Racism in Atwater City Hall...Bill Hatch
The Merced Sun-Star recently reported on a number of pornographic racist emails being channeled through an Atwater City Hall computer server by Councilman Gary Frago. Last week, Atwater City Council held a hearing on the issue at the community center. About 300 people showed up.
To remove any suspense from this report, after hearing the testimony of 58 members of the public and oratory from four council members, the council voted unanimously (Frago not permitted to vote) 4-0, to direct staff to draft a letter of reprimand to Frago..
Before the meeting began, I talked briefly with Michelle Allison, former president of the local NAACP chapter about what Frago called his “mistake.” She said she felt that Frago was no longer able to represent his constituents and must resign. Her hope for the coming meeting was that it might open a dialogue. “We need to talk about race, religion and the economy,” she said. She thought that forgiveness came through dialogue but, “We don’t have dialogue here about race or economic groups -- about the things that bother us. So the question is, how do we rebuild through dialogue?”
How do we have a dialogue “about the things that bother us”? What does it take? How does it begin? Dialogue is in peril everywhere and the public space in which it can occur was never bought without sacrifice. That’s an iconic picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. walking with other civil rights workers across the bridge to Selma, but was happened after he crossed that line was not a win-win, public-private consensus, decision-making process. When political power is always right in its own eyes and it commands the force, when conflict emerges, so does the profoundly anti-dialogue force of dogma, whether religious, political or, increasingly, a partnership between both that is a lose-lose, public-private partnership from hell that destroys. It doesn’t rebuild anything. Yet dialogue is also often sponsored and supported by churches and some politicians. The public space reported on here was created by public outrage, not by a pleasant consensus with the smooth manipulators behind the powers that be.
At the Atwater Community Center, Frago began the meeting by making an apology to the audience, saying that he understood they were there to speak against him, which was their right. He offered a “sincere apology,” noting his “insensitivity” and that it was not his intent to hurt anyone. He said he had friends from every background, had served with blacks in the military, was a life-long Democrat and proud of the civil rights legislation of presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson. He concluded by promising to take a class in ethnic sensitivity.
“Each of you deserves a sincere apology. I hope you will accept it,” he said.
Frago, a fairly large man, was wearing an American-flag tie. He has white hair, a short, white beard, wears tinted glasses and his face visibly darkened during the ensuing hearing and nearly turned purple.
As appeared in Badlands on July 24, California Government Code Section 53235 creates a mandate for ethics training for members of local legislative bodies. Ethics, ethnics? To the Atwater City Hall and a number of people in the audience, they were the same word. By this display of open “ethnic sensitivity,” advised by the smooth players behind the council, the powers that be seemed to hope to finesse entirely the issue of ethics and its uncomfortable proximity to the state attorney general and Fair Political Practices Commission.
At the outset, I report that I was sitting two seats away from the microphone for the public but was unable to get everyone’s name . I have not identified people by the color of their skins or by ethnic hyphenation because the race designations get in the way of what is being said, in many cases by neighbors of different races, many of whom have lived near each other for decades.
Karen Naquin, Frago’s sister-in-law, spoke first. She was sitting next to me and had spelled out her name in my ear. She began by asking the city council if speakers could be limited to residents of Atwater only. The assistant city attorney replied that that would not be possible because the issue was larger than Atwater. Naquin continued, noting that Frago had come forth and apologized and that he once barbecued at 5:30 a.m. at an Afro-American church. She said that, “In America we honor success,” noting that Babe Ruth struck out twice as often as he got a hit and that “Gary will be remembered for his successes and what he did.”
One man, against Big Government, forgave Frago personally. “Any decent American would forgive you,” he said. Another asked where the outrage was against gangs and the homeless. “I’m a racist for accepting his (Frago’s) apology,” he said, adding that he’d spent 28 years in the military. “As long as there are hyphenated Americans, there will be division,” he concluded.
“This is just a dog-and-pony show,” said another, adding that Frago served his country in Vietnam (therefore, it was implied, he should be granted a life-long immunity from responsibility for his statements.) “You can’t do this in this town,” he continued, “you have to let people live … It’s a long time since the 1960’s,” he went on, “We all understand the racial thing, now. I want people to support Gary in Atwater.” He went on about jokes, ending with reference to Richard Pryor. He was booed off the microphone.
“You have to let people live …”? What does this mean? Does this inalienable right to “living” include sending out racial smut about the wife of the president of your nation on your city’s computer server? Has carte blanche been issued to be racist because the president and his family are black? Does the president’s position on abortion give racists divine dispensation from racism during his administration?
Nobody but Atwater citizens should be here, another said, glaring darkly at all the outside agitators in the audience – any black people regardless of whether or not they lived down the street and any white people he didn’t recognize through thick glasses. He was going to tell us stories about working in the Post Office in Oakland, but he never did. “I don’t know how these people could be offended,” he said. “They should be able to take a joke.”
He also claimed that he fought in the American military for English-only education.
An instant scene from my unwritten war movie appeared. Mortars are raining down on the squad from the steep, muddy hill they have been ordered to take at any cost. The machinegun fire from the cliffs above is withering. “Let’s go, boys,” the sergeant says, “and remember, we’re doing it for English-only education.
Bob White, of Atwater, said that the emails hurt Atwater and surrounding communities, however he felt that the best thing for Frago to do was to stay in office and not give in to pressure by “hyphenated Americans.” “We need to quit holding people to higher standards,” he said. “I plead with you not to resign,” White addressed Frago directly.
White’s theory of racism is that the only way to get rid of it is with a “change within us … Gary, don’t resign. Show us you can change.”
And if we get away with, even after we’re caught red-handed, and we don’t change? Then what? A return to mob rule by unhyphenated Americans?
White’s comments were in line with the Christian leader of the Atwater Chamber of Commerce, Jeff Stopper, who shaves his head. Stopper stated that community leaders should have higher standards but, being a Christian, he forgave Frago, counseling him to read James 3 on the “damage from tongues.”
We quote James 3:6 for a taste: “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.” James would not appear to be the patron saint either of journalism or of Internet race-joke circulation.
Stopper said he was praying for Frago but would not say what anyone should do about the situation. Since he announced himself as the president of the Atwater Chamber of Commerce, we are left to assume that the chamber took no position on the issue.
George Johnson works with the Bloss Home Museum and the Atwater Historical Society, said that Frago had “never shown any racist tendencies.” Johnson blamed it all on the computers.
Jack Lancaster, a B-17 pilot in World War II, foreswore his birthright to hyphenation by announcing he refused to call himself a Norwegian-American.
The people who demanded Frago’s resignation and/or threatened to recall him weren’t all black and they weren’t all from out of town. David Dutrell, from Atwater, said, “Gary, Gary, Gary, Do the right, decent honorable thing – Resign!” Albert Mayfield, also from Atwater, asked Frago to resign, saying he’d hurt the community and lied, had a vendetta against the fire chief and for amusement was sending out racist email. “Racism infects the community,” he said. He characterized Frago’s comments as callous and indifferent to some of his constituents and that his first response to the press, in which Frago said he really didn’t see what the problem was, “was the real you.” Mayfield said Frago’s comment that he could have handled the situation “a lot easier if it had stayed local,” was evidence of insincerity, not apology. That got big applause and the gavel from the mayor. Mayfield promised a recall election if Frago didn’t resign.
A woman from Merced said, “We do not condone what was said,” particularly about Michelle Obama. (The emails were particularly gross about the president’s wife.) “Michelle has done nothing but uplift the community,” she said, referring to Mrs. Obama’s speech at the UC Merced commencement in May.
A retired teacher, 17-year resident of Atwater, sporting gold toenail polish, said the Atwater community was dedicated to recalling Frago.
A woman, veteran of 23 years in the military, said she’d retired to Atwater. She had attended the inauguration in Washington DC with a million others. “You need to resign,” she said. “You go out and educate.” She wondered who would be teaching his class in ethnic sensitivity.
George Logan said, “Gary has done a real dumb thing. He won’t do it again. There is no such thing as private email on a public server.”
Lesa Rasmussen, who told be at a pre-meeting rally that she had lost to Frago by “one point seven percent,” tried to pull a parliamentary stunt, yielding her time to “Nicolas.” The assistant city attorney denied it. “Nicolas” came to the microphone and said he had “one word.” Pointing his finger at the door, looking at Frago, he said, “Resign!”
William Jackson, an Air Force retired master sergeant, said he’d served all over the world and “never heard that word. Give us the origins of that word.”
A elderly woman born in nearby Cortez told of being “the victim of vicious hatred” during World War II, and put in a Colorado concentration camp for four years. “Our country admitted it made a mistake.” She said she’d taught fifth graders to respect the president. She believed that the multiple culture of America was the “strength of our country. Let us be proud. Respect all Americans despite our differences.”
Sanra Cane, whose husband is a Vietnam veteran, has lived in Atwater for 11 years. She described herself as a “small person” who was “emotionally impacted” by the news reports of Frago’s email traffic. She said she was an educator who never thought about race. “People have been warm here,” she said, “but the ones who accepted your apology so fast weren’t emotionally impacted. What you say and do affects others. This can’t happen with public officials.”
Al Brooks said, “See if blacks find those jokes funny … Racists support racists.”
Sidney Cason told Frago, “Working for the state, I’d be fired for what you did.”
Gary Nichols, not from Atwater, suggested that Atwater could heal but with Frago’s resignation. He suggested that, as Frago was a Vietnam veteran, he should be aware of the Universal Code of Military Justice.
Article 88 of the UCMJ provides:
Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.
It’s fair to say that the real aim of the racist jokes about the Obama family is not even the president himself, but his and his party’s policies. So, racist, sexist smutty jokes is the obvious political tactic, right? It gets right down to that common ground people on opposite sides of issues like abortion would have, doesn’t it?
However, with respect to the UCMJ, even considering the number of retired military people living in Atwater, a native of Atwater commented after the meeting, “Atwater has never been governed by any code whatsoever.”
“I would suggest that Frago is just the tip of the iceberg,” Ron Dale Grizby said. “Back then, we just kicked each others’ butts. Now it’s different.”
That’s what happened “back then” but it didn’t work any better than violence ever works. In my high school in the Valley, when someone said the word, he would meet a Negro classmate with a left hook from God. It was almost surgical but it didn’t excise racial hatreds.
Erma Smith, who helped organize the pre-meeting demonstration at Atwater City Hall, said that Frago’s behavior was unprofessional and grounds for firing just on that basis.
“Is he about the law?” she asked. “Ignorance is not a legal defense,” she added.
Smith said that any government staffer would be disciplined for what Frago did. “He violated federal, state and local law.” He also offended Mrs. Obama and all women, she said.
John Mims, who has lived in Atwater for 37 years, said that 50 years ago his wife had been threatened for using the white drinking fountain. He told Frago: “You need to resign. The city needs to move on.”
A Fresno leader of the Mexican American Political Association told Frago: "Listen to the people. Step down.”
A woman from Atwater said that she could not understand why Frago chose to forward those emails. “I don’t respect your apology. I don’t believe you.” She then asked the city council if she could ask them how the Merced Sun-Star got the emails. Mayor Faul said, “No.”
Another woman from Atwater, possibly a retired teacher, said that “there were two clusters of issues under discussion: first, to accept the apology and forgive Frago as a person; second, Frago’s fitness for public office. She said it was necessary to have high standards for public officers if we want democracy to work. Frago was amused by the emails, which “indicated a level of racism I am not comfortable with. He showed bad judgment. He is not fit for public office.” She saluting Mayor Faul for speaking out promptly and said she wished the other council members had done the same.
A woman originally from South Carolina, who had grown up during segregation, spoke of getting punched by a white man in a lunchroom. “Discrimination is still alive and well. You had the choice to delete the email. You’re just as guilty as the creator. You drove the get-away car.”
Reverend Dr. Napoleon Washington, president of the Merced chapter of the NAACP, spoke of “this old wound in our community, dismissed with an apology. Even your pastor didn’t’ reprimand you. Your fellow councilmen didn’t reprimand you…We condemn those who choose to lose their memory … What type of message are we sending to the country?”
Councilman Jeff Rivero interrupted the public comment to say that when he became a councilman he had lost his voice as a private citizen. Rivero and his brother Joe, who also serves on the council, are furious at Mayor Faul, who wrote a letter on her own behalf, condemning Frago’s actions. It’s likely council members were not clamoring to join her,
Shortly after, an Atwater voter told Jeff Rivero that he did not vote for council members to behave as one. He voted for individuals. He received huge applause for this and even more when he told the council, “I want you to be leaders and that’s not what’s happening.”
Isabel Fernandez, a graduate student at UC Merced, said she was concerned about people who didn’t take a stand on this issue, people like Atwater County Supervisor Mike Nelson. “I’m concerned with how such people govern. Leaders are meant to be courageous.”
That concluded the public comment on the motion to direct staff to prepare the letter of reprimand.
The audience was then forced to endure drivel from the council.
Joe Rivero started off with a diatribe against the newspaper. “How could the media do this? When you regurgitate the racial hate, you are part of it.” Joe called for more “journalistic integrity.” By contrast with the foul press, Frago had at least apologized. (Right. After he was caught by the press he apologized. If the press had not published the offending emails [St. James, forgive me!] there would have been nothing in public to apologize for.) The Rivero brothers may have been the only people in the room dumb enough to come up with the idea that Frago would have volunteered the information that he’d been involved in a racist smut ring on the Internet, using a city server, and volunteered to share some of the material with the press.
Joe went on to “move for a letter of disapproval,” when the issue was a letter of reprimand, intoning that Frago’s “behavior is not condoned by the council.”
Next, under advice from the assistant city attorney, the council voted to exclude Frago from the vote on staff direction to prepare a letter of reprimand.
Jeff Rivero picked up where his brother left off talking about the mayor’s solo letter of condemnation. The council didn’t want to get the city sued anymore than was likely under the circumstances, he said. To qualify himself before the audience, which might have appeared in his delirium (either chronic or caused by the situation) as “a sea of angry black faces,” he said he had once been refused service at an Atwater donut shop when he brought a black friend in with him. He also mentioned that he’d been talking to “people who really care about this town,” presumably at the same donut shops, frequented by all Atwater politicians since at least the days of his father, former county Supervisor Joe Rivero. He also said he’d suffered racial segregation first-hand in the South once, when looking at separate entrances marked for blacks and for whites. And he felt left out. “I’m not black and I’m not white. I’m Italian,” he said.
Then he urged the audience to “thank your creator and thank so many women who died for us to be here. Thank you, God.” Yes, you read that correctly. As to its meaning, your guess is as good as mine.
You could almost hear a fatherly ghost from a corner saying: “Boys, it’s time to go to the coffee shop.”
Mayor Faul defended her unilateral letter. “It was from myself, as mayor. It did not come from the council – just from the mayor as one individual.”
Jeff Rivero returned to harassing her on the “one-voice” issue. The audience, particularly the “outside agitators” unfamiliar with the level of debate in the Atwater City Council, were baffled by the Rivero boys’ hysterical attempts to portray themselves as not-racists while at the same time obstructing any sort of joint letter by the council on the issue, on behalf of the “people who really care about this town.”
The assistant city attorney said that the mayor’s letter was appropriate and said that the city legal department had advised the council to address the issue in an open, public meeting.
Councilman Nelson Crabb said that Frago’s behavior was “unacceptable…I apologize to the people who elected me and would not expect me to condone this.”
Frago said another short apology and the vote, 4-0 was unanimous to direct staff to draft a letter of reprimand and bring it back to the next council meeting, scheduled for August 10.
City Manager Greg Wellman said that, “if we’re looking at cultural change, it happens one person at a time.”
The mayor and assistant city attorney reported that in closed session the council decided that the state Public Records Act requests will be “aggressively pursued…We will disclose more than the law requires.” If the McClatchy Co. doesn’t fold on schedule, the Rivero brothers version of journalistic integrity will be even more besmirched by publication of more emails to and from Frago’s city computer. But the lawyers will be singing, “Kah-ching.”
Someone from audience said that Frago was still the mayor pro tem and could the council look into how remove him from that position. Couldn’t he be “disappointed” in the same way he was appointed? The assistant city attorney commented that it would not be beyond the authority of the council to remove him from that office.
The last fracas of the evening was when the same fellow that had drawn large applause for saying this wasn’t political leadership got up and reprimanded Joe Rivero for his complete lack of that quality. The adjourning gavel did not stop the flow of bad blood in Atwater.
Rule in this city, county, state and nation for decades by the forces of finance, insurance and real estate special interests is making this society barbaric. Three of the four voting members of the Atwater City Council and staff, having failed to cover this thing up, were more concerned about possible lawsuits, and what they would do to insurance rates, and what the rotten business might do to slumping real estate values, than they were about any offense whatsoever they gave their own citizens of racial minorities and those from surrounding communities.
Calif. water officials study building delta tunnel...The Associated Press
FRESNO, Calif. State engineers are studying a proposal to send water supplies to Southern California through a tunnel under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, rather than through a peripheral canal.
The Department of Water Resources is considering the tunnel option as part of a broader, long-term effort to lower pressure on the beleaguered estuary.
Proponents say routing water underground could help protect endangered fish species while securing supplies for San Joaquin Valley farmers and southern cities.
But opponents fear diverting water would turn the delta into a swamp.
By year's end, officials with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan are expected to release a draft conservation plan that could include options both above and below ground.
Tejon Ranch Company to Ask Court to Release Protective Order
Order Protected Confidentiality of Settlement Negotiations over Litigation Related to the California Condor...Published online on Monday, Aug. 03, 2009
TEJON RANCH, Calif. Tejon Ranch Company is asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Department of Justice to support its efforts to have a U.S. District Court vacate a Protective Order issued to maintain the confidential nature of settlement negotiations between the Tejon Ranch and the FWS over a federal lawsuit filed by the Ranch in 1997.
“The pending settlement of our lawsuit has produced an outstanding result – a proposed Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan that protects the California condor and 26 other animal and plant species,” said Robert A. Stine, President and CEO of Tejon Ranch Company. “As the MSHCP process is nearing its completion, we believe the Protective Order is no longer necessary, and having received a request from three of the environmental resource organizations that are part of the Tejon Ranch Conservation and Land Use Agreement, we have instructed our attorneys to seek the support of the FWS and the Justice Department in asking the court to remove the Order.”
The Tejon Ranch Conservation and Land Use Agreement was ratified last year by Tejon Ranch Company, Audubon California, Endangered Habitats League, Natural Resources Defense Council, Planning and Conservation League, and the Sierra Club, and will result in the permanent conservation of up to 90% of the 270,000-acre Ranch. Three of those organizations, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Audubon California, recently contacted Tejon Ranch to express concern that the Protective Order could create the appearance of nondisclosure, something contrary to the very comprehensive science-based negotiations that led to the historic agreement.
“The MSHCP is based on the best science available to protect the condor and other species, and its evaluation is a very open, transparent and public process – as it should be,” said Stine. “If the Protective Order gives the appearance otherwise, it should be lifted and that’s exactly what we’re asking of the court.”
Background regarding litigation
In 1997, Tejon Ranch filed suit against the FWS, with the Ranch seeking a "10(j) Rule" for California condors expected to be released in Southern California. Such a rule has been successfully applied by FWS in Arizona, where the California condor population has now grown exponentially. A “10(j) Rule” includes both restrictions designed to protect the California condor as well as protections for landowners who comply with such restrictions. At that time, a "10(j) Rule" was considered by some to be a more efficient means of effectively regulating captive-bred and captive-reared species that are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Before and after filing the lawsuit, Tejon Ranch also worked with FWS in an attempt to reach a mutually agreeable solution. With the assistance of the court, in 1999, the parties reached a conditional settlement agreement under which Tejon Ranch agreed to work with FWS, with court oversight, to complete a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) and Incidental Take Permit in lieu of a "10(j) Rule."
As a result of the settlement, for the past ten years Tejon Ranch has been working with FWS toward completion of an HCP. As is common in litigation, settlement discussions between the parties – in this case Tejon Ranch and FWS – were confidential. A Protective Order, mutually agreed to by Tejon Ranch and the FWS, that established the scope of this confidentiality arrangement for settlement discussions, was issued by the court in 2002.
The HCP, which initially just covered the California condor, later evolved into a Multiple-Species Conservation Plan (MSHCP) that includes 27 species, most of which are not listed or protected by the federal Endangered Species Act. The Draft MSHCP and Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIS) were released on January 23, 2009, and were subject to a 120-day public comment period that ended in July. The MSHCP/DEIS review process will conclude in the second quarter of 2010, as was recently confirmed in the regular quarterly report filed with the court.
Public comments sought on pipeline...The Record
STOCKTON - A plan to tie together two large canals that deliver water from the Delta to farms and cities as far south as San Diego will be the subject of a public meeting Wednesday evening.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is accepting public comments on the so-called intertie plan, which would involve construction of a pipeline and pumping plant to connect the California Aqueduct and the Delta-Mendota Canal.
The stated goal of the project is to meet water supply needs, allow for maintenance and repair of the canals and provide additional flexibility. Critics have said it could lead to more Delta pumping.
U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar promised an expedited study of the project during a recent drought-related town hall meeting in Fresno.
Wednesday's meeting is from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Arnold Rue Community Center, 5758 Lorraine Ave. Information: (916) 978-5100
San Francisco Chronicle
Who owns water?...Peter Gleick. Water expert Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, is one of SFGate.com's City Brights.
Who "owns" what water? Or, if water belongs to the public, who has the right to use it? This question is perhaps the thorniest in the world of water. The answer is critical to California's growing water crisis. It is critical to water in the western United States.
It is critical to the spat between Alabama, Georgia and Florida over the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system (say that three times fast). ... Just last week, Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia said that Georgia has a right to all the water that originates in the state and that falls in the state and will fight to keep it. ... This is an old idea. ... The only problem for Gov. Perdue, and Georgia, is that (this idea) has been universally repudiated: in international law, in U.S. law and in any ethical or moral set of rules.
Los Angeles Times
State prepares for climate change
The first statewide plan in the country calls for adaptation and education. Public comment is sought...Margot Roosevelt
Along with California's efforts to crack down on its own greenhouse gas emissions, state officials have begun preparing for the worst: heat waves, a rising sea level, flooding, wildlife die-offs and other expected consequences from what scientists predict will be a dramatic temperature increase by the end of this century.
California's Natural Resources Agency on Monday issued the nation's first statewide plan to "adapt" to climate change.
It offers strategies to cope with threats in seven sectors from firefighting to public health and water conservation. Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman called the plan an effort to acknowledge the problem and suggested that Californians "recognize their role in solving that problem and alter their behavior so that the change lasts."
The draft is "a good step in the right direction," said Gina Solomon of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group.
"It highlights the importance of local adaptation planning, protecting vulnerable communities and the importance of public education."
But she cautioned: "These are all just words on paper without funding to carry them out.
"The federal government should help states to prepare for climate change. Spending some money now will save billions later, and these strategies save lives."
David Festa of the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund voiced the hope that the report would "add urgency to our state's desperate water supply situation," noting that the Legislature will consider five new water-related bills when it reconvenes on Aug. 17.
In 2006, California adopted the nation's first comprehensive law to limit emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that scientists have found to be heating the planet.
Last year, state officials laid out a detailed plan to slash the state's emissions to 1990 levels in the next 11 years. And they began to adopt regulations, including the nation's first rule to mandate low-carbon fuel.
The public may submit comments to the draft over the next 45 days (e-mail address is email@example.com.) Public hearings will be held in Sacramento on Aug. 13 and in Los Angeles on a later date.
San Diego Union-Tribune
Steelhead strategy roils local waters
Fisheries plan would cut into supplies for people...Mike Lee
A new federal proposal to reel Southern California steelhead salmon back from the brink of extinction threatens to disrupt fragile water systems that serve millions of residents from Santa Barbara to North County.
Vista, Oceanside, Escondido and at least five Indian tribes, which together provide water to more than 400,000 people, could be hit directly by efforts to make the San Luis Rey River run like it did before dams, pollution and development devastated steelhead populations. They might have to take less water from the waterway for decades.
The effects would ripple countywide when those providers seek more imported water, effectively competing with other local suppliers.
Similar scenarios probably would play out across Southern California once the National Marine Fisheries Service finalizes its strategy for steelhead recovery, as it intends to do by early next year.
Water supplies already are low because of drought, population growth and court-ordered reductions to protect other fish species.
“It's the worst time in the world to even think about doing something like this,” said Gary Arant, general manager of the Valley Center Municipal Water District, where farmers have been hard-hit by water cutbacks in the past two years. “At some point, we have to think about what's more important – re-establishing the steelhead or providing water for people and our communities.”
After steelhead were added to the Endangered Species Act list in 1997, federal officials have spent years on the complex process of developing a recovery plan for the fish.
The 430-page proposal from the fisheries service, released last week, lacks mandate power. But its recommendations will set the tone for when the agency and other regulators review water and flood-control projects.
“Permitting agencies can come back to you and say, 'We have got a concern now that we didn't have before,' ” said Roger Patterson, a top official at the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles.
Nowhere is the conflict between protecting fish and securing water supplies clearer than in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where federal efforts to help the threatened smelt have slashed the amount of water available for statewide distribution.
Leaders of water districts fear the steelhead recovery blueprint is a precursor to similar restrictions on local lakes and rivers.
“A new environmental use of this water puts further pressure on the overall water supply system in California,” said Don Smith of the Vista Irrigation District, which relies on Lake Henshaw in the San Luis Rey River watershed for roughly one-quarter of its inventory.
Chris Yates, a fisheries service supervisor for Southern California, cast his agency's proposal as the opening of a dialogue.
“We are looking at trying to re-establish the species across the extent of its range. It's an incredibly daunting set of actions . . . but you have to start somewhere,” he said.
Fisheries officials won't predict how much the draft document will change because they want public feedback before making final revisions. So far, the plan lacks cost estimates and timelines. Funding would come from federal, state and local agencies, as well as conservation groups, private property owners and others.
Steelhead – technically a salmon but commonly called a trout – were the only abundant salmon species indigenous to the coastal mountain ranges of Southern California until the post-World War II era.
More than 30,000 of them returned from the ocean each year to spawn until dams, concrete channels, contamination and other man-made hazards severely damaged their habitat. Today's annual runs number about 500 adults, making steelhead one of the rarest species in the nation.
Environmentalists and California's wildlife leaders applaud the fisheries service for its proposal.
“This draft plan provides a comprehensive road map so steelhead can survive, if not thrive, in our urban environment,” said Ed Pert at the California Department of Fish and Game.
Nica Knite, a program manager at California Trout in San Diego, urged water officials and others to support steelhead, once a prized fish for anglers.
“We don't want to be looking in hindsight at the loss of steelhead when we could have done something to save them,” Knite said.
The fisheries service has identified about a dozen top-priority watersheds for the species, including the San Luis Rey River, San Juan Creek in Orange County and Malibu Creek in Los Angeles County.
San Mateo Creek and the Santa Margarita River are listed as second-tier areas for steelhead recovery in San Diego County.
The agency's proposal calls for making more water available in the targeted rivers at certain times of the year, removing or modifying dams, minimizing water pollution, curbing fishing and fully enforcing laws and regulations concerning steelhead.
For the San Luis Rey River, that would involve fixing roads and culverts to improve fish passage, moving livestock and farms to minimize water pollution and revising land-use policies to better protect the waterway.
Lori Vereker, utilities director for Escondido, questioned whether it's feasible to restore the San Luis Rey basin to the condition needed for large steelhead runs. Escondido gets up to 30 percent of its water from the watershed.
“The financial burden in doing all of that would be – I don't even like to think how big it is,” Vereker said.
Oceanside's leaders said they're all for steelhead recovery projects as long as they're done somewhere else. They're ramping up withdrawals of groundwater in the lower reaches of the San Luis Rey watershed to offset shrinking imports from Northern California and the Colorado River.
“If you have to supply flows for these fish, then it would be a restriction on how much water we could withdraw,” said Mo Lahsaie, coordinator of Oceanside's clean-water program. “Reintroducing this fish into this watershed has so many financial and logistical challenges.”
Another sign of a housing thaw
June pending homes sales increased for the fifth straight month, adding to the list of positive reports recently released...Les Christie
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- More Americans signed sales contracts to buy homes in June than in May, the fifth consecutive month of increases, according to a report released Tuesday.
The National Association of Realtors said its Pending Home Sales Index rose 3.6% during the month. That was 6.7% higher than June 2008. It was the fifth straight month of increases, the first time that has happened since July 2003..
The report followed several other recent pieces of good news for the housing industry, including a substantial rise in new home sales, a jump in existing home sales and the first home price increase in nearly three years.
The jump was also much higher than expected. A consensus of industry experts put together by Briefing.com had forecast an increase of just 0.7%
"Historically low mortgage interest rates, affordable home prices and large selection are encouraging buyers who've been on the sidelines," said NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun.
"It's not unlike the Cash for Clunkers program," added David Crowe, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders. "It's pushing people off the fence."
Low-end sales have been the strongest segment of the market, an indication that the first-time homebuyers tax credit, worth up to $8,000, is contributing to the rise. The clock, however, is quickly running out on this offer and may have buyers stepping up their shopping to get their purchases in under the wire.
"Because it may take as long as two months to close on a home after signing a contract," Yun said, "first-time buyers must act fairly soon to take advantage of the $8,000 tax credit because they must close on the sale by Nov. 30."
Crowe also acknowledged that the tax credit could be pushing home sales forward, leading to a later downturn. But he does not forecast a significant drop in housing activity, just a "stickiness" in buyers who won't feel as much urgency to "get off the fence" as they do with the credit in effect.
Affordability on the decline
Housing affordability declined slightly in June, according to NAR's Housing Affordability Index, but remains favorable. The affordability index was 159.2 in July, pushed down from recent record peaks by increased mortgage rates. But it remains 36.6 percentage points higher than 12 months earlier
To purchase a home in June, the average family would have to devote 15.7% of its gross income to mortgage principal and interest, well below the 25% many experts recommend.
Looking to the future
Mike Larson, a real estate analyst for Weiss Research, says all of these factors indicate continued market progress, although he sees no imminent return to the "glory days" of the mid-2000s in housing.
"Frankly, that's a good thing," he said. "I'd much rather see steady, consistent gains in sales; steady, consistent reductions in the rate of price depreciation; and steady, consistent declines in home inventory. That's exactly what is happening, and what should continue to happen as long as mortgage rates don't spike too sharply and/or unemployment doesn't worsen materially from here."