Merced Sun-Star
Planning commission recommends approval for Wal-Mart distribution center...SCOTT JASON
Support for the proposed Wal-Mart distribution center gained more momentum Monday with the Merced Planning Commission unanimously recommending its approval.
"This is something that is good for our community," Commissioner Richard Cervantes said before the vote. "I think this will be a major step in rebuilding Merced."
The commission's vote is primarily symbolic as the project's fate rests with the City Council. Still, the vote sets the tenor for the next round of hearings, which begin at 6 p.m. Sept. 21.
The approval was a four-part vote. The commission unanimously recommended certifying the environmental report, amending the General Plan and abandoning a piece of land.
The commission split 6-1 on the site plan approval. Commissioner Lawrence Zuercher wanted to see Wal-Mart build dirt berms with added trees that would further hide the building from sight.
The plan calls for Wal-Mart to plant a tree every 40 feet. All the commissioners, except Zuercher, felt it would have been too much of an economic burden for the nation's largest private employer.
Turnout Monday was smaller than the showing at Wednesday's meeting, which packed the council chambers and forced people into the overflow room downstairs. Fifty-seven people spoke that night.
During Monday's meeting, four people spoke in support of the proposed distribution center. Two people argued against it. The speakers signed up to talk during the last meeting but left before they were called.
The crowd applauded after the unanimous vote was shown on the screens above the dais. Commissioners all pointed to the added jobs and economic growth that the project will bring.
Chairman Dwight Amey recalled growing up in Fairmead and hearing adults talk about a car manufacturer that was turned away.
The residents said it would have given them the chance to have permanent work. They wouldn't have to cut grapes, pick figs or work fields, Amey recalled them saying.
Decades later he watched Castle Air Force Base shut down, dealing a serious blow to Merced. The area grew and more jobs created before the housing bust hit.
"We're at a crossroads again," he said.
The Wal-Mart distribution center will bring well-paying jobs that will help Mercedians buy homes and care for their families, he said.
"My point is that Wal-Mart is bringing something to Merced that we need," he said.
Kathleen Crookham noted that nearly every block in the city's commercial areas have "for rent" or "for sale" signs in the window. The center could jolt the economy and stir more interest here, she said.
"These are tough times and it's important that opportunities aren't lost to endless studies," she said. "While we wait, local folks drown in the poor economy."
Elvis Brock, who lives a half-mile from the project's site, said that the center will make the city's air worse.
"(The distribution center) will be here forever," he said. "The decisions you make are on a permanent basis."
Kyle Stockard, with the Stop Wal-Mart Action Team, said he wasn't shocked or surprised by the vote.
"In this economic time it's hard to be opposed to jobs," Stockard said after the meeting. "I think they'll be disappointed when it's here."
Wal-Mart has plans to build a 1.1 million-square-foot distribution center on 230 acres between Child and Gerard avenues. They've said it will create 900 full-time jobs after three year's of operation.
Report rates roadway conditions throughout Merced County...CORINNE REILLY
A new report examining road conditions across Merced County rates Livingston's streets as the county's best and those in Dos Palos and Gustine as its worst.
The report, finished this month, is based on data gathered by the Merced County Association of Governments from the county's public works department and each of the area's six cities.
It says that most local jurisdictions boast considerably larger percentages of roadways rated in "fair" to "very good" condition than in the "poor or worse" category.
For the city of Dos Palos, however, the findings are reversed. There, 59 percent of streets are rated in poor condition.
Gustine has the second-worst roads in the county, with 46 percent rated poorly, according to MCAG's report.
In Livingston only 14 percent of streets are in poor condition.
In the cities of Atwater, Merced and Los Banos, between 22 and 23 percent of roads are rated unfavorably. For the county's unincorporated areas, that figure is 25 percent.
MCAG's Ty Phimmasone, who wrote the report, blamed funding shortages for much of the disparity -- and for regrettable road conditions countywide. "The report clearly shows the depth of our need for road repairs, but the money to meet that need just isn't there," he said.
The report states that while Merced County has more miles of road to maintain compared with many others in California, the county also takes in less transportation funding. That's because formulas for doling out the dollars are based largely on vehicle registration and population figures instead of road miles.
Phimmasone said the economic recession and ongoing budget problems in Sacramento have only made matters worse.
The MCAG report adds: "The instability of funding hampers long-range planning."
In recent years Merced County voters have rejected three separate sales tax measures that would have paid for road projects and repairs.
Besides funding, various soil types are partly accountable for differences in road conditions, Phimmasone said. He said soil types common in Dos Palos are especially problematic. Areas that have seen lots of recent development, such as Los Banos, also have newer roads, he noted.
The report doesn't take into account roadways maintained by agencies other than the county or cities, such as state highways.
In all, the cities and the county maintain 2,325 road miles -- roughly the distance from Merced to Maryland.
Atwater City Council rejects hikes to water rates
Proposals shot down, but no alternatives brought up...JONAH OWEN LAMB
ATWATER -- Several proposed water and sanitation rate hikes died Monday night after Atwater's City Council shot them down but failed to come up with any workable alternatives.
While the council may not have voted to raise water and sanitation rates for Atwater residents by more than $18 over the next several years, it may end up costing the city around $500,000 a year.
"This is very damaging to a city borrowing money," said Atwater's financial adviser Albert Peche.
By taking this action, he said, the city is going to lose money, because its credit rating -- or the rate of interest it receives when issuing bonds for large projects -- is tied into the income it brings in from water and sanitation rates.
If the city had passed the hikes it would have included the first water hike since 1993.
If the hikes had been passed, property owners would have had to go through a proposition 218 process. If 50 percent-plus one of property owners voted against the hikes, the city would be unable to raise rates.
While the council's inaction was partly due to concerns for residents, no council member came up with an alternate plan.
While Mayor Joan Faul made a motion to vote on city staff's recommended rate hikes, no one supported her.
Councilman Joe Rivero was against the proposed hikes because he didn't see how people would pay for such increases right now.
"People are losing their jobs, people are feeling it," he said. "I don't agree with taking an increase now."
Councilman Gary Frago also voiced his disapproval of the city's options.
"It's really evident that the council is not happy with the options," he said. He added that he didn't believe the city's landowners would vote in the 218 process for these rate hikes.
"I don't think you're going to get your votes when that goes out," he said.
While the council asked for other options from assistant city manager Stan Feathers, he said when it came to this issue, the city had few options.
"The numbers are the numbers," he said. "The price of having clean water is well worth it."
Feathers explained that the hikes were a necessity for a number of reasons.
Not only does the city have to pay for upkeep and maintenance of the system, but the city is also required to build a new state-mandated $50 million wastewater treatment plant.
To build that plant the city will have to borrow money, he said. By not raising the water and sanitation rates, Feathers said, the city will increase the interest it pays on any money borrowed.
Peche said that over the last several years the city has increasingly been given higher and higher ratings.
That meant rating agencies charged with essentially assessing the credit worthiness of cities and companies had given the city a high credit marking. That translated into lower interest when the city issues bonds to build roads or, in this case, a wastewater treatment plant.
Without a certain debt to income ratio the city will lose its high credit score, said Peche, and that could cost the city a lot of money.
Berryhill will challenge Cardoza in '10 election...The Modesto Bee
TURLOCK -- Mike Berryhill -- a Turlock Irrigation District director and a member of a prominent political family -- announced Monday that he is running for Dennis Cardoza's congressional seat.
Cardoza, D-Merced, is up for re-election in 2010. He was unopposed in 2008.
Berryhill is a former Ceres Unified School District trustee and has served on the TID board since 1983. His term expires this year, and he is not running for re-election.
Berryhill, 62, is a Ceres rancher and Republican.
"Someone needs to step up to the plate and take on Dennis Cardoza," Berryhill said. "He's really had a free ride in the last couple of elections. I feel like the people in our area are not being represented."
Berryhill's uncle Clare Berryhill served in the state Senate and Assembly and was California's secretary of agriculture under Gov. George Deukmejian.
His cousins Bill Berryhill, R-Ceres, and Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, serve in the Assembly.
Letter: Cardoza's mission...TOMMY JONES, Mayor of Los Banos
Editor: It has been difficult as mayor of Los Banos to watch the impact caused by the drought to the Westside. It has been even harder to see that many in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., don't seem to understand our situation.
I am pleased that Rep. Dennis Cardoza understands and he has made it his mission to explain this connection to other members of Congress and the administration.
The result is that Cardoza and Rep. Jim Costa are responsible for getting the Bureau of Reclamation to allow 250,000 acre-feet of water from 2008 to be used for the 2009 water year. They also pressed state and federal agencies bringing in an additional 260,000 acre-feet of water to the Valley.
Recently, Cardoza and Costa were successful in getting an amendment approved to the energy and water appropriations bill to increase funding and remove bureaucratic red tape for east-west water transfers. This amendment could move as much as 150,000 acre-feet of additional water to the Westside.
Rather than just talking about the water crisis, the congressmen have produced results for the Westside, and we are better off because of their efforts.
Letter: Assuring civility...PETER LIZDAS, Merced
Editor: Rep. Dennis Cardoza is taking heat for not scheduling town hall meetings to discuss health care reform and other issues with his constituents.
Understandable, given the general tenor of the meetings which have been taking place. But given sufficient public demand, such meetings are probably a reasonable expectation.
If you've watched recent town halls by other office holders on C-SPAN, you will know that many of the folks present are not there to learn or offer constructive ideas. Rather, they come to create confusion and disinformation. Hysterical, hyperbolic fulminations and wild distortions of fact are typical (e.g., "death panels").
Speaking out is part of democracy. But it is also the right of citizens to insist on a certain level of decorum in a public meeting. If Cardoza chooses to hold public meetings soon, all people across the political spectrum who believe in civility should attend.
With enough such folks present, an appropriate level of civility will be assured. It is our duty as citizens to stand up for decency in the public space and to not meekly cede the field to the disrupters, the shouters and the propagandists. We must not surrender to the bullies.
Modesto Bee
Clean water a human right, but one that needs funding...Editorial
In towns up and down our valley, residents are drinking bad things with their tap water.
As reported in The Bee last week, traces of arsenic, a naturally occurring toxic chemical, have leached into ground water, reaching levels that violate state and federal safety standards. Nitrates, from fertilizers or broken septic tanks or dairy manure, also have been found in dangerous levels.
The state has been less than diligent in addressing what is a serious health hazard in too many communities.
Frustrated activists are pushing legislation that would declare clean drinking water a human right. Assembly Bill 1242 by Ira Ruskin, D-Los Altos makes clean, affordable and accessible water a human right. The bill, which passed the Assembly and is pending in the Senate, would clarify current state law that long has given priority to domestic water users. Backers hope it gives officials greater incentive and authority to address contamination.
The bill doesn't provide any money to ensure that people get the clean water they need, and a real probleme. Though voters have passed bond measures that provide $230 million for water clean-up, and the federal government provides tens of millions more, a 2007 study estimated it will take $39 billion and 20 years to bring the state's drinking water up to federal standards.
But, not all the solutions require new money. Tthe state isn't even using all the resources at its disposal now. More needs to be done to address the source of pollution. For example, dairies are one of the leading sources of nitrate contamination, and the state has the power to force dairies to control their waste. But, the dangerously elevated levels of nitrate in groundwater suggest that's not being done.
Whether or not California declares that the delivery of clean water is a right rather than simply a public service, the state can and should be doing more to see that all its residents have access to the water they need to sustain their lives.
Fresno Bee
Governor again asks feds for drought aid
Schwarzenegger requests a range of assistance to Fresno Co....The Fresno Bee
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has asked federal officials to reconsider their decision to reject a request for emergency aid for Fresno County drought victims, his office said Monday.
Prodded by local officials and farming leaders to address the water shortage, Schwarzenegger asked the federal government in June to provide a range of assistance to Fresno County.
The federal government denied the request in July, finding that "the required response and recovery appears to be within the combined capability of the state,
affected local governments and voluntary organizations," according to the Governor's Office.
The Governor's Office disagreed with that assessment, saying that the water shortage has led to tremendous costs associated with crop shortages, wildfires and other problems. Presidential disaster declarations for droughts are rare: The last one happened nearly 30 years ago.
Schwarzenegger wrote a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to reconsider the denial.
"The economic impact of the drought is especially critical in Fresno County, where per capita income is low and the unemployment rate is high," the letter states.
Letters from Fresno County government and nonprofit leaders were included in the appeal.
The federal law authorizing presidential declarations specifically include droughts as the kind of disasters that can be recognized. The selection process, though, tilts more toward disasters with outright physical destruction that overwhelm government forces.
The major selection criteria identified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency include "the number of homes destroyed," "impact on the infrastructure" and the presence of "imminent threats to public health and safety."
GEORGE RADANOVICH: Valley ag future at crossroads
Farming in the San Joaquin Valley is in jeopardy as California struggles to achieve long-term water solutions, such as the peripheral canal, Temperance Flat and Sites Reservoir. While these projects will someday help meet California's water needs, the court decisions and biological opinions that prioritize fish over families have turned the Valley into a modern day dust bowl.
This year alone we have seen the loss of nearly 40,000 jobs, food lines and a potential $2 billion loss to our economy. The Valley cannot afford to wait for the peripheral canal and future storage. We cannot and must not accept another year of zero to 15% water allocation for agriculture.
Since my May 20 commentary in The Bee, there has been significant discussion about two interim projects that, if installed immediately, will restore water to our farms for next year. These are the Two Gates project and the Delta Mendota Canal/California Aqueduct Intertie. Together, they will provide the certainty of water supply for the entire Valley, while we work together on the long-term solutions.
Immediate action on Two Gates, the Intertie and the revising of the biological opinions is necessary because only with the certainty of water can farmers begin to make key business decisions for next year's harvest. Like any small business, agriculture requires an extraordinary amount of strategic planning, including the assurance of financing. Some farmers on the west side of Fresno County, where water is extremely scarce, are already approaching lenders for next year's crop needs. However, without a guaranteed water supply, lenders will find it difficult to loan funds because there is simply too much risk in the investment.
While visiting with constituents over the past few weeks, I've learned that many farmers have been told by their lenders that the lack of a stable water supply threatens the ability of farmers to obtain loans. For some farmers and small businesses in the town of Mendota it's already too late -- devastated by 40% unemployment, Mendota has lost its only lending institution, West America Bank. Another year of regulatory drought will only bring more uncertainty to lenders, which will tighten credit markets, leaving more fields empty and more people out of work -- the scope of which will reach far beyond agriculture.
On Wednesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein will visit the Valley to observe the devastation of the man-made drought and look for ways to restore water flows. Sen. Feinstein's extensive knowledge of water issues, her genuine concern for the people of the San Joaquin Valley and her leadership in the Senate are tremendous assets. We must be united in demonstrating the importance of the following:
The Two Gates project must be completed by Nov. 30.
The Canal Intertie project must be constructed by summer 2010.
The biological opinions must be modified to alleviate the flow restrictions on our farmers' water and allow the projects to operate.
It is crucial that farmers and ag lenders are assured within 30 days that these projects will be operational to ensure that families on the west side have access to credit needed to operate their businesses and prevent another year of suffering.
These interim projects do not require a vote of Congress or passing a law. However, it will take a cooperative effort on behalf of my congressional colleagues and Sens. Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to expedite the permits, obtain funding and install the projects immediately.
We are at a crossroads in the effort to save agriculture in the Valley and it is imperative that we work together on solutions to save our livelihood.
We must use Sen. Feinstein's visit as a rallying point to ensure the quick installation of the interim projects in order to save jobs, agriculture and our way of life.

NorCal neighbors poisoning the delta...Bill McEwen...8-20-09

While state lawmakers talk about fixing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, destruction of the largest estuary on the West Coast continues.
Every day up to a billion gallons of partially treated sewage are dumped into the delta and its waterways by cities such as Sacramento, Martinez, Davis and Stockton -- turning the estuary into a toilet, according to the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta.
Every day the delta's 12 native species of fish -- including the federally protected delta smelt -- compete for food and survival against 28 non-native species. Don't be surprised if someday the Loch Ness Monster is spotted gulping down young salmon heading up the Sacramento River.
Every day, the delta is poisoned by industrial discharges, pesticides, herbicides, toxic urban runoff and even rusting, mothballed ships.
Yet each time the delta's rapidly diminishing pulse is taken, blame for the estuary's fragile condition usually is affixed to the massive pumps sending water to 25 million Californians and thousands of businesses -- including farms on the west side of the central San Joaquin Valley.
How convenient.
How delusional.
Even if the pumps -- which do chew up delta smelt -- were turned off forever, I can't imagine the tiny fish would rebound.
Not in that dumping ground.
But drinking water for Southern California might become more expensive than 12-year-old single malt, and many western Fresno County farms would disappear.
I understand why the delta's state and federal pumps and Valley farmers have become scapegoats for the demise of the delta smelt and the state's salmon industry.
Everyone is looking for simple solutions, and few of us want to examine what's happening in our own backyards. It's always easier to ask the other guy to swallow the medicine and ignore the bitter taste.
This is exactly what has happened with the delta.
Put black hats on farmers using delta water to irrigate a desert and folks crazy enough to live in Southern California, and everyone else reliant on the estuary can keep on abusing it.
Sacramento has a cheap, easy way to empty its sewers. The shade-tree mechanic in Martinez doesn't want to bother with recycling oil, so he dumps it in a storm drain.
The homeowner in Stockton wants a green lawn -- and has one, thanks to polluting fertilizers. The U.S. Navy needs somewhere to store its Ghost Fleet of obsolete vessels, never mind that they shed tons of metal and toxic substances.
Fans of non-native delta fish such as stripers and largemouth bass want to fill their stringers and scrapbooks, regardless of how many native species they devour.
And now, with the delta on the verge of collapse, everyone is looking to fix the toilet without getting their hands dirty.
Southern California always will get water. It's too big to be ignored. But farmers on the west side of the Valley could easily lose out -- unless everybody learns to recognize that agriculture isn't the only factor putting the delta at risk.
Water talks near stalemate
Democrats are delaying action toward substantive change...Editorial…8-20-09.
We had hoped that the latest round of hearings on California's troubled water system would produce a comprehensive solution in the Legislature. But it appears that key Democratic lawmakers would rather talk about water than solve the problem.
That's not good for San Joaquin Valley farmers, Southern California residents or those wanting more water for environmental uses. Today's water system is serving 38 million Californians, yet it was built for half that many.
The Legislature is handling the water crisis like it handles the budget crisis. Do as little as possible and hope it will go away. It won't and that makes the problem even more difficult to resolve.
The Democratic majority in the Legislature is using a package of five bills to make it look like progress is being made on water, while in reality this is another delaying tactic to avoid building dams.
At the heart of the Democratic "solution" is the creation of a seven-member council to make key decisions on how to restore the troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta while ensuring more reliable water supplies.
The problem with that strategy is that it does nothing to build the infrastructure to balance California's water supply in wet and dry years. We need to capture water in the wet years, and that can be done with dams and underground water banks.
But Democrats say they want policy changes before putting up a bond measure to pay for infrastructure improvements.
Fortunately, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says he will not sign off on a plan that does not include a multibillion-dollar bond to pay for dams and other projects.
It appears to us there's a stalemate in the making, and the Legislature won't have anything significant accomplished on water by the time session ends on Sept. 11.
If a comprehensive water solution isn't passed by the close of session, we would urge the governor to call a special session on the water crisis.
Water policy is very contentious in California, and it's time for all sides to compromise.
The solution must ensure an adequate water supply for California residents, the industries that drive the state's economy and to protect the environment. That can only be if policymakers are willing to seek common ground.
Visalia Times-Delta
Senator typical of agriculture's detractors...Don Curlee
One California Senator has become the poster boy for the wide band of dislike and misunderstanding that engulfs the state's agriculture industry.
As contradictory as it seems, he is Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Democrat Dean Florez, Elected to the State Senate in 2002 after serving two terms in the State Assembly, Florez comes from Shafter, a predominantly agricultural community in Kern County.
But his garishly gerrymandered district helps explain his mind boggling positions and off-the-wall statements. It meanders along a heavily Democrat, but sometimes narrow path from south of Bakersfield north into parts of Tulare, Kings and Fresno Counties. Farming is paramount in all of it, but farm workers outnumber farmers 100 to 1 or more in much of it.
In his four years as an assemblyman Florez frequently aligned himself with the United Farmworkers union and its leader, turning his back on farmers in regard to bills and positions they favored. The union's headquarters near Tehachapi is just outside Florez's senate district.
In doing so he established himself as the perennial "loose canon," likely to fire intermittently and erratically in any direction that seems politically expedient, no matter what it means to his constituency.
His ascendancy to a vital committee leadership position is more a tribute to his aggressiveness and political ambition than to any demonstrated performance or proficiency in behalf of the state's agricultural industry. For the Democrat power structure in Sacramento he filled a gap handily that few if any others in the party wanted to occupy.
Early in his current term he proposed off-the-wall legislation that offered little more than superficial support for agriculture. He favored a bill that would have forced egg producers in other states supplying eggs to California to meet the unfortunate restrictions placed on California poultrymen by last November's ill-conceived Proposition 2. It was clearly in restraint of interstate commerce, and collapsed of its own weight.
More recently Florez has proposed elimination of the state's Department of Food and Agriculture, unquestionably the biggest and best of any state, and on a strategic and economic level with that of several nations of the world. He seems unaware that the diversity of production of 350 commercial crops by 80,000 farmers requires specialized oversight and administration.
The agriculture industry has been an interested and somewhat astonished observer as Florez's legislative antics have unfolded as part of the sordid Sacramento political drama. Most agricultural leaders are holding their tongues, aware that his committee can be expected to consider and possibly sponsor strategic legislation dealing with their industry.
The Secretary of Food and Agriculture spoke volumes when he refused to attend a discussion group on the Florez "kill the department" bill, and appeared at an important citrus disease meeting in San Diego instead.
The water issue, one of the most serious and strategic to face agriculture and at least 25 million off-farm residents in 50 years, seems to submerge Florez. The all-important California Aqueduct, central to the issue, passes through his district within a mere 20 miles of Florez's home town of Shafter on its way to Southern California.
The next shot fired by Florez probably won't be from a water cannon. But it is predictable that he will do something to enhance his reputation as a loose canon. The state's agriculture industry needs to erect some armor plate or at least be prepared to duck.
Sacramento Bee
State seeks to close Sacramento River stretch to sturgeon fishing...Matt Weiser
Another of Northern California's native fish could become contraband for anglers next year as officials mull over more drastic steps to protect wildlife amid a growing water crisis.
The California Department of Fish and Game proposes a ban on sturgeon fishing in more than 80 miles of the Sacramento River, between Redding and Butte City.
This has never been done before, and the prohibition appears likely to join the ongoing ban on salmon fishing as another unfortunate first.
Sturgeon don't enjoy the celebrity status of salmon but are a major sporting attraction because no other freshwater fish matches their size: Some sturgeon exceed 6 feet in length and 300 pounds.
The goal of the closure is to protect green sturgeon, one of the world's oldest living fish species. A distinct subpopulation that breeds in the Central Valley joined the federal Endangered Species List in 2006 as "threatened."
Since then, green sturgeon fishing has been allowed only for catch-and-release. It has remained legal to keep white sturgeon – an even bigger relative that's not imperiled.
Because anglers use similar gear and tactics for both species, the state now proposes to ban all sturgeon fishing on a stretch of the Sacramento River that is important habitat for green sturgeon.
"I think it's pretty asinine," said Richard Peeples, owner of the Tackle Box fishing store in Chico. "It's going to hurt us just like every little thing they take from us hurts us. They make a closure and they never open anything up."
The problem, said Fish and Game environmental scientist Steve Baumgartner, is some anglers continue to target green sturgeon simply for thrills. He and other experts fear this will harm the species.
"You can definitely harm a big species like that by repeatedly catching and releasing it, exhausting it and so forth," Baumgartner said. "It's more and more evident our protections have been inadequate to this point."
The proposed closure area contains habitat believed to be more important for green sturgeon than for white sturgeon. It contains a number of deep holes, known to fishermen, where green sturgeon rest on their upstream spawning run.
The goal, said Baumgartner, is to create a refuge for green sturgeon. Other species could still be caught in the closed area, such as striped bass. Elsewhere, white sturgeon could still be caught, and catch-and-release of green sturgeon would still be allowed.
In data gathered from survey cards returned by anglers last year, about half of all green sturgeon caught in the Central Valley were caught in the proposed closure area.
"We're trying not to impact the white sturgeon anglers while protecting the green sturgeon," Baumgartner said.
Sturgeon are one of numerous species harmed by the state's water infrastructure.
The giant fish once spawned far up into the Pit River on the flanks of Mount Shasta. Completion of Shasta Dam ended that in 1945. Yet legal battles continue as regulators walk a tightrope to protect wildlife and simultaneously provide enough water for a thirsty state.
The National Marine Fisheries Service this year imposed new flow rules in the Sacramento River to protect sturgeon and salmon. Water agencies promptly challenged these rules in federal court.
Anglers like Peeples say white sturgeon are common in the proposed closure area, and being unable to catch them will be a hardship.
A better strategy, he said, would be to close fishing only when green sturgeon are usually present – typically late summer and fall. White sturgeon, in contrast, are usually in the river in late winter.
Lots of his customers want to keep catching white sturgeon because it's great to eat. Many also make their own caviar from sturgeon roe.
In comparison, Peeples called green sturgeon a "trash fish" no one wants to keep because it isn't as tasty. Yet he agreed that some anglers continue to fish green sturgeon just for the thrill.
"I've heard of people going out and hammering the green sturgeon," Peeples said.
Bob Boucke, owner of Johnson's Bait & Tackle in Yuba City, said Fish and Game should simply step up its enforcement to prevent anglers from targeting green sturgeon. This could also help control sturgeon poaching for a caviar black market that has proliferated in recent years.
"It's because a few people insist on catching the green sturgeon," Boucke said. "They've been told not to do that and they just keep on doing it. They're catching great big fish and having a good ol' time."
July sees rise in home sales...Mark Glover
Home sales increased 12 percent in July in California compared with the same period a year ago, while the median price of an existing home declined 19.6 percent, the California Association of Realtors reported today.
It marked the 11th straight month that existing home sales in California outperformed sales in the year-ago period, and the fifth straight month of rising median prices.
"The federal tax credit for first-time buyers played a critical role in the purchase decision of many buyers," said James Liptak, CAR president. "Nearly 40 percent of first-time buyers said they would not have purchased a home if the tax credit was not offered."
CAR said closed escrow sales of existing single-family homes in California totaled 553,910 in July at a seasonally adjusted annualized rate, up from 494,390 in July 2008. The statewide sales figure represents what the total number of homes sold during 2009 would be if sales maintained the July pace throughout the year. It is adjusted to account for seasonal factors that typically influence home sales.
The median home price in California in July was $285,480, down from $355,000 in July last year, but up from $274,740 in June.
In the Sacramento region, CAR said the median home price in July was $183,840, down 16.1 percent from a year ago. CAR said July home sales in the region were down 6.7 percent from a year ago, but up 6 percent over June this year.
Capital Press
Ag interests lukewarm...WES SANDER…8-21-09
SACRAMENTO -- Agricultural interests expressed varying reactions to the package of water bills before the legislature at a joint committee hearing Tuesday, Aug. 18.
Three ag representatives -- two from water districts and one with the California Farm Bureau Federation -- testified at the joint hearing of the Senate and Assembly water committees, which met for a public discussion of five Delta-related bills that will soon be considered by a conference committee.
The bills address agricultural and urban water efficiency and creation of a management plan and governance structure for the Delta. Brent Walthall, assistant general manager of Kern County Water Agency in the southern San Joaquin Valley, struck a positive tone, saying the package would be workable with some modifications.
Rural communities need more help coping with the immediate effects of water shortages, Walthall said, pointing out recently awarded stimulus funding from the federal government.
Beyond that, the biggest element missing from the bill package is a proposal for a water bond to fund infrastructure, Walthall said, echoing a contention of legislative Republicans and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Beyond water storage and Delta conveyance, such a bond could also fund facilities, such as desalination plants, that could increase efficiency in other parts of the state, he said.
Other ag interests likewise declared the need for a bond, but sounded less positive about the overall package.
Danny Merkley, director for water resources with the Farm Bureau, said proposals to pay for new Delta governance structures through water-use fees would create economic hardship.
"We believe the funding approaches in these packages will create unintended negative consequences on an economy struggling to recover," Merkley told committee members. "An unbalance to fees fails to recognize where there is public benefit and the need for public funding."
"This package does not address immediate needs for the Delta, which is particularly unfortunate if we continue to experience low rainfall in coming years," Merkley said. "And certainly the immediate needs of the state will not be addressed regardless of the outcome of coming water years, unless we move forward with a truly comprehensive package."
Merkley also echoed the concern for immediate impacts of drought to rural communities -- the fallowed fields and lost jobs.
"These are the issues that really need to be addressed, and the legislative package that you have before you does not do so," he said.
Thad Bettner, general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, likewise drew attention to the lack of an infrastructure bond. Bettner spoke for the Northern California Water Association.
"A comprehensive solution is in all of our best interests," Bettner said. "We are depending on infrastructure that is better than 40 years old, and to simply try to re-operate a system with the flexibility that is needed for the environment as well as water supply will not function under this system."
Hayes: Feds are here to help Delta
Deputy Interior secretary seeks to assure public of federal involvement...WES SANDER…8-21-09
SACRAMENTO -- With California's water issues taking center stage in the Capitol, water managers are assuring the public that the federal government is ready to help solve problems surrounding the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
David Hayes, deputy secretary of the U.S. Interior Department, appeared at a delta informational event recently in Sacramento. Hayes was appointed by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar earlier this year to act as the federal point man on Delta issues.
With a top-level federal official directly involved, California can more efficiently address the impacts and causes of ecosystem decline within the Delta, Hayes said. Because those issues are largely tied to federal laws, he said, direct federal involvement will allow greater efficiency in the state's management of water deliveries through the Delta.
"In recent years, the feds have not been as involved as we intend to be," Hayes said. "We are committed to being a full partner with the state on the challenges here."
The Obama administration views the Delta as an "ecosystem of national significance," on par with the Florida Everglades, the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay, Hayes said.
"This ecosystem is extraordinarily important," he said. "It provides important ecological services at the same time that 20 million Californians rely on it for part of their water supply. We have to save the Bay-Delta for the ecological values that it has, and have it provide an assured water supply."
Lester Snow, director of the state Department of Water Resources, praised the feds' involvement as the right move at the right time.
"We appreciate today something that we have not had over the last few years, and that is a full federal partner in our efforts to deal with the Bay-Delta system," Snow said.
"There is broad understanding that the status quo is not serving the needs of California, whether it's a resident of the Delta, a fisherman, a farmer, an urban dweller, a recreationist," Snow said. "Fortunately, today ... we have a great deal of attention on one of the most critical issues that we've dealt with in California water, and that is the Bay-Delta system."
Lawmakers clash over water legislation
Republicans want infrastructure bond; Dems say governance must come first...WES SANDER…8-20-09
SACRAMENTO -- While they agreed on a need for bipartisan action, California lawmakers sparred Tuesday, Aug. 18, over the immediate need for a water-infrastructure bond in a package of bills currently at the top of the legislature's agenda.
In the first of several hearings addressing the bills, Democrats and Republicans struck a mostly civil tone. But Republicans expressed frustration, sometimes heatedly, over whether the bills should include a bond to pay for infrastructure upgrades to the state's decades-old conveyance system.
Tuesday's informational hearing focused on five bills that address challenges surrounding the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The bills address agricultural and urban water efficiency and creation of a management plan and governance structure for the Delta.
A bicameral conference committee will consider the package before the year's legislative session ends on Sept. 11. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he wants a comprehensive bill package approved by year's end, but criticized the current effort as incomplete.
While Republican committee members decried the lack of a bond provision, the bills' Democratic authors contended that governance is the Delta's most pressing concern.
"Governing agencies in the Delta -- and there's more than 200 of them with some role or another -- have failed to resolve this crisis, in part because no one is in charge," said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife. "And rather than avoiding or leading us out of the crisis, some of them have actually made matters worse. They've fought over the Delta in interagency bureaucratic battles, in court and in the legislature.
"Right now there's no public forum where environmental groups and other interests can bring their concerns," Huffman said. "Right now there is no entity charged with balancing the conflicting goals in the Delta and the needs of Delta communities."
Senate Republican leader Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta, criticized the bills' focus on governance.
"This (legislation) is trying to take one aspect of (water management) and push that completely forward, to the detriment of the entire rest of California's interest in this area," Hollingsworth said. "Quite frankly I'm disappointed that we've spent so many months and only gotten to this point."
In a letter sent Monday, Aug. 17, to legislative leaders, Schwarzenegger vowed to veto any bill package lacking an infrastructure bond.
"I cannot sign a comprehensive water package if it fails to include a water infrastructure bond that expands our water storage capacity -- both surface storage and groundwater," Schwarzenegger said in the letter. "I believe we could resolve any remaining differences in an hour, and I will not sign a water bill without the infrastructure necessary to improve supply reliability."
Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, vice chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee, expressed frustration over missed chances at approving a water bond in recent years.
"All we continue to do is talk, and meet, and submit bills, and argue over them and get absolutely nowhere," Cogdill said. "And the problem isn't going away, it's not on hold. And today, as we speak, there are people in this state who are suffering because of our inefficient and inadequate water system."
Huffman said Democratic leadership had decided that laying out a new governance structure is a necessary first step.
"I think everybody has been clear from the beginning that there is an investment need that needs to be coupled eventually with these policy decisions," he said. "But I think we're here today to talk about the policy piece, and I think those issues can move together on a complementary schedule."
Martin: Drought 'could go on'
Water officials wrapping up state water plan update...WES SANDER…8-20-09
California's Department of Water Resources is finishing an update of its state water plan, hoping to smooth the impacts of greater demand for dwindling water.
The department wrapped up a public-comment period on a draft of its update in June. Unlike the previous update in 2005, the current effort benefits from a steering committee that involves 21 state agencies, plus a 45-member advisory committee that adds further input from stakeholders.
Demand for water in California -- from an increasing population, expanded agriculture and water mandated for species protection -- has increased the severity of the current drought, now in its third year. In February, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought emergency, a first for the state.
Early numbers indicate roughly 30,000 jobs lost in the Central Valley because of water shortages, with an impact of about $1 billion, said Wendy Martin, DWR's statewide drought coordinator, at a meeting of the plan's advisory committee on Aug. 13.
"When we get to our second dry year, we're starting to see significant effects," Martin said. "And the third year becomes really significant. So even though we had some improvement (this year), it's not a lot, and we still are way below where we need to be."
In 2008, DWR reported drought impacts to farmers of $370 million, and the department expects that number to be "significantly higher" this year, Martin said.
"I think we're probably pretty well through this year, in the crises that we're going to see," Martin said. "But I expect by about the end of September ... people are going to start to get really nervous again. They're going to be looking ahead at a another prospective dry year, and the realization is going to hit them that this could go on. And so I think right now we're in a little bit of a drought lull. But attention will really increase in focus as we get into the fall."
Stockton Record
Role reversal...Alex Breitler's Blog
The Natural Resources Defense Council today filed legal papers supporting the feds' new rules to protect salmon and steelhead.
Those rules -- written by the National Marine Fisheries Service -- are already the target of at least two lawsuits, since they would decrease the amount of water that can be exported from the Delta, and would also restrict Stockton's access to water on the Stanislaus River.
NRDC, of course, wants to uphold the salmon rules.
Defending the feds is an unusual position for the enviros, who spent a large portion of the last several years trying to persuade the courts to revoke earlier fish-protection rules. 
Which goes to show how times have changed. The water exporters, which have long been playing defense, are now on the offensive; environmentalists who spent years attacking water policy now find themselves defending it.
Someone will always be winning or losing, but will there ever be an ultimate outcome?
Delta tunnels...Alex Brietler's Blog…8-20-09
There's been a lot of talk lately of a possible alternative to a peripheral canal -- a tunnel that would send Sacramento River water underneath, rather than around or through, the Delta.
The state says this possibility -- at an unknown cost -- would ease the disruption caused by building a massive canal more than 40 miles long across fertile Delta farmland.
It certainly won't ease concerns about a Southern California water grab.
Anyhoo, check out this glossy fact sheet describing the basic specs and showing, for the first time that I've seen, what this proposal might look like.
Delta Habitat Conservation & Conveyance Program...Map -EIR/EIS Fact sheet
Conceptual All-Tunnel Option ...8-20-09
San Francisco Chronicle
Bay Area mortgage delinquencies soar...Tom Abate,
Nearly 1 in 10 Bay Area homeowners will be at least 60 days behind on their mortgages by the end of the year, according to a forecast being issued today.
The projection by the credit reporting agency TransUnion covers Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties.
In early 2007, as few as 1 out of every 100 Bay Area mortgages was delinquent. TransUnion analyst Ezra Becker called the new figures sobering and dramatic.
Mortgage delinquencies are often a precursor to foreclosures, and as more Bay Area homeowners fall behind, more foreclosures will follow, said Ken Rosen, chair of the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at UC Berkeley.
"Foreclosures will continue to be a drag on the housing market for the next 18 months or so," said Rosen, who thinks the outlying suburbs will be hardest hit while areas like San Francisco and the inner East Bay will suffer less.
TransUnion also projects that 1 out of 7 California homeowners will be at least two months in arrears before the new year.
The projected Bay Area delinquency rate of 9.45 percent and the statewide rate of 14.16 percent exceed the anticipated nationwide rate of 6.93 percent.
By year end, TransUnion expects California to have the third-highest delinquency rate in the nation, behind Nevada at 16.65 percent and Florida at 16.04 percent.
"This has been a very regional recession in terms of impact," Becker said, with the places that experienced the biggest housing bubbles experiencing the worst busts.
Becker said delinquency rates of 1.6 percent to 2 percent were typical in the years leading up to the housing bust.
Rates have been rising sharply since housing tanked, and the new figures continue that trend.
The initial rash of delinquencies and foreclosures revolved around subprime mortgages, but experts say lenders are now seeing more defaults on conventional mortgages caused by rising unemployment.
"You can't expect people to pay their mortgages if they've been thrown out of work and can't get a job," said Guy Cecala, publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance, an industry newsletter in Bethesda, Md.
Becker said TransUnion expects mortgage delinquencies nationwide to peak in the first quarter of 2010 as the economy emerges from the recession and starts producing more goods, services and jobs.
Sung Won Sohn, an economics professor with California State University Channel Islands, said given the deeper economic woes at the state and regional level, that timetable may lag locally.
"The delinquency problem is going to be with us for a while," Sohn said.
Behind on payments
These figures forecast the percentage of homeowners who are expected to be at least 60 days behind on their mortgages in the fourth quarter of 2009.
U.S.: 6.93 percent
Bay Area*: 9.45 percent
California: 14.16 percent
Source: TransUnion
* The five counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo
Legislature OKs protections for UC workers...Wyatt Buchanan
Sacramento -- The California Legislature approved a bill Monday to give UC employees the right to sue the university for damages if they are fired for reporting wrongdoing or unsafe conditions.
The measure, approved by the Senate on a 22-14 vote, is a response to a state Supreme Court ruling last year that found the state's whistle-blower law protects UC from monetary claims as long as the university conducts its own investigation and reaches a conclusion in a specific amount of time.
The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Two computer scientists who worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory had sued the university, claiming they lost their jobs due to their criticisms of work conditions on a project to determine the safety and reliability of nuclear weapons on the United States. The state Supreme Court rejected the suit.
"UC executives should not be judge and jury on whether or not they are liable for monetary claims. This was not the intent of California's whistle-blower law," said Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, who authored the legislation.
UC officials opposed the measure, but said they agreed with the sentiment of the legislation - that whistle-blowers should be protected and should be able to sue over retaliation.
Battle Lines Are Drawn Over Peripheral Canal...Dan Bacher
The battle lines are clearly being drawn between corporate environmentalists who are collaborating with the Governor and Legislature to destroy the California Delta by building a peripheral canal and the true defenders of fish and the environment - grassroots environmentalists, commercial fishermen, recreational anglers, California Indian Tribes and Delta farmers.
The battle lines are clearly being drawn between corporate environmentalists who are collaborating with the Governor and Legislature to destroy the California Delta by building a peripheral canal and the true defenders of fish and the environment - grassroots environmentalists, commercial fishermen, recreational anglers, California Indian Tribes and Delta farmers.
Today Gerald Meral, the former Deputy Director of the California Department of Water Resources and the former western water director of the Environmental Defense Fund, wrote an editorial in the San Jose Mercury News backing the peripheral canal as the "solution" to the Delta's environmental problems and the South Bay's water needs, http://www.mercurynews.com/opinion/ci_13195188.
Meral's article is a collection of lies regarding the Delta and the proposed peripheral canal starting with this false and misleading statement: "Farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta are trying to convince other Northern Californians that the Peripheral Canal would be bad. But the narrow interests of the farmers do not coincide with the interests of people who live in the South Bay."
In reality, it is not just Delta farmers that are opposing the canal but a broad coalition including farmers, recreational fishermen, commercial fishermen, California Indian Tribes and environmentalists that are opposing the "Big Ditch" supported by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Senator Joe Simitian. These groups hardly represent "narrow interests." They are committed to stopping the collapse of Central Valley salmon, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, green sturgeon and southern resident killer whales caused by massive exports out of the largest estuary of the West Coast of the Americas.
With no evidence whatsoever to back his contentions, Meral then says the canal would "solve" an array of problems, including stopping water pollution, maintaining water supplies to the South Bay and Central Valley agribusiness, addressing the risk of levee failure and stopping the massacre of salmon, smelt and other fish in the Delta pumps.
"Millions of young fish are sucked up and killed by the pumps," said Meral. "The Peripheral Canal would end this problem by restoring the natural flow direction in the delta channels."
What Meral fails to mention is that federal pumps in the South Delta would continue pumping water to corporate agribusiness while the canal intake on the Sacramento River would further endanger salmon and other migratory fish populations by sucking up millions of fish from the Sacramento system. Since the state and federal agencies have failed to install state of the art fish screens to protect salmon, Delta smelt and other fish on the existing state and federal pumps in the South Delta, are we to expect these same agencies to suddenly have a Damascus conversion and install effective fish screens on the canal intakes?
Meral then praises the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a corporate greenwashing process designed by Governor Schwarzenegger to build a peripheral canal at the expense of Delta farms and collapsing Delta fisheries. "To address this concern, a coalition of fish and wildlife agencies, conservation groups and water districts are developing a Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which would require sufficient water flows through the delta to restore endangered fish populations," claimed Meral.
While corporate environmentalists are working with the Governor, Legislature and federal government through the BDCP process to supply massive water exports to Westlands Water District and San Joaquin Valley corporate agribusiness at the expense of California fisheries, Delta farmers and the environment, the people of the Delta have been excluded from planning and decisions over the fate of the Delta in both the BDCP and Legislative process.
Meral finishes his piece by saying that "Senator Joe Simitian of Santa Clara County is taking a leadership position on this important issue and deserves the thanks of his constituents for his hard and effective work on water issues."
Actually, Simitian must be roundly condemned by all advocates of environmental justice for his role in giving Democratic cover to plans by the worst Governor for fish and the environment in California history, Governor Arnold Schwarznegger, to destroy the Delta and the peripheral canal!
I have two questions of Meral, Simitian and other peripheral canal advocates that have yet to be answered.
1. Can you give me one example, in U.S. or world history, where the construction of a diversion canal has resulted in less, rather than more, water being taken out of a river system?
2. Can you give me one example, In U.S. or world history, where the construction of a diversion canal has resulted in ecosystem restoration rather than ecosystem destruction?
I rest my case.
In contrast with the greenwashing of the canal by Meral, Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, today released his statement criticizing a dangerous package of five water bills being heard in the Legislature this week. In his letter to Assemblyman Jared Huffman and Senator Fran Pavley, he blasted the legislation for weakening public trust law and the state water code while serving as the road map to the peripheral canal.
Jennings called for the joint committee to slow the fast-track process down. "CSPA appreciates the efforts to address California’s long-existing water crisis and looks forward to working with you and your colleagues in developing an improved legislative package," said Jennings. "However, we believe the remaining days before adjournment provide insufficient time achieve a comprehensive and effective solution."
Jennings cited a long list of reasons to delay the bills until the spring session of the legislature, principal among these the question of the legislature's handling of the Public Trust issue. The concept of Public Trust extends throughout history all the way to Roman Law and has been continuously strengthened including sections of the Magna Carta. The doctrine is based on the principle that certain resources are preserved for public use, and that the government is required to maintain it for the public's reasonable use, according to Jerry Neuburger, CSPA webmaster.
In California, all surface water falls within the doctrine of the Public Trust as do the fisheries, including the vast salmon runs of the Sacramento/San Joaquin river systems. In other words, the waters and fisheries of the state are owned by the citizens of the state and held in trust for them by the state government.
"The bills represent the first time the legislative has expressed its intent of the Public Trust," stated Jennings. "The Public Trust represents the people’s common property right in rivers and estuaries and establishes the baseline or minimal standards that must be met before water is available for private use. The bills diminish that protection by establishing water supply reliability as coequal with protection of the public trust."
Other areas of contention included sections on governance, a lack of definition of terms, a lack of set standards, the surrender of the responsibilities of delta governance to a select commission with four members appointed by the governor and the likelihood of the commission's aggressive pursuit of a peripheral canal.
While Meral is busy supporting the Governor and Legislators in their campaign to hammer the final nails into the coffin of Bay-Delta Estuary fisheries, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Restore the Delta and a broad coalition of fishing, environmental, farming and tribal groups are standing up to defend the fish and the Delta.

If you want to help save the Delta and stop the peripheral canal, sign a petition and send a letter to your Legislators by going to http://www.calsport.org.
For Jennings' complete statement, go to:
Groups Defend Salmon and Whales from Agribusiness Attack...Dan Bacher
A coalition of fishing organizations, environmental groups and Indian tribes filed papers in federal court on Monday, August 24 defending California’s imperiled salmon populations against the attack by corporate agribusiness and the "wise use" movement.
A coalition of fishing organizations, environmental groups and Indian tribes filed papers in federal court on Monday, August 24 defending California’s imperiled salmon populations against the attack by corporate agribusiness and the "wise use" movement.
The groups oppose litigation by commercial water users and large agribusiness interests to overturn court-mandated federal protections for Sacramento River Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, green sturgeon and the southern resident population of killer whales.
"Today’s intervention is in a case filed by San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority and the Westlands Water District, but the fishing, conservation and tribal coalition vows to intervene in each and every challenge to the scientifically sound 2009 salmon restoration plan and to defend the species from all industry-driven legal attacks," according to senior attorney Mike Sherwood of Earthjustice.
The National Marine Fisheries Service on June 4 released an 800-page biological opinion, a plan to prevent Sacramento River salmon runs from plunging over the abyss of extinction. This plan replaced one issued in 2004 by the Bush administration, in a classic case of political manipulation over the objections of federal fisheries scientists, that sent salmon runs into steep decline. Earthjustice, conservation groups, fishing groups and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe filed the lawsuit that resulted in the court order that mandated the federal fishery agency to rewrite the biological opinion.
Westlands and 29 other water agencies then filed a lawsuit against the biological opinion on June 15, claiming that the National Marine Fisheries Service should have prepared an environmental impact statement before adopting a salmon recovery plan that "will divert hundreds of thousands of acre feet of California's freshwater supplies into the ocean." The water district tried to portray a scenario of "imminent doom" if the court-ordered plan was allowed to proceed.
"Denying this much water to California is going to do obvious, serious and enduring damage to habitat, to wetlands, and to other endangered species," said Tom Birmingham, the general manager of Westlands. "It will reduce water quality and drive up the costs of water treatment for millions of people. And it will put tens of thousands of people out of work, which affects public health and safety in myriad ways."
Fishing groups, Indian Tribes and environmental organizations intervened in the lawsuit to defend the biological opinion, arguing that to keep exporting massive amounts of water to corporate agribusiness and southern California will destroy the salmon and the people that depend upon them.
“What is it with these people?” asked Gary Mulcahy of the Winnemem Wintu (McCloud River) Tribe, referring to Westlands and other opponents of the federal plan. “Can they not see that what they have done in the past is killing – the Delta, the salmon, cultures, the environment, and with it – people. All for what? Greed."
The Winnemem Wintu, a tribe that has been in the forefront of the battle to save the Delta and stop the peripheral canal, organized a war dance at Shasta Dam in September 2004 to protest the raising of Shasta Dam. The tribe was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that resulted in the issuing of the re-written biological opinion, as well as the intervention filed today.
"Yet, they want to go back to what they were doing before the new biological opinion," said Mulcahy. "You cannot continue to destroy the things around you under the guise of economic growth, and expect the people to continue to believe in that lie forever. It is time to stop this madness. It is time to defeat these greedy and untruthful interests."
Mulcahy added, "It is time for Californians to just say NO to the big agribusiness and water agency grab for your water. We intervene to protect the salmon, the water, our culture, and the people.”
The new salmon plan clearly shows that excessive water diversions by the Central Valley Project and State Water Project operations jeopardize endangered salmon, steelhead, green sturgeon and the southern resident killer whales (orcas). The orcas feed heavily on Sacramento River salmon on the ocean.
Some of the largest annual water export levels in history occurred in 2003 (6.3 million acre feet), 2004 (6.1 MAF), 2005 (6.5 MAF and 2006 (6.3 MAF). Exports averaged 4.6 MAF annually between 1990 and 1999 and increased to an average of 6 MAF between 2000 and 2007, a rise of almost 30 percent, according to the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA).
The 800-page salmon restoration plan set detailed prescriptions for operating the projects for the next 20 years in a manner that will avoid pushing the fish to extinction or further destroying their habitat, according to Earthjustice. Within days after the plan was released, industrial agriculture and commercial water users filed lawsuits to overturn this plan.
"The National Marine Fisheries Service issued a strong, science-based roadmap of actions to protect and recover California salmon and steelhead,” said Sherwood. “It’s been said before and bears repeating: fish need water. We won’t idly stand by as industrial agriculture and commercial water interests pretend that simple fact isn’t true.”
The groups that intervened in the lawsuit include the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Friends of the River, California Trout, Bay Institute, Federation of Fly Fishers, San Francisco Baykeeper and Sacramento River Preservation Trust.
“We can’t let agribusiness push for the status quo when it comes to our endangered salmon. The provisions in the biological opinion must be implemented in order to preserve and restore our once bountiful fisheries,” said Steve Evans of Friends of the River.
In 2008, CalTrout commissioned Dr. Peter Moyle at UC Davis to conduct an assessment of 32 different kinds of California’s native salmon, trout and steelhead. "The results of this assessment were sobering—within the next 50-100 years, 65 percent of California native salmonids will be extinct if current trends continue,” said Curtis Knight of CalTrout. “The bold and progressive actions of the NMFS calling for fish passage and adequate flows are precisely what is needed to stave off the extinction path of salmon in Central Valley.”
“If we expect to save the salmon and other fish of the Delta – indeed, the Delta itself – we must adhere to the best science and that is the biological opinion,” said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the largest commercial fishing organization on the Pacific Coast. “It’s time to tell the Schwarzenegger administration that the days of ignoring or overruling science - to placate fat cat political contributors at the expense of public resources - are over.”
The fisheries supported by the Earthjustice intervention are extremely valuable and important components of California’s $3 billion dollar per year recreational fishing industry, according to Douglas W. Lovell, Federation of Fly Fishers. The DFG estimated that the state’s economy lost $255 million dollars in revenue last year alone due to the closure of recreational and commercial salmon seasons. The season was closed this year and last because of the collapse of the Sacramento River salmon resulting from a combination of increased water exports, declining water quality and poor ocean conditions.
"Many anglers consider steelhead trout iconic - the ultimate recreational fish - a reputation that draws fishers from all points of the globe to Northern California’s rivers," said Lovell. "Fishing men and women consider it paramount to protect and restore these species."
“The science could not be clearer and the urgency could not be greater,” said Dr. Tina Swanson, executive director of The Bay Institute, a plaintiff in the case that overturned the Bush-era BiOp. “Experts agree that salmon and steelhead are at risk of extinction, and that water projects operations under the old biological opinion would have made things much worse.”
As corporate agribusiness litigates against the biological opinion, Governor Schwarzeengger and his staff are also ruthlessly fighting the implementation of the long-needed federal salmon plan. Schwarzenegger used an August 18 rally by the Latino Water Coalition, a front for the Westlands Water District and corporate agribusiness, as yet another opportunity to slam the biological opinion.
"Now, there are many fronts, of course, of this war that need to be fought," claimed Schwarzenegger. "And one of them is, of course, the federal government and the judges with the decisions that they make and just turn off the water at any given time and make decisions based on what's best for the fish rather than what's best for people."
At the same rally, Schwarzenegger campaigned for a peripheral canal and more dams, an enormously costly and environmentally devastating project that will only serve to drive collapsing Central salmon, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, green sturgeon and southern resident killer whales into extinction. The canal would approximate the Panama Canal in width and length. To sign a petition and send a letter to save the Delta and stop the peripheral canal, go to http://www.calsport.org/8-22-09.htm.
For the complete Earthjustice press release, go tohttp://www.earthjustice.org/news/press/2009/groups-intervene-to-protect-california-salmon-from-industry-attack.html
You can read the intervention here: http://www.earthjustice.org/library/legal_docs/salmon-biop-intervention-82409.pdf
Martinez News-Gazette
Big Ag, conservationists clash over peripheral canal at Miller's office...Greta Mart
AUG. 15 — The professionally printed demonstration signs held by hundreds of Hispanic farm workers mingled with Tea Party Patriot banners on Thursday at a protest rally at U.S. Rep. George Miller’s Concord office.
Gathering a 5 a.m., the contingent had been bussed in from the Central San Joaquin Valley to register their unhappiness with the amount of water they were receiving via and from the Delta. With the invitation of “Don’t Let Government Run Our Farms, Join Our Rally!” and billed as an Educational Rally on a flyer distributed by organizers, a group entitled “Water For All,” and “Families Protecting the Valley,” thanked the attendees on behalf of the “Valley ag industry.” The event began at 10 a.m. and police dispersed the crowd around 1 p.m. as tempers flared under the hot sun and a few screaming matches broke out between Miller and Delta supporters and struggling Central Valley workers. Martinez City Council member Mark Ross was in attendance to back Miller, who was in Los Angeles on the day of the rally. When the police made a move to shoo the throng from the parking lot of the Congressman’s office, staffers ordered Ross and others to cease interacting with the picketers.
“There’s not much difference between the two factions,” said Ross.
The picketing group’s Web site states “Water For All is a statewide coalition of influential Latino leaders who support the development of additional water resources in California.”
They targeted Miller due to his Congressional efforts regarding water policy.
“Miller’s on the wrong side of the issue,” said one of the protestors, who declined to give his name, instead saying, ‘call me a middle-class American.’ He was part of the Tea Party Patriots, and admitted he wasn’t clear on the facets to the water controversy, including the peripheral canal plan. “We’re against the wacko environmentalist, big government and entrenched politicians like Miller.”
According to a press release issued by the group in early August, “As a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, Miller has been a critic of irrigated agriculture on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. Protesters plan to oppose Miller’s stance on the Endangered Species Act that has led to protections of Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta fish species and reduced water deliveries to local farmers.”
In response, Miller issued a statement Thursday calling the event a distortion of the facts about water deliveries to Central Valley farmers.
“Special interests are trying to use stunts like this to restart the state’s water wars for political and financial gain, but solving California’s water problems will take more than talk radio slogans and name-calling,” said Miller. “It appears that the goal of The Water for All and this event is to distort the facts about the realities of the economy of the Central Valley with the hope of re-igniting political battles over science, the environment, and the economy of California that offer no solution to the state’s water future.”
To back up his statements, his staff compiled a background paper on the group and its leaders, Piedad Ayala, the CEO of an agricultural labor contractor — the Ayala Corporation, whom Miller staffers say received hundreds of thousands in federal cotton subsides over the past ten years. The group is not associated with the United Farm Workers.
“The call to ‘Turn on the pumps’ is a distraction from the long-standing economic realities of the Central Valley. Piedad Ayala and his allies are criticizing current federal science and environmental policy and arguing that present economic problems are due to present-day policies. However, in 2005, long before U.S. Judge Wanger ruled on water exports from the Bay-Delta, the bipartisan Central Valley congressional delegation commissioned a report that found that unemployment in Fresno County was already double California’s average. Six years ago, Mendota already had a 36% unemployment rate. That was under a Republican President and a Republican Congress. Joblessness in the Valley deserves everyone’s attention, but it is not new and it has nothing to do with Rep. George Miller or recent pumping restrictions,” read the report. “The orders that periodically restrict the pumping of water are in place to protect the disappearing fish populations of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, including salmon, steelhead, smelt, and sturgeon. These fisheries support tens of thousands of jobs and several billion dollars in economic activity in California — all jeopardized when the pumping of water kills salmon and other fish.”
Mercury News
Opinion: The South Bay needs the Delta peripheral canal...Gerald H. Meral. GERALD H. MERAL, Ph.D., is the former deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources. He wrote this article for the Mercury News.
Farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta are trying to convince other Northern Californians that the Peripheral Canal would be bad. But the narrow interests of the farmers do not coincide with the interests of people who live in the South Bay.
The governor is asking for a $10 billion bond act to build more dams. But the real problem, one that dams cannot solve, is the way water moves through the delta from the dams on the Sacramento River to water-users in the South Bay.
The delta, the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, is degrading our water supply, and it is dangerously unreliable. The Legislature is properly focused on this issue, not marginally usable new dams.
The Peripheral Canal would divert water from the Sacramento River near Sacramento and move it to state and federal water pumps in the Southern delta near Tracy. These pumps supply the Santa Clara Valley with about half our water.
Today, water from the Sacramento River flows through the delta to the pumps. This greatly degrades the quality of the water. Irrigation wastewater is pumped into the delta channels from the irrigated islands. Seawater intrudes into the delta. This doubles the pollution load of the water and adds chemicals which cause cancer (trimhalomethane precursors).
The water supply is also at risk due to the shaky delta levees. Many levees have collapsed over the years, and they are vulnerable to flooding, earthquakes and sea level rise due to climate change.
The University of California says that the risk of massive levee collapse in the next few decades is 60 percent.
If large numbers of delta levees collapse, the South Bay water supply from the Federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project would be interrupted for at least two years. This would cut local water supplies by half or more, causing severe rationing. All outdoor watering would be banned, among other restrictions.
Moving the water through the delta also causes environmental problems. Flows in the channels are reversed as water is drawn south to the pumps, causing problems with reproduction and migration of salmon, sturgeon, steelhead and other native fishes such as the Delta Smelt.
Millions of young fish are sucked up and killed by the pumps. The Peripheral Canal would end this problem by restoring the natural flow direction in the delta channels.
Delta farmers like the current situation, since they pay nothing for their unlimited water supply. When a levee breaks, the state and federal governments pay to repair it, because levees are often needed to keep the state and federal water flowing through the delta.
The farmers oppose the Peripheral Canal because if it were built, they would be limited to just the water they have a right to divert, and they would have to pay more to fix broken levees.
Some people are concerned because the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California also rely in part on the delta water supplies. If the Peripheral Canal were built, the political power of the South might create incentives to divert too much water from the Sacramento River, harming the ecology of the delta and the San Francisco Bay.
To address this concern, a coalition of fish and wildlife agencies, conservation groups and water districts are developing a Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which would require sufficient water flows through the delta to restore endangered fish populations.
Senator Joe Simitian of Santa Clara County is taking a leadership position on this important issue and deserves the thanks of his constituents for his hard and effective work on water issues.
Los Angeles Times
On water issue, Democrats try to give up some power
To get around Sacramento gridlock, legislators attempt to create an independent body to decide how to restore and upgrade the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta...George Skelton, Capitol Journal
From Sacramento
Take a good look because you won't see this often: The Legislature's majority party trying to surrender power.
It's power that Democrats have been incapable or unwilling to exercise anyway. And it's not like they're giving it to Republicans.
They're attempting to create an independent governing body to decide how to restore the ecosystem and remodel the waterworks of the deteriorating Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a major source of drinking water for Southern Californians and irrigation for San Joaquin Valley farms.
Wealth, livelihoods and ways of life are at stake. Some of California's most combative interests -- agricultural, business, urban, environmental -- have been battling over the delta for decades. Because these stakeholders can't agree, neither can the politicians whose policies tend to be shaped by their patron interests. That's the system.
Handing off the decision-making authority to an outside entity was suggested by a special commission -- the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force -- created by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and headed by attorney Philip Isenberg, a former high-ranking legislator and Sacramento mayor.
More than 200 federal, state and local entities have their fingers in delta water, the panel noted in its report last October. "Everyone is involved but no one is in charge. . . . Continuation of the current system of governance . . . guarantees continued deadlock and inevitable litigation."
Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), author of a bill to create a powerful Delta Stewardship Council, blames California's "reform tradition" for much of Sacramento's gridlock.
"In response to big-city machine politics on the East Coast, California created lots of checks and balances so nothing bad can happen," Simitian says. "The flip side is nothing good gets done. At some point, you have to let go and let somebody make the hard decisions.
"Those decisions would be better made in a less political environment by people who know what the hell they're talking about. The lesson of the last 25 years is that political institutions are not very well equipped to make plumbing decisions. We need to provide for independence and expertise."
The senator's mention of the last 25 years refers roughly to the last time the Legislature and governor had the courage to step up and make a major water decision. They were slapped down by voters.
Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature authorized a "peripheral canal" to funnel Sacramento River water around the brackish delta and directly into a southbound aqueduct. But in 1982 an unlikely coalition of rich farmers and skittish environmentalists talked voters into repealing the legislation. Farmers thought the canal's operation would be too friendly to the environment, while environmentalists believed it wouldn't be friendly enough.
Voters actually had approved the canal in 1960 when they authorized bonds for Gov. Pat Brown's State Water Project. But by the time Oroville Dam and the California Aqueduct were built, the state had run out of money for the canal.
The canal originally was proposed by state wildlife officials to protect fish from being sucked into pumps draining delta water into the aqueduct. But many environmentalists, delta farmers and Bay Area cities over the decades have fought the canal, envisioning it as a giant straw to siphon additional northern water into valley irrigation ditches and Southland swimming pools.
But things have changed. We've entered a new era in the perpetual water wars.
The fishery has tanked and courts have curtailed deliveries to save the remaining fish. Delta levees are crumbling and are vulnerable to flooding or the inevitable big earthquake that could cut off all water shipments for years.
Global warming threatens to reduce the Sierra snowpack and melt it faster, requiring more water storage -- reservoirs and underground -- to prevent worse droughts and flooding. Scientists also predict that climate change will raise the sea level, swamping the delta with salt water.
The new fight against time is to restore the ecosystem while providing a reliable water supply -- emphasis on reliable, even if the supply is reduced from previous commitments.
There's a growing consensus among farm, urban and many environmental interests -- but still not delta farmers who rely on fresh Sacramento River water -- that some peripheral canal is needed. Or perhaps a peripheral tunnel. Or a combo of both. Or both combined with a more secure water route through the delta -- a route that could devastate one of the estuary's most scenic boating areas.
Whatever the "conveyance" -- new water lingo for the emotional word "peripheral" -- Democratic legislators want it to be decided by a seven-member Delta Stewardship Council. The governor would appoint four members and the Legislature two. The chairman of a Delta Protection Commission would be the seventh member.
The council's co-equal mission would be to improve both the ecosystem and water supply. It would assess fees on users of delta water to pay for the billions in upgrades.
The Simitian bill is part of a comprehensive Democratic package that also would, among other things, require a 20% reduction in urban water consumption by 2020. Crop irrigation likewise would have to be more efficient. And all groundwater levels would be monitored by local agencies and reported to the state.
"This is the most profound, the most radical change in water policy in my lifetime," says Randele Kanouse, veteran lobbyist for the East Bay Municipal Utility District. He says much tinkering is needed and urges the Legislature to delay final action until next year.
But Democrats are holding weekly committee hearings in hopes of passing legislation by Sept. 11, the end of this year's regular session.
Schwarzenegger, backed by Republicans, dampened optimism by vowing not to sign legislation that doesn't include bonds for dams. A bond bill would require a two-thirds majority vote, a generator of gridlock. The other water bills need only a simple majority vote.
"The governor has to decide whether he wants to solve this problem or have another food fight," says Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), who heads the water committee.
Dams are needed. But they'd be of little use without a healthy delta. This is a once-in-a-generation chance to heal the estuary.
Critics might accuse Democrats of passing the buck. But it's a wise move that recognizes the Legislature's limitations.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce seeks trial on global warming
The business lobby, hoping to fend off potentially sweeping emission limits, wants the EPA to hold a 'Scopes'-like hearing on the evidence that climate change is man-made...Jim Tankersley
Reporting from Washington
The nation's largest business lobby wants to put the science of global warming on trial.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, trying to ward off potentially sweeping federal emissions regulations, is pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to hold a rare public hearing on the scientific evidence for man-made climate change.
Chamber officials say it would be "the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century" -- complete with witnesses, cross-examinations and a judge who would rule, essentially, on whether humans are warming the planet to dangerous effect.
"It would be evolution versus creationism," said William Kovacs, the chamber's senior vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs. "It would be the science of climate change on trial."
The goal of the chamber, which represents 3 million large and small businesses, is to fend off potential emissions regulations by undercutting the scientific consensus over climate change. If the EPA denies the request, as expected, the chamber plans to take the fight to federal court.
The EPA is having none of it, calling a hearing a "waste of time" and saying that a threatened lawsuit by the chamber would be "frivolous."
EPA spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said the agency based its proposed finding that global warming is a danger to public health "on the soundest peer-reviewed science available, which overwhelmingly indicates that climate change presents a threat to human health and welfare."
Environmentalists say the chamber's strategy is an attempt to sow political discord by challenging settled science -- and note that in the famed 1925 Scopes trial, which pitted lawyers Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan in a courtroom battle over a Tennessee science teacher accused of teaching evolution illegally, the scientists won in the end.
The chamber proposal "brings to mind for me the Salem witch trials, based on myth," said Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist for the environmental group Union of Concerned Scientists. "In this case, it would be ignoring decades of publicly accessible evidence."
In the coming weeks, the EPA is set to formally declare that the heat-trapping gases scientists blame for climate change endanger human health, and are thus subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act. The so-called endangerment finding will be a cornerstone of the Obama administration's plan to set strict new emissions standards on cars and trucks.
The proposed finding has drawn more than 300,000 public comments. Many of them question scientists' projections that rising temperatures will lead to increased mortality rates, harmful pollution and extreme weather events such as hurricanes.
In light of those comments, the chamber will tell the EPA in a filing today that a trial-style public hearing, which is allowed under the law but nearly unprecedented on this scale, is the only way to "make a fully informed, transparent decision with scientific integrity based on the actual record of the science."
Most climate scientists agree that greenhouse gas emissions, caused by the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities, are warming the planet. Using computer models and historical temperature data, those scientists predict the warming will accelerate unless greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically reduced.
"The need for urgent action to address climate change is now indisputable," said a recent letter to world leaders by the heads of the top science agencies in 13 of the world's largest countries, including the head of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
EPA’s endangerment finding for greenhouse gases, as proposed in April, warned that warmer temperatures would lead to "the increased likelihood of more frequent and intense heat waves, more wildfires, degraded air quality, more heavy downpours and flooding, increased drought, greater sea level rise, more intense storms, harm to water resources, harm to agriculture, and harm to wildlife and ecosystems."
Critics of the finding say it's far from certain that warming will cause any harm at all. The Chamber of Commerce cites studies that predict higher temperatures will reduce mortality rates in the United States.

'Water buffaloes' got it all wrong
Supporters of water development think the fight is between farmers and fish. It's not nearly that simple...George Skelton, Capitol Journal From Sacramento…8-20-09
The "water buffaloes" like to frame their fight as farmers vs. fish. It is not. It's about farmers and fishermen.
A California water buffalo is someone who instinctively battles to develop water -- so named, I'm told, after the beast that reputedly can smell water from 200 miles away.
The fight isn't necessarily about "versus" either because farmers and fishermen often are in the same boat, dry-docked for lack of water.
Up and down the San Joaquin Valley, farm fields have been fallowed and field hands can't find work because there isn't enough water to irrigate crops.
"I represent communities that are threatened to be blown away like tumbleweeds," Assemblyman Juan Arambula (I-Fresno) complained at a legislative water hearing Tuesday.
Along California's central and northern coasts, salmon season has been closed for the second straight year because, in large part, water conditions have become so mucked up in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta that baby fish can't survive before heading to sea.
Commercial fishermen and their crews can't work. Recreational anglers can't fish, hurting charter boat owners.
"The delta is a black hole" for salmon, legislators were told by Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin river system -- encompassing California's Central Valley -- historically has been the second-largest salmon producer on the West Coast, second only to the Columbia River. And Columbia salmon tend to migrate north to British Columbia and Alaska. Salmon that make it through the delta and out the Golden Gate have supplied 90% of the catch off California, and 50% off Oregon.
The delta also is the largest estuary on the West Coast of America, north and south, Grader said in an interview.
"Estuaries are places where salmon gain strength before going to sea," he continued. "We've been seeing salmon actually losing weight in the delta. They become weakened, get lost because of [reverse river] flows, become entrained in pumps or wind up in forebays where they're easy prey to predator fish."
What Grader describes is pretty much the fault of water management in the delta during the past half-century -- something all sides currently are trying to fix.
In 1950, more than 1 million chinook salmon -- also called king salmon -- returned during the fall to spawn in the Sacramento-San Joaquin system. Last fall, only 66,000 returned.
There also have been some good spawning runs -- notably in 2002, after a few wet winters, when 880,000 salmon showed up. But generally, there has been a gradual decline in Central Valley salmon over the last 60 years.
Blame construction of dams that blocked access to ancestral spawning streams and the introduction of giant fish-chomping delta pumps that reverse river flows while diverting water south to irrigate San Joaquin Valley fields and fill Southern California reservoirs. Pour in a toxic brew of pesticide runoff from farm fields and inadequately treated waste water from cities such as Sacramento and you've got a fish death trap.
So it's not just about cotton, cherries and citrus. It's about chinooks. Also huge sturgeon and striped bass. They've gotten sick on delta water too.
Some water buffaloes belittle the striped bass because they're not a native species. But they've lived in the delta for 130 years, which makes them a native by California standards. And let's not even get into which crops are native to California.
And, oh yes, there's the pesky delta smelt -- called the "canary in the coal mine," or, more aptly, "black hole" -- that water buffaloes love to hate.
The tiny fish is officially listed as endangered. So federal courts have cut back on delta water exports to save the critter. That has San Joaquin Valley farmers and farm workers marching and protesting during this third year of drought. They've found a sympathetic listener in the governor's office.
"We have to go to the federal government and get this judge off our backs so that we can open the pumps and give water to the farmers," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told me in April. "If I have a choice between the fish and the farmer, I choose the farmer. I choose the food that feeds the world."
As if salmon weren't worth eating.
Schwarzenegger sounded like a buffalo again on Tuesday when he denounced federal judges who "make decisions based on what's best for the fish rather than what's best for people."
Fishermen aren't people, presumably, in the governor's definition.
But fishermen these days bear a striking resemblance to fallowing farmers -- as delta salmon go the way of smelt.
Schwarzenegger talked about fish vs. people as he vowed not to sign any delta-fix legislation that doesn't include bonds for dams. The governor has lobbied unsuccessfully in recent years for a water bond issue of roughly $10 billion.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) told me he could perhaps support a water bond in the $3-billion to $4-billion range.
Democrats have proposed a legislative package that, among other things, would create a powerful, independent council to decide how to repair and replumb the delta, making it more fish-friendly and more reliable as a water deliverer.
The delta is now dangerously vulnerable to floods or an earthquake that could topple levees, cutting off drinking water for 24 million people and irrigation for 3 million acres.
If that catastrophe occurs, you'll see the return of the fish -- but an estimated $40 billion loss to the California economy, buffaloes included.
The Press Enterprise
Water trauma...Editorial
California does not need another year of stalemate on water policy. The Legislature should not let old ideological battles again block progress on the primary water challenge facing the state: ensuring a reliable supply for the future.
That task entails addressing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta first, to secure continued water exports from Northern California. All other water issues are secondary. And the best option for protecting water supplies is to channel exports around the delta instead of through the estuary.
But the Legislature also needs to avoid another political impasse over new dams and reservoirs -- an issue which has stymied progress on water policy for years. The governor this week demanded that money for new dams be part of the water legislation, an approach Democrats oppose. But the governor should set that issue aside for now; California does not have the time for more knee-jerk quarrels over policy while its water system deteriorates.
Democratic legislators introduced a package of bills last month aimed at addressing the state's water needs. The legislation, which had its first hearing this week, would create a new delta oversight council, mandate increased conservation, expand monitoring of water usage and build new protections for the delta.
Just how a large share of that legislation would work remains unclear, but the issue is vital for California. Water from the state's northern regions serves two-thirds of the state's population and irrigates millions of acres of agriculture. But that water now flows through the delta, which is facing environmental collapse. A 2007 federal court ruling slashed water exports from the delta to protect an endangered fish, leaving the state without a vital water source as it faced a persistent drought.
The effect on the state has been substantial. Five San Joaquin Valley counties reported last month that their agricultural losses from the water shortage could reach $1.4 billion. Many water agencies have raised rates and started rationing. But the delta's environmental woes also have a cost: The state's salmon industry has shut down for two years running, causing losses exceeding $500 million for that period.
The state should start by finding a way to channel water around the delta, which would keep the much-needed supplies flowing south. And that step would let the state address the environmental needs without those steps affecting water exports. Preserving the status quo is not a realistic option; neither is cutting off water exports to the rest of the state.
And while California may well need more dams and reservoirs, as the governor argues, that is a discussion for later. Changing precipitation patterns will require the state to catch and store more winter rains in the future. But the projects the governor supports have not even completed feasibility and environmental reports yet. And new reservoirs will accomplish little if the state has no way to get the water to the rest of California.
The delta's troubles and their effect on water supplies are the crucial issues. The Legislature should resolve those questions first, and not dive into another futile political standoff.
Washington Post
Herbicide Found in Water May Pose Greater Danger...Kari Lydersen
CHICAGO, Aug. 24 -- Drinking water containing a common herbicide could pose a greater public health risk than previously thought because regular municipal monitoring doesn't detect frequent spikes in the chemical's levels, according to a report released Monday by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The report documented spikes in atrazine in the water supplies of Midwestern and Southern towns in agricultural areas, where the herbicide is applied to the vast majority of corn, sorghum and sugar cane fields.
Atrazine, an endocrine disrupter, can interfere with the body's hormonal activity and the development of reproductive organs. The Environmental Protection Agency looks at annual average levels of the chemical in drinking-water systems, but the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says this misses spikes likely to occur after rain and springtime application of the herbicide.
"Our biggest concern is early-life-stage development," said NRDC senior scientist Jennifer Sass. "If there's a disruption during that time, it becomes hard-wired into the system. These endocrine disrupters act in the body at extremely low levels. These spikes matter."
She said the chemical could also be linked to menstrual problems and endocrine-related cancers in adults.
Scientists with atrazine manufacturer Syngenta called the NRDC study alarmist and said the spikes fall within one- and 10-day limits that the EPA considers safe.
"Atrazine is one of the best studied, most thoroughly regulated molecules on the planet," said Syngenta toxicologist Tim Pastoor. "Those momentary spikes are not going to be injurious to human health."
Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, municipal water supplies are typically tested for chemicals, including atrazine, four times a year. The EPA considers an annual average atrazine level below 3 parts per billion as safe for human consumption. But biweekly data collected by the EPA from 139 municipal water systems found that atrazine was present 90 percent of the time and that 54 water systems had one-time spikes above 3 parts per billion in 2003 and 2004, according to an analysis by the NRDC.
NRDC scientists and lawyers argue that the EPA's limits are too lenient, given studies showing the effects of low levels of atrazine on rats and other animals and the fact that it is nearly impossible to epidemiologically trace the chemical's effects on humans.
Steve Owens, assistant administrator for the EPA's office of prevention, pesticides and toxic substances, said the agency will review its atrazine policies as part of a larger reassessment of how chemicals and pesticides are regulated.
"The Obama EPA will take a hard look at atrazine and other substances," he said. "This thorough review will rely on transparency and sound science, including independent scientific peer review. We will continue to closely track new scientific developments and will determine whether a change in our regulatory position is appropriate."
Atrazine can be removed by carbon filters at water treatment plants or in households. Many water treatment plants use such filters, but others do not. The Washington Aqueduct, which treats water from the Potomac River for about 1 million Washington area customers, does not treat for atrazine because it is rarely found at levels over 0.5 parts per billion in the water.
The NRDC is asking the EPA to step up its atrazine monitoring and make the results public. The group is also encouraging farmers to greatly reduce or end use of the herbicide. Atrazine is effectively banned in the European Union, though Pastoor said a similar chemical, terbuthylazine, is widely used in Europe. He noted that atrazine, introduced in 1958, is especially attractive to farmers because it lasts for about 40 days in the soil and can be applied before, during or after planting. It is considered conducive to no-till practices that reduce a field's carbon footprint.
Atrazine is also used on lawns and golf courses in the South, and Sass said children playing on treated grass could be dangerously exposed to it. It can also concentrate in rain and fog.
Since 2003, the EPA has monitored atrazine levels in surface and ground water in 40 watersheds in the central and southern United States. The NRDC says the results raise grave concerns for wildlife and ecosystems in these areas and in the Gulf of Mexico, where much of the agricultural runoff from the Midwest ends up. Atrazine has been found to cause limb deformities and hermaphroditism in frogs at concentrations as low as 0.1 parts per billion. It is also known to kill algae and micro-organisms that make up the base of aquatic food chains, and in conjunction with other pesticides and herbicides, it suppresses animals' immune systems.
In 2003 the NRDC filed a lawsuit charging that the EPA violated the Endangered Species Act during the atrazine re-registration process by failing to adequately consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service about how the herbicide could affect about 20 endangered species of frogs, fish, turtles and other reptiles and amphibians.
A 2008 letter from the Fish and Wildlife Service says atrazine could harm endangered Alabama sturgeon and Chesapeake Bay dwarf wedgemussel, since it is known to damage such organisms and affect food supplies, even at lower levels than what the EPA considers safe.
Negotiations between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the EPA could result in different limits or requirements for atrazine.
Our Water Supply, Down the Drain...Robert Glennon. Robert Glennon is a professor of law at the University of Arizona and the author of "Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What to Do About It."…8-22-09
In the United States, we constantly fret about running out of oil. But we should be paying more attention to another limited natural resource: water. A water crisis is threatening many parts of the country -- not just the arid West.
In 2008, metro Atlanta (home to nearly 5 million people) came within 90 days of seeing its principal water supply, Lake Lanier, dry up. Rainstorms eased the drought, but last month a federal judge ruled that Georgia may no longer use the lake as a municipal supply. The state is now scrambling to overturn that ruling; but Alabama and Florida will oppose Georgia's efforts.
In Florida, excessive groundwater pumping has dried up scores of lakes. In South Carolina, a paper company recently furloughed hundreds of workers because low river flows prevented the company from discharging its wastewater. That state's battle with North Carolina over the Catawba River has reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Water has become so contentious nationwide that more than 30 states are fighting with their neighbors over water.
Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes, is too shallow to float fully loaded freighters, dramatically increasing shipping costs. North of Boston, the Ipswich River has gone dry in five of the past eight years. In 2007, the hamlet of Orme, Tenn., ran out of water entirely, forcing it to truck in supplies from Alabama.
Droughts make matters worse, but the real problem isn't shrinking water levels. It's population growth. Since California's last major drought ended in 1992, the state's population has surged by a staggering 7 million people. Some 100,000 people move to the Atlanta area every year. Over the next four decades, the country will add 120 million people, the equivalent of one person every 11 seconds.
More people will put a huge strain on our water resources, but another problem comes in something that sounds relatively benign: renewable energy, at least in some forms, such as biofuels. Refining one gallon of ethanol requires four gallons of water. This turns out to be a drop in the bucket compared with how much water it takes to grow enough corn to refine one gallon of ethanol: as much as 2,500 gallons.
In the United States, we've traditionally engineered our way out of water shortages by diverting more from rivers, building dams or drilling groundwater wells. But many rivers, including the Colorado and the Rio Grande, already dry up each year. The dam-building era from the 1930s to the 1960s tamed so many rivers that only 60 in the country remain free-flowing. Meanwhile, we're pumping so much water from wells that the levels in aquifers are plummeting. We're running out of technological fixes.
Some dreamers gaze upon distant sources of water and imagine that the problem is solved. Plans to divert water from rivers in British Columbia or tow icebergs from Alaska periodically arise. An entrepreneur in Colorado, Aaron Million, recently proposed a $4 billion, 400-mile pipeline to transport water from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir, located on the Green River in Wyoming and Utah, to Denver and Colorado Springs. But the dreamers tend not to address the immense costs, significant environmental objections or regulatory nightmares associated with such grandiose proposals.
More viable solutions include desalination of ocean water, reuse of municipal waste and aggressive conservation strategies. But none of these is a cure-all. Desalination is expensive, burns energy and generates a thorny waste problem. Nor is reclaiming water -- that is, reusing water from the sewage system -- a silver-bullet answer to the crisis. Aside from the major "yuck" factor associated with the idea of potable toilet water, it's also quite expensive, requiring a set of pipes that is completely separate from the drinking-water system.
Conservation does work. In places such as San Antonio, Albuquerque, Tucson and Long Beach, Calif., aggressive conservation programs have reduced consumption dramatically. But it's not enough.
We need a new water policy in the United States. Americans do not pay the real cost of the water that we use. In fact, we don't pay for water at all. The check that citizens write to their municipal water department or private water company covers only the cost of service, plus a small profit for the private company. There is no charge for the water itself.
Last summer, as the price of gas inched up over $4 a gallon, Toyota dealers couldn't keep fuel-efficient Priuses in stock. We should apply that pricing lesson if we want to conserve water, using increasing block rates to discourage profligate water use. Tucson does that and adds a surcharge for excessive use in the summer, when water mostly goes to fill swimming pools and irrigate landscaping.
The idea of charging for water offends many people who think that would be like charging for air. Is it immoral to extract fees for an essential resource? Precisely because water is a public -- and exhaustible -- resource, the government has an obligation to manage it wisely.
Think of our water supply as a giant milkshake, and think of each demand for water as a straw in the glass. Most states permit a limitless number of straws -- and that has to change.
The West, one of the thirstiest parts of the country, is developing a system that should lead the way: the use of market forces to reallocate water. In eastern Oregon, along the Middle Fork of the John Day River, the Oregon Water Trust persuaded third-generation ranchers Pat and Hedy Voigt to turn off their irrigation system each year from July 20 until the end of the growing season. The 6.5 million gallons per day that would have been diverted to grow alfalfa now augment river flows and improve the habitat of endangered salmon and steelhead trout. The $700,000 paid to the Voigts allowed them to make substantial on-farm improvements.
Taking their straw out of the glass is one step toward keeping us from getting parched.
Washington Times
It's farmers vs. fish for California water...Valerie Richardson…8-20-09
Supporters of California agriculture called on the Obama administration and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday to lift water restrictions that were imposed to protect the endangered delta smelt, saying the fish is putting farmers out of business.
The Pacific Legal Foundation presented a "Save Our Water" petition with 12,000 signatures at a Sacramento news conference, calling on Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, to request that the Obama administration convene the federal Endangered Species Committee, also known as the "God Squad," to remove the water curbs. "California should be known for the Rose Bowl, not a dust bowl. But there's a danger of a dust bowl being created in the Central Valley by extreme [Endangered Species Act] regulations," said foundation President Rob Rivett. "Instead of stimulating jobs, federal environmental officials are turning recession into depression and stimulating economic hardship for businesses, farms and families."
State Rep. George Radanovich, a Republican from the hard-hit San Joaquin Valley, said that"when it comes to water policy, humans come before fish."
The God Squad is a rarely invoked but potentially powerful provision within the Endangered Species Act that lets the committee override species protections in cases of economic emergency.
During a trip to the Central Valley in June, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar appeared to reject the idea.
Convening the committee, Mr. Salazar said, "would be to admit failure, it would defeat ecosystem restoration efforts. It has been rarely invoked and usually leads to litigation," according to Aquafornia.com, a Web site on the state's water issues.
As a result, proponents of emergency action are urging Mr. Schwarzenegger to throw his clout behind the idea and make the request to the Interior Department on behalf of the state.
Lester Snow, director of the California Department of Water Resources, said the governor had sent requests for reconsultation on the smelt and chinook salmon to the Interior and Commerce departments.
"The governor would look at the God Squad as indication that the federal government isn't responding. It's an action of last resort," Mr. Snow said. "It rarely works the way anyone wants it to. What the governor wants is a strong federal partner."
Nobody doubts the economic devastation to the Central Valley. The unemployment rate in agriculture communities ranges from 20 percent to 40 percent, while 250,000 acres of farmland are lying fallow or dying. The region's agricultural output is expected to decline by between $1 billion and $3 billion this year over last, according to estimates by agricultural and business groups.
Whether the delta smelt is to blame lies at the heart of the debate. While some blame the fish for the severe reductions in pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, others argue that the region's three-year drought is primarily to blame.
Some environmentalists say the agriculture industry needs to adapt to the reduced water supply and live within its means.
"Big Ag must now learn to do more with less," campaigner Brian Smith wrote on Earthjustice.org. "The days of copious taxpayer-subsidized water exports from the Delta are coming to an end. And the idea of killing off numerous native fish species, decimating Northern California fishing communities and turning the Delta into a fetid swamp is simply not allowed under federal law."
The situation for farmers is likely to get worse before it gets better. Federal regulators are poised to enact more water restrictions to protect the chinook salmon, the steelhead and other fish. Estimates are that the cutbacks could result in the removal of 500,000 acre-feet of water.
Scaling back the Central Valley agriculture industry, also known as America's fruit basket, would have an economic impact that stretches beyond California. Americans undoubtedly would find themselves buying more fruits, vegetables and nuts from foreign sources, Mr. Rivett said.
"It's certainly going to impact our food security. We know our farmers here produce a product that's safe and healthy; we don't know what will happen if we're importing those products," he said.
Others supporting the "Save Our Water" petition include the California Chamber of Commerce, which urged state and federal officials to protect agricultural water supplies "from measures that will inflict serious economic and social harm on millions of Californians."
In May, the foundation filed a lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of several Central Valley farmers challenging the agency's authority to issue regulations on behalf of the delta smelt.
New York Times
Water Compromise Elusive in Calif. Debate Over 'Broken' Ecosystem...COLIN SULLIVAN of Greenwire…8-19-09
http://www.nytimes.com/gwire/2009/08/19/19greenwire-water-compromise-elusive-in-calif-debate-over-87819.html?sq=endangered species&st=cse&scp=6&pagewanted=print
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta ecosystem is busted.
That view prevails on all sides of a raging fight over the delta’s coveted water supply. Whether an environmentalist, commercial fisher, farmer, bureaucrat, academic or politician – all of whom were invited yesterday to a major hearing in the state Legislature – all seemed to agree that the delta had fallen apart.
"Anyone who believes the status quo is working doesn't understand what's going on," said Lester Snow, director of the state Department of Water Resources. "The system is broken."
"The delta has gone to hell in a handbasket," added Sen. Joe Simitian, Democrat from Palo Alto.
The delta, which draws water from the Sierra Nevada, is at the center of an economic firestorm in a state whose output of goods and services rivals that of Germany or France. But without water, California has no crops, no fish, no manufacturing. And without all three, the state's economy falls off a cliff.
The region is so crucial because it provides two-thirds of the state's water supply. Its massive pumping system routes water to cities and farmers alike, but the pumps have drained the delta region and become a kind of killing machine for endangered salmon and smelt. Add to those concerns the likelihood of increased salinity as sea levels rise due to climate change, diminished snowpack in the Sierra and the possibility of a major earthquake destroying the delta's maze of 1,100 levees, and you get a perfect storm that could dwarf Hurricane Katrina as a natural disaster.
The consensus at yesterday's hearing was clear. Marin County Democrat Jared Huffman, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife, summed up the prevailing view when he said environmental damage in the delta's estuary has surpassed the Chesapeake Bay and the Everglades, making it the site with the most urgent U.S. environmental restoration effort.
So what's to be done? For now, Democrats in the Legislature have introduced a package of five bills they would like to move by the end of the year. The measures build on the work of a group called the Delta Vision Blue-Ribbon Task Force, which spent the last two years digging through layers of competing interests to devise its plan.
But even the chairman of that task force, Phil Isenberg, seems less than thrilled about the plan that may result. He testified before the daylong joint Assembly-Senate hearing, offering a bit of sage advice to the lawmakers looking to push the package through over the last 25 days of this year's legislative session.
"If you manage to do nothing at all this year, a lot of people will be mad at you," Isenberg said. "And if you do something significant, a lot of people will be mad at you."
The plan
On one side of the fight are farmers who want to eliminate the Endangered Species Act's pumping restrictions. On the other are environmentalists who want to restore the delta's water flows and encourage strict conservation. In the middle are commercial fishers, recreation advocates, urban water users and water districts.
To Simitian, all sides risk toppling the state's economy by not compromising. That is why he is pushing a bill that would establish a seven-member council that would be tasked with putting the state's interest above those of individual parties.
Noting that polls give lawmakers here an 11 percent approval rating, Simitian is placing a bet that a council with four members appointed by the governor, one by the Assembly and one by the Senate, and an expert chairman at the helm, might be able to unite the 200-odd agencies that run the water system.
A council placed above local or constituent interest, he argued, might be able to implement the Delta Vision's entire set of recommendations, which range from earmarking land for restoration and building new storage facilities to mandating recycling programs.
Voters, he said, "are not convinced we can actually solve the problems that affect their daily lives. I would like to prove them wrong."
"No one is really in charge," added Huffman, who voiced his support for a new governance structure. "California can't afford to continue this disarray."
Another proposal in the package of five would codify a proposal from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to establish a 20 percent conservation mandate for urban water users. Water districts would not be eligible for state loans or grants if they do not comply. Another would require groundwater reporting.
But critics have slammed the special council as a new layer of bureaucracy that would duplicate work at other agencies and repeat mistakes of the past, among them the failed Cal-Fed federal-state partnership formed in 1994 (Greenwire, Sept. 17, 2008).
Sen. Tom Berryhill, a Republican from the Central Valley, compared the effort to the California Coastal Commission, which in some quarters is viewed as an activist agency that sets its own agenda. And Snow, the state water department director and a respected veteran in the field, said he fears the council would add red tape at a crucial time.
"The bills appear to establish additional obstacles, which may in fact delay and not expedite some of the actions that we need," Snow told lawmakers.
Greg Gartrell, Contra Costa Water District assistant general manager, agreed with Snow. "It could set up a system that adds more layers of bureaucracy and opportunities to say no," he said. "It is not easy getting a permit to do anything."
Schwarzenegger pushes back
With Snow as its lead voice on the matter, the Schwarzenegger administration came out swinging yesterday.
The governor sent a letter to Democratic leaders that was largely critical of the water package, while Snow reiterated the administration's position that nothing will be solved without new infrastructure.
In his letter, Schwarzenegger applauded the attempt at consensus building, but he said the package fails to directly address construction of new dams and reservoirs or how to fund them. Snow repeated this argument and said the governor would reject any reform package that fails to include a water bond.
"It has to have a bond as part of this package," Snow testified. "It's not acceptable to put these programs out and not have a method for funding."
An attempt by Schwarzenegger, with the support of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), to push a $9 billion bond onto the state ballot fell short last year, but the governor appears to believe the year-end push represents a second chance (E&ENews PM, Aug. 18).
Snow urged revisions to the package, adding provisions for statewide conservation, regional investment, increased statewide storage and bond funding. "The package is not complete and does not address some of the issues that are most important," Snow said.
The administration has also been pushing for construction of a peripheral canal around the delta, to avoid having to pump it through, or looking at an "all tunnel" option that could lead to a 50-mile tunnel under the region.
Don Koch, director of the California Department of Fish and Game, told lawmakers that the package as written is a "Band-Aid" that fails to address the age of the system, much of which was built in the mid-20th century.
"Without dealing with infrastructure, we're not going to deal with water supply," Koch said.
Isenberg's certainty
Isenberg, the task force chairman and a former mayor of Sacramento and member of the Assembly, said the Legislature was wading into a "water ecosystem puzzle" that nobody had cracked in decades of policy debate. He empathized openly with the difficulty of the challenge, citing voter ambivalence and ignorance as key factors for inaction.
"They will go on as long as we live, these debates," Isenberg said. "We're not yet very serious about conservation. ... It is a statewide problem."
Still, Isenberg urged direct alterations to the package. He told lawmakers to mark specific acreage for restoration to give agencies a conservation goal. He threw his support behind the governor's bond proposal. And he said expedited environmental processing is badly needed.
"I understand how controversial [that is], but you have to take actions as rapidly as possible," Isenberg said.
Others at the hearing expressed a range of views.
Jeffrey Mount, a professor at the University of California, Davis, said the blogosphere and media have wrongly focused the debate on the peripheral canal when rebuilding the levee system is far more important. Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, called the Democrats' package a solid framework to build upon. And Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, scolded lawmakers and citizens alike for treating the delta like a giant reservoir available for their personal consumption.
"Right now, it's on the verge of ecological collapse, and we're about to turn it into an inland sea," Grader said, noting the many differences between an estuary, which needs flow-through, and a static reservoir. "I don't think you can look at draining it any more than you can look at draining Lake Tahoe."
Frog Fungus Disease Threatens to Deplete Stock of Medicines...Jeremy van Loon
A fungus that threatens one out of three of Earth’s 6,000 species of amphibians is also putting at risk a stock of potential medicines for humans.
Frogs and other amphibians have an “arsenal” of compounds on their skins, including possible therapies for peptic ulcers, said Simon Stuart, chairman of the Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The amphibian Chytrid fungus and loss of habitat as forests are cleared for construction and agriculture leaves the animals with limited chances for survival, scientists say. Researchers met last week in London to determine ways to stop the spread of the disease and halt the destruction of landscapes where the frogs make their homes.
“The world’s amphibians are facing an uphill battle for survival,” said James Collins, co-chair of the IUCN Amphibian Specialist Group. “Infectious diseases, habitat loss, climate change, introduced species, commercial use and pollution all affect amphibian survival.”
Researchers say pathogens, invasive species, pollutants and solar radiation all are contributing to a dropoff in the amphibian population in addition to climate change. To fight the Chytrid fungus, scientists are looking at breeding techniques and naturally occurring bacteria, the IUCN added.
Dying on the Vine
As another water war rages, the west side of California's storied San Joaquin Valley waits for relief that may not come...Katie Paul
Playing cards and a small wad of dollar bills sit on a pool table at Los Kiki, a dusty pool hall at the end of the main drag in Mendota, Calif. A breeze blows through a broken window, past six men hunched over the table, beer bottles in their hands. It is middle of a Wednesday afternoon. A year ago, they would have been out planting and pruning in the vast fields of grapes, tomatoes, onions, and nut trees that fan out from the city limits. But this year, many of those fields are lying fallow, and the men at Los Kiki are out of work.
"Before, it was good. There were jobs eight months, 10 months out of the year. Now, nothing," says Luis Cortez, 52. Others nod in agreement. Cortez says he has worked just three days all year.
Mendota touts itself as the cantaloupe capital of the world, but its de facto motto is far less optimistic. "No water, no work" is the refrain repeated everywhere here in the western reaches of the San Joaquin Valley. The unemployment rate in this 10,000-person town was an unfathomable 38 percent in July (including documented and undocumented workers). Nearly all those who have lost their jobs are farm workers, who often straddle the poverty line even in boom times. The result is a cruel irony: in the region that produces more food than anywhere else in the country, food lines have become regular fixtures, drawing hundreds, sometimes thousands.
After three years of drought, California's legendary water wars are flaring once again, and towns like Mendota, San Joaquin, and Firebaugh are getting a first glimpse of what their future might look like. Farmers blame the area's blight on a "man-made drought" brought on by increasingly strict environmental regulations, but that is only the beginning of the story. There's also the crushing confluence of political negligence, drought, and a century's worth of unbridled growth. Now, as residents wonder if normalcy will ever return, planners are forced to consider a far uglier question: should it? Is a new "normal" required?
That towns like Mendota even exist reflects the extraordinary ambition that built the American West. A century ago, much of the San Joaquin Valley was an undeveloped dust bowl, its few small farming communities clustered around natural water sources. Today, it is a green expanse of agricultural empires. Most of the water that has irrigated these seemingly endless fields comes from northern California, diverted by an epic system of dams and canals born from New Deal funds. It was one of the most ambitious water systems ever built, and the San Joaquin Valley became, in the words of historian Kevin Starr, "the most productive unnatural environment on Earth."
The valley is home to a $20 billion crop industry; the San Joaquin region alone produces more in farm sales than any other individual state in the country. Mark Borba, 59, has a big stake in that business, just as his grandparents did in the valley's development. Borba Farms started off with about 20 milk cows and 30 acres of land in 1910, at a time when farmers who had tapped an underground aquifer were kicking off a race to cultivate. The farm now covers 10,000 acres, and Mark Borba is only one of 600 growers in the Westlands Water District, a water-contracting group of farmers and landowners on the far west side of the valley where Mendota and other towns sit. By the time Borba took over his family's operation in the 1970s, the valley was already supplying 25 percent of the country's food.
Making that explosive growth possible is access to water delivered through an increasingly byzantine system centered on the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, a thousand-square-mile web of channels, islands, and levees where the two rivers meet before flowing into the San Francisco Bay. From there, giant dams and pumps suck the water southward through veinlike aqueducts to 25 million people and more than 5 million acres of farmland. But not all water consumers are created equally. In fact, access to the water is essentially based on a squatters' rights notion: "First in rights, first in time." In other words, whoever signed up for a water contract first got the best guarantees. Latecomers got junior rights, meaning they'd be the first to get cut in a dry. Westlands, which has a contract for water delivery with the federal government, is the most junior of the bunch.
It was complicated and costly, but for a long time, the system worked. Over the last three decades, however, the valley's explosive growth has caused rivers to run dry, dead fish to accumulate near the water pumps, and chronic water shortages. The levees near the bay are old, prompting worries that a failure, perhaps following an earthquake, could cause salt water from the bay to rush into the delta, crippling the water supply for the entire state. And the delta smelt, an endangered species of fish no bigger than an index finger, began disappearing as the massive pumps sucked up fish along with the water it was sending south. Lawsuits over the fish filed by environmental groups and water contractors multiplied, and court-imposed restrictions and regulations began siphoning off more and more of the 6 million acre-feet of water exported through the river basin each year.
Most people in the valley blame their water woes on those lawsuits and the fish. Since 1992, when Congress established new federal ecosystem standards, increasing amounts of water have been set aside for wildlife restoration. Since then, Westlands has received on average about half as much water as the 1.2 million acre-feet per year it ordered up in its contract, forcing farmers to rely on expensive pumps that suck up water from the aquefier and water transfers from their better-connected competitors to the east. This year, Westlands is down to nearly nothing, and its farmers are livid. Federal officials slashed the district's allocation to zero at the beginning of the season; only after a furious lobbying campaign did they succeed in bumping it up to 10 percent of the water deliveries stipulated in their contract. A University of California, Berkeley analysis claims that the economic impact of the water reductions on the valley's agricultural production tops $48 million. That figure will likely get worse once the water agencies begin implementing new rules this summer designed to protect other fish such as sturgeon, salmon, and steelhead trout. In a normal year, such a hit is difficult, says Sarah Woolf, a Westlands District spokeswoman. After three years of natural drought, she says, it's ruinous.
But Barry Nelson, the National Resources Defense Council advocate behind the fish lawsuits, says the fish vs. people argument is nonsense. Even after three years of drought, the Central Valley Project (CVP) is still making half of its water deliveries to farms in the valley. Westlands just isn't getting that water. "There's a myth in the valley about the delta smelt, and it's really a tragedy," he says. "I don't mean for a moment to suggest that those small communities on the west side aren't seeing impacts; they are. They're seeing the impact of drought, and those impacts are real and they're hard." Nelson contends that the fish aren't the problem; it's the way the system is set up. Just adjacent to Westlands, he says, four other contractors are getting a full 100 percent of their water allocation this year, despite the drought. And while Westlands has adopted some of the most water-efficient irrigation methods in the business, other farmers in the valley with senior water rights are under no pressure to conserve. The result is a patchwork valley, where a Westlands farmer like Mark Borba is forced to fallow land while his neighbor has excess water that he can sell at a hefty profit. Buying that excess and pumping water from underground is sustainable to a point, says Borba. But the expenses—and the poor quality of the underground water—would drive the business into the ground in the long term.
But that may be all that the Westlands district can hope for. Climate models by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the state's water resources agency, and researchers at the University of California, Davis all point to the same trend: the Sierra snowcaps that supply the state's water are disappearing. If that's the case, farmers should expect droughts more frequently, and Westlands may have to come around to the notion that they will never receive all the water that their contracts call for. "No drought comes to you with a label that says, 'Brought to you by climate change,' " says Nelson. "But in the American Southwest and in California, we should be prepared for a drier future."
To at least a few teams of researchers, ending the conversation with a doomsday prediction for agriculture on the west side of the valley is insufficient. Like the farmers and engineers who, a century ago, looked at the desert and imagined farms, these teams, which pull together researchers at federal and state agencies, California universities, and think tanks into a planning group called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), say a good plan and some new hardware is all the valley needs to conquer its water challenge. They are likely to suggest building a new "peripheral" canal that would transport northern water around the delta, rather than through it, to restore its battered ecosystem.
To farmers like Borba, that's the kind of investment worth making. "I've traveled all over the world—Egypt, Australia, Brazil, China—and I've never seen an agricultural resource like we have in the San Joaquin Valley. The soils, the climate, the crop variability. We've got 300 crops we can grow here. You can't find that just anywhere," he says. "So I have a hard time saying, for lack of the will, that we should neuter the most productive agricultural resource in the world. I don't think that's where America wants to go."
North of the valley, where the canal would be built, not everyone is so enthusiastic. Opponents, who beat back the idea in a 1982 referendum, see it as a destructive, expensive water grab by southern users. They have a point; according to the BDCP and the federal Bureau of Reclamation, preliminary construction-cost estimates for the two biggest projects under consideration are $13 billion, a price tag California is hardly in a position to bear in its present state. Other critics, like Nelson, say the drop in water supply caused by climate change would render such mega-investments moot. The better bet, they argue, is an aggressive push for water-conservation standards. Yet others, like the University of the Pacific's Jeffrey Michael, who does business forecasting, note that the issues facing Westlands are hardly valley-wide problems. Rather, he says, farm employment this year has actually gone up, making it one of the few success stories in a region pummeled by the mortgage crisis. Still, support for the idea might be building steam. The BDCP has missed benchmarks, but there's evidence the governor's office is behind the idea. State officials recently announced they intend to start preliminary drilling for ground tests this month, while state lawmakers recently unveiled five new major water bills focused on the delta.
Even if that comes through, though, there's no guarantee all of Westlands would reap the benefits. As productive as the farms in the district have been, bad drainage underneath means the soil fills up with salt, boron, selenium, and other minerals—toxins that make plants shrivel just as quickly as a drought. A drainage system could address the problem, but, again, nobody seems to want to pay for one. Instead, starting in 2000, Westlands and the Bureau of Reclamation negotiated a deal to permanently retire from farming 100,000 acres of land in the district in return for compensation from the federal government. "There's a reason some of the land in Westlands was the last land in California to be irrigated," says Nelson, the NRDC analyst. "The land that was retired a few years ago has already salted up. It looks like it snowed." That might be just the beginning; federal agencies estimate the number should be two to four times that amount.
All of this leaves the valley's west side caught in a painful limbo until California answers big questions about where and how it wants to make use of its resources. In the meantime, some economic planners are eyeing the area as a potential clean energy source where almond farms could be transformed into solar farms. Those plans, too, are preliminary. "It took a century of bad decisions to get us here. The good news is, we are on the verge of making some major changes on what we're going to do about it," says Jeff Mount, a water-geology researcher at UC Davis who supports the peripheral canal proposal. "So, yes, the valley's farm economy itself is probably going to shrink some. But that may not be a bad thing in the long run. And it may be an inevitable thing."
Such talk makes 34-year-old Dora Chavarria wonder about her future. She was born in Mendota, the daughter of a field worker who arrived there 38 years ago, worked the fields, and saved enough money to open up an auto shop. She's climbed the social ladder yet another rung, working at a program for immigrant families in the Firebaugh school system. Chavarria recalls a time when she could be proud of Mendota; when people filled the streets, when her father would drive her around in trucks filled with tomatoes from the surrounding fields, when musical acts would pass through town, and when the melon-capital claim rang true. It's been a long time since that was the case; for more than a decade, the streets have been empty and dangerous, she says, and getting worse as people head for Las Vegas and Los Angeles in search of work. Chavarria doesn't let her children out alone, and now her husband wants to leave, too.
To keep the town alive, Mendota's leaders have, in their own way, started to think about alternatives to agriculture. Mayor Robert Silva says the best bet is the federal prison under construction on the outskirts of town, a project he courted, thinking it will spark an economic revival as hotels and restaurants spring up to accommodate prison visitors.As the town waits to see if Silva's development predictions come true, residents face a crushing tide. This summer, the town's only bank announced it was shutting down because of insufficient deposits. As the public schools lose students, officials worry funding cuts will follow. Most eerily, around the outskirts of town, billboards and flags advertise the empty, unfinished development of single-family homes with bright green lawns, constant reminders that, on more than one front, foresight has been hard to come by in the valley.
Still, Chavarria is not ready to give up on Mendota just yet. "It's just slowly dying, and we can't let that happen. This is my heritage," she says. "Change is good, and hopefully something better comes along. But if we don't stay here to make that change, then the change is never going to happen."
CNN Money
Do railroads have a free ride?
A new bill could tighten regulation - and send hedge funds for the exits...Jia Lynn Yang
(Fortune Magazine) -- The railroad industry is an old-time business, and for a while it was indeed stuck in the past -- choked by regulation and constantly beset with bankruptcies. Then railroads won more freedom to dictate prices and, as one of the only industries exempt from federal antitrust law, they've enjoyed an unexpected renaissance ever since.
But controls over the industry could tighten again -- thanks to a group of proposals from powerful legislators -- and send Wall Street investors running.
Over the past several years, the railroad industry has undergone a renaissance, attracting a new generation of talented corporate leaders who have streamlined operations and convinced investors that railroads -- which are notoriously capital intensive -- could be a greener, cheaper alternative to trucks.
And investors fell in love. Warren Buffett plowed money into one of the biggest rail companies, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNI, Fortune 500). Children's Investment Fund, the activist hedge fund better known as TCI, muscled its way onto the board of CSX (CSX, Fortune 500). And the private equity firm Fortress bought Florida East Coast Industries and the short line operator RailAmerica.
At the peak of investment about one year ago, hedge funds owned 25% of the rail industry, estimates Tony Hatch, an independent transportation analyst who has followed the industry for more than 20 years.
The investments have paid off. In 2008, the biggest rail companies, like CSX and Norfolk Southern (NSC, Fortune 500), posted record revenues. Yet their success, especially at raising prices, has made some customers unhappy -- including companies that ship chemicals, coal, and ethanol, all of which have their own political muscle in Washington.
So now Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), and some members of the House have introduced bills that would remove antitrust exemptions that rail opponents call unfair and would toughen the Surface Transportation Board, the entity that currently regulates rails and hears grievances from shippers.
That's got investors worried: "There is a huge fear among people in the investment community who look at the railroad industry and see its future potential," says Hatch.
In the U.S., the industry is dominated by a pair of duopolies: CSX and Norfolk Southern dominate the East Coast, while Union Pacific (UNP, Fortune 500) and Burlington Santa Fe rule the West. Proponents say this structure is inevitable given how expensive it is to run a railroad business.
But politicians who support some of the shippers say the setup has led to price gouging. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who has introduced a bill in the House, says that the Dairyland Power Cooperative in her state has seen a 93% rise in shipping costs in just one year. "This is what happens when there's no competition," she says. "They can name their price."
For their part, rails dispute the idea that the industry is totally exempt from antitrust regulation, saying that there's no gap in oversight since any grievances can be heard before the Surface Transportation Board. And they argue that regulation would only hurt the American economy.
"At a time when we all want our nation back on track and America's companies competitive in the global workplace, we need to focus on ways to stimulate the economy, boost employment, fuel green investment, and reinvigorate our transportation system," says Ed Hamburger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads. "Now is not the time to create a bureaucratic quagmire of conflicting regulations and oversight."
The rail industry has just begun its comeback, and Buffett is more likely than the hedge funds to stick with it for the long haul. But if enough investors get skittish, the rail industry could go from Wall Street darling right back to its old sleepy state.
Home prices on the upswing
A jump in the national S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index suggests that the very steep price drops of the past few years may be over...Les Christie,
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- National home prices may be on the road to recovery.
After three years of declines, home prices increased 2.9% in the three months ended June 30, according to the latest S&P/Case-Shiller report. That is the first quarter-over-quarter improvement in three years.
Prices in the national index are down 14.9% compared with the second quarter of 2008, the report said. But that is better than the record 19.1% decline that was set in the first three months of 2009.
"We're seeing some positive signs," says David M. Blitzer, Chairman of the Index Committee at Standard & Poor's.
The Case-Shiller 20-city index rose quarter-over-quarter by 1.4% but fell 15.4% year-over-year. Still, that was a smaller loss than analysts were predicting: A consensus of experts compiled by Briefing.com had forecast a 16.4% drop
"This is great news; prices may be starting to grow again" said Pat Newport, a real estate analyst for IHS Global Insight. "Three independent sources, the National Association of Realtors, the Federal Housing Finance Agency and Case Shiller are showing price improvement."
Providing a boost
The slide may be over partially because prices have reached affordability levels not seen in a generation, drawing many buyers into the market.
Helping housing markets, too, is the government economic stimulus effort, which includes an $8,000 first-time homebuyers tax credit. That added discount has spurred many entry-level buyers into homeownership.
The rebound may mean that potential homebuyers will have more of a feeling of urgency, afraid that they'll miss the market bottom.
That's already happening in some of the markets that had gone through steep price declines over the past few years, such as the area east of Los Angeles that went through a severe boom and bust cycle. Home sales there are now booming again, according to Chuck Whitehead, a Coldwell Banker real estate broker.
"There's such a frenzy to get in before prices go up again," he said. "Buyers are more concerned about that than about getting the first-time homebuyers tax credit."
Among cities, Cleveland reported the biggest rebound; prices improved by 9.8% compared with the first quarter of 2009. Dallas prices rose 6.5% and San Francisco 5.9%. Prices declined in seven cities, including 7.8% in Las Vegas, 2.2% in Miami and 1.2% in New York.
Warning signs
Despite the upbeat report, Robert Shiller, one of the principle authors of the Case-Shiller index, expressed caution, pointing out that last year's turnaround quickly fizzled out.
In early 2008, prices were falling 3% a month. That improved to -0.5% a month in the spring, giving the impression that the market would turn around. But prices quickly started falling more steeply again. The same thing could happen again, especially with the economy still in a downspin.
"The really important things [affecting home prices] are unemployment and momentum," said Shiller, who is a Yale economist. "We have momentum, which is very important, but we also have high unemployment."
And, he added, "the government has not yet handled the foreclosure problem."
Increased bank repossessions could unleash of flood of new supply on the market, which could dampen prices. Plus, is also some indication of shadow inventory -- repossessed homes the banks are holding onto because they don't want to flood inventories.
That leads Stuart Hoffman, the chief economist for PNC Financial Services Group (PNC, Fortune 500), to conclude that it's still a good time to be a buyer.
"Given the tremendous amount of inventory, nearly a year's worth," he said, "it should continue to be a buyer's market for a while."
Shiller, too, is relatively optimistic despite being cautious. "I have found that momentum matters," he said, "and this is a sudden break in [downward] momentum. The [market] psychology seems to be changing.