UC Merced environmental permit update

"It (UC Merced) is not a good neighbor with environmental sensitivities, and it has continued to show us they have no regard for the process ... They have relied on political clout to circumvent environmental rules, and they can only bend the laws so far before the regulatory agencies say no." -- Lydia Miller, president San Joaquin Raptor Rescue Center.

San Francisco Chronicle
Merced - UC expansion plans again run up against protected fairy shrimp...Tanya Schevitz


Endangered fairy shrimp, those tiny vernal pool dwellers that have bedeviled planners at UC Merced for years, are flexing their protected status again.

The half-inch-long crustaceans are in the path of the campus' long-range development plans and, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, their environmental standing might force the university to expand elsewhere -- possibly 15 miles away.

The campus, which opened in 2005 and is 6 miles from downtown Merced, wants to grow directly to the north and east with new dorms, lecture halls, classroom buildings and other facilities needed to accommodate a projected enrollment of 25,000 students by 2030.

The expansion would involve 910 adjacent acres, including 86 acres of seasonal wetlands over which the Corps of Engineers holds authority to regulate development or reject it outright.

Even more wetlands would be affected by a new residential university community of about 31,000 people planned for next to the campus. UC Merced and private developers want to jointly build the new city on 2,100 acres -- including 40 acres of wetlands -- directly south of the campus. It would include 11,600 homes, with some of the homes sold on the open market and others built as subsidized housing for faculty and staff. Also planned are stores, restaurants and entertainment facilities.

UC Merced officials were warned years ago of the obstacles they would face.

The Corps of Engineers advised them in 2002 -- before the university began building the first phase of the campus on a former golf course to avoid wetlands -- that there was no guarantee it could build the rest of the campus on nearby lands considered environmentally fragile.

"Those impacts are fairly substantial," said Bruce Henderson, senior project manager for the Corps of Engineers. "These (vernal) pools have a lot of creatures covered by the federal and state endangered species acts."

The Army engineers expect to issue a federal environmental impact statement outlining the project and its impacts in about two months. The public will be given 60 days to comment, and a final report and decision are expected by early next year.

Henderson said it was too early to make any judgments on whether UC Merced will win the permits it needs.

"There is a need for the university in the region," Henderson said. "What we are looking to do is take their proposal and avoid and minimize the impacts to the aquatic resources."

UC Merced spokeswoman Patti Waid Istas said that before UC built the first phase of its campus, it got a biological opinion and looked at a similar permitting case in Florida. She said UC officials are optimistic that they will be able to move forward as planned with the next phase.

"If we had had to wait, this region would not have had access to a UC (campus) all this time," said Istas. "We decided that the needs of the valley and the state were too important to delay."

But the uncertainty about its next phase is the latest in a series of challenges to the fledgling campus, UC's first new one since 1965.

The campus hasn't attracted as many freshmen in its second year as hoped. Students complain that the campus is remote and that there isn't much to do. The campus has 1,586 undergraduate and graduate students and three academic buildings. Two other buildings are planned for the core campus, which can accommodate 5,000 students. But the goal is to grow to 25,000 students by 2030.

Adding a 10th UC campus was approved by the UC Board of Regents in 1988, and Merced was chosen in 1995 as the winning site. But the campus has been plagued by controversy about vernal pools and fairy shrimp for years. Environmental concerns forced the university to shift the campus from its preferred site to the old golf course about a mile and a half away with plans to grow on adjacent lands.

"When they did that, they did that with the knowledge of the risk that the final permit might be for something different than what they laid out," said Karen Schwinn, deputy director of the water division at the Environmental Protection Agency, Region 9, which has a formal advising role in the Army engineers' permitting process.

In its analysis, the Corps of Engineers has included the university's preferred proposal and scaled-down alternatives. Yet another would put the campus expansion about 15 miles away near Livingston.

University officials insist that only the preferred site will do and have taken issue with the Corps' analysis.

"What we find is that the Corps' alternatives would add significant costs to taxpayers and would delay the campus development," Istas said.

And if UC does not get a permit to proceed with its proposed site, the campus may never be developed to its full potential, the university warns.

But federal regulators say UC has not proven that its project is the least environmentally damaging alternative.

"Thus far, we have not been convinced ... that enough justification has been made to fill the waters out there," Schwinn said. "They haven't yet demonstrated that it is necessary to fill the extent of vernal pools they have proposed to construct a viable campus. They need to justify why it is not feasible as they build a campus to consider one of the other sites."

Istas said that in the Central Valley, wetlands are not the only consideration. Farmlands are very important to residents as well. She said the decision must consider a variety of factors.

"It is beyond the impacts to wetlands. It also includes the impacts on economics of the area, land use, property ownership, traffic, air pollution and the public and private need for the university," Istas said. "Sometimes folks are just focusing on the environmental impacts and it is so much more complex than that. ... To keep the campus contiguous would reduce the impacts in the other areas."

She said that as proposed, the project would affect 86 acres of wetlands and 1,400 acres of farm- land. The alternative proposals would impact fewer wetlands but more agricultural lands.

In addition, she said, the university has already purchased 25,000 acres of open space to offset the loss of vernal pools on the proposed campus site. While Istas said that an assessment by the Corps showed that the land would preserve wetlands at a ratio of nearly 3 to 1, a debate continues about the value of that land in comparison to the land that would be destroyed.

Lydia Miller, a longtime opponent of the UC Merced project and president of the San Joaquin Raptor Rescue Center, is looking forward to the opportunity to comment on the plan when the environmental report on the university comes out.

"It is not a good neighbor with environmental sensitivities, and it has continued to show us they have no regard for the process," she said. "They have relied on political clout to circumvent environmental rules, and they can only bend the laws so far before the regulatory agencies say no."

Fairy Shrimp
Branchinecta lynchi

Habitat: Fairy shrimp occupy a variety of vernal pools, seasonal aquatic habitats formed when winter rains fill shallow depressions. The pools persist for several months, gradually evaporating during the spring. Habitat varies from small clear sandstone rock pools to large grassland valley pools.

Reproduction: A single female can produce several hundred cysts (eggs) during one season. The cysts usually remain dormant until the next year's rain, but they can last for a decade. The average time to maturity is 41 days.

Sources: Sacramento Fish & Wildlife Office Species Account; California Department of Pesticide Regulation Endangered Species Project.