1-6-09Merced Sun-StarToxic leak upsets Beachwood homeownersResidents say they didn't know about water pollution from chromium 6 spill...JONAH OWEN LAMBhttp://www.mercedsunstar.com/167/v-print/story/624081.htmlWhen Debra Fenner and her husband bought their Beachwood-area home in the Summit Meadows development in September, there were some things they didn't know. They said they were not told, for instance, that Ranchwood Homes, which built their house, was being sued over polluted floodwater as part of a class-action lawsuit in a Fresno federal court. Nor were they told, they said, of the toxic leak under the neighborhood caused by a subsidiary of the pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. (Merck's lawyers have argued that although there was pollution of the water by its subsidiary, there's no evidence anyone got sick from it.)Century 21 AmeriPro's representative, Andrea Covert, who sold the house to the Fenners, didn't say anything about the groundwater cleanup that had been under way for 16 years or the lawsuit -- until after the sale had closed, the Fenners contend.Covert and her husband, Nathan, came over the day after the new owners had signed the purchase papers. The visitors brought a bottle of wine and some documents that also needed to be signed, Fenner said. Those papers released Ranchwood of liability over the toxic water under the ground."Andrea, we should have been told this," Fenner said she told Covert. But it was too late. The house was Fenner's. So she signed.Covert indeed should have told Fenner, according to Tom Pool, a California Department of Real Estate spokesman. "An agent is required to disclose any material facts," he added. "If they know, then this is something that should have been disclosed." He said that Ranchwood Homes, the property's owner, is also responsible for such disclosure. What Covert might have said was this: a leak of unknown size, containing chromium 6, which has been connected to cancer and birth defects, seeped into the ground after use by a Merck subsidiary. It has also been found in small amounts in the groundwater used by Meadowbrook Water Co., which supplies more than 1,500 homes in the Beachwood area. The failure to disclose just what was going on wasn't confined to the Fenners. Other Summit Meadows homeowners say they were told little or nothing about the lawsuit or the cleanup of chromium 6 in the area's groundwater before they bought their homes. Bill Earnest bought a Ranchwood house in the development in 2008. Covert and her husband, Nathan, also sold him his house, says Earnest. They did mention water, but not any pollution or lawsuit. When Earnest drank some water from the tap before the sale, Covert said it tasted good because the government had thrown in money for a treatment plant, Earnest said. She didn't mention that the plant was built to clean up polluted water, he said. "I have a valueless house and am still making mortgage payments," said Earnest. "If we try to sell, then we have to fully disclose this information."Lyn Rhodes and his son Keith also knew nothing before they bought their foreclosed house from London Properties. "We were not informed of any liabilities of the water," said Rhodes. Their Realtor, Frank Contreras, first heard about the suit and toxic water only after he sold the property when he read about it in a published account within the past month. If he'd have known before he would have told the Rhodeses, he said.When the Sun-Star called Covert about her alleged failure to disclose, she said, "We are not allowed to comment on anything like that. We cannot comment. Everything has to come through Ranchwood."Ranchwood's owner, Greg Hostetler, didn't return phone calls for the story.But knowledge of the contamination has long been public. According to the Regional Water Control Board, the first public notice of the contaminated groundwater went out in 1992. In 2007 the board also sent out a fact sheet to residents about the cleanup. For Mick Marderosian, the lead attorney in the suit against Merck's pollution, there wasn't adequate notification to the area's population before February 2007: "They weren't told by the polluter. The polluter should give proper notice."As for Meadowbrook's water, Connie Farrif, the company's operations manager, said there's no problem with it: "We do all required monitoring religiously and we are confident that the water is safe to drink. We drink it here."More students compete for fewer UC slotsMore students will be referred to under-enrolled campuses like UC Merced...Robert Faturechi, The Sacramento Beehttp://www.mercedsunstar.com/167/v-print/story/623062.htmMore students have applied to attend a University of California campus next year than any year in UC's history.The count is preliminary, UC officials said, but will likely amount to a record number of rejection letters sent to high school seniors and aspiring transfer students."It looks like there will be fewer open spots than last year," UC spokesman Ricardo Vasquez said.About 127,000 students applied to attend at least one of UC's nine undergraduate campuses during the fall 2009 term – a 5 percent increase over last year.During sound economic times, that would be more students than UC campuses have room to admit. Only 77,521 of the 121,005 undergraduates who applied for 2008 – a UC record at the time – were accepted.But these are not sound economic times for the state's university systems.UC regents warned in November that they would cut freshman enrollment for 2009 if the state didn't give them additional money. The UC system was already enrolling about 10,000 more students than the state gave them money for.The outlook for high school seniors and transfers began looking even more dire Wednesday when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed significant funding cuts to the state's university systems.His proposal aims to cut $131 million from the UC system by June 30, 2010, and eliminate a planned 7.5 percent budget increase of $210 million for 2009-10.The governor's proposal also is based on the assumption that UC regents will approve fee increases of 9.9 percent, from $7,126 to $7,788 a year."Students, when they enroll at UC, expect a certain level of excellence, and in the absence of funding for enrollment growth, it's very difficult to maintain that," Vasquez said.Even for students who do make the cut, getting into the campus of their choice next year will be tough.UC President Mark Yudof suggested at the November regents meeting that more students than usual would be denied admission to their first-choice campuses and referred to under-enrolled campuses such as UC Merced.Applicants had until the end of November to file their applications.UC admissions officials have begun sorting through them, and incoming freshmen should expect to receive their decision letters by the end of March. Transfer applicants could be notified as late as May 1.Vasquez said final application figures won't be available until later this month, after duplicates are weeded out and the increasingly antiquated paper applications are counted. Until then, he said, it would be hard to say definitively why UC received so many applications this year. He guessed more students are looking for affordable alternatives to private universities in the midst of a recession.He said freshman applications for next year are up roughly 3 percent, and transfer applications jumped about 12 percent compared with last year."I know people who are really, really stressed out," said Jimmy Cooper, a senior at Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado Hills.His first-choice school is UCLA, but the souring economy and the tumult at UC have him leaning toward more affordable schools in the California State University system and community colleges closer to home."I do want to get in," he said. "But if I don't, community college or a local state school doesn't seem like that bad of an idea anymore." Our View: Valley debate over densityOld habits of urban sprawl are no longer sustainable in the region.http://www.mercedsunstar.com/181/story/624097.htmlThe debate over new rules for development in the Valley is dividing those who favor a small shift toward greater densities from those who favor a bolder approach.The debate isn't over yet, but it signals how far we have to go to change our conventional thinking in the effort to halt urban sprawl.The context of the debate is the planning process known as the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint, which has been in the works for two years now. Two proposals have emerged that set goals for density in residential development. One calls for an average of 18 people per acre of new development; the other for 31 people per acre.The current average in the Valley is around 13 people per acre.Some officials are saying the higher figure isn't right for the Valley, with its tradition of suburban living and its large rural expanses. Others believe the higher figure is necessary for the future of the Valley because of concerns about the environment, traffic congestion and the loss of farmland to development.Looming over the whole process is the recently enacted Senate Bill 375, the landmark law that requires local governments to make greenhouse-gas reductions a consideration in their planning efforts. SB 375 ties access to state transportation funds to compliance with California's greenhouse-gas initiative.We're concerned that some in this debate aren't facing certain realities. We really have no choice but to raise the densities of urban development in this region.The historical pattern of endless sprawl is no longer sustainable. It exacerbates the Valley's already poor air quality. It requires infrastructure expenses that we can no longer afford. It robs us of precious farmland that can never be replaced. It stretches out increasingly expensive commutes and it contributes to our indefensible dependence on imported oil.And are officials willing to gamble on losing state transportation dollars?The argument is often made that Valley residents aren't in the market for such dense urban dwellings. But Valley residents rarely have the opportunity to make that choice; such developments are not common in the region.Nor does a higher density figure -- even 31 people per acre -- mean the end of suburban lifestyles. We're talking about an average here. Urban housing often reaches levels much higher than 31 people per acre, meaning lower densities would still be possible in some areas, so long as the average is met.The regional blueprint process is coming up on a new phase, with a public "summit" meeting scheduled for Jan. 26 at the Fresno Convention Center. That's the time to settle the debate over housing densities.But one thing is certain: They will have to go up. The Valley can't go on with a status quo that robs us of farmland, congests our roads and highways and fouls our air. Modesto BeeLowering UC's standards has several costs...Doug Ose. Ose, of Granite Bay, is a developer who served three terms in Congress. http://www.modbee.com/opinion/community/v-print/story/553747.htmlEditor's note: This article was submitted in response to The Bee's editorial "Changes in UC admissions should improve process" (Jan. 2, Page A-1).Recently the University of California Board of Regents considered a proposal to lower admission standards for incoming freshman. At the heart of the proposal is the elimination of the SAT subject tests and the establishment of a "holistic" admissions process called Entitled to Review.The concern is that eliminating subject tests removes a long- established path to admissions that has a proven record in predicting a student's readiness for success in college. Changing to this new policy invites legal mischief. UCLA has been using "holistic" admissions practices and now faces scrutiny for potential violations of Proposition 209, which outlawed college admissions based on race or ethnicity. Fortunately, a significant public outcry from students and others forced the regents to postpone making any decision until early 2009.Concerns about lower standards have fueled much of the admissions policy debate, but the costs associated with these changes have received considerably less attention. UC officials statewide reviewed the proposal last year and a December 2007 report showed that "divisions and committees listed a number of concerns, which included costs/resources" connected to the proposal. These higher costs were explicitly laid out during the September 2008 regents meeting when the board was informed that "(University of California Office of the President) costs ... are anticipated to increase by at least $1 million annually."The regents were also informed that if the new admissions policy "achieves its goal of substantially increasing the number of students who apply to UC, both UCOP and campuses will see increased costs."The proposal for changing the admissions policy must take account of the changing fiscal situation confronting UC. The global financial crisis has sent shock waves through the state budget and nothing is immune to spending cuts, including the state's higher education system. Gov. Schwarzenegger has proposed more than $65 million in additional cuts from the UC budget after previously slashing spending by $48 million.Making things worse, the UC endowment has lost $1 billion over the first nine months of 2008, and UC Treasurer Marie Berggren bluntly informed the regents during their November meeting, "It's going to get worse."Financial problems at UC are so severe that the regents warned in November that the university may have to cut freshman enrollment. There's also talk of a possible $215 million hike in student fees. The regents voted against the hike at their most recent meeting, but lawmakers in Sacramento may be forced to revisit the issue.It appears that one hand doesn't know what the other hand is doing.Prudent fiscal management would have UC on a cautious approach during these economic times, with a focus on core missions and competencies. Yet UC President Mark Yudof is recommending that the Board of Regents approve a new admissions policy that increases costs while lowering academic standards. This is a lose-lose situation: an admissions policy that dumbs-down academic standards in a costly exercise in social engineering while siphoning scarce resources from a cash-strapped system.Where will the money come from to pay for these new initiatives?The more closely one examines these proposed changes to the UC admissions policy, the worse it looks. Lower standards risk the university's legacy of academic excellence. Higher costs threaten the resources available for scholarly pursuit. The process dashes the hopes of applicants seeking admission to an institution that cannot afford to accept them. It is a trifecta of folly that must be rejected.Changes in UC admissions should improve process...Editorial...1-2-09http://www.modbee.com/opinion/v-print/story/550495.htmlHigh school freshmen in the Class of 2012 who are eyeing the University of California should prepare for potential changes in admission policies.The UC Board of Regents is considering setting new requirements early in 2009. These would make admission less rigidly mechanical in some ways and make it tougher in other ways. All in all, the proposed changes are to the good.First, students entering high school now and preparing for college should know what would not change: the number of college preparatory courses they'd have to take in high school (15 courses) and the minimum grade-point average they'd have to get in these courses (3.0).Students also would still have to take the 3-hour, 45-minute SAT Reasoning Test that assesses reading, mathematical reasoning and writing skills.But there is a big proposed change: eliminating the requirement that students take two SAT subject tests (choosing among English, history and social studies, mathematics, science and languages), in addition to the SAT Reasoning Test.This change is overdue. No other public university system in the country requires those extra tests. Only a few dozen private universities required them last year.These extra tests are expensive (and many students also pay for extra prep courses before the tests), needlessly narrowing the number of students who are eligible for UC admission. Not surprisingly, less privileged students are disproportionately affected. Typically, according to UC, about half as many California students take SAT Subject Tests as take the SAT Reasoning Test.Further, a February report by the UC Academic Senate concludes that "analysis of the most recent data indicates that, once other information has been considered such as GPA and SAT Reasoning scores, the subject exam scores contribute very little to the prediction of initial success at UC." Translation: These extra tests are not worth the extra time that students and universities spend on them.To be sure, the proposed change is causing some squawking from the company that administers the tests and doesn't want to lose the big California market for SAT Subject Tests. But the regents should look beyond narrow interests to consider California's needs.California's 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education calls for UC to admit the top one-eighth (12.5 percent) of high school students.The proposal would admit 10 percent of the high school graduating class based on GPA in required college prep courses and SAT Reasoning Test scores. Another 2.5 percent would be selected from a pool of students who, by 11th grade, have taken required college prep courses and the SAT Reasoning Test. These students would have their applications reviewed, and those judged to have the highest achievement would be offered a place at a UC campus.The reality is that the system now favors those who have the wherewithal, in the words of the Senate's report, to "successfully navigate the bureaucratic complexities of the policy." The new proposal is more likely to reach students with strong records of academic achievement who weren't likely to apply or were likely to be rejected for technical reasons. It should give more students a fair shot at UC admission. The regents should give it a try.Fresno BeeKempthorne touts Interior reforms in final speech...JOHN MILLER, Associated Press Writerhttp://www.fresnobee.com/641/story/1108546.htmlBOISE, Idaho - Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne defended his two-year tenure in Washington, D.C., saying it was highlighted by ethics reforms he hopes will improve the agency's integrity after a slew of scandals.The former Idaho governor, who took national office in May 2006 after Gale Norton's departure, spoke here Monday in what he called his "last formal speech" as a Bush administration cabinet member. U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., has been nominated by President-elect Barack Obama to replace Kempthorne.The past two years have seen news accounts of Interior staffers who have been found to have improperly interfered with Endangered Species Act decisions; have been convicted of lying to Congress; and have been discovered to have had sex with oil-industry executives, as well as using cocaine and marijuana. Most of this activity took place while Norton headed the office, between 2001 and 2006. Kempthorne said he's installed a new ethics officer, has stressed the importance of recording discussions on potentially dicey matters in an ethics logbook, made an ethics DVD required viewing for new employees and fired employees involved in the worst of the transgressions."Without question, there have been a variety of issues concerning the integrity and activities of certain aspects of the Department," Kempthorne, Idaho's governor from 1999 to 2006 and Boise's mayor for eight years starting in 1985, told more than 200 people at a City Club speech."We have endeavored to create an atmosphere and culture of ethics in the department, which is critically important," he said. "I tell them, 'My mantra is, if in doubt, don't.'"Julie MacDonald, a deputy assistant secretary overseeing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service until her resignation in May 2007, was found to have exerted improper political interference on nearly every decision made on the protection of federally endangered species over five years.Also, Steven Griles, a former Norton deputy, in June became the highest-ranking Bush administration official convicted in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison for lying to the U.S. Senate.And in September 2008, an Interior Department Inspector General probe found a "culture of substance abuse and promiscuity" in Interior's Denver Minerals Management Service office, in charge of collecting billions of dollars in federal oil royalties. From 2002 through 2006, some staffers there were having sex with oil company personnel and using cocaine and marijuana, the report said.For much of the last eight years, the Department of Interior, whose 73,000 employees oversee the federal Endangered Species Act, a fifth of U.S. territory and 391 national parks, has been lambasted by environmental groups as an agency where politics and power trumped good policy."The Department of the Interior has been a place where the interests of private companies supersede sound science and the public interest," said Charles Clusen, a senior analyst at the Natural Resource Defense Council, in Washington, D.C.Clusen criticized recent Bush administration-issued changes to Endangered Species Act regulations that environmentalists say would, among other things, block the law from being used to combat global warming. The changes, which also eliminate some of the independent reviews government scientists do on dams, power plants and timber sales, take effect this month, just as Obama takes office.Kempthorne disputed the contention that his office has rushed modifications late in Bush's final term.He said he gave ample warning about the impending Endangered Species Act changes when he listed the polar bear as a threatened species in May due to receding sea ice, but refused to endorse the 1973 law as an instrument to regulate climate change. His role as the Bush administration winds down was akin to that of a quarterback in the waning minutes of the Super Bowl, he said."If you're to play in the entire game, you're to do what you've been asked to do," Kempthorne said. "Until Jan. 20, I am the secretary of Interior and I work for you. And I'm not just going to sit on the sidelines." Sacramento BeeDelta canal plan likely to land in court, experts agree...Matt Weiserhttp://www.sacbee.com/topstories/v-print/story/1518742.htmlThe Schwarzenegger administration's plan to fast-track construction of a water canal around the Delta leans on an old interpretation of state water law from a bygone era.Valid or not, supporters and critics agree the plan is more likely to fast-track its way into court."The simplest thing to predict is that somebody will sue to block this on any number of potential grounds," said Gregory Weber, an expert on water law at McGeorge School of Law. "My guess is that it will be years before these matters are resolved and any construction actually were to take place." On Friday, a committee of administration officials released a long-awaited plan to improve water supply and habitat in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Its most controversial element: By 2011, start building a giant canal to divert the Sacramento River around the estuary.Mike Chrisman, chairman of the committee and secretary of the state's Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the Department of Water Resources, said the state already has legal authority to build the canal. It doesn't need approval, he said, from lawmakers or California voters.But he said the administration will work with the Legislature on a funding plan and related habitat restoration projects."We're going to have to sit down and work through this whole process with the Legislature as we move along," he said. "But it's going to be quite a challenge for us, at least in the short term."Lawmakers from both parties Monday expressed frustration that they are expected to cooperate on some aspects of Delta restoration but could be denied a role in its most controversial aspect – the canal."The health of the Delta is too important to bypass the people's representatives," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.Senate minority leader Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, criticized the plan from another perspective. He asked why the administration set a date for a new canal, but not for new dams.The administration's claim to authority rests largely in a 1984 opinion by then-Attorney General John Van de Kamp.He wrote that the state has authority to build a Delta canal and to issue bonds to pay for it under two earlier laws: the Burns-Porter Act of 1960, which authorized the State Water Project, and the State Central Valley Project Act of 1933. Both were approved by voters.But the opinion refers to a specific canal project proposed in 1984. Its bearing on today's proposal remains unclear. Chrisman's committee proposes both an earthen canal completely isolated from the Delta, and a "through-Delta" canal built by reinforcing existing levees."Existing legislation gives DWR a fair amount of independent authority to act. It is very broad language," said Cliff Schulz, a senior attorney at Kronick Moskovitz in Sacramento who has built his career on California water law.But Schulz, whose clients include state water contractors who are prepared to pay for the canal, said that hardly ends the discussion. "What my clients know and what I know, after being involved with this for 40 years, is that it's hard to imagine there won't be some litigation over this," he said.Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, a leader on Delta issues, said both the Legislature and voters should demand an oversight role. "It's not possible to break ground in 2011 without running roughshod over everybody except the water exporters. It's just the wrong way to approach this," she said.McGeorge professor Weber also said a ballot initiative may be necessary, partly because the public's 1982 vote against the canal carries no weight today. That vote did not change state water law, he said. It merely rejected a specific canal design proposed then. Valley retail icon Gottschalks teeters on edge...Dale Kaslerhttp://www.sacbee.com/business/v-print/story/1518711.htmlFRESNO – Even in the worst of times, when the economy provided little hope, the Central Valley at least had Gottschalks.Now that's in danger, too.Gottschalks Inc., the midpriced department store chain based in Fresno, might go out of business. A rescue plan with a Chinese merchant hasn't yet panned out. Negotiations are continuing, but Gottschalks said it could run out of money by the end of January. The company's demise would inflict yet another wound on this mostly working-class city. Foreclosures occur here at more than twice the national average, and unemployment is at 12.1 percent, compared with 8.4 percent statewide. Even Fresno's minor league hockey team just folded, cutting short its 41st season.And Gottschalks is on the brink."Here you have a homegrown company that has spread its wings out to most of the West Coast," said Chamber of Commerce President Al Smith. "We all sit around with our fingers crossed."Gottschalks' failure would hurt other parts of the Valley, too. In some towns, it's one of the few places to buy clothing, cosmetics and housewares under one roof. Though Gottschalks is a relatively small retailer in greater Sacramento, in many communities it's simply part of the family."It's geared toward ordinary folks like us," said Judy Larrabee, 61, of rural Coarsegold, who was shopping recently at the Gottschalks in Fresno's River Park shopping center. "They seem to cater to the tastes of the Valley."Said her mother, Marianne Dehmel, 86, "Everything in our closet is from Gottschalks."In a sense, Gottschalks is a victim of its roots. Traditional department stores are getting hurt by high-end specialty retailers and bloodthirsty discounters. Smallish chains such as Gottschalks, with 62 stores and around $600 million in annual sales, are particularly fragile because they can't buy goods as cheaply as big chains like Macy's.That cost disadvantage cripples Gottschalks, whose customers are often more price-conscious than, say, Nordstrom's. "Not having the buying power of a big company is very challenging," said George Whalin of Retail Management Consultants in San Marcos.Throw in a recession that's brutalized California, where Gottschalks gets 80 percent of its sales, and you have trouble."There's just a matter of time when you get squeezed by these big retailers, and you get squeezed by the economy," said Gottschalks board member Joseph Penbera, an economist at California State University, Fresno.Dale Chapman of Coalinga summed up the chain's woes as he shopped River Park just after Christmas: "I use Gottschalks only when they have their sales. Otherwise, there are alternatives with better value, Costco or online or catalog shopping."Another handicap is geography. Running from Indio, near Palm Springs, to Fairbanks, Alaska, Gottschalks is located mainly in far-flung, second-tier markets.Such a network stretches a company thin, creating enormous distribution and other operational costs."When you start to put stores in hard-to-get-to places, the cost of servicing those stores is just staggering," Whalin said.Still, Gottschalks was making a go of it until the recession began. It made money in 2006.But trouble signs existed even then. Revenue was sluggish, and the company did a lengthy study of whether it should sell out.No deal materialized. Instead, Gottschalks said in 2007 it would focus on building smaller stores emphasizing high-margin apparel, shoes and cosmetics. The first store opened in Elk Grove.Despite the new strategy, Gottschalks was overwhelmed by economic forces. In 2007 it reported an operating loss of $10.1 million and a 7 percent drop in revenue. Through the first nine months of 2008, operating losses grew 28 percent from a year earlier, to $18.8 million. Revenue fell 9 percent.As the year went on, Gottschalks trimmed expenses, sold some real estate and renegotiated an IOU to postpone the maturity date.But things worsened. In October Gottschalks was suspended by the New York Stock Exchange because its total stock value was below $25 million. It was relegated to the electronic "pink sheets" market, where it closed Monday at 22 cents a share, up a penny.And in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing in November, Gottshalks said it would probably run out of cash by late January without some sort of help.Yet the company was already working on a lifeline. In a deal made public in September, a Chinese trading company called Everbright Development Overseas Ltd. made a nonbinding agreement to pump $30 million into Gottschalks in loans and capital.Everbright would own 75 percent of the stock and provide a pipeline for selling inexpensive, foreign-made goods under Gottschalks' "house" brands.The deal died. On Dec. 18, Gottschalks said Everbright had pulled out. No reasons were given. A day later Gottschalks said it was still talking to Everbright and an unidentified third party.Company executives wouldn't comment for this story, but Penbera said management is working furiously to find a solution."We're struggling to preserve a tradition as much as anything else," he said. "For a large part of the population that couldn't afford higher-priced goods but wanted name brands, we were the only option – we are the only option."Emil Gottschalk, a 43-year-old German immigrant and ex-manager at the old Weinstocks-Lubin department store in Sacramento, opened his first store in downtown Fresno in 1904. Ten years later he moved to a nearby site that became a focal point in Fresno until it closed in 1988."It was a meeting place for people," said Cathy Rehart, a former historian with the Fresno Historical Society. "You could get everything you needed, right there," including books and sewing supplies.Emil's grand-nephew, Joe Levy, 76, ran the company for years and remains a board member, along with his wife Sharon, 74, a former county supervisor."You go to a fundraiser and they're sitting next to you," longtime Gottschalks shopper Dave Holden said as he left the River Park store. "Every fundraiser, every charity … Gottschalks is involved in some way."The two-story River Park store in north Fresno has been Gottschalks' flagship since the retailer left downtown. It's among the nicest in the chain and clearly reflects its surroundings, a center that includes Ruth's Chris Steak House and upscale kitchenware retailer Sur La Table. Even as signs proclaim deep post-Christmas discounts, the store has an understated quality."I'd rather spend the money here than at Macy's because it gets reinvested locally," Holden said. "I think it's a shame that a local icon, which is what they are, is in trouble."And loyalty runs strong in Oakhurst, a mountain town 40 miles north of Fresno with a population of 13,000.Not much larger than a big-city drugstore, the Oakhurst Gottschalks sits next to a Raley's in a strip mall. But it's the only place in town offering a menu of brands ranging from Levi's and Liz Claiborne to Krups and Cuisinart."We need to have a place to buy … the necessities," said Gail Garber, who shops the Oakhurst store for clothing, cosmetics and more. "You've got to have a little department store. It's important." Stockton RecordSalamander may trump subdivisionCalaveras planners recommend board reject development...Dana M. Nicholshttp://www.recordnet.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090106/A_NEWS/901060317/-1/A_NEWSWALLACE - Calaveras County's planning staff is recommending that the Board of Supervisors today reject a proposed 124-home subdivision in Wallace because the developer behind the project has not made changes necessary to protect the California Tiger Salamander, a species listed by the federal government as threatened with extinction.Les Hock, a spokesman for developer John D. Reynen, did not return a phone message Monday seeking comment. But in a letter written Nov. 28, Hock said he will ask the Board of Supervisors to approve a tentative map and zoning amendment for Wallace Lake Estates Unit 2. In the letter, Hock said the board did not make an issue of the salamander in 2007, when the board indefinitely delayed any decision on the matter.Instead, what supervisors were worried about in 2007 was whether the area had enough groundwater to support 124 additional homes. John E. Taylor, the county's interim planning director, said in a report to supervisors that he's now satisfied the water supply is adequate, even though Reynen refused to do additional studies that staff said were needed to assess the situation.As for the salamander, Taylor said in his report that staff received a letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the salamander, after environmental documents for Wallace Lake Estates Unit 2 already had been approved by the county Planning Commission in June 2007.Hock also argued in his letter that county officials already are requiring his development to get necessary permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, so the county should approve his map now and let him work out the details of protecting the salamander later with the Fish and Wildlife Service.Environmentalists and county officials, however, disagree with that view. They say mitigation for wildlife should be worked out before a developer is granted a tentative map. In the case of Wallace Lake Estates Unit 2, that map would look very different if the federal biologists' suggestions were followed.The Fish and Wildlife Service says the development could work fine for humans and salamanders if homes were concentrated at the south end of the project, leaving the north end of the project were the salamanders live to be a preserve.In contrast, the plan Reynen is now proposing would fragment that habitat with roads and introduce dogs, cats and other threats that will "likely lead to the eventual loss of the California Tiger Salamander occurrence within the preserve," Fish and Wildlife officials wrote.Reynen has been seeking approval of the project since 2005.John Buckley, executive director of Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, said the staff recommendation signals what an unusual piece of habitat is at stake."The key thing that it is rare is for Calaveras County Planning staff to recommend denial of a project," Buckley said.And Buckley said he agrees with county staff that the project should be approved only after the mitigation issues are resolved. He said granting a subdivision map to Reynen before would defeat state environmental laws.Pending home sales plunge to record low in November (7:48 a.m.)http://www.recordnet.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090106/A_NEWS/90106006WASHINGTON (AP) — Pending U.S. home sales fell to the lowest level on record in November, as the plummeting stock market and faltering economy caused buyers to delay their purchases, the National Association of Realtors said today. The index, which tracks signed contracts to purchase existing homes, fell 4 percent to 82.3 from a downwardly revised October reading of 85.7 in October. That was far worse than the reading of 88 that economists expected, according to Thomson Reuters. Typically there is a one- to two-month lag between a contract and a done deal. So November’s decline foreshadows bleak results for December’s existing home sales numbers, set to be release Jan. 26. Sales contracts fell around the country, but were weakest in the Northeast and Midwest. The Realtors’ index was down 5.3 percent from November 2007, and now sits at the lowest since in its eight-year history — beating the previous record low of 83 in March 2008. An index reading of 100 is equal to the average level of sales activity in 2001, when the index started. Lobbyists for the real estate industry are using the deteriorating housing market data to call on President-elect Barack Obama to devote attention to sinking home prices and sales — the genesis of the recession. “A real estate-focused stimulus plan is urgently needed,” Lawrence Yun, the trade group’s chief economist, said in a statement. The U.S. has been coping with the worst housing recession in decades, and many in the real estate, banking and mortgage industries are poring through each month’s data for signs of a bottom, with no luck so far. U.S. existing home sales plunged to a rate of 4.49 million in November, down 8.6 percent from October. When the final tally for 2008 is complete, it is likely to be the worst year for home sales in at least in a decade. Plus, with job losses mounting, there appears to be no quick turnaround this year. Indeed, the contracting economy makes the timing of any recovery a moving target. Home sales are growing in foreclosure-plagued areas like Las Vegas and Los Angeles, but are still sinking in most of the country. The Realtors group estimates that 45 percent of existing home sales are now foreclosures and other distressed properties. Yun, however, forecasts a modest increase in home sales for 2009. He projects sales will be up 6.6 percent, after plunging by around 13 percent in both 2007 and 2008. Prices are forecasts to remain relatively level with a median of $198,100 this year, up from $197,000 last year.Manteca BulletinWolk comes out against end run for canal project...POSTED  Jan. 6, 2009 1:22 a.m.http://mantecabulletin.com/news/article/462/SACRAMENTO — Senator Lois Wolk, D-Davis, is against a plan by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger administration to push for construction of a peripheral canal around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta without legislative or voter approval. “I am greatly concerned by this threat to pursue a peripheral canal without legislative or voter approval, an act I believe may be illegal as well as poor public policy.  This is a plan to spend billions of dollars without any public oversight or control on a ditch that no one knows with any degree of certainty whether it will improve or destroy the Delta ecosystem. “This is a step backward from the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force’s final report, which stressed the two coequal goals of providing Californians with a reliable water supply and working to restore the crumbling Delta ecosystem. The Blue Ribbon report also identified that establishing a new, improved governance structure is, in their words, “absolutely essential” to implementing their recommendations. “We must establish a clear steward for the Delta, someone we can hold accountable for the Delta’s recovery.  Expecting the 224 agencies currently in charge of the Delta to magically come together to resolve these issues, given their history of disagreement and inaction, is what has led to Delta’s demise and the crisis we now face.“I hope the administration will take another look at their proposed strategy, take a step back, and pursue a more collaborative approach with the Legislature and all of those who would be impacted by such a huge project, especially the Delta communities and those who are on the frontlines of working to restore this precious resource.Attempts to move forward with plans for a canal without legislative consensus or voter approval would be a recipe for confrontation and failure.”San Francisco ChronicleBerkeley meet to air Helios energy lab plans...Carolyn Joneshttp://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/01/06/BAIU153VQ4.DTL&type=printableThe public will have its first chance to comment on plans for a sprawling new laboratory in Berkeley's Strawberry Canyon at a meeting Wednesday night.The meeting will allow the public to learn more about the Helios Energy Research Facility, a 144,000-square-foot laboratory proposed for the open space east of the UC Berkeley campus. Some residents of the Berkeley and Oakland hills have been opposed to the project, fearing it would bring unwanted traffic to the area. The Helios lab will focus on alternative and renewable energy.A second public meeting is scheduled for Jan. 16. Both meetings will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave., Berkeley. For information, go to www.lbl.gov/Community/Helios. Bush designates 3 marine monuments in Pacific...Associated Presshttp://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/01/06/MNBJ153TTV.DTL&type=printableParts of three remote and uninhabited Pacific island chains are being set aside by President Bush as national monuments to protect them from oil and gas extraction and commercial fishing in what will be the largest marine conservation effort in history.The three areas total about 195,274 square miles and include the Mariana Trench - the world's deepest underwater canyon - as well as the waters and corals surrounding three islands in the Northern Mariana Islands, Rose Atoll in American Samoa and seven islands strung along the equator in the central Pacific Ocean.Each location harbors unique species and some of the rarest geological formations on Earth - from the world's largest land crab to a bird that incubates its eggs in the heat of underwater volcanoes.All will be protected as national monuments - the same status afforded to statues and cultural sites - under the 1906 Antiquities Act. The law allows the government to immediately phase out commercial fishing and other extractive uses. However, recreational fishing, tourism and scientific research with a federal permit could still occur inside the three areas. The designations will also not conflict with U.S. military activities or freedom of navigation, White House officials said.The president plans to make the designation official today at a ceremony at the White House. It will be the second time Bush has used the law to protect marine resources. Two years ago, the president made a huge swath of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands a national monument, barring fishing, oil and gas extraction and tourism from its waters and coral reefs. At the time, that was the largest conservation area in the world."We and others in the environmental community have been at odds with this administration on lots of things, but if one looks at this one event it is a significant conservation event," said Joshua Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group, which lobbied for the monuments' designation.The three areas to be designated today are larger, and came with some opposition. Northern Mariana Islands government officials and indigenous communities initially objected to the monument designation, citing concerns about sovereignty, fishing and mineral exploration.Environmentalists were hoping for more. The protected areas will extend 50 nautical miles off the coral reefs and atolls at the three monuments, which will be officially called the Marianas Marine National Monument, Rose Atoll Marine National Monument and the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. Advocacy groups were pushing for 200 nautical miles, the full extent of the U.S. exclusive economic zone.Contra Costa TimesDelta fish hit record lows in 2008...Mike Taugherhttp://www.contracostatimes.com/localnews/ci_11373411Delta fish numbers sank again to record lows in 2008, according to results of a key fall survey.Delta smelt, a tiny fish that once was the most abundant fish in the Delta, fell from a high of 1,673 nearly 40 years ago to an index of 23, the lowest number on record. And threadfin shad, historically a common fish, also plunged to a record low and served as a reminder that the ecological nose-dive in the Delta is not limited to a single species. "If you're doing something in the Delta that can dramatically affect threadfin shad, you're really doing something," said Bruce Herbold, a fisheries biologist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "It's the simultaneous decline of the common fish — Delta smelt — and the fairly abundant fish — threadfin shad, that really caught our attention."Biologists said the low numbers were not surprising given the dry conditions last year and the well-documented, ongoing environmental degradation in the Delta.But they also serve as a warning that the problems continue and are not confined to Delta smelt — the fish that gets most of the attention because measures to prevent it from going extinct are affecting water supplies statewide. Last month, federal biologists, acting under court order, issued a 400-page scientific analysis and permit that state water managers say could reduce Delta water supplies by about 17 percent. Longfin smelt and young-of-the-year striped bass were also at near-record lows.The California Department of Fish and Game conducts several fish surveys each year but none are watched as closely as the September-through-December fall midwater trawl, when state biologists pull nets through the water to catch and count fish. The results do not allow biologists to determine the exact number of fish in the Delta but they do give a good reading on population trends."All it is telling you is there are no more fish than there were in the last five years and there's a lot less than there were 10 years ago. And every single species is showing this," said Tina Swanson, executive director of the Bay Institute, an environmental research group.The numbers, which have not been officially released but were obtained by the Times, show a Delta smelt index of 23, a record low. The index previously was in the 20s in 2005 and 2007 but before 2000 it was typically much higher.Threadfin shad plunged to 450. Last year, its index was more than 3,000.Contra Costa nails Hammer Island residents...Matthias Gafnihttp://www.contracostatimes.com/ci_11380727?nclick_check=1From their front door, Jack and Nancy Vogee could cast a fishing line and catch dinner from the Delta.Sure, the fishing thinned after the state built a pumping station nearby, but ample striped bass and catfish remain in the rustic Delta area. This was where they expected to live in retirement, so they dumped their life savings into a sprawling property on Hammer Island, a tiny Delta enclave near Byron.They lived their bucolic dream for a few decades until it came crashing down in a bureaucratic and health nightmare. Now, their house — and their retirement savings — could be bulldozed.Hammer Island — with 17 home-owners — is a crossroads: Contra Costa, Alameda and San Joaquin counties intersect smack-dab on the small island, giving it three governments, among which Contra Costa carries the wrecking ball.Hammer Island is the county's final target in a decade-long mission to wipe out illegally built homes in the Delta.Inspectors have swept across waterways abating most of the illegally built structures. Contra Costa has taken a strict approach, saying it must remain consistent on all islands, citing permit, zoning, health and safety, and sanitation issues.The Vogees say Hammer Island is different from the other Delta islands because its homes were built long before permit or zoning regulations were instituted. Plus, the residents have PG&E service and pay property taxes. Although a shattered dream cast a shadow on the Vogees, their neighbors on the island's Alameda County slice have not been bothered. In fact, Alameda County is helping legitimize about 70 houses just south of Hammer Island. Those building inspectors may work with Hammer Island residents next.Contra Costa's final Delta island battle may be its most complicated.Cabin 15For years, the Vogees rented Hammer Island's Cabin 15, traveling from their San Bruno home."I always cried when we had to go home because I loved it so much," said Nancy Vogee, who is 75.In 1981, the couple bought the small cabin for $30,000. Over time, they transformed it into their dream compound. They barged in a hot tub, spruced up and enlarged a nearly 1,300-square-foot main cabin and guesthouse and spent $25,000 to pile-drive steel sheeting into the shoreline to prevent erosion.The couple estimated they sank about $110,000 into the property."It was really quite heavenly," Vogee said.When not entertaining family and friends, the pair would spend days on their boat drifting in the Delta. On Thanksgivings, they feasted on a friend's yacht.Everything changed in 2004, when Jack Vogee had a heart attack on the island and his wife barely got him to a hospital in time. Then he was diagnosed with lung cancer and his poor health suddenly made their paradise a medical liability. The couple reluctantly moved in with their son in Colorado."It's something I miss. Thank God I have the Rocky Mountains here," Nancy Vogee said. "I can't dwell on it or I'll sit and cry all the time."Shortly after moving, the couple sold their property for $225,000 to a couple who later divorced and stopped making payments. In a move they later regretted, the Vogees agreed to act as the bank in the transaction and lend the couple the money. After the monthly payments stopped, the Vogees took the couple to court to get back their house. By the time they succeeded, the housing market tanked and they could not sell it.Disappointment became despair when they were notified in October that Contra Costa County building inspectors planned to level it.Final dominoContra Costa's island hunt began as a dispute over an electricity bill. When county inspectors arrived at Salisbury Island to investigate a claim that PG&E overcharged a resident, they found two legitimate power lines and a dangerous maze of wiring illegally connecting the other inhabitants. On their boat ride to inspect it, they motored by Golden Isle and its makeshift water-ski club structures."The dominoes kept falling after that," said Mary Nejedly Piepho, a county supervisor from Discovery Bay. "The county can't simply turn its back."The county has abated almost 100 houses around the Delta and nearly as many docks, said Thom Huggett, interim building inspection director.No Hammer Island homeowners have permits and the island is zoned for agriculture, Huggett said.The Vogees say the homes were built in the 1930s, decades before other abated Delta island homes and before permit regulations existed."We're hoping and praying because of that our island will be treated differently," Nancy Vogee said."If those houses built in the '30s had been maintained, there would have had to be upgrades and they should've pulled permits at that time," Huggett countered.The Vogees acknowledge working without permits."Everybody is so used to doing it, so we did it as well," Nancy Vogee said. "We're glad to pay our permits now."And their property taxes?"Just 'cause the tax collector collects taxes doesn't mean it's a legal home," Huggett said. Neither does PG&E access, he said, which Cabin 15 has had since 1935.The county also worries about health and safety issues, such as flooding, fires and sanitation. Some abated island houses had a pit underneath for waste, Huggett said. The Vogees and their neighbors have septic tanks, but the county worries about wastewater leaching into the Delta."The Delta feeds two-thirds of the state's water supply," said Piepho, who represents the Contra Costa portion of Hammer Island. "(The islands) are kind of tucked away, but they are dead center for the water supply to the state."Contra Costa inspectors began sending letters to island residents in September, Huggett said. Inspectors this month, accompanied by Piepho staff members, will visit the island to assess the problem.Other side of the islandLess than a mile south of Hammer Island lies a spit of land with Delta access and 70 or so structures, from shacks to expensive homes. Like the Hammer Island homes, they have zoning, permit and sanitation issues, but Alameda County has taken a different tack."We're certainly not taking the bulldozer approach. ... The reason is, some of these structures were probably legal at some point," said Albert Lopez, Alameda County planning director.Most of the Lindemann Road area homes were built in the 1960s, three decades after Hammer Island residences.The Lindemann neighborhood started as leased portions of fishing land. Anglers built piers, then shacks to stay out of the rain."The shacks became bigger and then some of the shacks became houses," said Chris Gray, chief of staff for Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty.Many of the worst structures have no plumbing and waste goes directly into the Delta, he said. Those structures will most likely be razed, he said. Others are closer to legitimate and some homeowners bought homes they thought were legal, he said."It's more complicated than 'It was built illegally and they have no right to build there,'"‰" Gray said.Alameda County shortly will send letters to Lindemann Road homeowners and do a property-by-property analysis. The landowner must provide potable water and sanitation to tenants without harming the Delta, Lopez said."If you would bring the property up to code and meet all the environmental issues "... you should be able to make an argument that they can remain there," Lopez said."The process could in theory transfer" to Hammer Island's 11 Alameda County homeowners, he said. No one lives on the San Joaquin County portion of the island. Island residents' arguments that their houses predate many county requirements could have merit, Lopez said."If they were built that long ago that there was no zoning or requirement for a permit, one could make the argument they have vested rights and should be grandfathered in," he said, stressing that he did not know specifics there.Piepho's office and some residents have suggested Alameda County could incorporate the Contra Costa portion. Contra Costa is not interested."We'll work with the property owners as much as we can to have a responsible outcome," Piepho said. "I understand the personal aspect of it, with putting your whole life savings into it," she said. "But there's a (permitting) process that everyone else is required to do."Not-so golden yearsHammer Island's six Contra Costa homeowners have few options. The Vogees cannot sell their house because the county froze all Hammer Island ownership changes pending the abatements."Imagine working 35 years, having a nest egg all planned out and then something all out of your control ... yanks it out from underneath you," said Jack Dillon, the Vogee's 44-year-old son. Dillon put up his mother and stepfather in the carriage house behind his Colorado home.Jack Vogee, 76 and in poor health, runs the shuttle service for Dillon's automotive repair shop. Nancy Vogee helps at the shop to supplement their meager Social Security checks. The couple has mounting credit card debt, and say they could be forced into bankruptcy."It's killing my stepdad," Dillon said. "That's his entire life savings down the tube."Contra Costa's Delta cleanupSummary of actions to remove illegal structures on inhabited Delta islands: · Hammer Island: Six properties, six docks on Contra Costa portion of island; building inspectors have initiated abatement. · Salisbury Island: Abated all 29 structures and 31 docks. · Golden Isle: Residents lost two court cases, county working with homeowners of 28 structures and 28 docks on voluntary abatement. · Quinn's Island: Posted notices of pending abatement for about 35 structures and 14 docks/floating homes on seven parcels · Bradford Island: Working with one person to clean up single home.Source: Contra Costa County Building Inspection DivisionNearly 35,000 get UC holiday present...Matt Krupnickhttp://www.contracostatimes.com/localnews/ci_11382683Nearly 35,000 former University of California students received a holiday gift from their alma mater: a check for as much as $12,000.The university last month paid more than $33 million to former students who participated in a class-action lawsuit over disputed fees. A state appeals court ruled in November 2007 that UC had unfairly raised fees for thousands of students in 2003.UC attorneys appealed the ruling, but the state Supreme Court declined to consider the case, leaving the university on the hook for the refunds and interest that boosted the total owed to $42 million. Most of the money was distributed in December."It's actually gone pretty smoothly," said Andrew Freeman, a Baltimore-based attorney for the former students.A UC spokesman said the payout would not affect the university, despite recent budget cuts that have led to increased class sizes and other cutbacks. UC plans to use a portion of student fees to pay for the judgment over the next five or six years, the spokesman said.The students had accused UC of falsely promising some students their fees would not rise. Instead, prices rose sharply for some students, particularly those at a handful of professional schools, including UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall law school.Most plaintiffs received checks of $200 to $300. Six received $1.But some former graduate students were paid significantly more: up to $12,000. The timing of the payout was perfect, said Mohammad Kashmiri, the lead plaintiff and a former UC Berkeley law student. "People have been very appreciative," he said. "It came at a great time, right before Christmas."Santa Cruz SentinelPajaro Valley water officials ponder bankruptcy as fee lawsuit heads to trial...Donna Joneshttp://www.santacruzsentinel.com/localnews/ci_11382927A lawsuit over Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency's $80 pumping fee will go to trial, a Santa Cruz County Superior Court judged decided Monday.The Pajaro-Sunny Mesa Community Services District is challenging the legality of the so-called augmentation fee, and asked Judge Paul Burdick for a summary judgment, or ruling without a trial.But Burdick said the case must go to trial because the facts are in dispute. The trial, expected to last three days, is set to start Jan. 12."I'm glad to have one in the win column," said Dennis Osmer, chairman of the water management agency board. "That's what it's all about. It's about winning the suit. We have to win it to survive."The 25-year-old agency is charged with protecting groundwater and developing new sources of water for the Pajaro Valley. The agency imposed the fee of $80 per acre foot of water to pay for developing and operating water projects. An acre-foot of water would serve four average Watsonville households for a year, according to city figures.After a state appeals court ruled in 2007 that a similar fee on groundwater pumping was imposed without the vote of ratepayers in violation of state law, the agency lost nearly half its revenue. The existing fee, which brings in about $4.5 million, more than 80 percent of its annual income, is keeping the agency afloat.But, even if the trial goes in its favor, the agency could still go under without a replacement for the revenue generated by the previously lost fee. The board will hear a presentation about bankruptcy at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Watsonville's former City Council Chamber at 250 Main St. Pajaro-Sunny Mesa, which provides water to 4,000 customers in North Monterey County, filed its lawsuit in February, seeking an immediate refund of money the water agency collected under the invalidated fee as well as overturning the fee that remained.The agency started refunding ratepayers at the end of December.Marc Del Piero, Pajaro-Sunny Mesa's lawyer, said the district will be ready for trial."None of Judge Burdick's comments encouraged us or discouraged us," he said. Los Angeles TimesActivists to file suit to block California tax planThe Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. and others seek to block $9.3 billion in taxes on gasoline, sales and personal income. They say the measure requires approval from two-thirds of the Legislature...Evan Halperhttp://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-budget7-2009jan07,0,7137834,print.storyReporting from Sacramento — Anti-tax activists are planning to go to court today in an effort to block $9.3 billion in new and increased taxes on gasoline, sales and personal income that Democrats pushed through the Legislature last month with the help of some brazen legal maneuvers.The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. and other groups will argue in court that such tax proposals cannot be passed without approval from two-thirds of the Legislature.The constitutional requirement for a two-thirds vote on most tax measures has allowed GOP lawmakers -- almost all of whom have signed a pledge never to raise taxes -- to block broad-based tax hike proposals in recent years even though theirs is the minority party. But in December, on a simple majority vote achieved without Republican support, Democrats passed a complicated fiscal plan that relied on the differences between taxes and fees.The lawsuit, to be filed at a state appeals court in Sacramento, comes as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has yet to act on the tax plan. He has indicated he may approve the tax hikes if Democrats agree to more of his economic stimulus proposals. Those include relaxing environmental rules that have delayed road building and contracting out some public works construction to the private sector.Coal ash -- a Tennessee wake-up callA spill at a Tennessee power plant demonstrates another danger in burning the fossil fuel for energy...Editorialhttp://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/editorials/la-ed-coal6-2009jan06,0,2233078,print.storyCoal burning is to the environment what cigarette smoking is to the body, a point brought home with startling clarity last month when an earthen dam holding back a vast reservoir of coal ash at a Tennessee power plant ruptured, turning the area nearby into a landscape resembling Mordor.:Mordor.png The sludge buried a dozen homes, left residents anxious about the safety of their water supply and, we hope, opened Americans' eyes about the dangers posed by our poor energy choices.Of all the environmental and health problems caused by coal -- mining it destroys rivers and blackens miners' lungs, and burning it emits climate-changing gases, toxic pollutants and heavy metals -- perhaps the least recognized until recently was the solid waste it generates. The Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tenn., had a pile of ash covering more than 100 acres and rising 65 feet, the product of more than 50 years of operations. More than a billion gallons of it poured out Dec. 22, marking the nation's worst coal plant spill.Just as a devastating oil spill from a Santa Barbara platform in 1969 alerted California and the country to the dangers of offshore drilling, it is to be hoped that the Kingston plant spill adds urgency to our quest for cleaner power sources. But there are more immediate lessons. Because coal ash storage was until now a relatively obscure issue, power plants have never been properly regulated by the federal government. That has to change.In 1980, Congress asked the Environmental Protection Agency to study whether coal ash should be regulated as a hazardous waste. The EPA made no ruling until 1993, when it said there was no need. It tentatively reversed itself in 2000, but then backed down in the face of industry opposition. That means states are left to regulate ash as an industrial waste, with some treating it more seriously than others.Coal ash contains dangerous metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury. Last week, the EPA tested water samples near the Tennessee spill and found arsenic at more than 100 times the acceptable level; prolonged exposure to such heavy concentrations has been shown to cause cancer. Sounds hazardous to us.Unfortunately, coal will be with us for some time to come. Even if the United States turns clean power into a top priority, it will take decades to wean ourselves off a fossil fuel that generates about half of our electricity. That means we need to work harder on reducing its environmental impacts, and properly regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste is one place to start. If it raises the price of coal power, and thus makes renewable power more competitive, all the better.Plum Creek Timber won't seek change in rules for forest roadsA timberland owner drops its bid for terms that critics said could open up development...Associated Presshttp://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-timber6-2009jan06,0,3402259,print.storyThe nation's largest owner of timberland said Monday that it would no longer pursue changes in agreements over its use of U.S. Forest Service roads -- changes that critics complained could transform forests into housing subdivisions.Critics of the proposed changes had included President-elect Barack Obama and a Montana senator.Changes in the agreements would benefit the public, but "given the lack of receptivity, we have decided not to go forward," Plum Creek Timber Co. Chief Executive Rick Holley wrote in a letter to Missoula County, Mont., which opposed altering the agreements.Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey indicated as recently as last week that the changes negotiated privately by the Forest Service and Plum Creek would become final before he left office when the Bush administration ends this month.Rey, a former lobbyist for the timber industry, said the company's decision was "not good news for the federal government or the public at large." He had maintained that the changes secured new benefits for the government.Rey declined to comment further Monday.Critics contended that the changes sought by Plum Creek would have allowed it to pave Forest Service roads and make it easier for the company to develop vacation homes in Montana's mountain forests, saddling local governments with costly services such as fire protection in remote places.Soon after a Montana campaign appearance, Obama said in July the changes would jeopardize public access to hunting and fishing areas.Plum Creek owns more than 7 million acres nationwide, including about 1 million in Montana. Company spokeswoman Kathy Budinick said the decision to drop its support for changing the agreements would have little effect beyond Montana because the company's use of national forest roads is not widespread outside the state.Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) had criticized the private nature of the negotiations between Plum Creek and the Forest Service and initiated a review of the talks by the federal Government Accountability Office."This is about transparency in government and making sure everyone impacted is at the table so they have their piece heard," he said Monday. "This is, after all, public land."San Diego Union-TribuneLa Niña blamed for more droughtPowerful air pattern back again this year...Robert Krier http://www3.signonsandiego.com/stories/2009/jan/06/1n6weather0030-la-ni241-blamed-more-drought/?zIndex=32485San Diego had its wettest November-December combo in 23 years, yet the dreaded “D” word keeps popping up. Yes, meteorologists are still talking about continued drought in their long-range predictions. La Niña is the culprit. The periodic atmospheric pattern, which tends to keep storms away from Southern California, is flexing its muscles for the second straight year. If La Niña becomes as powerful and persistent as some forecasters expect, the rainy season's jump-start in the late fall and early winter will be wiped out, and 2008-09 could become San Diego's third consecutive dry year. It also would be the 10th below-normal rainfall year out of the past 11. La Niña is marked by unusually cool waters in the equatorial Pacific. It affects where storms form and travel: The Northwest often bears the brunt of the storms during La Niñas, while Southern California and the Southwest generally get left out. No two La Niñas behave the same, and long-range forecasters give themselves some wiggle room with the emerging conditions. But if this winter is a rerun of the last one, the Sierra snowpack will suffer and the chances of widespread water rationing in the state will go up. Most water districts statewide are poised to mandate conservation. They would restrict or ban activities ranging from watering lawns to washing cars in the driveway. “La Niña can do a variety of things,” said Elissa Lynn, senior meteorologist for the California Department of Water Resources. “But the way it is . . . it could be a bad sign for us.” January, February and March are commonly the wettest months in most of California. Last year, January was wet around the state, but then La Niña kicked in and the storms stopped coming. Much of the state had the driest late winter and early spring on record. This year, San Diego has received almost twice as much rain as usual for early January. But most cities in Central and Northern California have recorded below-normal rainfall. The snowpack statewide is only 71 percent of normal, although the Southern Sierra is at 88 percent. A wet fall is not unheard of during La Niña years, said Bill Patzert, a long-range forecaster at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He said the recent rain in San Diego was due to a jet stream “on steroids” that dropped down from the Arctic. This can occur occasionally during La Niñas. In the coming months, the jet stream – high-altitude winds that carry most storms from west to east across the globe – should settle down and stay well to the north, Patzert said. “(La Niña) is going to be strong and long-lasting,” he said. “The big rainfall months of January, February and March I think will be disappointing.” January is already a big disappointment for the state's water managers. The first few days weren't as wet as normal, Lynn said, and the next 10 days look dry. If La Niña holds on through the spring, it could cause even more problems and deepen concerns about drought. January storms traditionally contribute nearly 20 percent of the state's annual snowfall, while those in March and April, on average, add another 20 percent, Lynn said. Klaus Wolter, a climate researcher for the University of Colorado and a federal water-assessment team, predicted a La Niña back in November – before any storms hit Southern California. Now he says he thinks La Niña is strengthening but sees a glimmer of hope for precipitation in late January. Strong high pressure off the West Coast has been blocking storms from hitting all but the extreme north of California, but one forecast model shows it retreating west later this month. That shift could allow storms to again drop south, Wolter said. The Colorado River Basin, the other major source of imported water for Southern California, fared better than the Sierra last year, and the same is happening this year, Wolter said. The snowpack in Colorado is about 120 percent of normal, and the rest of the watershed is above or near normal. But if La Niña reprises its 2008 performance in the Sierra, California's water resources will become even scarcer. Deliveries to Southern California farmers were slashed in the past year because of court-ordered pumping restrictions to protect the endangered Sacramento delta smelt. Some water districts in Northern California have instituted water rationing, and many districts across the state are discussing their own rationing plans. San Diegans shouldn't let a wet fall lull them into complacency, said Rita Schmidt-Sudman, executive director of the conservation-minded Water Education Foundation. “People (there) need to realize you are basically at the end of the pipeline,” she said. “Conserving water is very important for the economy of the region.” Washington PostBay Advocates Sue EPACoalition Demands Action, but Suit Lacks Specifics...David A. Fahrentholdhttp://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/05/AR2009010501175_pf.htmlAn unusual coalition of environmentalists, watermen and former officials yesterday filed suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, asking a judge to overhaul the floundering government campaign to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.The group, led by the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is, in effect, suing the EPA for breach of contract. EPA leaders have signed two federal-state agreements that promised a cleaner Chesapeake. But so far, despite 25 years and nearly $6 billion in spending, they have failed to deliver it.The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, asks the court -- without many specifics -- to order the EPA to clamp down harder on polluters."If the bay is to be saved, EPA must . . . enforce the rule of law. Is that too much to ask of our government?" said William C. Baker, the bay foundation's president. He said the group's action could be "the most significant lawsuit ever filed in the history of the Chesapeake Bay restoration."But legal experts said yesterday that it might be difficult for a court to turn around the complex Chesapeake cleanup. And even Baker said the suit was designed to serve as a political marker, an attempt to force the Obama administration to treat the Chesapeake as a priority."This lawsuit will put the issue of Chesapeake Bay and clean water squarely on the desk of the new EPA administrator," Baker said.Benjamin H. Grumbles, an EPA assistant administrator, said yesterday that the foundation's lawsuit asked for some things that the agency could not deliver on its own.The suit asks, for instance, for new limits on pollution that comes downstream from city storm-sewer systems. Grumbles said that would require cooperation from state and local governments."I fear that the lawsuit itself could impede the cleanup. I am concerned that it will divert energy and attention away from the watershed and into the courtroom," Grumbles said.The suit represents a shift in tactics for the bay foundation, the Chesapeake's best-known advocacy group, which has often operated through compromise and lobbying rather than legal confrontation.Other plaintiffs include the Maryland and Virginia state watermen's associations, a group of recreational anglers, and former government officials from Virginia, Maryland and the District. These groups have been on opposite sides of previous Chesapeake fights, often over crabbing and fishing limits. Environmentalists supported a proposal by state regulators last year to cut back significantly the number of blue crabs that could be caught in the Chesapeake; watermen said the limits could have a devastating impact on parts of their industry.Bernie Fowler, a former Maryland state senator, said at a news conference that the group was frustrated by the slow pace of the cleanup, which has failed to improve the bay's most vexing problem: pollution-driven "dead zones" where fish and crabs can't breathe.Fowler referred to recent stories in The Washington Post in which former leaders of the Chesapeake cleanup conceded that they had sought for years to conceal the scale of the effort's failure."My, what a shame!" Fowler said. "Today is a day of reality . . . when pretending we're doing something is over."The legal complaint hinges on a series of Chesapeake Bay Agreements, in which the EPA and state governments promised to reduce pollution flowing downstream from farms, suburbs and sewage plants. By not living up to these agreements, the suit says, EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson has acted in an "arbitrary and capricious" manner.The suit asks for cuts in pollution from sewage plants, power plants and storm sewers and for better programs to fund cleanup measures on farms. Baker said the ultimate aim is a far cleaner bay within five years.That's a tall order, said University of Michigan law professor David M. Uhlmann. Environmental suits work best, he said, when they have specific demands: to stop a harmful practice or to follow a well-defined cleanup plan."What they're asking for is something much broader," Uhlmann said. "I'm not optimistic about the ability of a lawsuit like this, by itself, to lead to significant change. . . . It's not clear to me what a federal district judge could do" to solve a problem that big.Engineer: Tenn. ash spill warning signs ignored...KRISTIN M. HALL, The Associated Presshttp://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/06/AR2009010601728_pf.htmlNASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The nation's largest government-run utility ignored two small leaks that could have provided a warning years before a coal ash pond collapsed, flooding a neighborhood with a billion gallons of sludge, a former federal regulator contends.Jack Spadaro, a retired mining engineer who investigated a 1972 coal waste dam break that killed 125 people in West Virginia, said states have done a poor job monitoring huge ponds of coal ash, which aren't regulated by the federal government.Three homes were destroyed and 42 parcels of land damaged when one such pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Steam Plant collapsed Dec. 22.Tennessee uses solid waste landfill regulations for ash ponds, even though the substance in them _ a mix of water and fly ash, a byproduct of coal-fired power plants _ behaves more like a liquid when it spills."State regulation has failed obviously," said Spadaro, who contends the ponds should be regulated like dams. "I think there needs to be federal regulation of the fly ash and the construction of these reservoirs."The federal Environmental Protection Agency doesn't regulate the utility ponds because it doesn't consider the coal ash hazardous material, although it can contain trace amounts of heavy metals. Two federal agencies that oversee mining keep an eye on similar waste at coal mines but don't regulate coal-burning power plants.At the Kingston plant, two small leaks in 2003 and 2006 caught the attention of Tennessee's Department of Environment and Conservation, which asked TVA to provide additional details on the water going into the ponds but didn't require a new storage system.TVA spokesman Gil Francis said the earlier leaks were not related to last month's spill and were in a different area from the section that TVA officials believe caused the breach.When the pond wall ripped open Dec. 22, more than one billion gallons of coal ash and water spilled out like a tidal wave, sweeping a home off its foundations and tearing trees out of the ground."This is not a typical landfill," said Glen Pugh, program director for Tennessee's division of solid waste management, which regulates the ash ponds.The ponds on the banks of the Emory River had sides about 700 feet high and contained more than 145 million gallons of water, according to the TVA. At the time of the spill, piles of ash reached 50 to 60 feet above the water in the ponds, Francis said.Pugh said TVA applied for a landfill permit in the late 1990s when it decided it needed a new system to handle the ash piling up at the Kingston plant, about 35 miles west of Knoxville.TVA had to repair the dike in 2003 after the ash started to leak out, Pugh said. He said the leak wasn't much but enough to lead TVA to consider disposing of the ash in a dry form. The utility eventually decided to continue using the pond and Francis said repairs were made based on several recommendations from an independent engineering consultant.According to a 2008 inspection report, TVA stopped dredging operations in a main pond after the 2003 leak, but continued using a smaller temporary pond while repairs were made. TVA resumed dredging in 2006, only to find ash seeping out of the dike just nine months later.TVA installed a system to relieve pressure on the walls, and Pugh said it was typical to see small areas of water seeping out of the ponds because of the drains TVA installed.The state regulators were focused on the effect on the environment, and nothing in TVA's latest inspection reports in May and October indicated that there was a structural problem with the retention ponds, Pugh said.But Spadaro, who spent nearly 30 years with the federal government as a mining regulator and instructor, said TVA's last inspection report indicated the agency was irresponsible for failing to see these previous failures as an indication of a serious stability problem.Spadaro, who also directed the National Mine Health and Safety Administration's training academy, said that rather than continuing to operate the pond, TVA should have drained it and rebuilt the dam.Gov. Phil Bredesen has said Tennessee is now planning stronger oversight of such ponds. Other states where TVA has ash ponds or landfills, including Alabama and Kentucky, say they perform regular inspections at these sites and have not had any problems.Knoxville-based TVA supplies electricity to Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.New York TimesA 50-Year Farm Bill...WES JACKSON and WENDELL BERRY. Wes Jackson is a plant geneticist and president of The Land Institute in Salina, Kan. Wendell Berry is a farmer and writer in Port Royal, Ky.http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/05/opinion/05berry.html?sq=pollution&st=cse&scp=1&pagewanted=printTHE extraordinary rainstorms last June caused catastrophic soil erosion in the grain lands of Iowa, where there were gullies 200 feet wide. But even worse damage is done over the long term under normal rainfall — by the little rills and sheets of erosion on incompletely covered or denuded cropland, and by various degradations resulting from industrial procedures and technologies alien to both agriculture and nature. Soil that is used and abused in this way is as nonrenewable as (and far more valuable than) oil. Unlike oil, it has no technological substitute — and no powerful friends in the halls of government.Agriculture has too often involved an insupportable abuse and waste of soil, ever since the first farmers took away the soil-saving cover and roots of perennial plants. Civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying their farmland. This irremediable loss, never enough noticed, has been made worse by the huge monocultures and continuous soil-exposure of the agriculture we now practice.To the problem of soil loss, the industrialization of agriculture has added pollution by toxic chemicals, now universally present in our farmlands and streams. Some of this toxicity is associated with the widely acclaimed method of minimum tillage. We should not poison our soils to save them. Industrial agricultural has made our food supply entirely dependent on fossil fuels and, by substituting technological “solutions” for human work and care, has virtually destroyed the cultures of husbandry (imperfect as they may have been) once indigenous to family farms and farming neighborhoods.Clearly, our present ways of agriculture are not sustainable, and so our food supply is not sustainable. We must restore ecological health to our agricultural landscapes, as well as economic and cultural stability to our rural communities. For 50 or 60 years, we have let ourselves believe that as long as we have money we will have food. That is a mistake. If we continue our offenses against the land and the labor by which we are fed, the food supply will decline, and we will have a problem far more complex than the failure of our paper economy. The government will bring forth no food by providing hundreds of billons of dollars to the agribusiness corporations. Any restorations will require, above all else, a substantial increase in the acreages of perennial plants. The most immediately practicable way of doing this is to go back to crop rotations that include hay, pasture and grazing animals. But a more radical response is necessary if we are to keep eating and preserve our land at the same time. In fact, research in Canada, Australia, China and the United States over the last 30 years suggests that perennialization of the major grain crops like wheat, rice, sorghum and sunflowers can be developed in the foreseeable future. By increasing the use of mixtures of grain-bearing perennials, we can better protect the soil and substantially reduce greenhouse gases, fossil-fuel use and toxic pollution. Carbon sequestration would increase, and the husbandry of water and soil nutrients would become much more efficient. And with an increase in the use of perennial plants and grazing animals would come more employment opportunities in agriculture — provided, of course, that farmers would be paid justly for their work and their goods.Thoughtful farmers and consumers everywhere are already making many necessary changes in the production and marketing of food. But we also need a national agricultural policy that is based upon ecological principles. We need a 50-year farm bill that addresses forthrightly the problems of soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities. This is a political issue, certainly, but it far transcends the farm politics we are used to. It is an issue as close to every one of us as our own stomachs.CNN MoneyPending home sales sink to 7-year lowThe number of homes under contract to be sold dipped 4% in November, amid mounting job losses and weak consumer confidence...Catherine Cliffordhttp://money.cnn.com/2009/01/06/real_estate/pending_home/index.htm?postversion=2009010614NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The number of homes under contract to be sold fell 4% in November, according to a report released Tuesday.The Pending Home Sales Index fell 4% to 82.3 for the month of November, to its lowest level since the series began in 2001, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). That's a drop from a downwardly revised reading of 85.7 in the month of October. The November index is 5.3% below the same month a year ago, when the Index stood at 86.9. A combination of factors kept home buyers side-lined, according to Mike Larson, real estate analyst at Weiss Research. "You have the recession, rising unemployment, slumping consumer confidence and tighter mortgage standards are the icing on the cake," he said.The reading of pending home sales is a forward-looking index that tracks when sales contracts are signed but a deal has yet to be closed. Sales are typically finalized within one or two months of signing the contract.However, one analyst cautioned that a signed contract does not necessarily translate into a final sale these days, given the current market turmoil.Some potential home buyers may sign a contract but then can't get a mortgage due to stricter lending standards, said Patrick Newport, economist with IHS Global Insight.Other people may have signed the initial papers and then changed their minds because the economic outlook has deteriorated so much," he added. Even as home prices have fallen to record lows, the recession has certainly stopped plenty of other buyers from even thinking about making a move."December's housing market activity could be comparably lower due to ongoing problems in the economy, so a real estate-focused stimulus plan [from the government] is urgently needed," NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun said in a written statement.Mortgage rates: November's pending sales activity does not reflect the 37-year lows that mortgage rates hit in December. The average 30-year, fixed-rate loan declined to 5.1%, with 0.7 up-front points, for the week ending December 31, according to Freddie Mac (FRE, Fortune 500). But so far, the dip in mortgage rates has primarily caused a spike in mortgage refinancing, rather than in new home sales, according to Newport."I don't think [low mortgage rates] will have that much of an impact on sales - it will have some impact - but not that much," he added.NAR President Charles McMillan, a broker with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Dallas-Fort Worth disagrees. He urged Congress to provide stimulus for the housing market so that home buyers can take advantage of the drastically reduced home mortgage rates. "It's crucial for Congress and the new administration to move quickly to remove impediments and offer home buyers the incentives they need to tap into today's historic low mortgage interest rates," he said. NAR expects the 30 year fixed rate to hold fairly steady through the first half of 2009, but then to rise slightly in the second half of the year.Regional breakdown: Pending home sales across all regions were down from October to November. But sales in the West were actually up significantly from November 2007. The pending home sales index fell 7.2% to 63.2 in the Northeast and stood 14.6% below its November 2007 levels. In the Midwest, the index slipped 6.7% to 74.2 and was down 10.1% year-over-year. In the South month-to-month losses were more modest, with the pending home sales index down 2.2% to 85.3, but it was off 12.7% from a year ago.In the West, however, while the index was down 2.4% in the month to 101.2, pending sales jumped 19.3% from November 2007.That sales increase is due to the dramatic drop in home prices in states like California, Arizona and Nevada, which has spurred new deals, according to Larson."You are having a lot of foreclosures in those three states and banks are just cutting the prices until those homes sell," added Newport.Despite a flurry of activity in the West, Larson warned that the housing market recovery would be slow and gradual. "We still have a much higher level of inventory than usual," he said, "and it will take quite some time to chew through some of that overhang."Consumer bankruptcies jump in 2008 Study shows that 1.06 million American consumers filed for bankruptcy protection last year...Ben Rooneyhttp://money.cnn.com/2009/01/05/news/economy/bankruptcy_2008/index.htmNEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Bankruptcy filings by American consumers increased nearly a third in 2008, according to a new report.The American Bankruptcy Institute said overall consumer filings rose to 1.06 million in 2008, compared with 801,840 during 2007. The ABI based its study on data from the National Bankruptcy Research Center."Consumers are under great financial stress, with no immediate end in sight," said ABI executive director Samuel Gerdano, in a statement. "We expect the upward spike in personal bankruptcies to continue in 2009."While the weak economy was a major factor in 2008's increase, the rise in consumer bankruptcy filings is also attributable to better understanding of a key piece of bankruptcy legislation, according to Henry Sommer of the Consumer Bankruptcy Assistance Project in Philadelphia.The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 made it harder for individuals to receive Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection, in part by increasing the costs associated with filing. "There was a perception that the 2005 law prevented bankruptcy, but that perception is going away now," Sommer said. Chapter 7 is designed to give individual debtors a "fresh financial start" by discharging many of their debts. Under Chapter 7, a filer's assets - minus those exempted by his or her home state - are liquidated and given to the creditors who are first in line for repayment. Any debts that remain are cancelled.In 2005, total consumer bankruptcy filings jumped 32% as individuals raced to file before the new rules were instituted. Total filings then plummeted 72% in 2006 after the act went into effect. But bankruptcy filings have increased despite the 2005 act as economic conditions have deteriorated and the nation has been mired in a recession for more than a year, resuming their rise, up 40% in 2007.Sommer said he expects bankruptcies to continue climbing in 2009 "as the recession kicks in and people start to have problems with their credit cards and other debts." And given the "foreclosure crisis" currently plaguing the housing market, "people won't be able to fall back on their home equity," Sommer said.Fed predicts economy will get worseIn the minutes from its last meeting, the central bank said it expects GDP to decline in 2009 and unemployment to rise into 2010...Chris Isidorehttp://money.cnn.com/2009/01/06/news/economy/fed_minutes/index.htm?postversion=2009010615NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The U.S. economy is likely to deteriorate further this year and unemployment will rise into 2010, according to the latest forecasts from the staff of the Federal Reserve.This bleak forecast was presented to Fed policymakers when they met last month and lowered interest rates to near zero. Low interest rates are one key tool the central bank uses to try to spur economic activity.According to the minutes from that meeting, the central bank is now predicting that gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic activity will fall in 2009."I think that the Fed is really very scared right now -- like everybody else -- and they want to pull out all the stops," said David Wyss, chief economist for Standard & Poor's.The Fed indicated that most members at its meeting expected a slow recovery to begin in the second half of the year, but that unemployment would still rise "significantly" into 2010.Employers cut 1.9 million jobs over the first 11 months of 2008, which took the unemployment rate up to 6.7%. The December report will be released by the Labor Department Friday and economists surveyed by Briefing.com expect a loss of 475,000 jobs and that the unemployment rate will rise to 7%, which would mark a 15-year high.The Fed cited a multitude of problems dragging down the economy besides rising unemployment, including stock market declines, low consumer confidence, weakened household balance sheets and tight credit conditions. It said business spending is also likely to fall due to weak retail sales and the credit crunch.In addition, some members of the Fed expressed concerns that the economy could worsen even more than currently expected."Meeting participants generally agreed that the uncertainty surrounding the outlook was considerable and that downside risks to even this weak trajectory for economic activity were a serious concern," the Fed said in the minutes.If the current recession, which began in December 2007, lasts throughout 2009, that would make it the longest U.S. economic downturn since the Great Depression.Wyss said he thinks there is now little debate among policymakers about the problems in the economy and the need to take unprecedented action."They're already jumping, they're just asking how high," said Wyss.The minutes also showed that some Fed members are now more worried about the threat posed by deflation, or falling prices, than they are about inflation. Deflation can slow economic activity dramatically since it could lead to businesses to cut their production plans in the wake of lower prices.The Fed also revealed more details about other moves it plans to make to boost the economy now that it has lowered rates as far as it can. According to the minutes, the Fed anticipates completing previously announced purchases of $600 billion in debt and mortgage backed securities from firms such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by the end of June 2009. The plan to buy back these securities has already helped to lower mortgage rates in recent weeks.