8-23-08Merced Sun-StarMID buys water from Stevinson districtPurchase should help tree, vine growers through end of season...CAROL REITERhttp://www.mercedsunstar.com/167/story/414005.htmlIn an effort to help growers trying to keep their permanent crops alive in a drought year, the Merced Irrigation District is buying water from the Stevinson Water District.Ted Selb, deputy general manager of MID, said the district will buy 2,400 acre-feet of water, and that water will be sold to certain district growers. One acre-foot of water is enough to meet the industrial and municipal needs of four people for a year.The water sales will be limited to growers of trees, vines, permanent pasture and alfalfa only. These permanent crops need the extra water to get through the end of summer, Selb said."We have had a number of hardship requests by growers who have run out of their allotted water already," Selb said. Growers were allowed 2.5 acre-feet per acre this year, down from a normal of 3 acre-feet or above.About 10 percent of growers have run out of water so far this year, Selb said, and he expects more by the end of the season. MID's water season ends Sept. 30, which is an early end to the season, Selb said. Normally, water is turned off in October...Growers who qualify for the water can begin ordering it on Tuesday at the MID office, 744 W. 20th St. in Merced. The growers must sign a brokerage agreement and make advanced payment of $56 an acre-foot. The one-time maximum amount of water is 20 acre-feet per entity. Applications will be processed on a first-come, first-served basis until all the water is committed.Drought disaster loans available, SBA says...Saturday, Aug. 23, 2008http://www.mercedsunstar.com/167/story/414015.htmlThe Small Business Administration said nonfarm businesses in Merced and 15 other California counties could apply for low-interest drought disaster loans from the SBA.The disaster loans can be made in Merced, Fresno, Madera, Mariposa, San Benito, Santa Clara, Stanislaus and Tuolumne Counties. They are working capital loans to offset economic losses from the lack of rainfall. Small businesses and most private nonprofit organizations of any size may qualify for Economic Injury Disaster Loans of up to $2 million. Businesses mainly engaged in farming or ranching aren't eligible for SBA disaster assistance and should contact the Farm Services Bureau. Nurseries are eligible in drought disasters.The application period runs through April 13, 2009, and covers the period Oct. 15, 2007, to April 30, 2008.Contact the SBA's customer service center at (800) 659-2955 or www.sba.gov/services /disasterassistance. Letter: Set higher standards...Diana Westmoreland Pedrozo, Executive director Merced County Farm Bureau http://www.mercedsunstar.com/180/story/414012.htmlEditor: It was just about two years ago on Oct. 12, 2006, that Riverside Motorsports Park released the final environmental impact report for their project north of Castle Airport after five years of hype and propaganda.It was substantially different from the draft EIR especially in regard to traffic routes that would greatly impact a valuable agricultural region through Delhi, Livingston, Cressey, Ballico, Winton and Atwater.We asked for more time to review and have community meetings in northern Merced County where the impacts would have been huge. More time was not granted. Two months later, the Board of Supervisors approved the project with a 3-2 vote and altered the general plan.In the last two years we have learned a great deal about the proponents of this project. We have also learned that there are big flaws in our county approval process.On Aug. 5, the Board of Supervisors rescinded those certifications and general plan amendments because Merced County Farm Bureau, the San Joaquin Valley Raptor Rescue Center and the Citizens Group won their lawsuit against Merced County and RMP and the court ordered them to do it.Merced County should take the lessons learned for the last few years in failed and bankrupted projects during the general plan update process and be proactive.Set high standards for development. We cannot be so desperate that we literally give away the farm and suffer the consequences down the road.Fresno BeeGroups: Bush rushing to rewrite species rules...DINA CAPPIELLOhttp://www.fresnobee.com/561/story/815803.htmlThe Bush administration is providing insufficient time for public comment as it seeks to loosen rules protecting endangered species, representatives of more than 100 conservation groups charged Friday. The Interior Department set a 30-day public comment period last week on an administration proposal that would allow federal agencies approving or funding dams, highways and other projects to decide for themselves - without input from government experts - whether endangered species are likely to be harmed. That's half the time that was originally scheduled in a draft obtained by The Associated Press.A shorter timeframe would give the administration a better chance of imposing the rules before November's presidential election. Representatives of 103 organizations urged Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez in a letter Friday to quadruple the time for public comment from 30 to 120 days and to hold public hearings.An Interior Department spokeswoman, who had yet to see the letter, said Friday that requests for more time are always considered, but that 30 days was not unusual. Members of Congress have also requested extensions and public hearings. Last week, House Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.V., along with House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., and Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Norman Dicks, D-Wash., called for an additional 30 days. Senate Environment Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer urged the secretaries to suspend further action on the rule altogether. If they chose not to, she asked that the public get six months to scrutinize the proposal, guaranteeing that a final decision would rest with a new president. Dems unveil water plan; Republicans frown...E.J. Schultz, Bee Capitol Bureauhttp://www.fresnobee.com/263/story/816619.htmlSACRAMENTO -- Assembly Democrats on Friday unveiled a $9.8 billion water bond proposal, but Republicans immediately rejected the plan and time is running out to get a measure on the November ballot. The proposal is similar to the $9.3 billion bond pushed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, who has been trying to broker a water deal for two years. Both plans include $3 billion for storage -- possibly including dams -- and money for conservation, recycling and ecosystem improvements in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. But there's at least one key difference.Democrats want to be able to oversee the water storage spending on a yearly basis. Republicans, fearing that Democrats will pull the dam money, are seeking a continuous appropriation, which is included in the governor's plan...Fire, water woes lead growers to 'stump' trees...Dennis Pollock http://www.fresnobee.com/866/story/816627.htmlValley growers aren't the only ones thirsty for water this year. It would be hard to top the plight of San Diego County avocado grower Russ Hatfield, who told Ag Alert, an agriculture weekly, that he has had to cut his avocado trees down to stumps because of wildfire and water shortages. Hatfield told the publication of the California State Farm Bureau Federation that he removed one-third of his trees from production in an effort to keep his orchard. Other growers are also expected to "stump" their trees, which allows them to grow back while using virtually no water this year and very little next year... Deadlines to seek help The "stumping" of trees as a desperation step in San Diego County also was mentioned this week in Fresno by California Secretary of Agriculture A.G. Kawamura. He was among top state and federal farm officials who came to Fresno and reminded farmers and ranchers of programs they can use to help recover from drought and other disastrous conditions...Reservoirs low Water storage in California reservoirs is at 51%, the California Farm Bureau Federation reports. The Department of Water Resources says that is 27% below average for this time of year. Lake Oroville is expected to drop this fall to the lowest level since the dam was built. Unless there is a wet winter, conditions could cause mandatory rationing throughout the state. That could be a major problem for Southern California farmers, who could lose as much as 90% of their water allocations...Sierra logging case in Supreme CourtStalled timber sale to become next national environmental flash point...Michael Doyle, Bee Washington Bureauhttp://www.fresnobee.com/business/story/816622.htmlWASHINGTON -- A stalled Sierra Nevada salvage-logging venture is sparking the U.S. Supreme Court's next major environmental showdown. What began as a 238-acre Sequoia National Forest timber sale has drawn in big players on all sides. The fight, pitting California officials against the Bush administration, will determine how easy it will be to challenge future forest decisions nationwide."It's ... whether or not the public has a right to be involved," Jim Bensman, an Illinois-based environmentalist who is involved in the case, said Friday. "The No. 1 priority for the Bush administration, aside from logging, has been to reduce public accountability." Attorneys are preparing for their Oct. 8 oral arguments. The case sounds acutely technical, as many key environmental disputes often do. The proposed timber sale itself, which got the ball rolling five years ago, has long since been canceled.But there's a reason that farmers, home builders, law professors and others still are weighing in: The winner could hold the key to the courthouse door. "The United States seeks ... to shield from judicial review certain rules that bar the public from participation in federal management decisions affecting national forests," California Attorney General Jerry Brown complained in a legal filing. One key question is standing, which means who gets to sue.Another is ripeness, which means when suits can proceed. The answers to both will have consequences for public land well beyond the Sierra Nevada...The Sequoia National Forest encompasses the Giant Sequoia National Monument. In both areas, environmentalists worry about the public being improperly shut out of Forest Service logging decisions. The worries aren't always justified. Recently, the Agriculture Department's Office of the Inspector General rejected environmentalists' complaints and concluded that the Forest Service had followed applicable rules governing a 2004 tree-removal project at the Giant Sequoia National Monument. The sequoia monument project that investigators reviewed involved roughly 200 trees. The proposed Burnt Ridge salvage project that incited the Supreme Court case, on the other hand, would have involved 1.6 million board feet.Despite the size difference, the two projects raised related legal issues. The same rules that the Forest Service followed in removing hazardous trees from the Giant Sequoia National Monument have been challenged in the Supreme Court case known as Summers v. Earth Island Institute. Gone forever...Gloria Unruh, Squaw Valley...08/21/08 22:43:56http://www.fresnobee.com/277/story/814747.htmlFresno County Supervisor Phil Larson is pushing the water bond issue in Sacramento for Valley farmers, yet on Aug. 12 voted to approve another 455 acres of prime farmland with riparian water rights be removed from ag preservation. Never again can this land be used for food production. Calaveras Materials will use approximately 9 million gallons of water per day and there are currently two other mines downstream using approximately 15 million gallons of water per day. The whole city of Fresno uses 140 million gallons of water per day. Ponds created from these mines lose more water to evaporation than it takes to produce food each year on this acreage and evaporation will continue in the 80-foot-deep ponds, even if the river runs dry.Approximately 4,000 acres have been removed or are proposed for removal from ag preservation in eastern Fresno County this year for mining. Why are we mining in the "Golden Triangle"? Where is the common sense of this county's supervisors? Sacramento BeeHomeowner delinquencies rise...Loretta Kalbhttp://www.sacbee.com/101/v-print/story/1179679.htmlMillions of dollars in late special property taxes are forcing some cities and districts to threaten delinquent taxpayers with foreclosure.Special districts and school districts collect such assessments and taxes every year. The funds typically are collected with property taxes and are used to pay bonds that fund public improvements.But this year the pace of delinquencies is increasing, particularly in California's inland areas, said Tim Seufert, managing director of the San Francisco office of NBS, a firm that does consulting work for special financing districts."Compared to two years ago, it's up exponentially. There's no question," he said.In Sacramento County, $4.4 million in special taxes are late. Most of that is in southern Sacramento County.Seufert said the story is similar in other communities such as Stockton and Riverside.It is not unusual to see delinquency rates between 10 percent and 20 percent outside coastal communities, he said.Delinquency rates also were high during the last real estate downturn in the mid-1990s, but this time individual homeowners are being hit hard...The collections add angst for homeowners already worried about mortgage payments.But not every owner who fails to pay a property tax bill faces quick collection or foreclosure.That's typically required only in cases where the delinquency rates within community facilities districts are high, exceeding the thresholds set by the terms of each bond...My View: Water bonds wouldn't aid those in need...Susana De Anda http://www.sacbee.com/110/v-print/story/1178993.htmlWhen hundreds of farmworkers gathered at the state Capitol in July to advocate in support of the most recent water bond proposal, a $9.3 billion boondoggle, they were sold a faulty bill of goods, or a leaky list of projects, as the case may be.The governor and water bond proponents would have farmworkers and all other Californians believe it's a choice between jobs and water. While such a simple message may be appealing, water in California is never that simple.Many of those farmworkers were bused in by labor contractors from areas where agri- culture may not be sustainable in the long term. If the governor were truly concerned about these farmworkers, wouldn't he be pushing for job training and economic investment in their communities to transition the work force to something more sustainable? Or perhaps he could start by ensuring living wages or economic hardship relief during this drought time?If the bond really provided relief for the water woes suffered by farmworkers, wouldn't it also address the drinking water crisis that's afflicting their communities, and tens of thousands of other Central Valley residents, by investing in sustainable solutions to provide them with the safe drinking water that many of them lack?Tulare County may be receiving fewer water deliveries this year, but its communities have just as many contaminants that ruin drinking water supplies throughout the area. Over 20 percent of public community water systems in the county cannot meet basic drinking water laws because of contamination. Yet the water bond would provide little relief for these communities.Instead, the governor has called a state of emergency to keep the companies – ones that have contributed to the drinking water problems in the Valley – afloat. Meanwhile rural communities – the exact people bused to Sacramento to rally for his bond – would benefit little and lose a lot.The debt service on these bonds will siphon money from basic services that are already taking a hit in tough financial times. Asking the Californians who are the most in need to choose between jobs or clean drinking water or public benefits like health or social services makes the governor seem more like the kind of bond salesman you find by the jailhouse, not the kind watching out for the public's best interest.Propaganda flying around would have us believe the water crisis started with the most recent drought. In reality, California's real water war has been waged for years in economically disadvantaged areas that have almost as little public financing for much-needed water projects as they do rain. The current bond proposal would set these communities in competition with more well-heeled agricultural districts and coastal cities for the limited funding that might address their problems.Don't be fooled by the public relations machine: This bond is not about solutions to California's water problems. It's about big-ticket water projects that maintain entrenched water policies at the expense of California taxpayers, the environment and public health. These are the kinds of projects that California has built for decades – dams, aqueducts – that have continually failed to provide long-term solutions to the water problems of Central Valley communities. Are we really prepared to approve yet another bond that leaves these communities without safe drinking water?We want to go beyond the photo opportunity of farmworkers calling for water on the Capitol steps. We want real solutions to our most pressing water needs and real relief for all communities.The good news is that we have these solutions. We have ways to meet the drinking water needs of Californians, but it takes more than political posturing to achieve them. If we support this bond, the public relations coup wins and California loses.San Francisco ChronicleNevada's objection to nuke dump application tossed...ERICA WERNER, Associated Press Writerhttp://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2008/08/22/state/n152431D57.DTL&hw=nuke+dump&sn=001&sc=1000Regulators have rejected a petition by the state of Nevada against the federal government's license application for a nuclear waste dump 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.The Energy Department filed the application for a license to build the Yucca Mountain dump June 3. The next day Nevada filed a petition asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to reject it.The move was in keeping with Nevada's persistent opposition to the planned 77,000-ton underground dump, which Congress approved in 2002 as the first national repository for radioactive waste.Nevada raised various objections to the 8,600-page license application, including claiming it lacked necessary information on radiation safety standards and other issues. A Nevada resident and dump opponent, Jacob Paz, filed a separate petition opposing the Energy Department's application.In an order Friday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission rejected both petitions, saying they were premature because the commission hasn't yet decided whether to "docket" the license application, or formally accept it for review.That decision should be made sometime in September and is based on whether the application is complete enough to be considered. It's a separate decision from determining whether to accept or reject the license application, which is expected to be a four-year process for the commission.If the application is docketed, a hearing notice will be published and the commission will consider petitions from opponents, Friday's order said...Contra Costa TimesDelta plan coming into focus...Mike Taugherhttp://www.contracostatimes.com/news/ci_10281336?nclick_check=1A plan to fix the Delta's many woes rounded the final bend toward the finish line this week with proposals that would probably make water more expensive and force Californians to use it more efficiently.Responsibility for the Delta's health goes beyond the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California — regions that are most dependent on pumps that take water from the Delta, according to the plan. And the East Bay, San Francisco and Sacramento — regions that take water from rivers upstream of the Delta — should also chip in."You can't have your own pipes crossing the Delta with water that used to flow through the Delta and claim it has no effect," said Phil Isenberg, the chairman of the Delta Vision task force, which was convened by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in early 2007. He was referring to San Francisco's Hetch Hetchy project and the East Bay Municipal Utility District's Mokelumne River aqueducts, which take water from upstream dams and deliver them by pipe to the Bay Area."It isn't just them. It's us," said Isenberg, a former state Assembly leader and mayor of Sacramento.The latest draft report says Delta water supplies will be unreliable as long as the Delta ecosystem is ailing, and that the ecosystem will be threatened as long as water supplies are insufficient.It also says that the scales historically have tipped in favor of water users to the detriment of the environment."For decades, state and federal policy makers and water managers successfully focused on providing water to agriculture, households and businesses, while largely treating the reasonable use and public trust doctrines, and endangered species laws, as constraints that were only relevant when imposed by a court," the latest draft says. "The California Department of Fish and Game, and the State Water Resources Control Board, charged with implementing laws in these areas, were under-resourced and frequently marginalized in water policy-making."To address that imbalance, the task force is recommending that a new council be set up that would have at least some control of purse strings to require state and, potentially, federal agencies to treat the environment and water supply needs equally.Task force member Sunne Wright McPeak, a former Contra Costa County supervisor, said many of the conclusions of the task force are similar to previous efforts to fix for the Delta. But, she added, the Delta Vision report will address the failures of the last plan, known as CalFed."It will be not just a blueprint. "It will be a plan of action that can be adopted immediately, which is a good thing," McPeak said.The plan includes 18 specific strategies to address water supply, the environment and related issues. Among the recommendations:· Greatly increase the efficiency of water use statewide.· Make regions of the state develop more self-sufficient supplies. · Develop a "dual conveyance" water delivery system that combines a peripheral canal to move water around the Delta with deliveries to Delta pumps through modified channels. · Increase surface and groundwater storage capacity. · Restore Delta flow patterns to a more natural state. · Prevent new housing construction on flood-prone islands. Another major focus of the plan is to recognize the Delta as a special place by designating it a National Heritage Area, which the task force said could help increase tourism and recreation while protecting the region's culture and farm economy.The group's final report is expected to go to advisers to the governor in October.Task force members said they hope lawmakers put its provisions into law and are backed by both the governor and the president.Lester Snow: Article about water was misleading...Lester Snow, Guest commentaryhttp://www.contracostatimes.com/opinion/ci_10281264THIS IS REGARDING your Aug. 10 front-page story "Harvest of cash."The Delta is declining, but this article distorts the truth about the causes and fails to recognize the governor's commitment to finding a solution. There are many Delta stressors, including invasive species, pollution, rising water temperatures and runoff. To assert that the environmental water program contributed to the fishery decline ignores the complexity of the issue.Water purchases made under the Environmental Water Account were according to law and rules established in the CALFED Record of Decision. Operation of the account was assisted by public independent science reviews. Also, water deliveries did not exceed conditions in the federal biological opinions. They do not have a limit on Article 21 deliveries.EWA met its water purchase goals. Fish agencies had enough water for the actions they thought were needed.Purchases made by the EWA from south of Delta water users from 2001 to 2007 were from willing sellers who had stored water in water banks.The purchase price compensated users for the costs of storing this water, maintaining the water bank facilities, and extracting the water.The water bond proposed by Gov. Schwarzenegger and Sen. Dianne Feinstein will increase water reliability and conservation, reduce shortages and restore the Delta. Mercury NewsSilicon Valley's water bank: underground storage in Central Valley...Paul Rogershttp://www.mercurynews.com/politics/ci_10283776WASCO - This farm community 25 miles north of Bakersfield, where billboards advertise new homes for $119,000 and almond trees stretch from dusty roads to the horizon, is a world away from Silicon Valley. But one thing ties them together: water. In an innovative arrangement that may become more common as California struggles to quench the thirst of its growing population, Silicon Valley has been using the hardscrabble ground of Kern County, 200 miles south, as a giant subterranean piggy bank to store water.For more than a decade, the Santa Clara Valley Water District has been steadily transferring its excess water during wet seasons to underground aquifers east of Interstate 5. It has built a considerable aquatic balance: 86 billion gallons - enough for 1.3 million people for a year. But now, facing a dry year, the agency that provides South Bay residents their water has made its first withdrawal - and plans to make another this fall. "It's like any bank. You put money in, then take it out when you need it," said Will Boschman, general manager of the Semitropic Water Storage District, which manages the aquifers near Wasco. The agency is made up of about 300 farmers who grow almonds, alfalfa and cotton on 220,000 acres.Lucky geology Boschman's agency benefits from serendipitous geology. It is located in a giant basin, where huge amounts of water can be stored in sand and gravel below the surface. That water is kept in place by thick layers of clay and rock."The whole valley is like a bathtub," he said. "And we're at the bottom." To manage it, Boschman runs a system of canals, percolation ponds, pumps and pipes, some 10 feet in diameter, to put water in the Semitropic aquifers 250 feet deep and lower and pump it out again. Five other water districts, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, also have contracts to collectively store 1 million acre-feet in the ground here.If that amount were stored above ground, it would rank among the state's 10 largest reservoirs, as big as the lake behind Folsom Dam. A study last year by the Environmental Defense Fund found that since 1990, California had added at least 5 million acre-feet of new storage capacity in underground water banks. That's roughly the amount of water that 25 million people use in a year. "Projects like Semitropic are part of an absolute explosion in new water storage that we've seen in the last 15 years," said Barry Nelson, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a San Francisco environmental group.As Sacramento politicians deadlock again this year on whether to spend billions of dollars building new dams, backers of groundwater banks note it is cheaper to store water underground. The water doesn't evaporate. To be sure, there have been skeptics in some farm communities who are uncomfortable with transferring water stored in local aquifers to other places. But storing water underground almost never sparks the environmental battles - over endangered species and lost habitat - that can tie up dam projects for decades. "This is a place where there is remarkable agreement," Nelson said. District's decision...The Santa Clara Valley Water District provides water to 1.8 million people in San Jose and surrounding communities. Half comes from local wells. The other half comes from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. In wet years, all 10 of the district's local reservoirs fill up. Yet the agency often has rights to more delta water under its contracts with the state and federal governments."We have all this water in wet years that we can't use," said Larry Wilson, a board member of the Santa Clara Valley Water District. "The important thing for us is how can we level it out and have a water supply that will be available for us in dry years? We had to find some place to put it so we could use it later."By the mid-1990s, the district considered building a new reservoir somewhere south of San Jose. It would have cost $500 million or more and sparked long environmental battles. Buying into the Semitropic project cost $46 million in capital costs. After paying pumping fees, delta charges and other expenses, Santa Clara pays about $450 an acre-foot for Semitropic water. That's still cheaper than building a new reservoir, desalination plant or recycled water plant.There's no way to pump water north from Bakersfield to San Jose. So in wet years, the Santa Clara Valley district sends some of its delta water down the California Aqueduct, a canal that runs along I-5, to Wasco. There, it is either put in percolation ponds to seep in the ground, or given to Semitropic farmers who consume it instead of pumping groundwater, thus allowing the water table to rise over time. When it's dry When it's time to make a withdrawal, the Santa Clara Valley Water District takes water from the delta that would have otherwise gone to Semitropic...Farmers were initially uncomfortable with the idea of transferring water from under their fields to other places, said Boschman of Semitropic. But the extra water that has been stored in their aquifers has raised the water table 50 feet, reducing their PG&E bills for pumping, he said, and now they are supportive. There are downsides. Underground water stored far away could be stranded if an earthquake or lawsuit disrupts delta pumping...Although Semitropic monitors the 265,000 acre-feet that Santa Clara Valley banks underground, there are few statewide rules regulating groundwater pumping...New York TimesDevils Hole Pupfish, Saved by Court in ’76, Is at Brink in ’08...Randal C. Archibold http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/23/us/23pupfish.html?_r=1&sq=endangered%20species&st=cse&adxnnl=1&oref=slogin&scp=2&adxnnlx=1219519573-DoBMwJ6EoumGAbMqfzQGPw&pagewanted=printAMARGOSA VALLEY, Nev. — No doubt, it’s hard to be a fish in a desert.But, to the dismay and bafflement of scientists, the Devils Hole pupfish, a quick-darting iridescent blue minnow, are veering toward extinction.Maybe this should not be surprising, considering their home: a hellishly hot, spring-fed pool of undetermined depth in the middle of one of the hottest places on earth. The fish, for tens of thousands of years, have lived here and only here, in an isolated patch under the administration of Death Valley National Park about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.They have plenty of cousin pupfish in other parts of the desert, who are also endangered, but none are as bad off as the Devils Hole variety, whose loss would bring an ignoble end to a species with a celebrated and controversial history. (The Devils Hole apostrophe long fell to the quirks of government cartographers and scientists, who render both the site and fish without it.)It was one of the original fish protected under the Endangered Species Act, and figured front and center in a 1976 landmark water rights case before the Supreme Court. The ruling curtailed groundwater pumping intended to develop farms nearby in order to save the fish’s habitat...Nobody believes anybody is deliberately harming the fish, but finding the cause for the decline has led to some unusual evening field work for a team of government biologists trying to solve the mystery...Theories abound. Might there be some genetic anomaly at play? Is a slight rise in the air temperature, attributable to global warming, inching up the water temperature as well? Has distant groundwater pumping lowered the water table in the hole?...James Deacon, a retired biologist from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who is considered the foremost authority on the fish, said in an interview that the fish were susceptible to even the slightest changes in the water. That is one reason scientists have not had great success in trying to breed them elsewhere. Mr. Deacon said the water level in the hole had been dropping since the late 1990s, coinciding with a development boom in and around Las Vegas, fed partly by groundwater pumping. Although nobody has conclusively linked the water level drop to the pumping, scientists worry that Las Vegas’s plan to pump billions of gallons more out of the aquifer, a vast freshwater ocean under parts of several Western states, could further upset the ecological balance. City officials deny that the pumping would be harmful. Suspicions remain... In the Ruins of the Housing Bust, the Price of an Illusion...David Streitfeld...8-24-08 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/24/business/24house.html?sq=ellie%20wooten&st=cse&scp=1&pagewanted=printMERCED, Calif. ELLIE WOOTEN, the likable mayor of this likable Central Valley city, is on her way to the office when her cellphone rings. A constituent wants her mortgage payments reduced, and is hoping that the mayor has some clout with her lender.Although Merced has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country, this borrower isn’t in such dire straits. She’s not even behind on her mortgage. But her oldest daughter is turning 18, which means an end to $500 a month in child support. She just wants a better deal. The mayor hangs up and shrugs: “It’s a surprise her daughter is turning 18? You’d think she could have planned ahead.”But hardly anyone in Merced planned very far ahead. Not the city, which enthusiastically approved the creation of dozens of new neighborhoods without pausing to wonder if it could absorb the growth. Certainly not the developers. They built 4,397 new homes in those neighborhoods, some costing half a million dollars, without asking who in a city of only 80,000 could afford to buy them all.Obviously not the speculators turned landlords, who thought that they could get San Francisco rents in a working-class agricultural city ranked by the American Lung Association as having some of the worst air in the nation.And, sadly, not the local folk who moved up and took on more debt than they could afford. They believed — because who was telling them differently? — that the good times would be endless.“Owning a home is the American dream,” says Jamie Schrole, a Merced real estate agent. “Everybody was just trying to live out their dream.”The belief that this dream could be achieved with no risk, no worry and no money down was at the center of the American romance with real estate in the early years of this decade, and not just in Merced. How long will the economy have to pay the price for that illusion? The experience of Merced, which rose higher and fell faster than nearly anywhere else, suggests that recovery from the national real estate debacle will be painful and protracted.In the three years since housing peaked here, the median sales price has fallen by 50 percent. There are thousands of foreclosures on the market. The asking prices on those properties are so low that competitive bidding, a hallmark of the boom, is back. But almost no homeowner can afford to sell. If you cannot go as low as “the foreclosure price” — the cost of a comparable bank-owned house — real estate agents say you might as well not even bother listing your home.And so most people do not: three out of four existing-home sales in Merced County are now foreclosures, the highest percentage in the state, according to DataQuick Information Systems. The only group for whom selling makes sense, real estate agents here say, are the elderly entering assisted-living facilities, who often have decades of appreciation built into their home’s value.As Merced goes, so might go much of the nation...Local markets will not truly begin to recover until their foreclosures are absorbed, but just as few in Merced saw reasons for caution at the height of the boom, hardly anyone is optimistic now. Bank repossessions are accelerating as overleveraged owners see the value of their properties sink. Merced County had a record 523 foreclosures in July, quadruple the rate of a year earlier, according to DataQuick. The repossessions are accelerating as overleveraged owners see the value of their properties sink and can find no way out...THE boom here allowed some people to become rich overnight and gave many more the idea that they could do it, too. Ms. Schrole, a single mother of four, succumbed to temptation too late: she bought a home as an investment, sold her own home, bought a much more expensive one, and lost both. “I was stupid,” she says. “I didn’t get in until things started to tank.”...Businesses in Merced are struggling. Downtown buildings are festooned with “for lease” signs. Unemployment, consistently high here, rose to 12.1 percent in July.Among those trying to adapt to this miserable new time is the mayor. Mrs. Wooten, 74, has been selling real estate for three decades. In the old days, she worked for people selling their boom-inflated homes and moving into something better. Now she mostly represents banks, selling their foreclosures. She has 27 at the moment......Mrs. Wooten is wearing a red shirt that says, “Merced: Invest in California’s Future.” Which is pretty much how all the trouble began.Starting in 2000, investors came over the mountains from San Francisco, up Interstate 5 from Los Angeles and out of the woodwork from many a surrounding hamlet. Over the next five years, prices in Merced rose 142 percent, a growth rate that ranked it in the top five communities in the country, according to the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight. One thing above all drew the investors: the prospect of a University of California campus on the edge of Merced, the first new campus in the state system in 40 years. They envisioned something resembling Davis, another Central Valley university town. The University of California, Davis, however, has more than 30,000 students and is within easy reach of San Francisco and Sacramento. U.C. Merced, which opened in 2005, has fewer than 2,000 students and isn’t near much except Modesto. Instead of students or professors renting their houses, speculators say, they had welfare recipients or no one. Many in Merced blame out-of-town buyers, who at the peak made up more than a quarter of the local market, for their current woes.Now there are investors again. Mark Seivert, an accountant who lives in the neighboring town of Atwater, didn’t buy anything during the boom. Anyone, he says, “could have figured out that too much inventory and not enough bodies was a recipe for disaster.” This summer, the numbers are sweet. He is working on a deal for a short sale...Things could be worse. Crime is up only marginally. There has been no major upswing in homelessness; the theory around city hall is that foreclosed families are either renting or have left the area. Yet things may well become worse soon. During the good times, Merced built up a $17 million rainy-day fund. Now the city has a revenue shortfall. “We’ll bridge that gap by using the reserves,” says James Marshall, the city manager, “but over time the bridge ain’t long enough.”FLIPPERS and speculators who had nothing invested in Merced beyond money were the first to abandon the community. Many real estate agents and loan brokers, their customers gone, soon followed. So did commuters who thought they could spend four hours a day making round trips to the San Francisco Bay Area. And the spinners, young men and women hired by the developers to stand at intersections and literally point the way to the new developments, disappeared.Now developers are pulling out. Pacific Pride, a Central Valley developer, announced plans to build a 124-house neighborhood but gave up after paving streets and installing a wall as a partition from the railroad tracks. Graffiti runs the length of the wall. The site was declared a public nuisance by the city last winter...Moraga, built by Lakemont Homes of Roseville, Calif., was designed to include 500 luxury homes that ranged in size up to 3,500 square feet, boasting such amenities as butler pantries, double ovens, master suites with walk-in closets, five-foot-long soaking tubs and three-car garages.The subdivision centerpiece, completed first, is an expansive and pleasant park... All that’s missing are many houses. Only about 24 were built... The Lakemont agent says that there have been no sales for a long time. At least Lakemont is still keeping up appearances. At Gardenstone, part of the Bellevue Ranch development, the doors of the sales office are covered with plywood, as if a big storm were coming. A few blocks away is Riverstone, probably the bleakest Merced subdivision. A dozen houses were started here and then the construction workers went away. The wooden frames have been bleaching in the sun and sand for more than a year.Both Gardenstone and Riverstone are the work of Crosswinds Communities, a developer based in Novi, Mich., that is owned and run by Bernie Glieberman...THE real estate boom, while it lasted, made Merced prosperous. Now the question is what can make it thrive once more, presumably on a more sustainable basis.The university is an asset that will take time to develop. This is excellent farm country, but these days agriculture is not an occupation that creates a broad middle class. Wal-Mart Stores is proposing to build a distribution center in Merced, but there is a movement against it among residents who say that trucks shuttling around the complex will worsen the breathing problems of the city’s children. Merced County has one of the highest percentages of asthmatic children in the state, according to a 2001 state health survey. Many children carry inhalers to help them breathe. In the midst of all the wreckage caused by the real estate boom and bust, some think that they have found a way forward: build more houses, thousands and thousands of them.On the western edge of Merced County, near the Diablo Range that separates the Central Valley from the Pacific Coast, is a stretch of empty land that a coalition of landowners has wanted to build on for years. The plan calls for the eventual construction of a city of 16,000 houses called the Villages of Laguna San Luis. In many ways, the idea makes sense. The pass over the mountains is winding and slow, but if a proposed high-speed train is ever built, the Villages could end up being a bedroom community for San Jose. By 2025, California is projected to grow to 44 million people from the current 37 million. They will need somewhere to live.This summer, the Villages came up for a vote with the Merced County Planning Commission. Cindy Lashbrook, a commissioner who is a fruit-and-nut farmer, says the project was basically well thought out. But all the cars that came with all those new houses would cause even more pollution. And in a state suffering from drought, where would the water come from? “We have to stop thinking that more growth is always the answer,” Ms. Lashbrook says. “We have more housing than we need. We need jobs.”She voted against the project, which faltered on a 2-to-2 split, with one commissioner absent. That meant supporters could bring it up again before the full commission, which they did. They won the second round, 4 to 1.Rudy Buendia, the commissioner who dissented along with Ms. Lashbrook on the first vote, was in favor the second time around. Reached on his cellphone, Mr. Buendia said he was out hanging drywall on a construction project and did not have time to talk. In Merced, Calif., frames of houses in the Riverstone development have bleached in the sun for more than a year. Three-fourths of existing-home sales in Merced County are foreclosures. More Photos >  http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/08/24/business/0824-MERCED_index.html   Slide Show...10 photos