Merced Sun-Star
Survey paints bleak picture of Sierra snowpack...CAROL REITER
On Tuesday morning, Frank Gehrke was standing at 8,500 feet elevation, looking down on the Tahoe Drainage area, near Lake Lois in the northern Sierra Nevada.
In his shirt sleeves, with the temperature about 50 degrees, Gehrke was fixing a snow sensor, a device that gives constant information about the snowpack to the California Department of Water Resources, Gehrke's employer.
While he was working at fixing the sensor, Gehrke was worried about the snowpack. He has been part of the state's snow survey team since 1981, and this year is one of the worst he's seen.
"This feels and looks like it's a mid-April snowpack instead of a mid-February one," Gehrke said.
The official snow survey results from the department show a snowpack in the Sierra that's only 61 percent of normal. Every month, from January through May, a manual snow survey is done by the department, according to Don Strickland, an information officer with the public affairs office of the department.
In addition, snow sensors are spread throughout the Sierra, sending information about snow and rain daily to the state.
In the northern Sierra, the snow is only at 46 percent of normal. In the central Sierra, it's at 59 percent, and in the southern Sierra, the pack is at 62 percent of normal.
Snow surveying began in the early 1900s, with Lake Tahoe one of the first sites in the United States that was surveyed. Now the snow surveys are done as a cooperative effort among state, national and private agencies.
There are about 50 teams that check the snowpack, Strickland said, and the teams take snow samples from places throughout the Sierra Nevada.
One of the main reasons the snowpack is checked is to see how much water the state water project can give to its contractors, Strickland said. There are 29 water and irrigation districts that get water from the state water project. Some of those water districts are on the Westside of the San Joaquin Valley, including the Oak Flat Water District in Patterson.
"Right now, those districts are looking at getting only 15 percent of their normal allocation of water," Strickland said.
More bad news may be coming from the federal government, Strickland said. He's heard that the Central Valley Project, a federal program that provides water to water districts on the Westside of the county, will be telling those districts they are getting no water at all this year.
Although the snowpack numbers are in the tank right now, there's a little hope on the horizon. A storm is expected to hit California on Thursday, bringing rain to the Valley and snow to higher elevations.
Cindy Bean, a forecaster for the National Weather Service in Hanford, said the high pressure that has been parked over California will be shifting to the east, allowing some storms to get through.
Bean said that the storm should bring about a half-inch of rain to the Valley floor, but the snow elevation will be high, at about 6,500 feet to start, falling to 5,000 feet by Thursday night.
Bean said there may be another weather system coming next week, but it doesn't look strong at this point.
The lack of rainfall has already hit cattle ranchers this year. Grasses in the foothills the ranchers depend on for winter feed are almost nonexistent this year.
While the water situation looks gloomy, there's still some optimism. David Robinson, the agriculture commissioner for Merced County, said it's still in the middle of the rainfall season, so there's still hope.
"We would expect rainfall in February and March," Robinson said. "But right now, it's not looking good."
Gehrke agreed. He said dry autumns and below-normal snow in the mountains so far spell bad news for everyone.
"If we have a March like last year, it's looking pretty grim," Gehrke said.
Merced College enrollment jumps 9 percent
Officials say classes are full, staff is swamped with students...Sun-Star staff
At the end of the first week of the spring 2009 semester, Merced College reported a 9 percent increase in student headcount for credit classes -- nearly 600 more students than the spring 2008 semester.
And, according to college officials, it shows.
Classrooms are filled to capacity. Students wait in long lines for services. Counselors have barely a moment to breathe before the next student knocks on their door.
"We are working overtime to handle the numbers of financial aid applications right now," said Diana Butts, financial aid coordinator. "Our goal is to shorten the time it takes to process student financial aid applications."
With its headcount now at 10,058 students, Merced College is struggling to deliver services without appropriate funding from the state. Currently, the college is underfunded by $1,598,000, which means that the state is not providing funding for 350 students.
That means the college probably won't hire more instructors to teach additional course sections. And, that means fewer available classes for students.
"We are not adding classes because of the budget situation," said Marianne Tortoricci, vice president of Instruction. "However, our instructors are allowing more students in their classes, and when possible, we have moved classes to larger rooms to accommodate more students."
Tortorrici also noted that no new faculty positions have been created, although the college is filling those teaching slots that have come open through faculty retirements or resignations.
The state's continuing budget stalemate is also making it hard for the college to plan for necessary services in noninstructional areas, officials said.
"We're unable to accurately plan for the remainder of this semester, as well as for next year," said Dr. Anne Newins, vice president for student services. "I'm especially concerned about proposals to reduce financial aid and other support structures for our students, many of whom are out of work or who have had their work hours reduced."
Unlike the University of California and the California State University systems, which have already announced large enrollment cuts, community colleges are chartered with an "open-door policy," which prevents them from turning away qualified students.
While the UC and CSU systems can manage budget cuts by reducing student enrollment, community colleges are mandated to serve all students -- regardless of whether a budget exists for them.
However, Merced College officials noted, when new course sections can't be added to the semester schedule, the effect is the same -- students will have less opportunity to complete their education.
"We're going to do what we've always done," said Merced College President Dr. Benjamin T. Duran, "and that is to teach students who want to learn. That's our job, and we're going to do that to the best of our ability."
UC Merced garners $8.2M in research grants...Sun-Star staff
UC Merced said its faculty researchers have gotten $8.2 million in research grants and awards during the first half of the 2008-2009 fiscal year.
The funds, received between July 1 and Dec. 31, 2008, represent 54 separate projects. Federal, state and private funding brought in to the university is typically used to hire student research assistants, buy supplies, equip laboratories, fund travel, pay salaries and conduct day-to-day research activities.
The $8.2 million is on par with the amount of funds received during the first six months of the 2007-2008 fiscal year. Last year's full-year total was $16.3 million, the university said.
"Research is an integral component of education and we are pleased that UC Merced continues to maintain consistent and strong research funding at this point of the fiscal year," said Samuel Traina, vice chancellor for research and dean of graduate studies.
UC Merced said its faculty members conduct research on a wide range of scientific issues, many of which have direct relevance to the San Joaquin Valley and the state. Because many goods and services are bought locally, the Valley community benefits directly from the inflow of cash as well as from the ideas and discoveries resulting from the actual research, according to university officials.
Among the awards in the most recent six-month period:
$1.7 million from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to conduct research on using stem cells for cardiac tissue repair;
$656,000 from the National Science Foundation to acquire a laser and detection system that allows researchers to perform a wide variety of optical and opto-electronic experiments;
$150,000 from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to create usable technology for quantum computing;
$100,000 from the National Science Foundation to build computer models that can automatically extract useful information from extremely complex data;
$755,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy to examine how climate changes affect plant species;
$476,000 from the National Science Foundation to buy robotics equipment;
Information about interdisciplinary research institutes and cooperative core laboratories at UC Merced can be found at www.ucmerced.edu/research.
Modesto Bee
98 percent of metro areas see jobless rates rise...JEANNINE AVERSA, AP Economics Writer
Unemployment rates moved higher in 98 percent of the nation's largest metropolitan areas, with Indiana's Elkhart-Goshen and Dalton, Ga., registering the biggest annual increases.
The U.S. Labor Department reported Wednesday that 363 of the 369 metropolitan areas saw their jobless rates rise in December from a year earlier.
Elkhart-Goshen and Dalton - which both experienced manufacturing layoffs in recent months - had the largest increases in their unemployment rates from December 2007.
Elkhart-Goshen's unemployment rate soared to 15.3 percent in December, up a whopping 10.6 percentage points from December 2007. The area has been bruised by layoffs in the recreational vehicle industry. Hundreds of workers have lost their jobs at RV makers such as Monaco Coach Corp., Keystone RV Co. and Pilgrim International.
The jobless rate in Dalton, home to many floorcovering manufacturers, jumped to 11.2 percent, up 6.2 percentage points from a year earlier.
An avalanche of layoffs is hitting the nation, sparing no state or community.
Fallout from the housing, credit and financial crises - the worst since the 1930s - has plunged the country into a recession, now in its second year. That's taking a heavy toll on workers as companies eliminate jobs, cut or freeze pay and turn to other cost-saving measures to survive the downturn.
El Centro, Calif., continued to lay claim to the nation's highest unemployment rate - 22.6 percent. The jobless rate is notoriously high in the area, where many unemployed are seasonal agriculture workers, including some who live in Mexico to be with family or to cut costs.
Following El Centro were Merced, Calif., with a jobless rate of 15.5 percent, Yuma, Ariz., at 15.4 percent and then Elkhart-Goshen.
Meanwhile, Morgantown, W.Va., and Logan, which straddles Utah and Idaho, registered the lowest unemployment rates of 2.7 percent and 2.8 percent respectively.
Fresno Bee
Tulare speedway project hits bump in financial road...Eddie Jimenez
The developer of the proposed Tulare Motor Sports Complex that's expected to be a financial boon to the region owes about $108,000 to an escrow account for the project's environmental impact report, city officials said.
Until the money is paid, officials said, Tulare will hold on to the development agreement and the project will not move forward.
However, Fresno developer Bud Long, one of the project's partners, said he expects the money will be paid in the next few days.
Long said the developers first need to verify the amount due to the escrow account.
Two Tulare City Council members -- Philip Vandegrift and Craig Vejvoda -- said Tuesday that they are confident Long and his partners will pay the money owed and that the project will move forward. Vandegrift and Vejvoda voted to approve the project in December.
The city fronted the money for various stages of the report with the expectation that the developers would repay the city, officials said.
The report, now completed, cost about $1.2 million, though the final amount was still being tallied Tuesday, city officials said.
Under the escrow account arrangement, Long and his partners had 30 days to pay once an invoice was sent to them, city officials said. Long and his partners have not paid about $25,000 on the last invoice sent to them Jan. 5, said Darlene Thompson, Tulare's finance director. They did pay a portion of the nearly $105,000 on a Nov. 14 invoice, Thompson said.
The project's partners were late with two other payments last year, but that is not unusual, especially with a project of this magnitude, said Tulare City Manager Darrel Pyle.
Nonetheless, late payments can sour the working relationship between the city and developers, said Council Member Wayne Ross, who voted against the project.
"Their end of the bargain has not been upheld," Ross said.
The council voted 3-2 in late December to approve the 711-acre project that is expected to bring $1 billion to the region each year and create 16,000 jobs, according to a study by a Fresno consulting firm.
A one-mile oval race track and a drag strip, with a combined seating capacity for 92,400 spectators, would cover about 135 acres. The development also would include hotels, condominiums, an RV park and entertainment.
The developers plan to buy the land -- adjacent to the International Agricultural Center -- and pay for infrastructure improvements such as streets and sewers, city officials said.
Ennis Homes of Porterville files for bankruptcy protection amid turmoil
Decline in land value causes banks to stop financing development...Sanford Nax
A central San Joaquin Valley-based builder has filed for bankruptcy protection for the first time since the new-home market started tanking.
Ennis Homes of Porterville, which has been in business for three decades, filed a Chapter 11 petition Monday in federal court in Fresno after struggling for two years with the real estate meltdown, its chief executive said.
The filing affects only Ennis Homes, which is the homebuilding arm of a diversified family company. None of the other Ennis entities filed petitions. Ennis Homes has 26 employees, down from more than 100 at its peak.
Chief Executive Officer Brian Ennis said the company was selling houses, but its land holdings fell in value so far so fast that some banks stopped financing development.
"When the land is collateral supporting a loan and the value drops by 50% or more, it's impossible to adjust to that in a short period of time," Ennis said in a statement.
In one case, Ennis received a property appraisal in 2006 for $6.6 million, and within two years the value on the same land plunged by 55%. Ennis' bankruptcy attorney, Hagop T. Bedoyan of Fresno, said it also was not unusual to have wildly different appraisals at the same time from different entities.
"You could have one appraisal saying one thing and the bank's appraisal saying something else," Bedoyan said.
Nationwide, dozens of homebuilders -- some of them regional developers with projects in the central San Joaquin Valley -- have gone out of business or filed for bankruptcy protection in the past two years.
"It gives you a different perspective when it is a homegrown company with employees and subcontractors who are local," said Robert Keenan, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Tulare and Kings Counties.
Analyst Jonathan Dienhart of Hanley Wood Market Intelligence likened Ennis' situation to that of homeowners whose homes are worth less than they owe.
"Money is tight, and banks are hoarding it," he said. "It's a sign of the times, really."
A Chapter 11 petition holds creditors at bay while giving time for a company to reorganize.
Ennis said the company has payment arrangements with contractors and suppliers so it can continue to build houses without delays. He said it is eliminating projects in Wasco, Dinuba and Visalia.
The company plans to continue building neighborhoods elsewhere in Visalia, Fresno, Hanford, Tulare, Porterville and Bakersfield.
Ennis started preparing for an economic downturn in 2006, but the deterioration surpassed expectations.
"We planned our business based on what the best economists were predicting. Unfortunately, the economists' crystal ball was not very accurate," he said.
Fresno builder Leo Wilson said most in his industry are having to deal with deteriorating land values, and often wind up having to put more money into a project.
Builders also have to cope with plunging values inside their own developments. A house that goes into foreclosure in an earlier phase can drive down values in a later phase.
The market isn't expected to improve anytime soon, even though low interest rates and prices are making houses more affordable. Production of new homes in 2009 is expected to decrease 3% from already record-low numbers, the California Building Industry Association announced Tuesday in a news release with the headline "Homebuilding Depression Expected to Deepen."
The association pushed for the creation of a tax credit for buyers and forecasts 2,050 single-family permits in Fresno County this year, down from 2,322 in 2008 and 3,736 in 2007.
"These numbers don't bode well for our industry or the economy, and we could be in for a very rough year," said Robert Rivinius, president of the California Building Industry Association.
Michigan gov wants feds to regulate state wetlands...JOHN FLESHER, AP Environmental Writer
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. Gov. Jennifer Granholm has recommended scrapping Michigan's wetland protection law and transferring wetland regulation in the state to the federal government.
The Democratic governor announced the plan in her State of the State address Tuesday, drawing mixed reviews from business and environmental interests. Michigan has operated a separate wetland program since 1984, the only state to do so except New Jersey.
If Granholm's proposal wins legislative approval, businesses and property owners wanting to fill or otherwise degrade wetlands for development will seek permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers instead of from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will retain oversight authority.
Michigan enacted its law in 1979, recognizing the importance of wetlands in filtering pollutants that could contaminate other waters, including the Great Lakes. They also provide habitat for fish and wildlife, and help control flooding and erosion.
Granholm's proposal to abandon the program is among many money-saving measures she is seeking to close a $1.6 billion budget deficit, spokeswoman Liz Boyd said.
The program costs about $4 million a year, including a $2.1 million state appropriation. Federal funding and permit fees provide the rest.
Opponents of Granholm's plan say the savings would be minimal and not worth the loss of state control. One likely result would be fewer on-site inspections of proposed wetland projects, they said. The state has about 30 personnel who handle wetland issues in field offices around the state.
"Very shortsighted," said Jennifer McKay, a policy specialist with Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council in Petoskey. "The ecological and economic future of Michigan is dependent on maintaining the wetlands protection program in the state."
But Doug Roberts, environmental policy director for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said many of its members were dissatisfied with the state program and would favor federal control.
"We applaud the governor for looking for ways to save the state money," he said.
Sacramento Bee
Builders start on fewest homes in 50 years in '08...Jim Wasserman
California home builders started construction on the fewest homes in more than a half-century in 2008, taking out permits for 65,380 homes, condominiums and apartments, the California Building Industry Association has announced.
The CBIA said builders started 33,048 single- family homes and 32,332 apartments and condominiums during a year that brought some of the most severe downsizing and layoffs to the industry in memory. The number of permits was down almost half from 2007, said the CBIA, citing numbers from the Construction Industry Research Board.
Yuba and Sutter counties showed the state's most severe regional slowdown. Builders started 191 homes in the once-booming area for Sacramento-bound commuters, down 79 percent from 932 starts in 2007.
Builders in El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento and Yolo counties started 3,990 homes in 2008, down 43 percent from 6,999 in 2007.
State records show last year's permit numbers are the lowest for home starts since the recessionary year of 1993.
At the peak of the housing boom in 2004, home builders took out 212,960 permits.
California home builders started construction on the fewest homes in more than a half-century in 2008, taking out permits for 65,380 homes, condominiums and apartments, the California Building Industry Association has announced.
The CBIA said builders started 33,048 single- family homes and 32,332 apartments and condominiums during a year that brought some of the most severe downsizing and layoffs to the industry in memory. The number of permits was down almost half from 2007, said the CBIA, citing numbers from the Construction Industry Research Board.
Yuba and Sutter counties showed the state's most severe regional slowdown. Builders started 191 homes in the once-booming area for Sacramento-bound commuters, down 79 percent from 932 starts in 2007.
Builders in El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento and Yolo counties started 3,990 homes in 2008, down 43 percent from 6,999 in 2007.
State records show last year's permit numbers are the lowest for home starts since the recessionary year of 1993.
At the peak of the housing boom in 2004, home builders took out 212,960 permits.
Daniel Weintraub: Seeds of growth ready for fertile ground
As California's economy struggles to rebound from the collapse of the housing bubble, it is difficult to imagine what will lead us out of this hole. We had the dot-com boom and bust, and then a housing-led recovery that turned out to be a mirage. Is there some industry, some idea that can reignite sustainable growth in this once-golden state?
Maybe not. And maybe that's the wrong way to think about the problem.
It could be that there are six or eight or 10 major industries that together will form the foundation for the new California economy.
The Internet is here to stay, and the Silicon Valley remains a hotbed of innovation in that field. Biotechnology centers in San Diego and San Francisco are poised for additional growth. Los Angeles has lost some of the movie business but is still a center for multimedia arts and entertainment.
And the Central Valley is making a pitch to be the new home of research and development in green industry, including solar power and water technology.
Peter Weber, a retired corporate executive and civic activist from Fresno, has studied what makes economies tick and is promoting a regional approach as a long-term strategy for California. He thinks local governments and the state should make the development of regional economic clusters their top priority.
"I think the potential return on investment is huge for the state," Weber, who was a vice president for FMC Corp. before retiring in 2001, told me last week. "We are spending a lot of time on government accountability, budget reform, fiscal reform. All of that is broken and needs to get fixed.
"The one thing that does not get discussed is how we grow the size of the pie so we have more revenues that generate a higher tax base that enables us to invest in building a better future. I am absolutely convinced that the answer to that is through growing regional economies."
Weber points to the experience of Akron, Ohio, as an example.
Devastated by decline of the rubber tire business, Akron was in a deep economic slump in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Then private sector, government and academic leaders came together to leverage the region's expertise with rubber, a naturally occurring polymer, to become a center for the development of modern, polymer-based synthetic materials.
The University of Akron built a Department of Polymer Engineering, and the Polymer Processing Society was created in 1985 to attract research to the region. By the end of the decade, Weber says, more than 300 polymer companies were operating in Akron.
Now there are more than 2,600 such firms in Ohio, and the industry employs more than 31,000 people in and around Akron. The Akron metropolitan area saw its gross domestic product grow by an average of 6.7 percent per year between 1990 and 2007, which was triple the rate of what it had been for the decade before.
If California's GDP could be increased by just 1 percent above what it otherwise would be, the extra growth would mean $17 billion a year in company revenue and between $2.5 billion and $5 billion in new tax revenue, Weber said in a paper he wrote on the idea for California Forward, a nonpartisan political reform group.
Weber is convinced this is achievable, and he doesn't think it requires the creation of new government agencies or a process of picking industry winners and losers through some kind of government industrial policy. Rather, he proposes less than $100 million in new spending over five years in a program that would rely on "challenge grants" to give incentives to the private sector, academia and local governments to nurture industry clusters that are forming naturally in their regions.
He has already seen such an approach begin to work in his adopted home town of Fresno. There, former Mayor Alan Autry put Weber in charge of drafting a plan to end the city's 25-year history of double-digit unemployment. That plan became part of a regional initiative that has rallied an eight-county region around the development of five industry clusters: agribusiness and food processing; manufacturing, including water technology; supply chain management; health and medical care; and renewable energy.
With support from the Schwarzenegger administration, local governments that had been rivals are communicating and cooperating. Business, agricultural and environmental groups are finding more consensus on contentious air quality issues. The region's water supply wars, if not ended, have subsided, and the region came together on a route for California's planned high-speed railroad.
With the entire state's economy hurting, it is too soon to judge how all of this will translate into economic growth, but the spread between the San Joaquin Valley's unemployment rate and the rest of the state has shrunk.
"I think this has had a dramatically beneficial effect on the San Joaquin Valley," Weber says.
No single idea is going to revive California's economy. But if the state and local governments can stop fighting each other long enough to step back and ask what they can do to promote economic growth rather than retard it, all of us will no doubt be better off.
San Francisco Chronicle
New Study: Ethanol Worse Than Gasoline...Cameron Scott...The Thin Green Line
In the annals of bad ideas, ethanol will have a prominent place. Instead of facilitating the transition away from fossil fuels as its supporters proclaim, corn-based ethanol simply substitutes different uses of fossil fuels.
This blogger has long been a critic, but, even so, I'm surprised to see a new study conclude that ethanol from corn results in significantly more greenhouse gas pollution than good old-fashioned gasoline—depending on the process used to make it, it can be nearly twice as damaging to the climate, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study joins a growing body of research that factors in land-use changes in calculating lifetime effects of renewable fuel sources.
Update: I should have specified corn-based ethanol in the original post, as a reader mentioned. I've added that now.
Contra Costa Times
Law firm alleges age discrimination in Livermore lab layoffs...Suzanne Bohan
An Oakland law firm on Tuesday announced its intention to file age discrimination complaints with a state agency on behalf of 100 workers laid off in May by Lawrence Livermore National Security.
The corporation, formed by a partnership between the University of California and several companies led by Bechtel Corp., operates Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
The complaints will all be filed by today with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
In late May, the laboratory laid off 440 permanent employees, including scientists, engineers, financial analysts, facilities technicians and administrative assistants.
Of those laid-off workers, 94 percent were over the age of 40, affording them status as "protected employees" under anti-discrimination laws, said J. Gary Gwilliam, an Oakland attorney representing the former lab workers. Federal and state law prohibit discrimination against citizens based on race, gender, age or disabilities.
Gwilliam asserted that the laid-off employees were targeted because they were nearing retirement age, and earning advanced salaries.
"It's unfortunate that the Lawrence Livermore Lab, the University of California and Bechtel Corporation would treat their employees in such a discriminatory manner. I don't think the Department of Energy, with whom they contract, would approve of such conduct."
Gwilliam said today's actions will likely lead to a lawsuit in state court, where the 100 individual suits would be merged into a "consolidated suit." In discrimination cases, attorneys are required to first file complaints with the state employment and housing agency. If the agency declines to investigate, plaintiffs are freed to file a lawsuit.
"The chances are overwhelming that we'll file a lawsuit," he said.
Jim Bono, a lab spokesman, countered that the lab's management "followed Department of Energy regulations during the entire (layoff) process." He declined further comment, stating he hadn't read the complaints.
If the administrative complaints advance to litigation, they'll add to "an explosion" of discrimination litigation against employers during a difficult economic time, according to a new report on 2008 U.S. workplace-related legal decisions, released Feb. 1 by the law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP. The top 10 settlements in class action and collective action settlements involving workplace issues collectively totaled $18.2 billion, according to the report.
Santa Cruz Sentinel
New state septic regs mean home inspections, additional costs...Kurtis Alexander
SANTA CRUZ -- Skyline resident Arnie Wernick figures he'll pay about $100 more each year if the state, as planned, begins regulating a fixture of everyday life in the Santa Cruz Mountains -- the septic system.
Others think the costs could be much higher.
But that's not the worst of it, Wernick says. The new regulations, being written by water officials in Sacramento, attempt to solve the statewide problem of leaky septics with a broad set of requirements that, according to Wernick, doesn't address local issues and unnecessarily burdens the 23,000 county households that have septics.
"The problem is you've got a one-size-fits-all approach," he said. "It's money down the tube. These are hard economic times so why would you make people do this?"
The septic rules, slated to take effect in 2010, are the result of a 1999 state law mandating better scrutiny of wastewater systems. The legislation came after fecal matter was detected in a handful of Southern California streams, prompting a number of high-profile beach closures and leaving many wondering whether the state was doing enough to regulate septic systems.
But local water officials tend to agree with rural residents across California who say the rules have come off a bit heavy-handed and overly prescriptive. The county's Environmental Health Services division plans to send a letter of protest to the state this month.
In acknowledgement of the opposition, the State Water Resources Control Board has extended the public comment period for the regulations, from this week to Feb. 23, and pledged to revise them.
"We don't want to drive people off their homes and off their property. That's not our mission," said Dave Clegern, a spokesman for the state water board. "Our mission is to protect water quality."
Under the proposed rules, residents with septic systems face a handful of reporting and inspection requirements aimed at ensuring their tanks don't leak.
One of the more controversial terms is that septic sites get visited by inspectors every five years, at an estimated cost of $325 to the homeowner. Some worry the expense could be more like $30,000 if their system doesn't meet code and they're forced to buy a new one.
John Ricker, the county's water director, notes that many of the state demands simply don't make sense, like a requirement to upgrade systems within 600 feet of a stream or river where the county has already mandated changes.
"Our programs here are working," Ricker said.
In the San Lorenzo River, where fecal contamination has long been a problem, the number of leaky septics has fallen from 13 percent to 1 percent during the past 20 years, Ricker says.
He expects to pen opposition to the state rules before this month's deadline for input, a move backed by county Supervisor Mark Stone.
"Anything and everything we can do to protect the watershed, I support," said Stone, who represents the San Lorenzo Valley. "But I'm worried the state rules could endanger the work the county's been doing for decades. And, it's outrageously expensive, which the state doesn't seem to care about."
Proposed Septic rules
The state plans to impose new regulations on septic systems next year. State water officials are accepting public comment on the proposed rules until Feb. 23. To view the rules and comment on them, visit http://www.swrcb.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/septic_tanks/index.shtml.
Los Angeles Times
California farms, vineyards in peril from warming, U.S. energy secretary warns
'We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California,' Steven Chu says. He sees education as a means to combat threat...Jim Tankersley
Reporting from Washington — California's farms and vineyards could vanish by the end of the century, and its major cities could be in jeopardy, if Americans do not act to slow the advance of global warming, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said Tuesday.
In his first interview since taking office last month, the Nobel-prize-winning physicist offered some of the starkest comments yet on how seriously President Obama's cabinet views the threat of climate change, along with a detailed assessment of the administration's plans to combat it.
Chu warned of water shortages plaguing the West and Upper Midwest and particularly dire consequences for California, his home state, the nation's leading agricultural producer.
In a worst case, Chu said, up to 90% of the Sierra snowpack could disappear, all but eliminating a natural storage system for water vital to agriculture.
"I don't think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen," he said. "We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California." And, he added, "I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going" either.
A pair of recent studies raise similar warnings. One, published in January in the journal Science, raised the specter of worldwide crop shortages as temperatures rise. Another, penned by UC Berkeley researchers last year, estimated California has about $2.5 trillion in real estate assets -- including agriculture -- endangered by warming.
Chu is not a climate scientist. He won his Nobel for work trapping atoms with laser light. He taught at Stanford University and directed the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where he reoriented researchers to pursue "clean energy" technologies to help reduce the use of greenhouse-gas-emitting fossil fuels in the U.S., before Obama tapped him to head the Energy Department.
He stressed the threat of climate change in his Senate confirmation hearings and in a video clip posted on Obama's transition website, but not as bluntly, nor in as dire terms, as he did Tuesday.
In the course of a half-hour interview, Chu made clear that he sees public education as a key part of the administration's strategy to fight global warming -- along with billions of dollars for alternative energy research and infrastructure, a national standard for electricity from renewable sources and cap-and-trade legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
He said the threat of warming is keeping policymakers focused on alternatives to fossil fuel, even though gasoline prices have fallen over the last six months from historic highs. But he said public awareness needs to catch up. He compared the situation to a family buying an old house and being told by an inspector that it must pay a hefty sum to rewire it or risk an electrical fire that could burn everything down.
"I'm hoping that the American people will wake up," Chu said, and pay the cost of rewiring.
Environmentalists welcomed the comments as a sharp break from the Bush administration, which often minimized research about global warming.
"To say the least, it's a breath of fresh air," said Bernadette Del Chiaro, who directs the clean air and global warming program for Environment California. "We've been worried about the impacts of global warming for years, even decades. He's absolutely right -- California stands to lose so much in our way of life."
Global warming skeptics were not swayed. "I am hopeful Secretary Chu will take note of the real-world data, new studies and the growing chorus of international scientists that question his climate claims," Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement. "Computer model predictions of the year 2100 are simply not evidence of a looming climate catastrophe."
A win for wilderness
The Senate has passed a public lands bill that will benefit California, among other states. Although the legislation contains a few troublesome projects, it deserves House passage too...Edirotial
An omnibus public lands bill that would, among other things, designate more than 700,000 acres of California land as wilderness has finally received approval from the Senate and will now go to the House for a vote. Though it contains a few questionable proposals, the legislation would protect badly needed wildlife habitat and recreational space, and the House should pass it.
The bill, S. 22, a holdover from last year, consists of about 160 separate proposals and would grant the highest level of federal protection to more than 2 million acres across nine states from California to West Virginia. Among the California land designated as wilderness would be about 190,000 acres in Riverside County, about 450,000 acres in the Eastern Sierra and the San Gabriel Mountains, and about 90,000 acres in Sequoia-Kings Canyon national parks. The overall packagecarries a $4-billion price tag over five years.
Perhaps the most important bonus for California, though, is $88 million for the long-overdue revival of the 330-mile-long San Joaquin River, after decades of being drained to supply Central Valley farms. The legislation would restore water flows next year below Friant Dam -- located on the uppermost part of the river, northeast of Fresno -- and attempt to restore salmon runs to their historic levels by 2014.
For all its good intentions, the bill funds or allows a few troublesome projects, most notably a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for use by residents of a nearby village in case of medical emergencies, even though the government has already bought them a $9-million hovercraft for that purpose. But a revised version of the bill at least grants the Interior secretary the authority to veto the road's construction. Then there's the downright silly allocation of $3.5 million to celebrate the 450th birthday of St. Augustine, Fla., in 2015. St. Augustine is ancient by U.S. standards, the oldest European-established city in the nation, but the expenditure for a minor anniversary of a town of 12,000 is excessive by any measure.
Despite such concerns, on balance the bill is heavy on benefit and light on waste. Wilderness areas enjoy a higher level of protection than any other public lands, shielding them from drilling, logging and residential development. Rather than piling on more pork, or even killing it outright, the House should swiftly approve the bill.
Catalina Island fox population makes dramatic comeback
The small animals may come off the endangered species list next year, thanks to an eight-fold population increase in just a decade...Louis Sahagun
The wild fox population on Santa Catalina Island is so robust that biologists said Tuesday they may seek to have the small animals taken off the federal endangered species list next year.
The number of Catalina Island foxes -- a subspecies found only on the 75-square-mile island 22 miles off the coast of Southern California -- topped out at 784 in a new count, a remarkable rebound for animals that were nearly wiped out a decade ago after an outbreak of distemper possibly introduced by someone's pet.
"These numbers are fantastic news," said Julie King, senior wildlife biologist for the Catalina Island Conservancy.
Rain -- and a lack thereof -- contributed to the population growth, King said.
"In 2007, we had an extreme drought with less than 3 inches of rain," she said. "As a result, mule deer were dying in great numbers, and the foxes were able to scavenge off the carcasses. By the time breeding season arrived in 2008, we literally had obese foxes, and females in such good condition that they were having larger-than-normal litters."
In addition, 2008 was "a good rain year, so the rodent population exploded," she said. "The mice were convenient to-go packages of protein for females to retrieve and feed to their pups."
About 1,300 foxes once lived on the island. The population had crashed to roughly 100 by 1999, when the conservancy and the Institute for Wildlife Studies launched a $2-million recovery program that included vaccinations and a captive breeding facility.
In 2004, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the fox as endangered.
"For a small conservancy to bring a species back from the brink of extinction to a stabilized, growing population in less than 10 years is no small feat," said Carlos de la Rosa, chief conservation and education officer for the conservancy. "The foxes will be starting their breeding season in the next few weeks, so you will probably start seeing more pairs of foxes than singles on the roads during February and March."
On Tuesday afternoon, conservancy biologist Calvin Duncan and volunteer pilot Mike Sheehan conducted an aerial survey of the island's 56 foxes outfitted with telemetry collars, which emit a rapid-fire pinging sound if an animal has not moved for 12 hours.
After an hour of flying about 2,500 feet above rugged island terrain, Duncan gave a thumbs up and said, "We got everybody. All 56 are accounted for, and there are no fatalities."
The foxes are trapped once a year and inspected for any illnesses, including an unusual ear cancer that recently began showing up in older foxes. "We want to keep them as virus-free as possible," Duncan said.
Air and ground observations suggest the omnivorous 5-pound foxes are faring well, feeding at night on cactus fruit, berries and insects, scurrying through shrubs and ravines, and establishing territories.
The island's captive breeding program ended in 2004. But the foxes' problems are not over. Today, the primary cause of death among foxes is "road kill," Duncan said. "We've got 4,000 people living in Avalon, and driving all over the island."
The conservancy's fundraising efforts have fallen $150,000 short of the $222,000 needed to sustain the fox recovery effort through the end of the year.
All field activities, equipment, radio collars, vaccines, medications, fuel, vehicles and seasonal staff are funded through grants and donor contributions, King said.
"We're reaching out to people interested in contributing," she said. "A radio collar costs $250, a vaccination is about $10. These costs add up quickly."
Alter Net
Water Quality Regulation in California: A Day Late and a Dollar Short?...David S. Beckman, Huffington Post
It is apparent that fundamental components of the Clean Water Act are not being implemented faithfully in California.
Imagine your boss gave you a deadline, a really important one. The kind of deadline that affects the bottom line of whatever it is you do profoundly. And let's even imagine your boss tells you the deadline is imposed by federal law, and so your organization or company therefore must take it very seriously and comply.
And now let's imagine you miss the deadline. Not by a day or two. Or by a month. And not even by a year. But by many years: two, three, four, or even five years. What would happen to you?
You probably would be doing something different, right?
Well, not if you regulate water quality in California. There are, in fact, these sorts of really important deadlines that have a critical affect on the quality of the state's waters. But they are routinely violated by the state regulators, the State Water Resources Control Board and some of the Regional Water Quality Control Boards, entrusted with the duty to protect California's waterways.
The deadlines at issue require that new plans to control one of the largest sources of water pollution in California-polluted urban runoff-be revised and updated no less than every five years. Here's the law, from the Code of Federal Regulations:
122.46 Duration of permits (applicable to State programs, see 123.25).
(a) NPDES permits shall be effective for a fixed term not to exceed 5 years.
The requirement for the plans, called discharge permits, originates in the federal Clean Water Act, the nation's basic law intended to keep waterways clean. The core component of the Clean Water Act is the issuance of permits -- basically, limitations on the discharge of pollution -- to dischargers of water pollution. Since one of the most important sources of water pollution is polluted urban runoff, when control plans are not updated, the consequences are serious. This is particularly true because the technical approaches to controlling runoff are improving rapidly, and so requirements in pollution control plans issued, say, five years ago do not reflect the best and most effective approaches available today. The equation is simple: missed deadlines equal more pollution.
My colleague Bart Lounsbury and I have been working on improving these permits and we have tried to ferret out how overdue for re-issuance many of them are in California. It's sometimes a little tricky to nail down the precise date when permits take effect, or expire, but here are just some examples of important permits overdue for re-issuance. The first group of permits below covers pollution discharges in the entire state from industry, construction sites and from thousands of miles of freeways. The second category of permits are regional-specific.
State Water Resources Control Board (statewide permits):
* Construction General Permit: expired on August 18, 2004.
* Industrial General Permit: expired on April 17, 2002.
* Caltrans General Permit: expired on July 15, 2005.
Regional Water Quality Control Boards (regional permits):
* Contra Costa County Permit: expired on July 21, 2004.
* Santa Clara Valley Permit: expired on February 21, 2006.
* Ventura County Permit: expired on July 27, 2005.
* Los Angeles County Permit: expired on December 12, 2006.
An important thing to keep in mind is that permits remain in effect even when expired until a new one is issued. So no area of the state listed above is without any permit protection.
But the result of these missed deadlines is real and significant: more pollution. Exactly why California cannot meet its basic Clean Water Act obligations, and what can be done about it, is a topic for another post. A new report from a state commission takes a look at the poor performance by state regulators, and offers a range of possible solutions, some of which bear serious consideration. For now, however, it is apparent that fundamental components of the Clean Water Act are not being implemented faithfully in California. The system is simply not working.
CNN Money
84% of cities in money trouble
Some 84% of cities say they are facing financial difficulty, according to new survey. Things won't improve this year...Tami Luhby
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- More than eight in ten cities are in financial trouble, up from 64% six months ago, according to a survey released Wednesday.
The recession is straining cities' ability to meet their financial needs, according to the National League of Cities. Some 84% of cities reported facing fiscal difficulties, the highest percentage since the group starting doing surveys in 1985.
The nation's cities are counting on billions of dollars from the economic stimulus package now being debated in the Senate. Mayors gathered in Washington, D.C., to meet with White House advisers and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Wednesday to urge Congress to pass the recovery bill.
The mayors are eager to get funding for transportation and infrastructure projects that will put their residents to work. While most of those meeting Wednesday have budget deficits, they are not looking for federal money to close those gaps.
"If we're going to invest to stimulate our economy, we need to invest in our cities," said Miami Mayor Manny Diaz. "Cities are ready to go. This money comes in and goes right back out to create jobs."
The mayors have put together a "Ready to Go" report that details 18,750 local infrastructure projects in 779 cities that can be started as soon as funding is received. The projects, which represent an investment of $150 billion, would create 1.6 million jobs in 2009 and 2010 and range from creating bridge guardrails in Bessemer, Ala., to renovating elementary schools in Norfolk, Va.
The economic stimulus package sets aside billions of dollars for highway construction, transit improvements, school modernization and community development block grants.
2009 not looking better
Things will remain tough in 2009. Some 92% of the cities surveyed expected to have trouble meeting their city needs during this year. To cope, they are implementing hiring freezes and layoffs, delaying capital expenditures and instituting service cuts.
Some 69% have instituted hiring freezes or layoffs, while 42% are delaying or canceling infrastructure projects. Another 22% have instituted across the board cuts.
Cities are seeing their tax revenues decline as property values drop, shopping slows and unemployment rises. On top of that, nearly one in two city finance officers report difficulties in access to credit and/or bond financing.
To bring in more revenue, they are adding to raising fees. Nearly half are increasing charges for services, while 28% are increasing the number of fees. Fewer are raising taxes. Some 14% have increased property taxes, while 6% have hikes sales taxes.
"Cities are responding as best they can," said Donald Borut, the league's executive director. "Their citizens have increasing needs for services just at the same time that revenues are declining."
City finances tend to lag the overall economy by 12 to 24 months, the league said. The weakening economic conditions will be felt by cities through 2009 and likely through most of 2010, the league said.