am with one pair of sandals, some jogging shorts, three shirts, two pair of underwear and a 7-iron. If you want to go deep, what I am really afraid of is losing contact and not seeing my friends again.

If anyone from Enterprise reads this, I still have your rental car. It's a 2005 Ford Taurus, assigned to my Visa card and scheduled for return on Aug. 29. Bringing it back to New Orleans would have been a mistake for both of us. I think the Super Derby (gr. II) is coming up soon at Louisiana Downs. Maybe I'll hit the trifecta and we can settle up when I get back.

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On the road

Submitted: Dec 09, 2005

Letters from the River, 1

by Gary McMillen

Last night we had our LSU Human Resources Christmas party in the lounge of the hotel.

Pure coincidence but the owner (and his wife) of the Best Western Richmond Suites chose last night to drop by and inspect the property. They opened the door to the lounge and stood in amazement.

Tamara walked up, introduced herself and gave them a plate of fried chicken, a bowl of gumbo and bought them a drink.

Pam and Valencia had fixed delicious Swedish meatballs, jambalaya and two types of chicken in addition to finger sandwiches for 100.

The cash bar set a single night record for sales.

Nancy, the manager of Best Western, walked around, mingling with the crowd, shaking her head, calling the night an "epic."

It was freezing cold but about 20 Human Resources and Payroll staff from Shreveport Medical Center came. Along with any and all hotel guests that showed up, it was hard to find a place to sit. We turned off the wide-screen plasma television and played CD's of The Iguanas, Ernie K-Doe and Professor Longhair.

A group of engineers from Iowa and Minnesota (in town to repair pumps from the hurricane) could not believe what they were seeing. "Man, did we come to the right hotel," one of them said, scooping up his second plate of dirty rice and sausage.

Most of the evening Frankie Lee sat by the fireplace, drinking straight shots of Jose Cuerva, talking to Christy the bar-maid about her modeling career and just telling all manner of lies into the night.
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Gary McMillen, my oldest friend (we met at Lincoln School, Modesto, in the 5th grade), is currently working for a state agency personnel office in Shreveport and Baton Rouge, sorting out problems for thousands of employees in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He lost a house in the 9th Ward and an apartment in another section of New Orleans. He has been writing about horse races in the South for 30 years.

He told me today, about this party: "You can take Gary out of New Orleans, but you can't take New Orleans out of Gary."

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