10-12-08Fresno BeeSan Joaquin River restoration details still being hashed out...Michael Doyle / Bee Washington Bureauhttp://www.fresnobee.com/263/v-printerfriendly/story/930386.htmlWASHINGTON -- Lawmakers are revisiting a San Joaquin River restoration plan even as it comes under sustained pressure over funding and how it would work. With two Valley water districts raising pointed questions recently about whether farmers would get enough water, negotiators continue to tinker with the ambitious plan. Some options could delay the time when water starts flowing downstream from Friant Dam to help the salmon population. "There's a lot that has to be hashed out here," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. "A lot of chess moves have to be made." River-restoration supporters acknowledge they will have "a busy couple of weeks," Friant Water Users Authority General Manager Ron Jacobsma said Friday night, but they still hope that they can get a bill passed before January. "Our hopes are that we can meet with all the parties, and be able to move a widely supported bill," Jacobsma said. "We're going to try to work through these issues." Nunes represents many farmers served by Friant irrigation water. He also is a vehement critic of the plan to divert more water toward restoring the San Joaquin River and its long-depleted salmon population. He is watching closely, though, as Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other river-restoration supporters refine a plan with many delicate moving parts -- legal, political and personal. On Monday in Chowchilla, and again in Sacramento on Thursday, California water officials met privately to see where they stood. Participants called the meetings amicable. Still, they reflected some of the unraveling that has occurred since unified Friant farmers and environmentalists in September 2006 announced settlement of an 18-year-old lawsuit. The settlement called for interim water flows to resume through the San Joaquin River channel in October 2009. Salmon would be returned by 2013, and hundreds of millions of dollars would be spent on levees and other channel improvements. Congress hasn't passed the legislation needed to put the plan into practice, and lawmakers now are in a classic Capitol Hill bind: Every change made to overcome one obstacle raises impediments somewhere else. "The [Tulare Irrigation] District has watched with concern the process in Washington that has resulted in amendments being proposed, with the intent of allowing the bill to move through Congress in the near future," Tulare Irrigation District President David G. Bixler wrote on Oct. 2. Feinstein has raised the possibility of removing much of the guaranteed funding. This would overcome congressional budget obstacles, which require such spending to be paid for. But it worries some farmers, who fear future Congresses won't restore the money. More recently, lawmakers have suggested postponing the start of interim water flows from Friant Dam until the Interior Department completes cost-and-impact studies. This new twist could potentially push back the original October 2009 start date, already strained by the congressional delay, but the exact effect is unclear. With its early October letter, the Tulare district set the stage for potentially withdrawing from the river-restoration settlement. The district was the second to invoke a settlement provision that requires a 30-day cooling-off period before any party formally voids the agreement. The Chowchilla Water District had earlier invoked the same provision, leading to the most recent meeting Monday in which district leaders presented a six-page set of questions. "We're reasonable people, and we'd like to see how these questions are answered," said Madera County farmer Kole Upton, a director of the Chowchilla Water District. The Chowchilla district could now potentially withdraw from the river settlement as early as Oct. 16; the Tulare district could potentially withdraw sometime after Nov. 2. Friant officials say they still could proceed with the river plan even if the individual water districts pulled out; Upton said he is not sure what would happen. Nor is it even clear whether Congress will have time to deal with the issue this year. A post-election lame-duck session needed to pass any legislation might not take place if Democratic Sen. Barack Obama wins the presidency in November. Practically speaking, congressional Democrats might then choose to postpone all legislation to a more favorable political environment next year. Endangered species ruling could slow development in floodplains...LES BLUMENTHALhttp://www.fresnobee.com/561/v-printerfriendly/story/930544.htmlA ruling that development along dozens of rivers flowing from the Cascade Mountains to Washington state's Puget Sound jeopardizes endangered salmon, steelhead and killer whales could shape future construction in floodplains nationwide. At the heart of the issue is the National Flood Insurance Program, which for 40 years has regulated river corridor development but paid scant attention to endangered species. That could change. The "jeopardy opinion" from the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle, coupled with an injunction blocking development in Florida that threatens the habitat of the endangered Key Deer, may force major changes in the federal flood insurance program. The fisheries service has suggested a temporary moratorium on building in floodplains surrounding Puget Sound. The timeout would allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the flood insurance program, along with state and local jurisdictions, to sort out what, if any, new building restrictions may be required. "It takes the National Flood Insurance Program in a whole new direction," said Rollin Harper, a city planner for Everson in northwest Washington, where half the town of 2,200 is within the floodplain of the Nooksack River. Nationwide, 5 million people in 20,200 communities have flood insurance policies. Since 1978, the policies have paid out $31.6 billion in claims. Most homeowners' policies don't cover flood damage, yet mortgage lenders require flood insurance when loaning for purchases of houses in floodplains. The national program underwrites the policies offered by private insurers. FEMA requires local communities to adopt floodplain construction standards before it will underwrite flood policies. In its opinion, the National Marine Fisheries Service said that those standards are too weak. It said continued development in the floodplains "jeopardized the continued existence" of the salmon, steelhead and killer whales, or orcas. The opinion involved Puget Sound Chinook salmon, Puget Sound steelhead, Hood Canal chum salmon and the population of 100 or so orcas that roam the inland waters. Salmon are a staple source of food for killer whales. The river floodplains provide not just critical spawning habitat but also natural shade, cover and forage for juvenile salmon before they head downstream to the ocean. In addition to suggesting a temporary construction moratorium, the opinion also recommended a series of "reasonable and prudent" alternatives, including buffer zones, naturalizing levees and mitigating the effects of development by restoring other habitats. The opinion also called for FEMA to take into account the endangered salmon and killer whales in mapping the state's floodplains. The maps are critical in deciding which areas require flood insurance and which don't. The fisheries service admitted in its opinion that after adopting the new standards "the rate of floodplain development is expected to slow in all National Flood Insurance Program jurisdictions." National and local builders and real estate interests are worried. "This opinion essentially makes FEMA a super land-use zoning board," said Duane Desiderio, a vice president for the National Association of Homebuilders. Bill Riley, the vice president of government affairs for the Washington Association of Realtors, warned that not only might FEMA further restrict growth in floodplains, but it also could become more difficult to sell an existing home in these areas because purchasers may find flood insurance hard to obtain or expensive. "This will cause a lot of uncertainties, and counties and cities could be risking lawsuits," Riley said. Environmentalists forced the issue by successfully asking a judge to order a review of the flood insurance program. But they say they hope to avoid further litigation. "We hope this doesn't end up back in court," said John Kostyack of the National Wildlife Federation. "FEMA has now been told the only way to avoid jeopardizing endangered species is by rewriting the regulations. We can't pave over the last remaining habitat and shouldn't be using federal dollars to do it." FEMA officials declined to comment. During the next 30 days, FEMA officials will work with local communities to determine an implementation plan. ON THE WEB The National Marine Fisheries Service ruling: http://www.nwf.org/nwfwebadmin/binaryVault/nfip-final-bo.pdf Endangered Miss. frogs get a break in the weather...JANET McCONNAUGHEYhttp://www.fresnobee.com/640/v-printerfriendly/story/929778.htmlPick up a Mississippi gopher frog and it covers its eyes with its forefeet, like someone afraid to see what's coming next. And for at least a decade, it's had a good reason not to look. This year, for a change, nature gave a bit of a break to one of the nation's most endangered species. The frogs breed only in ponds so shallow they dry up in summer. Hot, dry springs have stranded tadpoles every year since 1998, when 161 froglets hopped out of Glen's Pond in coastal Harrison County, Miss. The pond held water longer this year. And 181 tadpoles survived a deadly parasite, made it through metamorphosis and headed into the surrounding DeSoto National Forest. Biologists saved seven generations. They wash some eggs in well water, apparently removing the parasite, hatch them in a lab and put the tadpoles in screen-covered outdoor tanks. Scientists believe fewer than 100 mature adults live in the wild. Five zoos - in New Orleans, Memphis, Detroit, Miami and Omaha, Neb. - have another 75 frogs. "Our efforts have managed to stave off likely extinction but there's a long way to go," said Joe Pechmann, an associate professor of biology at Western Carolina University who has studied the frogs since 2002. Mississippi gopher frogs once lived in longleaf pine forests from western Alabama to southeast Louisiana. Timbering all but eradicated those forests. Scientists estimate the population from those breeding each year. This year, 50 came to Glen's Pond. Thirty of them were tank-raised; the other 20 had hatched in 2001 and 1998. Other counts are next to impossible: the frogs live underground, in stump holes and burrows dug by other animals. They have other oddities. Their breeding call sounds like snoring. And, rather than the smooth backs of many frogs, theirs have bumps which secrete a bitter, milky fluid. Pechmann thinks their "see-no-evil" pose may protect frogs' faces until predators taste the liquid and drops them. Mississippi gopher frogs face dangers common to all amphibians - predators that eat most of their young, human destruction and pollution of their habitat, and parasites more devastating to amphibians than the Great Plague was to humans. Scientists estimate that the world has lost up to 170 frog species just in the last decade, and another 1,900 are threatened. Until 2004, when a much smaller colony was found and a third was created, Glen's Pond was the Mississippi gopher frogs' only known breeding spot. "People look at temporary ponds and they think there's something wrong with them," either filling them in or digging them deeper for fish ponds or cattle watering holes, Pechmann said. "But the reality is, there's a lot of species such as gopher frogs that depend on temporary ponds; they can't live anywhere else." The ponds are on ridges, prime development targets. Scientists worry that a housing development near Glen's Pond could keep the U.S. Forest Service from making controlled burns needed by the forest and its animals. But Nathan Watson, senior vice president of development for Tradition Properties Inc., said it is making firebreaks and other provisions to let the burns continue. No tadpoles survived drought in 1999 or 2000. In 2001, authorities called the National Guard. Crews trucked in water and dug a well from which water was pumped into the pond. Pechmann first set up tanks in 2002. Since then, scientists have released about 2,000 tank-raised froglets at Glen's Pond and another 3,000 or so at a colony scientists are starting. It's on land owned by The Nature Conservancy, which also owns a 292-tract including the second natural colony. Researchers used the pump at Glen's Pond in 2005 but only 42 frogs emerged, Pechmann said. The species' first captive breeding was in March, when in vitro fertilization produced 93 tadpoles at the Memphis Zoo. They all died, apparently from the parasite that kills tadpoles in Glen's Pond. A second lab-fertilized group hatched recently, said Andy Kouba, head of the Memphis zoo's research department. "We'll probably end up trying to breed them several more times this fall," he said. Twenty-one egg masses were laid in Glen's Pond this year, and one each in the other two, biologist Mike Sisson said. Each year's froglets get marked. This year, 480 are in large individual enclosures to learn whether new colonies could make it in less than ideal habitat. The Audubon Zoo in New Orleans got 36 tadpoles. Sixteen survived. "They were smaller than a pea when we put them in the tanks," said Nick Hanna, assistant curator for reptiles and amphibians. The inch-long froglets may grow to 3 1/2 inches. Any chance of breeding is years away. Males may mature sexually in less than a year, but it can take up to four years for females to become fertile. The wild froglets alone would nearly triple the wild population if all of them survived. That won't happen. "Those little frogs are snack food or finger food for a lot of things in the woods," Sisson said. "The vast majority ... will not make it to adult frog. That's the nature of the business if you're an amphibian." Sacramento Bee3 posh projects go bust as Valley dreams bite the dust...Dale Kasler and Jim Wassermanhttp://www.sacbee.com/103/v-print/story/1307281.htmlIn the Central Valley these days, the bankruptcies and foreclosures don't just affect individual homeowners.They swallow entire developments – and the people who conceive them.Winchester Country Club in rural Placer County, which went into foreclosure and sent legendary Sacramento highway contractor C.C. Myers into bankruptcy protection, isn't the only lavish golf-course housing development to fall on hard times. Three massive high-end projects in the San Joaquin Valley have fallen into bankruptcy proceedings in the past two years.The three insolvencies symbolize the California housing bubble at its most extreme. Combined, they have cost lenders and investors tens of millions of dollars – and offer clues about the roots of the financial crisis that has gripped Wall Street and the world's economies.Each is striking in its own way:• After Running Horse in Fresno collapsed, none other than Donald Trump jetted in with a possible rescue plan. He gave up months later. One of the original developers, accused of fraud, turned up dead in a Fresno motel last month.• Bakersfield's McAllister Ranch defaulted on a $235 million loan from Lehman Bros., the investment giant whose Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing helped heat Wall Street's woes to their current boil. McAllister's only occupants are a herd of sheep grazing on a golf course designed by Greg Norman.• Diablo Grande, in Patterson in Stanislaus County, is faring better. Like Myers' Winchester project, it's partly built out. But homeowners grumble about water-quality problems and plummeting values, and the project became a nightmare for original developer Donald Panoz, a pharmaceutical tycoon who made a fortune on the nicotine patch. He lost Diablo Grande after it filed for bankruptcy protection.All three developments were designed to bring the luxury life to the Valley, and that's where the problem lies. Their struggles illustrate how hard it is to transplant $800,000 homes and designer golf courses to California's chronically depressed midsection.Bakersfield boom turns to bluesWhile the housing boom brought money and diversification to a region too dependent on farming, the overall impact was somewhat hollow. The fundamentals of the economy didn't change. The Valley didn't generate nearly enough high-paying jobs needed to sustain such high-end developments as Running Horse."The markets were so overheated they were chasing any deal," said Fresno real estate consultant Robin Kane. "Part of the problem that always hurts us in the Valley, from Bakersfield to Stockton, is your employment and per capita income (are) not rising."With the boom a faded memory, unemployment is creeping back up to the 10 percent range in much of the Valley. The real estate market is a disaster: Stockton had the nation's highest foreclosure rate in August, according to researcher RealtyTrac, followed by Merced and Modesto.Developers of big projects are paying for what Kane and others said was a classic Valley mistake: They fell in love with the area's inexpensive land but ignored its troubling demographics. The Valley is still plagued by low incomes, a poorly educated work force and other ills."We're not another Silicon Valley," said Bakersfield real estate appraiser Gary Crabtree.That didn't seem to matter when McAllister Ranch was taking shape in southwest Bakersfield. The city in 2005 had become the nation's single hottest housing market, as measured by price growth, thanks to a stampede of homebuyers from Los Angeles.McAllister was going to be a big-time operation, with 6,000 homes and a host of amenities. Developer SunCal Cos. of Irvine borrowed $235 million from Lehman Bros. – part of a $2.2 billion war chest Lehman handed SunCal to develop properties throughout California and Nevada.SunCal had a grand vision for Bakersfield. After buying out the original developer, it doubled the asking price for individual lots, to $115,000.But once the market petered out, "those prices were no longer viable," said ex-project manager Darryl Tucker.Work halted months ago. The partly built golf course became a sheep pasture. SunCal defaulted on the Lehman loan, and contractors forced McAllister Ranch into involuntary bankruptcy."You've just got tumbleweeds growing, and that's about it," Tucker said.Trump can't save Fresno projectIt's a similar story at Running Horse, which was going to bring prosperity to Fresno's long-neglected west side.Homes would sell for up to $800,000. The PGA pledged to stage a tournament on the Jack Nicklaus-designed course.Instead, Running Horse became Fresno's longest-running soap opera. After years of promises, developers Scott Webb and Tom O'Meara – the latter a Fresno State grad living in Pebble Beach – ran out of cash. They sold out to a Ripon golf course builder in March 2007 for $200,000.A month later, the new owner put the property in Chapter 11. All that had been built were two holes of Nicklaus' course.Then came Trump. The brash developer arrived one afternoon in May 2007 in his jet. Emerging from a meeting with elected officials at the double-wide trailer serving as Running Horse's headquarters, Trump told reporters: "We're looking to try and save a very troubled situation."He was willing to buy, but only with a subsidy from the city. After months of negotiations, Trump bailed out. The property was taken over by its San Diego lenders.Recently the state Department of Real Estate accused O'Meara and Webb of defrauding investors out of more than $4 million. The duo allegedly sold the same lots to multiple buyers.The two were stripped of their real estate licenses in September. Two days later, Webb was found dead in a Fresno motel. Authorities said there was no foul play, but the case remains under investigation.The property sits idle."It would have been a big deal for Fresno," said Harlan Kelley Sr., 71, a west side resident who put $385,000 into the project and was among those allegedly defrauded. "We still got our fingers crossed that Donald Trump or someone else will come in and take over."Patterson project still strugglingAnother Donald built Diablo Grande. Donald Panoz – pharmaceutical executive, land developer and owner of an auto-racing business – endured eight years of environmental lawsuits and spent $120 million bringing Diablo Grande to life.His goal: a luxury hideaway in the dusty hills west of Patterson, the self-proclaimed "apricot capital of the world." A vineyard and winery, plus two 18-hole courses, became part of the vision.But the 33,000-acre site was also geared to the Bay Area transplants flocking to Valley towns in search of cheaper housing.That made it vulnerable. Once housing prices softened in the Bay Area, buying a home in the Valley made less sense, said Dean Wehrli of Sullivan Group Real Estate Advisors in Elk Grove.Diablo Grande "was absolutely ripe to be hit hard by the downturn," he said.More than 450 houses were built when the project sputtered earlier this year. Both golf courses closed temporarily. A Chapter 11 filing came in March.The project is trying to get back on its feet. A Los Angeles developer named World International LLC bought it for $20 million and pledged to build a resort spa, equestrian center and Spanish-style shopping village. It said last week it plans to rename the development to give it "a fresh start."Meanwhile, a rash of foreclosures among the finished houses lured bargain hunters.East Bay couple Karen Cinfio and David Rose bought a million-dollar home with panoramic views out of foreclosure for $375,000."I kind of refer to the people who lived here first, they were kind of like the Donner Party," Cinfio said as she stood by her backyard pool. "They paved the trail."Valley prices back to earthMany of the trailblazers still live at Diablo Grande, and they wonder when things are going to improve. A chemical problem has left the water undrinkable and prompted a $1,000 state fine. The plummeting home values are another cause for concern.Darcie Nessinger lives with her parents in a home valued at $275,000. They paid $534,000 three years ago."We expected the values of the houses to go up," said Nessinger, 33, an AT&T employee. "It's a resort area on a golf course."A quick return to 2005 pricing is unlikely, at Diablo Grande or anywhere else in the Valley. Steve Smiley, who tracks Valley trends for consulting firm Meyers Builder Advisors, said outrageous housing prices are gone for good. Taking their place: modest prices based on the Valley's economic fundamentals."I don't know if pricing is ever going to come back to that $800,000 house in Manteca," he said. "In my mind, it shouldn't."San Francisco ChronicleDeal could open national forests to developers...Associated Presshttp://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/10/12/MNN013FHVB.DTL&type=printableA controversial deal between the federal government and the nation's largest private landowner could increase residential development of forests around the country, according to congressional investigators.The proposed agreement between the Forest Service and Plum Creek Timber Co. would allow the company to use roads on national forests in Montana to develop its adjacent private property for subdivisions. Such easements often allow the company to use public roads only for logging or forest management.The Government Accountability Office, in a letter sent Friday to the two Democratic senators who requested an investigation, said the deal could set a precedent and allow other private landowners to use forest roads to build subdivisions. The private negotiations deprived the public of any chance to weigh in, investigators said."This report sounds all sorts of alarms about the way the Forest Service is doing business," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who asked for the probe along with Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.Negotiations began after a Forest Service ranger in Seeley Lake, Mont., in 2006 told a potential buyer of Plum Creek land that the roads leading up to the property were not for residential use.Forest Service officials overruled the ranger after talking with Plum Creek, the report says. The agency determined that the company could use certain Forest Service roads for any purpose, and the proposed agreement includes specific language that allows the company to use Forest Service roads to access residential subdivisions that may be built on property in the future.Montana county officials say the proposal would make it easier for Plum Creek to sell timberland for houses or other development.The GAO agreed, saying "many of Plum Creek's lands in western Montana would have a substantially higher value if the amendment is carried out." Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service, and a spokeswoman for Plum Creek both said they are now engaging county officials in the process. Rey also denied that the proposal would set a precedent nationwide.Kathy Budinick, spokeswoman for Plum Creek, said the company will not implement the amendment in any county that doesn't wish to have it.Los Angeles TimesPlans for major overhaul of Whittier Narrows nature preserve stir passionsFoes say the proposed interpretive center is too big and would require destruction of too many trees. Backers see a way to introduce working-class families to nature...Louis Sahagunhttp://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-narrows12-2008oct12,0,2654986,print.storyEven those who love the Whittier Narrows wildlife sanctuary concede that it suffers from a down-at-the-heels look. Invasive plants have elbowed out native species and, as one county official observed, the interpretive center resembles a Depression-era shack.But does the sanctuary along the San Gabriel River need sprucing up or a makeover?That's the question dividing defenders of the nature preserve flanked by two freeways and a string of industrial parks in eastern L.A. County.A torrent of opposition to a planned $30-million interpretive center has some advocates worried that the controversy will scare off funders and derail a project intended to enhance understanding of the greater San Gabriel River watershed.Now, just weeks away from release of a draft environmental impact report on the proposal, project leaders are ratcheting up efforts to promote the center and a massive overhaul of the existing 416-acre wetlands. The project, they say, will create a gateway to an "emerald necklace" -- a 17-mile stretch of parks and "greenways" connecting 10 cities along the Rio Hondo and the San Gabriel River.Supporters say as many as 24,000 students a year could be bused to the center -- a "discovery center" designed to showcase green technology -- to view state-of-the-art interactive exhibits and displays, including a 7,000-square-foot model of the San Gabriel River featuring flowing water.Outside, they would learn about the rhythms of life in riparian habitats in an artificial wetlands to be built next to the real thing. Also planned is a replica of a Native American settlement, an outdoor sunken amphitheater, picnic area and improved trail systems."If the controversy impacts our funding sources, we'll have to reevaluate the proposal's financial feasibility," said Sam Pedroza, environmental planner for the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts and a key member of the center's stakeholders committee. "That would be a shame. It's not like we're trying to build a shopping mall in Yosemite Valley."Critics, however, decry the size of the project, which would mark about 40 acres for immediate and future development. In the first phase, dozens of mature trees, and foraging grounds for migrating raptors, would be removed.The sanctuary's existing center -- a cramped wood-frame house filled with terrariums and stuffed animals -- would be replaced by the 18,500-square-foot center, an auditorium, administrative offices and a parking lot for 150 vehicles.Critics also take issue with supporters of the proposal who they say often dismiss them, falsely, as a "handful of elderly white docents." They are insulted when supporters suggest that children of local working-class minority families can learn more about nature from interactive models and replicas than from nature itself."It's too huge," said critic Eddie Barajas, 71, an avid bird-watcher who says he recently spotted one of the world's rarest songbirds, the federally endangered least Bell's vireo, in a thicket of willows and oaks slated to be cleared for the parking lot. "I'm not saying we couldn't use an upgrade. But this thing is a monstrosity that will change things forever."That kind of talk has disappointed longtime backers of the proposal, including Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina; Rep. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte); Belinda Faustinos, executive director of the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy; and regional water districts that have donated more than $200,000 for publicity campaigns to promote the center and gain financial backing for construction that is expected to begin by 2010.Final approval of the project, which is being shepherded by a joint powers authority, is contingent upon approval by the Board of Supervisors.In the meantime, such opposition groups as Friends of Whittier Narrows have received a groundswell of support in recent months. For example, an advisory committee of biologists in August said the center isn't compatible with the area.The sanctuary was founded in 1939 by the Audubon Society. In 1970, the county Department of Parks and Recreation acquired control of the area, a survivor of the struggle between the old Southern California of agricultural fields and river systems and the newer landscape of big stores and industrial parks.But supporters of the project say the effort will replace invasive species with native plants and create a center appropriate for the setting."Students out there deserve the best," said Roxane Marquez, chief of staff for Molina. "The current center looks like something out of the movie 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' "Andre Quintero, 33, a trustee at nearby Rio Hondo College, said the new exhibits and displays would expose working-class families, many of them Latino and Chinese, throughout the area to "interactive stuff designed to help them understand what they are seeing outside so that they can recognize it when they see it in the real world.""When I was growing up, I knew nothing of nature. Zero," he said. "I didn't go to Yosemite until I was 32. I am not unique."As Jo Sarachman, a Sierra Club representative on the stakeholders committee, put it, "These are inner-city kids who think red ants are wild animals."The proposal was hatched in 2001 as a modest interpretive center where people could learn about water conservation and the work of the agencies that have been trying to upgrade and protect the region's watershed. In time the project has tripled in size as "more and more agencies want to make sure their stories are told there," Pedroza said."In retrospect, maybe we overlooked local residents," he said. "We need to go back to the people who haven't heard from us a few years and explain again what we want to do at Whittier Narrows."Local Audubon Society and Sierra Club groups have agreed to remain neutral pending hearings later this year on the center's environmental impacts. Nonetheless, some environmentalists have started floating alternatives. Recently, Robert van de Hoek, president of the Whittier Area Audubon Society, proposed putting the discovery center in a downtown El Monte mall."I got the idea from national parks across the nation, which are dismantling their infrastructure and placing interpretive centers just outside their boundaries," he said.On a recent weekday morning, half a dozen members of Friends of Whittier Narrows met for a weekly strategy session at the sanctuary, the grounds marked with the paw prints of raccoons and rabbits and the crooked trails of side-blotched lizards.A colony of bright red cardinals -- imported from the East Coast and turned loose generations ago by their owner -- resides in the dense brush. A 4-foot-long western coachwhip snake slithered across the parking lot near the main entrance. A few yards away, a Cooper's hawk dived claws-first onto a squirrel, which managed to break free and disappear into a clump of bushes.Seated at a picnic table amid an urban forest sprinkled with the red, orange and auburn of sycamores, oaks and alders, the group vowed to continue asking questions and demanding answers to ensure the sanctuary's protection."They think bird-watchers and nature lovers are passive people they just roll over," said Grace Allan, 78, a docent at the sanctuary. "That's what they think."Bottled water versus tap: Which is safer to drink?Both have their risks, but your home's water is subject to broader scrutiny...Elena Conishttp://www.latimes.com/features/health/la-he-nutrition13-2008oct13,0,4238250,print.story Those ubiquitous plastic water bottles have been increasingly vilified in recent years. Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Barbara, among others, have banned them from purchase with city funds. A few trendsetting restaurants, and even some markets and hotels, have banned them too. The trend has left many consumers wondering: Isn't bottled safer than tap? "Bottled water isn't any safer or purer than what comes out of the tap," says Dr. Sarah Janssen, science fellow with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, which conducted an extensive analysis of bottled water back in 1999. "In fact, it's less well-regulated, and you're more likely to know what's in tap water."Bottled and tap water come from essentially the same sources: lakes, springs and aquifers, to list a few. In fact, a significant fraction of the bottled water products on store shelves are tap water -- albeit filtered and treated with extra steps to improve taste. It's not news to anyone that tap water can taste funky (too much chlorine, usually) or look discolored (from air bubbles or rust in pipes). But generally, that doesn't mean it isn't safe to drink, says Benjamin Grumbles, assistant administrator for water with the Environmental Protection Agency. The great majority of the tap water in the country meets the EPA's drinking-water standards, which regulate the levels of roughly 90 different contaminants, including germs such as giardia, heavy metals such as lead and dozens of industrial chemicals."If a utility is doing its job and it's well funded, they can take all this stuff out," says Elizabeth Royte, author of "Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It."Different states do face different contaminants, of course, and the national standards don't cover everything that could possibly get into public water supplies. California, for example, has its own standards to regulate levels of the gasoline additive MTBE and the industrial chemicals called perchlorates. But even state standards can't account for aging pipes that carry water from public lines into those of people's homes, which can leach copper and lead. Plus, there are certain contaminants water treatment plants just aren't designed to take out, such as medications that wash into the sewers via human excretion or drugs being dumped down the drains. An investigation by the Associated Press this year found traces of pharmaceuticals in drinking-water supplies that serve more than 41 million Americans. In light of such facts, bottled water may seem preferable. But coming as it does from many of the same sources as tap, bottled water is subject to many of the same contaminants, Grumbles notes. It's held to essentially the same standards as tap water, albeit by the Food and Drug Administration and not the EPA. And while large public water supplies are often tested for contaminants up to several times a day, the FDA requires private bottlers to test for contaminants only once a week, once a year or once every four years, depending on the contaminant.Tap water suppliers are also subject to broader scrutiny; they're required by law to publish and circulate an annual Consumer Confidence Report, which states their sources of water and any contaminants found. The FDA doesn't require this of bottled-water makers, and though inspectors can drop in on water-bottling plants, such visits are assigned low priority, FDA press officer Michael Herndon says. Companies also aren't required to share any contamination episodes with their customers.In its favor, bottled water isn't subject to contamination from lead in residential pipes. But it may contain chemicals that leach out of plastic bottles, which are often made of PET, or polyethylene terephthalate. The chemical is distinct from the phthalates that have been linked to birth defects in newborn boys, but recent studies have shown that PET can release minuscule amounts of the toxic chemical antimony into water. The amounts are well below toxic levels, but microwaving a bottle or leaving it in the sun or a hot car can accelerate the process.Bottled water hasn't been vilified for its health risks, however. Rather, it's the environmental toll of mass consumption (Americans have consumed more than 9 billion gallons so far this year) that's driving some consumers back to the tap. In California alone, more than 1 billion water bottles are thrown out annually, according to the California Department of Conservation. Nationwide, just 15% of the tens of billions of bottles consumed each year are recycled. The Pacific Institute, a research group based in Oakland, calculates that in 2006, manufacturing those billions of bottles required 17 million barrels of oil. Which relates to the final argument against bottled water: cost. Price it by the gallon, and water in those single-serve bottles is more expensive than even today's high-priced gasoline.Tap water, on the other hand, "is one of the best bargains American consumers can find," Grumbles says. CommonDreams.comEnvironmentalists Slam Bush 'Fox-in-Henhouse' Plan...Deborah Zabarenkohttp://www.commondreams.org/headline/2008/10/12-4WASHINGTON - A Bush administration plan to let U.S. agencies decide for themselves whether their actions put wildlife at risk is drawing fire from environmental groups, which say this is like letting a fox guard a henhouse.This undated photo provided by the New Mexico Game and Fish Department shows a New Mexican meadow jumping mouse at a marsh near Espanola, N.M. The New Mexico meadow jumping mouse is among 13 species listed in petitions filed by WildEarth Guardians on Thursday, Oct. 9, 2008. The conservation group is seeking protections for the species under the Endangered Species Act.(AP Photo/New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, Joan L. Morrison)The Interior Department, one of two federal agencies pushing for this policy change, rejects the environmentalists' critique, saying the new rule would cut bureaucratic red tape and free government scientists for more important work.But a coalition of conservation groups sees the move as an attempt to gut the Endangered Species Act."This is exactly the fox guarding the henhouse," Michael Daulton of the National Audubon Society said. "It's a scary proposition to think about agencies with no wildlife expertise at all making decisions about the fate of species, potentially leading to extinction."The 35-year-old Endangered Species Act is meant to protect threatened wildlife by relying on the best available science, the environmentalists noted. Government scientists must now consult with agencies on projects that could put species at risk.The rules change could take scientists out of the equation, the conservation coalition maintained.Audubon, which aims to protect birds, was among more than 120 groups that joined to flood the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service with 100,000 negative comments about the plan on Friday.This flood of paper was timed to coincide with the end of an official "public comment" period on the proposed rule change, which ends on Tuesday. After that, it is unclear when or whether the rule will be adopted.'HAIL MARY PASS'"This proposed rule change is obviously a Hail Mary pass to industry friends in the final days of the Bush administration and it will fail," said Janette Brimmer, a lawyer with Earthjustice.A Hail Mary pass is a desperate last-minute play in American football.At the heart of the matter is the notion of dropping a requirement for U.S. agencies -- from the Transportation Department to the Army Corps of Engineers -- to consult with scientists before they take on projects that could threaten wildlife on the Endangered Species list.As the Interior and Commerce departments wrote in their plan, released in mid-August with little fanfare: "We propose to add language that action agencies are not required to consult on those actions for which they determine their action will have 'no effect' on listed species or critical habitat."These two agencies set a 30-day public comment period, which was extended for an additional 30 days. Conservation groups urged a 120-day period for comment from the public and Congress, and said comments should be allowed by fax and e-mail in addition to paper letters, the only form now accepted."The abbreviated timeline and restrictive commenting options raise serious concerns that the Department of the Interior is attempting to rewrite a bedrock environmental statute without allowing for anything approaching adequate public involvement," the environmental groups said in a letter to the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service...The Guardian (UK)EU countries may use economic crisis to ditch climate change commitmentsPapers seen by the Guardian suggest the EU council will water down measures to tackle global warming...John Vidal and Juliette Jowit guardian.co.uk...10-09-08http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/oct/09/energy.climatechangeLeaders of EU countries plan to use the global financial crisis as an excuse to renege on climate change commitments, according to sources close to energy negotiations in Brussels.Papers seen by the Guardian suggest the EU council, which meets next week, propose dropping the previous commitment to an automatic increase in emissions cuts if the world gets a major climate change agreement next year. It also intends to allow countries to avoid having to cut their own emissions by letting them purchase a large proportion of reductions from overseas. The current EU target of a 20% reduction in emissions by 2020 will automatically increase to 30% if a global deal is signed. But the papers show that the EU is seeking a completely new legislative process if the EU target is to go over 20%. This effectively shelves the move to 30% and would take many years to complete. The commission justifies its proposals by saying that EU countries paying for emissions cuts would transfer up to €42bn (£33bn) to developing and other countries from 2008-2020.It also wants a change in the auctioning of pollution allowances for power companies, which could lead to windfall profits estimated at up to €15bn. Last night environmental groups said the moves could allow countries such as Britain to build a new generation of coal power stations without fear of exceeding their legally binding emission targets. "By simply buying cheap projects in developing countries, the EU will avoid making the type of transformations needed in our domestic economy needed to avoid dangerous climate change," said Tom Picken, head of international climate at Friends of the Earth."We are on the verge of losing an ambitious climate package. It sends the wrong signal to developing countries — it appears that developed countries are not willing to adopt domestic emission reduction targets," said a WWF spokeswoman...Last week, it emerged that Poland, Greece, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria had opposed the whole package. In separate developments Britain, Italy and others were accused of trying to water down commitments for renewable energy. News of the European political leaders' moves comes as senior business figures and government advisers are urging politicians not to use the current financial crisis to abandon crucial investment in clean energy and efficiency to tackle climate change, cut costs and improve security.On Thursday, Lord Browne of Madingley, the former chief executive of BP, warned "none of what's happened — however dramatic or distressing — detracts from what remains our most pressing energy challenge: combating climate change."Browne, now president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, called for a big political investment in new energy technology to match the US New Deal that rebuilt economies after the second world war. "What is called for is nothing less than a new generation of political leadership — leadership that transcends the day-to-day tussle of electoral politics and short-term economic cycles," he said.Miliband insisted the UK was negotiating the best deal possible. He added: "Now is not the time to row back on our ambitions in tackling climate change. Cutting the costs of energy is good for people as it keeps down their fuel bills and it's good for the planet as it reduces dangerous climate change. "The current economic difficulties make these issues more important, not less. EU ministers have rightly signed up to achieve 20% of energy coming from renewable energy sources by 2020 and it is important we show that we are committed to that target."Monbiot.comThe Other Bail-Out Another set of corporations is pressing for public money. Governments should let them die...George Monbiot...10-07-08http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2008/10/07/the-other-bail-out/While all eyes were fixed on the banking bail-out, a bucketload of public money was quietly sloshed into the pockets of another undeserving cause. Last week, George Bush agreed to lend $25bn to US car manufacturers. It’s a soft loan, which will cost the government $7.5bn(1). Few people noticed; fewer fought it. The House of Representatives approved the measure by 370 votes to 58. The great corporate bail-out is spreading like the plague. It has already crossed the Atlantic. Yesterday European car makers demanded that the EU hand them E40bn ($54bn) in cheap loans to match the US subsidy(2). Where will the public spending spree end? The motor companies in both Europe and the US claim they need these loans to help them go green. They will invest the money in a new generation of environmental technologies, which will allow them to meet the efficiency standards their governments are setting. There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents … but how strange this green enthusiasm seems, now that there’s the smell of public money in the air. For the past ten years the car manufacturers have driven every useful green initiative into the wall. In 1998 European car makers promised to show that they could cut their greenhouse gases voluntarily. By the end of 2008, they pledged, they would reduce the average emissions produced by their cars from 190 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre to 140. How well have they done? By the end of last year they had cut average pollution to 158g/km across Europe(3) and 165g/km in the UK(4): they will miss their target by some 40%. Discerning, only ten years too late, that lobby groups’ promises are worth as much as a share in Lehman Brothers, in 2006 the European Commission announced that it would set compulsory standards: by 2012 all manufacturers would have to reduce their average CO2 emissions to 120g/km. It looked like progress, until you remembered that 120g was the target proposed by the EU in 1994, to be met by 2005(5). It was repeatedly delayed by industry lobbying. Last year the 2012 target fell to the same forces. Angela Merkel, lobbying on behalf of companies like DaimlerChrysler and BMW, demanded that the European Commission put the brakes on(6,7). (Ironically it was Merkel, as the idealistic young German environment minister, who first proposed the target of 120g by 2005(8).) The commission agreed to revise the figure to 130g, and to cover the gap by raising the contribution from biofuels. Since then we’ve seen hard evidence that most biofuels, as well as spreading starvation, produce more greenhouse gases than petrol(9,10,11), but the policy remains unchanged. Now the pollutocrats are whinging that they can’t meet the 130g target either. A month ago they persuaded the European Parliament’s industry committee to take up their case: it proposed postponing the target until 2015, reducing the fines if they don’t comply and allowing manufacturers to offset eco-innovations against the target even if these don’t actually reduce emissions(12). These invertebrates, in other words, proposed to grant official approval to industry greenwash. Fortunately this scam was rejected two weeks ago by the parliament’s environment committee(13). In the US, manufacturers have still not reached the standard (an average of 27.5 miles per gallon) that they were supposed to have met, under the Energy Policy Conservation Act, by 1985(14). The average car sold in the States today is less efficient than the 1908 Model T Ford(15,16)... Their sabotage of green technology has been both subtle and comprehensive. The film Who Killed The Electric Car? shows how the manufacturers, working with oil companies and corrupt officials, sank California’s attempt to change vehicle technologies(20). Having bumped off battery power, they persuaded the federal government to pour money instead into hydrogen vehicles, aware that the technological hurdles are so high that a cheap, mass-produced model might never be possible. Electric cars, by contrast, have been ready for the mass market for almost a century. The $1.2bn that the US government is spending on research and development for hydrogen cars(21) - like the E2bn pledged to the same quest by the European Union(22,23) - is a subsidy for avoiding technological change... There is no need to spend a penny of public money on greening the motor industry. As a recent report by the House of Commons environmental audit committee shows, you could achieve the same outcome by creating a bigger differential between vehicle tax bands: it proposes that people buying the least efficient cars should pay around £2000 more per year than those buying the most efficient(26). This would kill the market for gas guzzlers and force the industry to make the changes it has long resisted. ...But subsidies are what governments pay when regulation doesn’t happen. If you don’t have the guts to force companies to do something, you must bribe them instead. It’s a fair guess that European car makers will still fail to meet their environmental targets, even if they get the money they’re demanding. The greenest thing governments could do is to allow these foot-dragging, planet-eating spongers to go under.