10-21-08Merced Sun-StarLivingston considers annexing farmland for housesThe city's planning process splits residents between those pushing growth and those supporting ag land preservation...JONAH OWEN LAMBhttp://www.mercedsunstar.com/167/story/507933.htmlFrom an empty dusty field just outside of Livingston, the Diablo range and orchards take up most of the view. The only signs of the nearby town are the tan buildings of one of Livingston's new developments. But if all goes according to plan, this piece of farmland could sprout houses instead of crops. As locals fret over a proposed master plan that projects massive growth -- even as the housing market plummets -- the city is moving forward on another building project outside town. It's yet another illustration of the conflict between those who favor residential and commercial development in Merced County versus those who view the area's land as its most precious asset.Livingston's planning commission is in the process of annexing and rezoning 45 acres into 125 lots for the Summer Stone development by Ranchwood Homes, a Merced County-based developer. The possible project sits at the corner of Lincoln Boulevard and Magnolia Avenue."Now the tentative map and development agreements are moving forward for annexation and pre-zoning," said Donna Kenney, Livingston's senior planner. It may seem an ill-timed project, but it's been in the works for several years, she said. Besides raising property values, said Kenney, the project would have several positive effects on the city. A new park and a pump station for its sewer hook-up are slated to be built with the development. But, for now, the process is still a ways off, she said. "We have to go to LAFCO after the city approves it," said Kenney.Bill Nicholson, executive officer of LAFCO, says his organization has yet to see any application for the annexation. LAFCO, or the Local Agency Formation Commission, is a state body that has jurisdiction over cities' annexations. Before the city moves forward, LAFCO would have to answer several questions: Does the city have a lot of empty land already? Does the land in question have adequate access to sewer and other utilities? And, finally, is there a need? In this case, since this annexation is within the city's current sphere of influence, as part of its master plan, it would have an easier time, said Nicholson.While various factors influence urban growth, said Nicholson, one driving force in this phenomenon can be speculators. It's cheaper to buy farmland than land inside city limits. Because the land costs much less than land already in the city, builders can build on farmland, get the land annexed into the city, then sell the lots for market value and make a higher profit. However, Ranchwood Homes has not been known to do this, said Nicholson. Why then is the land up for sale?Andy Krotik, a local Realtor, who heard it was, doesn't think that it's being sold for speculative reasons. Because the market is so weak, a lot of land is being sold off whether they are involved the annexation process or not, he said. Once owners start the process -- the environmental impact reports, the planning documents -- they don't want to stop and then have to start all over, regardless of whether they're selling the land, said Krotik. "Once you jump off the diving board, you can't go back," he said.In any case, the landowner has almost five years in which it can extend its plans before it must start over, said Krotik. If times are bad, the landowner can wait it out.Just down the road from the property is Doreva Produce. Aaron Silva, the manager at Doreva, said he'd heard the land was for sale, too.As for annexation, he said it seemed a little premature when there are clots of empty houses in town, and people being foreclosed across the county. It will be a long time till anyone develops those lots, he said. Even so, "Everything is for sale that's got dirt on it."Housing Authority commissioner resigns...Scott Jason, Reporters' Notebookhttp://notebook.mercedsunstar.com/housing_authority_commissioner_resignsJoe Ramirez, a manager at County Bank, resigned his seat on the Merced County Housing Authority Board of Commissioners because of fallout from his vote on hiring a company to build the Felix Torres Farmworker Housing Center. "I got such flac from the community," Ramirez said Monday, adding "It put County Bank in a bad light."Local builders wanted to manage the multimillion project, and over their objections, the board awarded it to a West Sacramento firm. After the vote, the commissioners said the bid reports would make it clear why they chose the outside company over local ones.A month later, I'm still waiting to get those reports to see what put Brown Construction ahead of the local firms. Ramirez voted to hire the outside firm, which he said he stands by. The bank lost some money because of his vote, Ramirez explained. He left his post the day after the vote and recently sent a letter to the Housing Authority and Board of Supervisors saying as much.Since the Housing Authority decisions will continue to be controversial, Ramirez, along with his bosses, decided it'd be better for him to volunteer elsewhere.Merced council discusses G Street underpass construction optionsCity could close thoroughfare during construction...SCOTT JASONhttp://www.mercedsunstar.com/167/story/507930.htmlClosing part of G Street while a railroad underpass is built will cause a traffic nightmare. It'll also save the city close to $3 million and get the project done six months sooner. During its Monday night meeting, the City Council scheduled a workshop at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 3 to discuss some engineering hiccups that have been discovered as construction on the railroad underpass draws near.One of the big ones is whether to close G Street during the $18 million project's construction, estimated to take about a year-and-a-half.With the help of $9 million in state transportation funds, the city is planning to build an underpass at the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway train tracks, just north of 23rd Street. It will allow cars and bicyclists to drive beneath the railroad, avoiding any delays from a passing train. Work should begin in 2010 and finish fall 2011.As it stands, about 70 BNSF trains pass through Merced daily.G Street is one of the three main north-south roads in Merced. If closed, cars and bicyclists will be forced to use M and R streets to quickly get across town. If the council decides to keep G Street open, it'd be forced to buy more land, pave it and direct traffic across it while crews tear out the old part of the street. The city would also have to build new crossing arms to keep cars from driving across the tracks as a train nears.That comes with a $2 million to $3 million price tag and will take an extra six months of work...The city is also holding a public meeting 6 p.m. Thursday to discuss how the project will affect residents in Merced. Letters were mailed to hundreds of people who live near the railroad crossing, though anyone can attend. It's in the Sam Pipes Conference Room in the Merced Civic Center, 678 W. 18th St.Anyone with questions can call city civil engineer John Ainsworth at (209) 385-6899... Modesto BeeCalifornia begins water quality hearings...last updated: October 20, 2008 10:51:55 AMhttp://www.modbee.com/state_wire/story/469189.htmlHearings are starting on whether hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River can meet clean water standards.The Oregon-based utility PacifiCorp must receive certification from the California Water Resources Control board to get a new operating license for the dams.Tribes in Oregon and California, conservation groups and some salmon fishermen want to remove the dams to help struggling salmon runs in the Klamath.The river starts in Oregon and runs through Northern California to the Pacific.The six hearings start Monday in Eureka, Calif., and conclude Nov. 3 in Sacramento. Issues include toxic algae and dam-related water temperatures.Faced with having to spend millions of dollars to make the dams more fish friendly, PacifiCorp has talked with state and federal agencies over possible removal of the dams.For bailout to work, housing market needs to mend...STEVENSON JACOBSAP Business Writerhttp://www.modbee.com/reports/realestate/v-print/story/452005.htmlWashington's financial bailout plan is now law. So the credit spigot will start flowing again, banks will resume lending, and an economic recovery can begin, right?Wrong. Experts say the most important thing that needs to happen before the $700 billion bailout even has a chance of working: Home prices must stop falling. That would send a signal to banks that the worst has passed and it's safe to start doling out money again.The problem is the lending freeze has made getting a mortgage loan tough for everyone except those with sterling credit. That means it will take several months or longer to pare down the glut of houses built when times were good - and those that have come on the market because of soaring foreclosures - before home prices start appreciating.Housing is a critical component to the U.S. economy and by extension the availability of credit. Roughly one in eight U.S. jobs depends on housing directly or indirectly - from construction workers to bank loan officers to big brokers on Wall Street. A turnaround in housing prices would boost confidence in the wider economy and, experts hope, goad banks into lending again."Housing traditionally does lead the economy through a recovery. I think it's going to be critical for a sustained recovery in this cycle, too," said Gary Thayer, senior economist at Wachovia Securities...In the meantime, the Treasury Department is moving swiftly to get the plan started. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said Friday he did not wait for final approval of the measure to begin preparation. He has been lining up outside advisers as his staff works out details on a multitude of complex issues.But several hurdles could trip up the plan. For starters, even when the Treasury starts buying bad assets, some banks may hoard the cash they receive in return until they see how the plan pans out. That has the potential to make the lending logjam worse, said Vincent R. Reinhart, former director of the Federal Reserve's monetary affairs division."They may sit on the sidelines and wait to see (the bailout) get some traction. The problem is if everybody sits on the sidelines, nobody gets in the game. It's a risk," he said.It also creates a vicious cycle: No trust means no lending; tight credit means it's harder to buy a home; the more difficult it is to buy or sell a home, the further home prices will fall; and the further prices drop, the more foreclosures there will be.U.S. home prices - down 20 percent from their peak in July 2006 - still have further to fall, and must hit bottom before demand picks up. The long-awaited bottom in prices could be a year or more away...Jobs are another big concern. The stranglehold on credit has choked companies big and small that depend on regular inflows of borrowed money to pay employees and stay afloat.The Labor Department said Friday that employers cut 159,000 jobs in September, the fastest pace of losses in more than five years. Experts say that number will grow as the effects of the credit gridlock course through the economy in coming days and weeks.The nation's unemployment rate is now 6.1 percent, up from 4.7 percent a year ago. Over the last year, the number of unemployed people has risen by 2.2 million to 9.5 million.The unemployment rate could rise to as high as 7.5 percent by late 2009, economists predict. If that happens, it would mark the highest since after the 1990-91 recession...Many economists predict the economy will contract in the final quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of next year. That would meet the classic definition of a recession - two consecutive quarters of a shrinking economy...Fresno BeeBypass explored for Fresno rail linesExpress loop west of city one option on table...Russell Clemingshttp://www.fresnobee.com/local/v-printerfriendly/story/950432.htmlOn a typical day, more than two dozen freight trains pass through Fresno without stopping. They make noise and snarl traffic on some of the city's busiest streets. Now, a consultant for two agencies is considering whether all those trains -- along with nonstop trains in the state's proposed high-speed passenger rail system -- should be diverted to new tracks looping west of the city. The Council of Fresno County Governments and the California High Speed Rail Authority are jointly funding a study on how to meld high-speed rail with another long-sought project, consolidating the city's Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail lines. An express loop is one option for accommodating both projects. Creating such a loop could remove many trains from the city's heart while speeding travel for both freight and passengers that don't stop here. But it also would reverse a decision made three years ago to put all the high-speed system's Fresno traffic -- local and express trains alike -- in or next to the UP corridor. "It's going to take a lot to change that," said Carrie Pourvahidi, deputy director of the California High Speed Rail Authority, which has plans for a system that goes to voters Nov. 4 as Proposition 1A, a $9.95 billion bond measure. Merging the UP and BNSF tracks into a single corridor has been a dream of city leaders since World War I. The tracks parallel each other, with the UP hugging Highway 99 and the BNSF coursing through the city a mile or so east. In late 2006, voters gave the idea a major boost by extending Measure C, Fresno County's half-cent transportation sales tax, for a second 20-year term. The extension included $102.5 million as a down payment on rail consolidation. Adding high-speed rail to the mix, however, presents a challenge that is simple to grasp if not solve: how to wedge eight sets of tracks -- two for each freight railroad, plus pairs of local and express tracks for high-speed rail -- into an already built-up city. Laid out side by side, the eight tracks would require a 231-foot-wide corridor. That's more than twice the 100-foot width of the existing Union Pacific corridor through much of the city. Moving express tracks to their own corridor west of town could reduce the city corridor to 125 feet. But that's not the only option under review. The consultant, URS Corp., also is looking at ways to squeeze the extra tracks into the current UP corridor or next to it. "In order to get into that alignment, it might be necessary to elevate or trench" some of the tracks, said the study's manager, Sandy Stadtfeld. How much any of the options would cost, where they would go or when they could be built won't be known until they are evaluated further. The study's results are expected early next year, and even if Proposition 1A passes, the first high-speed rail service would be a decade away. The state authority is helping pay for the study even though its board already decided all high-speed trains should use the UP corridor in Fresno. An analysis for that decision said a bypass would add more than $700 million to the high-speed system's cost while consuming valuable farmland. Ultimately, whatever approach is adopted will require cooperation from the freight railroads. Both are providing data to the study but won't commit to any solution. "We really can't comment further until we see the substance," said BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent. Even if all the parties agreed, there would be other hurdles. Land is expensive. Farmland protection is a sensitive issue. The $102 million from Measure C would cover only a sliver of the cost. Whether the high-speed system would contribute money is iffy. So is railroad cooperation. And no one is even guessing when such a project could be completed. For now, Stadtfeld said, it's just a matter of deciding which alternatives deserve to be pursued further: "All of this is just in the spirit of looking at every option." The 2008 Top Ten World's Worst Pollution ProblemsList of Environmental Issues Contributing to Death and Disability Around the World...10/21/08 06:15:20http://www.fresnobee.com/547/v-printerfriendly/story/951488.html  Two international environmental groups - U.S.-based Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland - today issued a Top Ten list of the world's worst pollution problems. The report addresses the role of pollution as a leading contributing factor to death and disability in the world and highlights the disproportionate effects on children's health. The Top Ten list includes both commonly discussed pollution problems like urban air pollution and more overlooked threats like car battery recycling. The problems included in the report have a significant impact on human health worldwide and result in death, persistent illness, and neurological impairment for millions. The report indicates that many of these deaths and related illnesses could be avoided with affordable and effective interventions. The Top Ten appear in a larger report titled, "The World's Worst Pollution Problems: The Top Ten of The Toxic Twenty." The report is the result of an analysis of over 600 sites in Blacksmith's database of polluted places as well as from nominations by relevant experts. "Our goal with the 2008 report is to increase awareness of the severe toll that pollution takes on human health and inspire the international community to act," said Richard Fuller, founder of Blacksmith Institute. "Remediation is both possible and cost-effective. Clean air, water and soil are human rights." THE TOP TEN(In no particular order and unranked)Indoor air pollutionUrban air qualityUntreated sewageGroundwater contaminationContaminated surface waterArtisanal gold miningIndustrial mining activitiesMetals smelting and other processingRadioactive waste and uranium miningUsed lead-acid battery recyclingA downloadable copy of the report and more information is available at www.worstpolluted.org. ABOUT BLACKSMITH AND GREEN CROSS SWITZERLAND Blacksmith Institute designs and implements solutions for pollution related problems in the developing world. Blacksmith has completed over 50 projects and is engaged in over 30 projects in 14 countries. Green Cross Switzerland facilitates overcoming consequential damages caused by industrial and military disasters and the cleanup of contaminated sites from the period of the Cold War. Blacksmith Institute Jennifer Tibangin, 646.742.0200 jen@blacksmithinstitute.org www.blacksmithinstitute.orgJudges hear cases on hatchery vs wild salmon...GENE JOHNSONhttp://www.fresnobee.com/641/v-printerfriendly/story/950829.htmlA panel of federal appellate judges is being asked to decide whether the government should count hatchery-raised salmon and steelhead when considering the fish populations for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Lawyers for the building industry, farm and property rights groups asked Monday that the judges undo the listings of 16 West Coast salmon and steelhead populations under the act, arguing that thanks to abundant hatchery fish, the stocks are nowhere near extinction. In its lawsuit, the Alsea Valley Alliance of Oregon challenged the listing of 16 salmon and steelhead populations as endangered in Washington, Oregon and California, claiming the government was lowballing its estimates of salmon and steelhead populations by counting only wild fish. The listing unnecessarily harms the economy by restricting development and agriculture to protect salmon habitat, the alliance argued. U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan rejected the group's claims last year, finding that federal officials were not required to treat wild and hatchery fish identically. Scientific studies have shown that wild and hatchery fish in a river may be genetically the same, they have behavioral differences that make wild fish more successful at surviving. Environmentalists have argued that the point of the Endangered Species Act is to restore plant and animal populations to self-sustaining levels, without intervention from humans. But the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represents the Alsea plaintiffs, argues that the law is "intended to guard against the extinction of species, not to return ecosystems to the status and conditions they were in over 100 years ago." In the Upper Columbia River, the National Marine Fisheries Service found that hatchery fish reduced the immediate risk that steelhead would go extinct. The agency accordingly softened the status of the steelhead from "endangered" to "threatened." Fishermen and conservationists sued, arguing that it was irresponsible to reduce protections for wild fish based on high numbers of human-raised hatchery fish, and U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour in Seattle agreed. Steelhead are rainbow trout that, like salmon, spawn in rivers but go to sea, where there is much more food, and return to their natal streams to spawn. As logging, farming, dam construction and urban development destroyed their river habitat, hatcheries have been built to fill the gap. Sacramento BeeCase of the missing meters: Solved?...Tony Bizjakhttp://www.sacbee.com/101/story/1329736.htmlThe city of Sacramento's 4,500 famously missing water meters may be right under everyone's feet, preliminary investigative results suggest.A company hired by the city to check in-ground boxes around the city reportedly has found 32,000 meters in place at homes and businesses.That's just about the number that city officials believe they have purchased over the past decade from suppliers. "All indications are that number (4,500) is going to be a lot less," assistant city manager Marty Hanneman said Monday. "How much, we don't know yet. We are in the ballpark but not certain."The investigation into the whereabouts of more than a $1 million worth of unaccounted-for meters is expected to be finished and presented to the City Council in mid-November.Hanneman said city officials are going through years of supplier invoices and are finding what they think are errors in documents from a main supplier, Badger Meter Inc. of Milwaukee."We are still reconciling how much we thought we bought from Badger," Hanneman said. "We are finding the invoices are not accurate. So we are working with that company to clean up their invoice process."Badger officials could not be reached Monday evening.Sacramento's "Metergate" mess has dogged city officials for several years, costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars, and leading to an FBI investigation and a guilty plea by one former city water superintendent on bribery charges for accepting payment for sale of salvage water meters.Hanneman said the city still is working with police to determine if any of its new meters are missing as a result of illegal resales. But Hanneman said Monday that doesn't appear to be the case."As of what we know right now, there is no indication that happened," he said.Nevertheless, in a series of audits earlier this year, City Auditor Martin Kolkin found fault nearly across the board with the city's handling of its water meter program.Deficiencies included record-keeping that couldn't account for 4,500 meters, or accurately account for how many meters had been installed. Problems included poor oversight, failure to follow competitive bidding procedures, unaccounted-for camcorders and cameras, and questionable employee debit card charges. CALFED Bay-Delta ProgramState of Bay-Delta Science, 2008, Released:Landmark Publication on the California Delta...Press Release...10-20-08 http://www.calwater.ca.gov/content/Documents/newsroom/SBDS_News_Release_10-20-08.pdfThe CALFED Science Program has published a book summarizing the significant new knowledge gleaned from eight years of CALFED science research into water supply and water quality, ecosystems and levee fragility in the California Delta.The State of Bay-Delta Science, 2008, is being released on October 21, 2008, on the eve of the 5th Biennial CALFED Science Conference, initiating the gathering of 1,200 San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta scientists, managers and policymakers.“This is a landmark publication summarizing our current understanding of the Delta by the most knowledgeable experts on the estuary,” said Cliff Dahm, CALFED Lead Scientist. The effort was led by Michael Healey, a former CALFED Lead Scientist and Science Advisor to the Governor’s Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force.“I envision this as a go-to book for managers and policy makers, as well as interested members of the public that are working to gain a better understanding through science of forces at work in the Delta,” said Healey.The definitive reference pulls together in one publication information on a broad array of issues critical to the sustainable management of water and the Delta. The science outlined in this volume is expected to play a critical role in the implementation of Delta Vision and the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan. Some of the key points made in the 174-page book include the following:• The Delta of tomorrow will be very different than it is today. Intensifying forces of change, such as land subsidence, rising sea level, species invasions, earthquakes and regional population growth, virtually guarantee that current land and water use in the Delta cannot be sustained. (Chapter 1)• When levees were first constructed, Delta islands were close to sea level. Farming, water recent subsidence modeling suggests that by 2200, the Central Delta will be 30 to 40 feet below sea level. (Chapter 5) • With climate change, California will become warmer, more precipitation will fall as rain and less as snow, the snowpack will be much reduced, and there will be less groundwater recharge. These changes will challenge the capacity of California’s water management system to provide reliable, high quality water to satisfy human and environmental needs. (Chapter 6)      Other areas of the book deal with Delta history, science, geophysics, water quality and supply, aquatic ecosystems, levees, climate change, policy development and some themes that are crosscutting across areas and issues.In addition to Healey, other editors of the publication are Michael D. Dettinger, Research Hydrologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography; and Robert B. Norgaard, Professor of Energy and Resources at the University of California, Berkeley. Darcy Jones and Jana Machula of the CALFED Science Program were managing editors.Among the authors are two former CALFED lead scientists, Samuel Luoma and Johnnie Moore; retired state chief hydrologist, Maurice Roos; present and former CALFED scientists Steven Culberson, Matt Nobriga, Mark Roberson, Elizabeth Soderstrom and Lisa Holm; USGS scientists Brian Bergamaschi, Robin Stewart, Cathy Ruhl, David Schoellhamer, Jan Thompson and Larry Brown; academics Wim Kimmerer and Peter Moyle; and consultants Roy Shlemon, Susan Anderson and Loren Bottorff.Copies of the The State of Bay-Delta Science, 2008, will be available to attendees of the CALFED Science Conference October 22-24, at the Sacramento Convention Center, or beginning October 22 on the CALFED website. Hard copies are available by contacting Rhonda Hoover-Flores at rhondah@calwater.ca.gov.Stockton RecordFrench Camp egg ranch hit by suit...The Recordhttp://www.recordnet.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20081021/A_BIZ/810210306/-1/A_NEWSSeveral French Camp residents and the U.S. Humane Society filed a federal suit Monday against the Olivera Egg Ranch over the release of ammonia and noxious odors from the farm.The suit, filed in federal court in Sacramento, claims violations of two U.S. laws concerning the release of hazardous materials - in this case ammonia - into the air. Those same issues were raised in a notice to the egg ranch in July that the groups intended to sue. The court action filed Monday incorporates one additional legal charge: that under California law noxious gases, odors and dust from the farming operation constitute an illegal nuisance to nearby residents.The society is a major sponsor of Proposition 2 on the November ballot, which would require certain farm animals be given space to stand, turn around and extend their limbs.San Francisco ChronicleReport: EPA overstating enforcement record...DINA CAPPIELLO, Associated Press Writerhttp://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2008/10/20/national/w153011D39.DTL&type=printableAccounting practices at the Environmental Protection Agency have helped mask how much the Bush administration has slashed penalties against polluters, according to congressional investigators.A Government Accountability Office report to be released Tuesday says the agency has overstated its enforcement of environmental violations to the public and to Congress by including fines that may never be paid when it tallies penalties.EPA officials said that's the way the agency has always reported fines, including before President Bush took office.Granta Nakayama, the head of EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, said in a letter to the GAO in response to its findings that reporting the penalties levied rather than those collected deters polluters."We do not believe that penalties collected should be publicly reported," Nakayama wrote.Fines levied against polluters by the EPA decreased from $240.6 million in 1998 to $137.7 million in 2007.The levied fines in 2004, 2005 and 2006 included a total of $227.2 million in so-called default judgments. The agency admitted these hard-to-collect fines were larger in those years; GAO said they are unlikely to be collected.Removing those penalties "results in a significant reduction in the overall level of penalties reported," the GAO said.House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who requested the GAO investigation, accused the EPA of trying to cover up its enforcement record."The bottom line is that environmental enforcement has significantly declined since the Bush administration took office," Dingell said.On the Net:House Energy and Commerce Committee: energycommerce.house.gov/GAO: http://gao.gov.Restoration offers more questions than answers...John Kinghttp://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/10/21/DDG113JJAJ.DTL&type=printableIn his essay "Loma Prieta, Part Two," author James D. Houston writes movingly of how, in this ever-growing corner of the world, it's essential that our remaining "natural blessings ... should be revered and attended to."Standing on a pockmarked levee near the low arc of the Dumbarton Bridge, I see how complex the act of reverence can be.To the east is a soft slope of pickleweed and then water, the southern reaches of the bay that defines our region. To the west, encrusted formations of salt rise from the shallows made red by the presence of algae.But this mottled terrain - identified prosaically as SF2 on maps in the know - is where the largest and potentially most inspirational development in Bay Area history will begin next year: the restoration of 13,500 acres of what once was tidal marsh.Except that restoration isn't really the right word."The big question is: What will nature do in response to what we do out here?" mused Steven Ritchie. "This is a large-scale experiment."Ritchie's my affable tour guide; he also manages the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, an effort begun in 2003, when state and federal agencies spent $100 million to purchase vast tracts of former bay from Cargill Inc.The conversion of shallow bay into salt flats began in the 1850s. As miners sought gold in the Sierra foothills, fortune seekers of a different sort fashioned a clumsy grid of ponds separated by levees. Water was shifted from pond to pond until it all evaporated, leaving lucrative salt in its wake.This is a big reason the bay lost 85 percent of its natural tidal marshes in the century after the Gold Rush; on the other hand, such uses also prevented the sort of development that now lies inland, industrial parks and multilane expressways. Salt ponds also are popular with migratory waterfowl, such as grebes, that aren't as keen on shrubby marshes."The whole concept 'nature abhors a vacuum' plays out in spades here," Ritchie said. "New species of birds moved in."Opening the spaceCargill still "mines" salt on 8,000 acres in Newark. It retains 1,400 acres of Redwood City shoreline where it wants to develop half the site while converting the rest to parks and wetlands. But all other South Bay salt ponds today are in public hands.Now comes the hard part.Pond SF2 and its 240 acres offers a sense of what lies ahead. The first thing you'll see from the Dumbarton Bridge will be bulldozers churning up mud, forming an outer berm while shaping 30 artificial islands within. Half will be hairbrush-shaped, the other half squarish.Once the new landscape is in place, new culverts will be opened - partly - to let bay tides pass through. Sediment will gather. Tidal plants such as native cordgrass will settle in.Scientists will watch which species of birds prefer which islands, and which ones build nests. Researchers also will monitor the newcomers' impact on the western half of SF2 - an arid-looking plateau that is favored by the western snowy plover, a threatened species.Multiply this by the 52 other ponds in the Cargill purchase.This is beyond any sort of ecological restoration before attempted in an urban region, so much so that planners don't even pretend to know how things will go. The environmental impact report prepared by consultants, including the planning firm EDAW and hydrologist Philip Williams and Associates, lays out an "adaptive management" strategy that aims for a final balance of 90 percent tidal marsh and 10 percent "managed ponds" (a.k.a. open water). But the plan is flexible enough that once the mix is 50-50, the future can be reassessed if, say, the number of American avocets plunges."If we keep 10 percent as managed ponds and do it just right, that should be enough to maintain the needed habitat," Ritchie explained. "One school of thought is that a lot of these birds really like salt ponds. Another school of thought says they'll prefer mud flats if there's an option." Billion-dollar projectThe restoration effort is expected to take at least 30 years, with a price tag of - wait for it - $1 billion. And when it's done, don't expect Crissy Field-like panoramas. It will be more like the view east of Benicia from Interstate 680, dull pickleweed and natural tidal channels, with a trail here and there.After five years and $37 million of planning, environmental maintenance and such demonstration projects as the restoration of three small ponds near Milpitas, Ritchie had hoped work would begin last summer; instead, he's waiting on green lights and legal OKs that always take more work and time than expected. "Besides going to hearings and conferences, my life is consumed by getting permits," Ritchie said.What worries me is whether, in the long run, the push for methodical restoration and its benefits will survive funding shortages and political in-fighting.Some groups want extensive public access, while others would keep humans away from all habitat. Pragmatists willing to allow isolated trade-offs to hasten restoration elsewhere, such as the Cargill proposal in Redwood City, are opposed by purists who view the sacrifice of any potential acre of bay as a crime again nature.For his part, Ritchie avoids politics: "I was trained as an engineer." He's confident the money will come - from bonds, from flood-control funds, perhaps someday from the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority authorized this month by Gov. Schwarzenegger. Created after lobbying by such groups as Save the Bay, it would have to authority to propose taxes or fees.Any other ideas?"Corporate sponsorship?" Ritchie suggested with a smile. "If we could just get marsh vegetation to grow into the Google logo - that would be something to sell."Inside Bay AreaWal-Mart expansion comes before Tracy council again...Mike Martinez, Tri-Valley Heraldhttp://www.insidebayarea.com/trivalleyherald/localnews/ci_10770547If history is any indicator and you're planning to attend tonight's Tracy City Council meeting, you might want to be prepared for a long one.The proposed Wal-Mart expansion, which generated a 170-page staff report, is on the agenda. The project would add 82,704 square feet to the existing 125,696-square-foot store at 3010 W. Grant Line Road. In July, after about two hours of testimony from about 50 speakers, who were mixed over whether to transform the current Wal-Mart into a super center, the council decided to postpone making a decision, asking for more information on energy efficiency and architecture, among other things.A draft environmental impact report released earlier this year for the proposed expansion forecast that at least one supermarket could be forced to close if the project is approved, a point the project's opponents have rallied around."The project, in combination with other planned supermarket or supermarket-type projects ... could result in the closure of one or more supermarkets, with the Save Mart on 11th Street being the most at risk," the report said. "There may be difficulty re-tenanting spaces that have been vacated by closed supermarkets."But given the state of the economy, and the potential effect on vacancies, there would be no urban decay, according to city staff."If there were to be a large number of vacancies within the city, staff is confident that the policies and regulations that have successfully prevented urban decay in the city's past ... will again prevail," city documents state. The vacated sites could be used for mixed-use developments with retail, office and residential units, the EIR report added. Several employees of Modesto-based Save Mart Supermarkets, one of the Central Valley's largest grocery chains, and members of "Tracy First," a collection of Tracy residents and business owners, spoke against the proposed expansion in July.Tracy First sued the city following the approval of a WinCo in the Tracy Pavilion shopping center and adjacent to the former Linens-N-Things store at the north end, claiming the council failed to gain approval of the city's Planning Commission before the item was approved by the council last April. But a San Joaquin County Superior Court judge didn't see it that way, ruling there is no requirement for the city to refer an EIR back to the Planning Commission to reconsider its recommendation, and there was no denial of due process or a fair hearing after two council members discussed the project with members of the public outside the hearing.The matter has since been taken to the California Third Court of Appeals.North County TimesREGION: State reservoirs at lowest level since 1994...DAVE DOWNEYhttp://www.nctimes.com/articles/2008/10/20/news/sandiego/zd10d032430ea106c882574e5005f0d10.prtThe amount of water being stored in California reservoirs is at its lowest point in 14 years, underscoring the severity of a worsening drought that could prompt providers to order rationing in San Diego and Riverside counties as early as January.Steve Nemeth, who tracks storage levels for the state Department of Water Resources in Sacramento, said Friday that 15.84 million acre-feet of water was sitting in 150 reservoirs spread throughout the state at the end of last month.Nemeth said the last time the total was that low was in September 1994, when reservoirs collectively held 15.76 million acre-feet.An acre-foot is enough to sustain the water needs of two families of four for a year.Officials say the steep decline is the result of a string of dry winters in the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains, the state's two major water sources. And it didn't help that a federal court last year ordered a sharp reduction in deliveries to Southern California from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to prevent the slaughter of tiny fish called delta smelt.The shaky condition of Southern California's lifeline is dramatically illustrated by the retreating shorelines of North County's Lake Henshaw, which is barely half full, and giant Diamond Valley Lake in Southwest Riverside County, which is 59 percent full.Diamond Valley, the region's insurance policy against drought, has developed so many bathtub rings and dropped so far the boat ramp there no longer touches the water and was closed last week."This action speaks volumes about the seriousness of the water-supply situation Southern California faces next year," said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager for Metropolitan Water District, the region's largest water supplier and the lake owner, in a statement.John Liarakos, a spokesman for the San Diego County Water Authority, which buys water from Metropolitan and distributes it to local districts and cities, said there is a strong possibility supplies will be rationed in the first part of 2009, perhaps by January.The last year San Diego County residents faced mandatory water rationing was 1991.The drought has persisted most of this decade, gradually drawing down reservoirs throughout the state and across the Southwest.Indeed, the Colorado River reservoir system currently stands at 57 percent, said Colleen Dwyer, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Boulder City, Nev. That's better than the record low of 50 percent in October 2004, but well below the more consistent levels of the 1970s, '80s and '90s, Dwyer said."Lake Powell is approximately 26 feet higher than it was at this time last year," she said. "Lake Mead, unfortunately, has dropped 5 feet from this time last year."Long before this time next year, residents may have no choice but to use less water for drinking, showering and watering lawns.New York TimesMore Sadness for Appalachia...Editorialhttp://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/21/opinion/21tue2.html?_r=1&sq=mining&st=cse&oref=slogin&scp=4&pagewanted=printThe Bush administration is writing one more sad chapter in the long, tortured history of Appalachia’s coal-rich hills. Last week, the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining proposed a revision, amounting to a repeal, of one of the last regulatory protections against an environmentally ruinous mining practice called mountaintop removal. Mountaintop removal is just what the name suggests: enormous machines scrape away mountain ridges to expose the coal seams. The leftover rock and dirt are then dumped into adjacent valleys and streams. The practice has gone on for years. By one estimate, 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried this way and hundreds of square miles of forests damaged. No recent administration, Democrat or Republican, has made a serious effort to end the dumping, largely in deference to the coal industry and the political influence of Robert Byrd, West Virginia’s senior senator. But beginning in the late-1990s, concerned citizens tried to slow things by invoking the so-called stream buffer zone rule, which seeks to protect water quality by prohibiting any mining activity within 100 feet of flowing streams. With the urging of the coal companies, the Bush administration started looking for creative ways to ensure that this destructive practice could continue. In 2002, for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency found itself inconvenienced by a rule explicitly prohibiting the use of mining waste as “fill” in streams and wetlands for development and other purposes. So the administration simply rewrote the regulations. The nettlesome buffer zone rule still remained in place, so in 2004 the administration began a systematic effort to weaken it as well. That culminated Friday when the Office of Surface Mining sent its proposal for gutting the rule to the E.P.A., whose concurrence is required. Both John McCain and Barack Obama have said in the last month that they oppose mountaintop removal, which may explain the administration’s mad dash to rewrite the rule before a more conservation-minded administration arrives in town. Their opposition also inspires slim hopes among environmentalists that Stephen Johnson, the E.P.A.’s administrator, would withhold his approval. That would be an enormous surprise, but also enormously welcome.Financial Times (UK)Kerkorian sells down his Ford stake...John Reed in London http://us.ft.com/ftgateway/superpage.ft?news_id=fto102120080955357517In a sharp change of strategy, Kirk Kerkorian, the US billionaire, is selling down his stake in Ford Motor because he sees more value in his core gambling holdings.The move represents a fresh blow for Ford, the most highly leveraged of Detroit’s three loss-making carmakers, which has replaced its chief financial officer and seen two of its most experienced board members resign this month.In a statement on Tuesday, Mr Kerkorian’s investment vehicle Tracinda Corporation said it sold on Monday 7.3m shares of Ford common stock at an average price of $2.43 each and that it intended to further reduce its holdings in the stock, including the possible sale of all its remaining shares.Tracinda said it still held 133.5m Ford shares, accounting for 6.06 per cent of the troubled carmaker’s outstanding shares.Ford was trading at $2.24 on Tuesday morning, down 3.9 per cent. The shares have shed around 67 per cent in value since the beginning of the year.Tracinda said that it saw “unique value in the gaming and hospitality and oil and gas industries and has, therefore, decided to reallocate its resources and to focus on those industries.” Mr Kerkorian’s company is the primary shareholder of casino operator MGM Grand.Mr Kerkorian decided to build up his stake in Ford in April, on the heels of encouraging first-quarter financial results from Detroit’s number two carmaker. He said at the time that Ford’s management “was starting to achieve highly meaningful traction in its turnaround efforts.”Since then, Americans’ rapid move away from large vehicles like Ford’s F-Series trucks, along with the global economic slowdown, have jeopardised a two-year-old restructuring plan put in place by Alan Mulally, chief executive.Earlier this month Ford replaced Don Leclair with Lewis Booth as its chief financial officer. Two of its most experienced board members, Jorma Ollila and Sir John Bond, resigned citing other commitments.As it seeks to right its loss-making, core US auto business, Ford is also struggling to extract value from its overseas assets. It is in the process of cutting a quarter of staff at Volvo, its lossmaking Swedish premium brand, and trying to sell its 33 per cent stake in Japan’s Mazda.The 91-year-old Mr Kerkorian is seen as the most influential activist investor for Detroit’s carmakers.He built a 10 per cent stake in General Motors, selling it in late 2006 after failing to push through strategic changes at America’s biggest domestic carmaker, such as a proposed alliance with Renault and Nissan.He also led a failed attempt to take over Chrysler in the 1990s.At Ford, Mr Kerkorian was a lower-profile presence. Jerome York, his representative, was quoted as saying he thought Ford should sell Volvo, but avoided making public statements on Mr Mulally’s strategy.