Well, folks, this year's high speed rail season is over and now it's back to the peripheral canal again, but the team remains the same. It is the team that brought us UC Merced to educated us and enabled the Great Real Estate Boom and Bust that brought so much security to so many in their own homes.
When the last dollar rolls over the government presses, not worth the paper it's printed on, and the last drop of fresh water from northern California has been sliced, diced, packaged and sold like a mortgage derivative, there is one thing we can count on: the shrill whine of our leadership team, so highly cultivated in the science of dependency: "We want more!"
Badlands Journal editorial board
Board OKs Borden-to-Corcoran as first high-speed rail route
State's dream to begin with 54 miles through the Valley...Jamie Oppenheim. The Fresno Bee contributed to this story.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority board voted unanimously Thursday to approve the 54-mile-long Fresno-to-Corcoran route -- dubbed by some the "high-speed train to nowhere" -- as the first piece to be built for the state's newest rail system.
Board members of the authority met in Sacramento and voted 7-0, with two members absent, to use nearly $4.3 billion in federal and state money to begin construction on the track just north of the Fresno-Madera county line, through Fresno and on to just north of Corcoran. The plans call for elevated viaducts that would eventually carry trains above the streets of Fresno to minimize congestion and disruption in the city.
The proposed train system, which could eventually span 800 miles, is intended to carry passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles, by way of the San Joaquin Valley, at speeds of up to 220 mph. Because of strings attached to nearly $3 billion in federal stimulus funds, the state has to begin construction somewhere in the Valley and build northward and southward from there as more money becomes available.
Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Livingston, said in a telephone interview she was pleased to see an investment in the Central Valley that will create 83,00 jobs.
"This is 83,000 jobs that exceeds the entire population of the city of Merced," she said. "Anyone who's presently a member of one of the labor unions or in the construction field can look forward to being fully employed."
Board members chose from three separate plans: Fresno-to- Corcoran; Fresno to an area north of Shafter in Kern County; and Fresno to Merced.
All three plans revealed some weaknesses, some more than others, but the most logical plan from an engineering perspective was the Fresno-to-Corcoran route, authority staff members said.
The Borden-to-Corcoran would offer the most flexibility in terms of future construction for north and south, said retired Maj. Gen. Hans Van Winkle of the authority staff.
The authority was under other constraints in making Thursday's decision. One was a Dec. 31 time limit imposed by federal officials for using stimulus funds. The organization must complete a grant agreement with the Federal Railroad Administration by year-end.
The other string attached to the $715 million in federal dollars is that the tracks laid must connect with existing railroad tracks, which would be the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad operated by Amtrak. This would ensure that the tracks will be used if high-speed rail doesn't get built.
While this is a step forward for the country's first high-speed rail project, Merced leaders said they were frustrated and angered by the board's decision. Some said the decision violates the language in Proposition 1A, the High-Speed Rail bond measure that voters authorized in 2008.
Lee Boese, co-chairman of the Greater Merced High-Speed Rail committee, said this really is a train to nowhere. "The intent of the voters was to go to Fresno to Merced or Merced to Bakersfield," he said. "You've got an unusable product. I think Merced County Board of Supervisors, the city attorney and Merced county attorney will issue legal notices on the legality of the selection process."
The county invested a lot of time and effort and to have this decision made is extremely upsetting, said Merced County Supervisor John Pedrozo. "It tells me the board already has their mind made up and that's how that stands. It's a political game."
On Thursday, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced said in an e-mail to the Sun-Star that the High-Speed Rail Authority violated the spirit of California's Proposition 1A by adopting the staff recommendation. "The process used to come to this decision was deceptive and suspect at best and may be violative of the law at worst," the news release said. "This is not a good day for California or this project."
Last week, he called the initial recommendation the "Thanksgiving Day Fraud." He said in a news release that "the intent of the legislature and Californians in passing Proposition 1A in 2008 was to build the system as fast as possible, maximizing ridership and the mobility of Californians in a manner that yields the most benefit consistent with available revenues," Cardoza said in the news release.
"The Merced-Fresno segment represents the backbone of this rail system, providing crucial links to Sacramento, the Bay Area, and Southern California. The Merced-Fresno segment offers a line that is ready to go and will provide a functioning segment, connecting two stations and an operating line that has independent utility. In contrast, the Borden-Corcoran segment with a high-speed train station in the Kings/Tulare region near Hanford violates Proposition 1A because it cannot be considered a 'usable segment' and it currently does not meet FRA's requirement of independent utility."
At Thursday's meeting, the authority said it would have to check with its legal counsel to ensure it didn't violate state and federal law.
Galgiani, the author of Proposition 1A, said Thursday in the telephone interview that the board's action was consistent with Proposition 1A. "There is language that says that the initial segment shall reach from one station to another, but there's no time frame for that," she said. "All in all, the overarching premise of 1A was to ensure the accountability of the project and that we construct a high speed train system in the most efficient way possible to ensure that after spending the bonds funds we actually have a train system from San Francisco through the Central Valley to Anaheim."
The board will meet again Jan. 13 to discuss whether to set aside $2 million of the $4.3 billion for environmental clearance and design work for stations in Bakersfield and Merced.
Board members also emphasized that Thursday's decision was no indication of where the heavy maintenance yard will be constructed.
No construction can begin until the authority completes its environmental reviews of the project. The federal deadline for completing these reviews is September 2011, and construction is expected to begin in 2012 and finish in 2017.
Our View: We wish the county well in Castle pursuit
Deal with missile defense contractor far from done, but Hendrickson knows how to pace himself.
Mark Hendrickson, the county's director of commerce, aviation and economic development, is a serious distance runner.
He knows that when you run a 10K, 20K, half-marathon or the full 26.2 miles, you need to pace yourself so that you can finish strong.
We hope he's using that athletic knowledge in his efforts to attract one of the most important industrial and technological projects the county has seen in years.
That would be the proposed lease of a Castle hangar and other property by the Air Force's Missile Defense Agency, or MDA, through a private contractor, MacCaulay-Brown Inc., of Dayton, Ohio.
The deal is far from done. But the fact that the Air Force and one of the most secretive defense contractors in the United States are talking about it is encouraging.
MDA's Web site says it works to "develop, test and field an integrated Ballistic Missile Defense System ... to protect the United States, our forward deployed forces, and our friends and allies from hostile ballistic missile attack."
In April, the three-star general in charge of MDA asked Congress for $8.4 billion for next fiscal year to do that. The general said much of the money would be used for more GBIs-ground-based interceptors for enemy missiles.
You don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the most likely threat foreseen by MDA is North Korea. Or, down the road, China.
In the same vein, MacCaulay-Brown, privately held and founded in 1979, focuses on information operations/warfare, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, electronic combat systems, threat exploitation and other operations.
Its Web site said it employs more than 1,400 people and has about $250 million in annual revenues.
The Washington Post's award-winning series, "Top Secret America," said the company's "particular strength" lies in information and electronic warfare "involving systems such as airborne radar and missile systems ..."
In other words, top secret stuff designed to shoot the other guy out of the sky before he shoots you. A 17,000-mph bullet hitting another bullet 1,000 miles above the earth.
Mighty tough -- but lucrative, especially if Uncle Sugar is awarding the contracts.
We don't know a missile silo from a corn silo, but we do know that even a small black ops presence at Castle would generate positive ripple effects throughout our local economy.
We think MacCaulay-Brown, or MacB, as it calls itself, could find plenty of capable workers hereabouts, both white-collar (UC Merced's rep as a research institution) and blue-collar (Merced College's extensive job training courses).
And hard-working, hard-running Mark Hendrickson is just the man for the job of smoothing the path and laying the groundwork for such a sensitive project to wind up here. We wish him and his colleagues all the best in bringing an important technological site to Castle.
We hope they finish strong.
Season off to good start as storms feed reservoirs...Mark Grossi
What a difference a year makes for water supply. Battered by November storms, the growing Sierra Nevada snowpack and major reservoir storage haven't looked this healthy in at least four years.
Only a year after experiencing an extended drought, the state is starting to prepare for possible flooding.
"The November storms have saturated the soils and streams are flowing again," said state hydrology chief Jon Ericson, based in Sacramento. "It's quite a start."
But water experts know the season could turn dry very quickly. That would mean less water for east Valley farmers and probably additional water cutbacks for west-side growers who face limited water deliveries come rain or shine.
West-siders get water from Northern California rivers. The water must pass through the troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where water pumping has been limited to protect dying fish. A wet year would boost their water supply, but even then farm officials still expect below 60% of contractual allotments.
This year, storms already have been influenced by La Niña, a powerful Pacific Ocean phenomenon. It often steers storms to Northern California while leaving Southern California dry.
Unfortunately, the forecast is a coin-flip for the state's multibillion-dollar farm belt in the San Joaquin Valley -- sometimes wet, sometimes dry. Thousands of farmers here depend upon the San Joaquin and Kings rivers for irrigation water.
Fresno's rain total for the season is 2.24 inches -- slightly above average, thanks to the November storms.
A storm this weekend will pass through Northern California, but it may not rain much here, says Kevin Durfee of the National Weather Service in Hanford. That looks like La Niña's pattern, he said.
"We've been getting strong storms the last few weeks, and that's not unusual," he said. "But it could dry out. There's just no statistical way of forecasting that kind of trend."
If Northern California has a big winter, more water would be available to pump into San Luis Reservoir in western Merced County where many west-side farmers get federal water.
But if pumping is restricted to protect dwindling delta smelt and salmon, farmers may still get far less than they would like to buy, said Dan Nelson, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority.
The restrictions typically begin around Christmas and can continue until late June, he said.
"At some point, it doesn't matter how much more it snows in Northern California," he said. "It's how much water we can move through the delta."
Nelson, who represents 29 water agencies, said his west-side farm customers need the water for 1.2 million acres of crops. Last year, they got only 40% of the water they wanted to buy even though the state had drought-busting storms.
In early December last year, it looked like they might get much less than 40%. Statewide, reservoirs were 70% of average. Shasta Reservoir -- the largest reservoir in the state -- was only 36% of average.
The snowpack statewide was 42% of average. A few November storms dropped light snow, setting the stage for a fourth drought year in California.
But a warming Pacific Ocean -- called El Niño, the flip side of La Niña -- came to the rescue just before Christmas, creating conditions that shifted the high-elevation jet stream to steer storms into California.
The state had its first average water supply in three years. Farmers in many parts of the Valley could stop pumping underground water and use river water again. Waterfalls flowed in Yosemite National Park. The drought seemed to fade.
For flood control purposes, officials are watching reservoir levels to make sure they don't rise too high early in the season. If they need to, they will release water from reservoirs so there will be enough room to capture runoff from big storms or snowmelt.
Meanwhile, out in the Pacific, El Niño abruptly departed in late spring, followed by an unusually fast ocean cool-down along the equator.
Federal long-range forecasters soon began talking about La Niña, raising worries of another dry winter in the Valley.
But this year, there's a little more water in reservoirs.
Pine Flat Reservoir on the Kings River has more than 400,000 acre-feet of water, compared to only 284,000 at this point last year, said Ed Dittenbir, hydrographer for the Kings River Water Association.
"It's a great start to the season," he said. "But everybody knows we have a long way to go from here."