Contrasting views on the future of agriculture...Bill Hatch
I attended a debate on water policy in the San Joaquin Valley last night (more in a later posting). The latest agricultural idea from the irrigated salt flats of the west side of the Valley is to declare the area a National Security Zone, presumably policed by Homeland Security forces. This, the growers seem to believe, would guarantee continuing supplies of water conveyed through the Delta pumps. This pumping, if not the only cause, has been the major cause of catastrophic damage to several species of fish in the Delta and courts have ruled that the pumping must be cut back by law.
One argument that seemed to be suggested by a west side nut grower was that it was a patriotic act in the War Against Terror to compete in the world pistachio market with Iran. If he could only get some water this year, a Nobel Peace Prize is next.
If the growers got their National Security status, any criticism of water policy could presumably be legally declared an act of treason and the Zone would probably be an obstacle to union organizing.
Officially establishing such a "republic" within the boundaries of the nation's largest water district seems an excessive response to one of Calfornia's periodic droughts, but west side growers are famous for their agricultural innovation.
This latest insight of California agriculture -- in all ways the finest and most progressive in the world as we have been trained to believe since birth -- contrasts brilliantly with the slow-witted idea out of Kansas (below) that American agriculture should focus on soil fertility for the next 50 years if its agriculture is to thrive.
Future Farming: The Call for a 50-Year Perspective on Agriculture
An Interview with Wes Jackson by Robert Jensen
As everyone scrambles for a solution to the crises in the nation’s economy, Wes Jackson suggests we look to nature’s economy for some of the answers. With everyone focused on a stimulus package in the short term, he counsels that we pay more attention to the soil over the long haul.
“We live off of what comes out of the soil, not what’s in the bank,” said Jackson, president of The Land Institute. “If we squander the ecological capital of the soil, the capital on paper won’t much matter.”
Jackson doesn’t minimize the threat of the current financial problems but argues that the new administration should consider a “50-year farm bill,” which he and the writer/farmer Wendell Berry proposed in a New York Times op/ed earlier this month.
Central to such a bill would be soil. A plan for sustainable agriculture capable of producing healthful food has to come to solve the twin problems of soil erosion and contamination, said Jackson, who co-founded the research center in 1976 after leaving his job as an environmental studies professor at California State University-Sacramento.
Jackson believes that a key part of the solution is in approaches to growing food that mimic nature instead of trying to subdue it. While Jackson and his fellow researchers at
The Land Institute continue their work on Natural Systems Agriculture, he also ponders how to turn the possibilities into policy. He spoke with me from his office in Salina, Kansas.
Robert Jensen: This is a short-term culture, and federal policies typically are aimed at short-term results. Why call for a farm bill that looks so far ahead, especially in tough economic times?
Wes Jackson: For the past 50 or 60 years, we have followed industrialized agricultural policies that have increased the rate of destruction of productive farmland. For those 50 or 60 years, we have let ourselves believe the absurd notion that as long as we have money we will have food. 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.
We need to reverse that destructive process, which means recognizing the need for fundamental changes in the way agriculture is practiced. That requires thinking beyond the next quarterly earnings report of the agribusiness corporations and beyond this fiscal year of the feds. We need farm bills — laid out in five-year segments, with a vie to the next 50 years — that can be mileposts for moving agriculture from an extractive toa renewable economy.
RJ: What are some of the key aspects of a long-term solution?
WJ: Support for soil conversation and protecting water resources have to be central.
There needs to be funding for research on a different model for agriculture. And we have to avoid wasting any more resources on biofuels made from annual crops, especially corn, which is certain to exacerbate soil erosion, chemical contamination, and a larger dead zone in the gulf.
RJ: But it is true that most people, including those in the new administration, are focused on short-term problems in the financial and industrial economy. Is there any chance people — especially people in an overwhelmingly urban nation — will pay attention right now?
WJ: Remember, if our agriculture is not sustainable then our food supply is not sustainable, and food is an issue as close to every one of us as our own stomachs. Either we pay attention or we pay a huge price, not so far down the road. When we face the fact that civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying their farmland, it’s clear that we don’t really have a choice. Beyond that, changing the way agriculture is practiced would incorporate partial solutions to major problems that people do care about: climate change, over-consumption of energy, water problems. Yes, a 50-year bill is sensible right now.
RJ: What would such a 50-year plan look like? What are the key features?
WJ: We start by acknowledging the necessity of moving from an extractive, unsustainable economy to one that is renewable and sustainable, and the first place to look is to the production of the most basic commodity — food. Once we face that necessity, we move to examining the possibilities for achieving this, recognizing that we have to act now while we still have slack, some room to move. Here’s a sobering thought: If we don’t achieve this sustainability first in agriculture, it’s highly unlikely we will in any other sector of the economy and society. That’s what makes this so imperative.
RJ: OK, start with the necessity. How is agriculture, as it is practiced today, an extractive enterprise that is unsustainable?
WJ: All organisms are carbon-based and in a constant search for energy-rich carbon. About 10,000 years ago humans moved from gathering/hunting to agriculture, tapping into the first major pool of energy-rich carbon — the soil. It was agriculture that allowed us effectively to mine, as well as waste, the soil’s carbon and other soil-bound nutrients.
Humans went on to exploit the carbon of the forests, coal, oil, and natural gas. But through all that, we’ve continued to practice agriculture that led to soil erosion beyond natural replacement levels. That’s the basic problem of agriculture.
Added to the problem of soil loss, the industrialization of agriculture has given us pollution by toxic chemicals, now universally present in our farmlands and streams. We have less soil, and it is more degraded. We’ve masked that for years through the use of petrochemicals — pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers. But that “solution” is no solution, and is in fact part of the problem. There are no technological substitutes for healthy soil and no miraculous technological fixes for the problem of agriculture. We need tomove past the industrial model and adopt an ecological model.
RJ: This concern about chemicals has led to increased support for organic agriculture. Is that the solution?
WJ: Organic agriculture is a start but by itself is insufficient. Eliminating the chemicals is only half the problem — we still have to deal with soil erosion. Remember that we humans had organic agriculture until very recently, when we got industrial agriculture, and we still lost soil all along the way, for the last 10,000 years. There is good reason to believe we started the increase of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere about then (with the carbon compound of the soil being oxidized). It has only become a crisis in our time due to the scale increase of people and material and energy throughput.
RJ: OK, so organic alone isn’t the answer. Isn’t that where no-till or minimum-till farming comes in?
WJ: Those methods help deal with erosion, but as practiced today they require unacceptable levels of chemical inputs and end up eliminating biodiversity. Once again, it doesn’t offer a way out of the extractive economy and the problem of contamination.
RJ: So, where does that leave us?
WJ: Let’s go back to basics: The core of this idea is the marriage of agriculture and ecology. As Wendell says, we need to take nature as the measure. We need to look to nature for models of how to manage ecosystems in a sustainable fashion. At The Land Institute, we think that leads to perennial polycultures. Instead of annual crops grown in monocultures on an industrial model, we are looking at perennials in mixtures, which we think can solve a number of problems regarding erosion and contamination.
RJ: Before I ask about the details, a basic question: Is that feasible, given the 6.5 billion people on the planet? Can such strategies focused on perennials produce enough food?
WJ: First, let’s recognize that without fossil fuels, the industrial-agriculturestrategies we have now could not feed even the current population, and population growth makes these changes more important than ever. As populations grow, there’s increasing pressure to put more and more marginal land into production, which increases the rate of degradation. A new model is essential.
At The Land we’ve been working on perenializing the major crops and domesticating a few promising wild species. By increasing the use of mixtures of grain-bearing perennials, we can not only better protect the soil but also help reduce greenhouse gases, fossil-fuel use, and toxic pollution. Carbon sequestration would increase, and the husbandry of waterand soil nutrients would become much more efficient.
RJ: Let’s assume that Natural Systems Agriculture and similar projects hold the promise you suggest. Those practices will have to be implemented in the real world, which is structured by the larger extractive economy in capitalism, at a time of crisis — some would say, even, a time of collapse. What has to happen to make that possible?
WJ: You’re right that it’s not just about plants and science, it’s also about people and society. We think that protecting the soil is not only an ecological imperative but an opportunity for positive economic and cultural change as well. The proposals we’re discussing would increase employment opportunities in agriculture — sustainable farming will require more “eyes per acre,” and replacing fossil-fuel energy with human energy andecological knowledge makes good economic sense. With the reduced need for the hoe or plow, and land management relying more on fire and grazing, we draw on the naturalist instinct in nearly all of us, rather than presenting farm work as nothing but the “sweat of the brow” amid “thistles and thorns.” This will be necessary to counter the longstanding denigration of the countryside and rural communities, which has been a feature of our so-called cosmopolitan culture.
We’re seeing that on a small scale now with more young farmers staying on the land, with creative new endeavors in community-supported agriculture. People recognize that life is more than working in a small cubicle and consuming in a big-box store. People are hungry for good food, and they’re also hungry for a good life. People are ready to explore what it would mean to come home, not to a romanticized vision of the past but to a sustainable future.
RJ: How would a farm bill that you and Wendell might write differ from what we see today?
WJ: The farm bills we’ve had largely address exports, commodity problems, subsidies and food programs. They all involve here-and-now concerns. A 50-year farm bill represents a vision that stresses the need to protect soil from erosion, cut the wastefulness of water, cut fossil-fuel dependence, eliminate toxins in soil and water, manage carefully the nitrogen of the soil, reduce dead zones, restore an agrarian way of life, and preserve farmland from development. The best way to accomplish most of these goals is togradually increase the number of acres with perennial vegetation, first of all through rotations and an increase in the number of grass-fed dairies sprinkled about the countryside and secondly, through progress toward perennializing the major crops. A good bill could help farmers accomplish those things.
RJ: It’s also likely that many people reading this will dismiss you as idealistic, as unrealistic. How would you answer that?
WJ: These are the same people who believe it’s realistic to continue practices they know to be unsustainable. The basic choice is simple: Do we want to work at coming up with a system that can produce healthful food and healthy communities, one that is economically and ecologically viable? Or do we want to continue to contaminate our soil and water, as we watch that soil continue to be eroded by that water? That contamination and erosion are both material reality and metaphor for our cultural and economic condition.
Look, I’m a scientist from the countryside, which means I have spent my life dealing with reality in research and on the farm. These are necessary and possible goals. Without the necessity it may be considered grandiose. Without the possibility it could be regarded as grandiose. The test for grandiosity, in my view, fails. As a nation, we are blessed with some of the world’s best soils. Increasingly city people want healthier and safer food.
And we’re at a political moment when everybody and his dog is talking about the need for change. So, let’s get to it.
UC president sets in motion future medical school at Merced campus
First order of business is establishing an undergraduate medical program...DANIELLE GAINES
University of California President Mark Yudof said planning for a medical school at UC Merced will move forward "as quickly as is reasonable" in terms of both textbooks and money.
Coming after a series of sometimes conflicting visions about the med school's status and future, the UC president's remarks set in motion a modified version of the original campus plan.
A consulting firm hired by UC Merced to analyze prospects of a med school for the San Joaquin Valley said it was a question of "when," not "if" such a facility would be finished.
Yudof made the statement at Wednesday morning's University of California Board of Regents meeting in San Francisco.
Yudof said he agreed with suggestions in a report from the Washington Advisory Group (WAG), the consulting firm.
The group suggested a phased process for opening a medical school at UC Merced.
The development of the school would move forward in three major steps, resulting in a full medical school by 2020.
"The health needs of the San Joaquin Valley are great," Yudof said. "A step-wise approach to development of a medical education and research program at UC Merced will give us the best chance of developing programs of the level of quality required to address those health needs in a meaningful way."
The first step in the process would establish an undergraduate program in biomedical education at UC Merced.
At the Wednesday meeting, Yudof authorized Jack Stobo, UC senior vice president for health sciences and services, and the UC Merced staff to begin implementing the first step.
Valley residents from disadvantaged or culturally diverse backgrounds will get special consideration for admittance into the program.
According to the WAG report, titled "Planning for a 21st Century Medical School at UC Merced," this step could be completed by 2010. As many as 100 to 200 students could be admitted to the program each year.
In phase two, UC Merced would start out as a "branch campus" in conjunction with the UC Davis School of Medicine. This could happen as soon as 2012, as long as other key milestones are met.
Yudof also approved planning for the process Wednesday.
At the outset, 18 to 24 students would be admitted to UC Merced's branch campus of the UC Davis School of Medicine.
In the third and final stage, UC Merced would establish a fully independent medical school after functioning as a successful branch campus for a period of time.
At that time, the school would have to establish its primary location. The Washington Advisory Group said the two most suitable locations are at the UC Merced campus and at the UCSF Fresno medical education campus.
Ideally, the third phase would be finished before 2020.
UC Merced Chancellor Steve Kang issued a statement shortly after Yudof's announcement: "While the timetable for a fully accredited, completely independent medical school is difficult to predict at this time due to the State of California's dire financial situation, the UC Merced School of Medicine will come to fruition," it said in part.
Kang went on to say that "the opening of the medical school would be linked to the availability of resources, the further development of core academic programs and the enhancement of health services research and education on campus."
This isn't the first time plans for the medical school have been in the news recently.
A fast-track medical school plan was presented by Lt. Gov. John Garamendi last month. Without a lower-cost alternative, Garamendi said it was likely the Merced medical school would be delayed and perhaps never opened at all as the state's budget crisis mounts.
Garamendi is also an ex-officio member of the Board of Regents; his son, John Garamendi Jr., works as the vice chancellor for University Relations at UC Merced.
Lt. Gov. Garamendi said in a phone interview after the announcement that he is pleased with the Washington Advisory Group's suggestion.
"I'm very happy this morning," Garamendi said. "Clearly (President Yudof) has authorized his office and UC Merced staff to plan for an undergraduate medical education program."
Garamendi added that the WAG suggestions were "completely in line with my suggestion" for a stripped-down version of the initial medical school that will be built up in the future.
"Over time, there will be a full-blown medical school at UC Merced similar to what the other UC schools have," Garamendi said.
Garamendi's plan also allowed for a "fast-track" medical education in which students begin medical education in their freshman year. That part of his plan wasn't supported by the advisory group.
The university will instead forge ahead with the "distributive model" for clinical rotations and residencies. Under this model, students would get their "hands-on" education at different clinics and hospitals throughout the San Joaquin Valley.
It is widely believed by university and community leaders that a medical school at UC Merced will provide more doctors that are sorely needed in this area.
San Joaquin Valley residents have the least access to physicians per capita of any region in California. On average, there are 302 physicians per 100,000 people in California. In the Valley, the number of physicians plunges to 173 per 100,000.
Congressman Dennis Cardoza said it was about time the Valley got a medical school that it both needs and deserves.
"There has been tremendous support (for a UC Merced medical school) in the Valley for a long time," he said in an interview.
Cardoza said that support will be valuable as the university moves forward to secure funding for the medical school.
"In tough budgetary times, it is always a challenge," Cardoza said. "But we are confident that we will be able to obtain the funding to make this a world-class institution."
UC Merced has already invested significant time and money in planning the medical school. The university has authored a 96-page program proposal and business plan, named Dr. Frederick J. Meyers as the executive director for Medical School Curriculum Development and Academic Planning and commissioned the feasibility report from the Washington Advisory Group.
"I think this is just great. It really shows a thoughtful approach to our real desire to improve medical care in the Valley," Meyers said. "We're going to have the very best (medical) program in the country."
UC Merced opened in 2005 with 875 students. The university hopes to post enrollment of 25,000 by 2035.
As the campus continues to grow, the growing consensus is that the medical school that seemed like a dream to administrators in 2005 will be a reality by 2020.
"The commitment to establish an independent UCM medical school is undiminished," the advisory group wrote. "The question is not 'if' a medical school at UCM, but merely 'when.'"
UC med school takes another step forward...Editorial
The University of California at Merced got the green light Wednesday from the UC president to continue planning for a medical school. This is great news for the whole San Joaquin Valley, which suffers from an acute shortage of physicians.
It will take millions of dollars and an unknown number of years to bring the medical school fully to fruition, but the go-ahead from new UC President Mark Yudof was an essential step.
Speaking at a UC regents meeting Wednesday, Yudof said he is authorizing development of an undergraduate program in health sciences and will allow the Merced campus to plan for medical education and research programs in conjunction with another UC med school. Eventually, Merced would develop its own medical school.
The UC system has medical schools at Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco and is planning one in association with UC Riverside. UCSF operates a major center in Fresno, and UC Davis has a residency program in Stanislaus County. Merced apparently will work in conjunction with Davis.
Because of the state's budget troubles, it's impossible to predict when UC Merced might graduate its first physicians. Yudof said the first phase is to focus on drawing exceptional students into a pre-med program at UC Merced. The hope is that many of those students will come from the valley and will want to remain here after they are fully trained doctors.Several valley politicians have been instrumental in advancing the medical school proposal. Lt. Gov. John Garamendi is pushing an accelerated program that takes less than the traditional eight years. Reps. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, and Jim Costa, D-Fresno, have been key advocates, too.
From the outset, the proposal has been for UC Merced to have a "distributive model," offering the first years of medical courses on campus and then working with existing hospitals and clinics in the valley for the later years, commonly known as rotations.
Fresno water debate settles little
Everyone agrees on one point -- system is broken...Mark Grossi
California's water system is broken -- especially the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
That was about the only point everyone agreed upon Wednesday night in a debate between San Joaquin Valley farm water officials and environmentalists.
They clashed on everything from arcane points of water law to the massive restoration of the San Joaquin River.
A crowd of about 250 people, many of them farmers, jammed into the Satellite Student Union at California State University, Fresno.
Many farmers are worried about getting enough water to keep their operations going as a third drought year unfolds in California. West-side farmers fear they will get no imported water from Northern California at all this year.
Jeff Peracchi, who farms almonds, wine grapes and pomegranates west of Five Points, said he is just trying to keep his crops alive.
"We have a well that will help us with about 30% of our almond acreage," he said. "We're talking about which field we want to keep and which one to let go."
He came to hear the environmental panelists, who included two board members with the California Water Impact Network, Lloyd Carter and Michael Jackson, and Bill Jennings, chairman of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.
Farm water representatives included Thomas Birmingham, general manager and general counsel of the Westlands Water District, Kole Upton, former chairman of Friant Water Users Authority, and Jim Beck, general manager of the Kern County Water Agency.
The moderator was U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger, whose 2007 decision on a threatened fish species led to cutbacks in irrigation deliveries for west San Joaquin Valley farmers.
The discussion ranged from the delta to the Valley's east- and west-side farms. The arguments about fixes have been going on for decades.
Environmentalists have long opposed construction of more canals and dams, and they argued against proposals for a new dam on the San Joaquin River and a canal around the east side of the delta. They defended the court settlement to restore the San Joaquin River. The restoration is scheduled to begin in October.
Water officials said the pendulum has swung too far toward environmentalists and fish restoration. Too much money is being spent for too little results, they said. There needs to be more of a balance now, water officials said.
Farmers came to the microphone and told panelists that farms are disappearing. They said the arguments need to be set aside and the system needs to be fixed.
Environmentalist Carter argued that more than 80% of the water captured at dams is used in farm fields. He said that will have to change in the future.
"I predict that agriculture is going to contract as cities grow," Carter said.
Westlands manager Birmingham replied that Carter's numbers were wrong. He said farming uses about 43% and cities about 12%. "The rest is for the environment," he said. "There has been a fundamental shift."
Sierra Club Moves to Block Racetrack EIR
Tulare - The Sierra Club is asking a Superior Court judge to rule the City Council acted unlawfully in certifying the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and Water Supply Assessment (WSA) for the Tulare Motor Sports Complex.
The lawsuit, filed in Tulare County Superior Court by the Jan. 29 deadline for challenging the state-mandated environmental assessments, asks the court to set aside the City Council's approval of the 711-acre project and direct the city to prepare “a legally sufficient EIR.”
“The primary thing is that we think the city really hasn't explained or cannot explain adequately why it's not providing full mitigation for the impacts,” Sierra Club attorney Babak Naficy of San Luis Obispo said Friday.
The EIR reflects a “reluctance to require full mitigation” to address an impact, Naficy said.
The Sierra Club raised the same issue in letters it sent the city in its response to the Draft Environmental Impact Report. Commenting, for example, on mitigation measures to include enough solar photo voltaic cells to meet 5 percent of the project's electricity needs, the club asked: “What is the basis for requiring precisely 5 percent as opposed to, say, 100 percent of project's electricity needs to be met by solar PV?”
In addition to alleging inadequate mitigation measures, the lawsuit contends the city:
• Failed to adequately analyze the project's direct, indirect and cumulative impacts.
• Failed to adequately respond to public comments about a number of issues, including a recommendation from the agricultural Conversion Farmland Study that calls for a rate of three acres of conservation easements per one acre of ag land used in the project. The final EIR calls for a one-to-one ratio.
• Violated the state Water Code by not including all the information required.
• Failed to show the motor sports project was consistent with the circulation element in the city's General Plan. (The Sierra Club, along with Tulare resident Don Manro, also has challenged the city's recently adopted 2030 General Plan.)
City Attorney Steve Kabot could not be reached Monday for comment.
Oil, gas leases withdrawn for Utah red-rock lands...McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON -- The Interior Department on Wednesday put the brakes on a Bush administration plan to expand oil and gas drilling in Utah's wild red-rock country near Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar withdrew the leases of 77 oil and gas parcels, or 130,000 acres. The leases were also near Dinosaur National Monument and Nine Mile Canyon, an area with prehistoric rock art. Salazar said the auction Dec. 19 took place without a proper environmental review and consultation with the National Park Service.
Salazar said the department would reconsider the leases and decide whether they were appropriate. It's possible that "a very large portion" of the land could be put up for lease, he said.
The cancellation of the leases was one of the first actions that the Obama administration has taken to protect environmentally sensitive public lands. Salazar called it "an important first step to making sure we have the right balance between development of our resources and protection of our environment."
Actor Robert Redford said in a statement that Salazar's announcement was "a sign that after eight long years of rapacious greed and backdoor dealings, our government is returning a sense of balance to the way it manages our lands" and added: "American citizens once again have a say in the fate of their public lands, which in this case happen to be some of the last pristine places on Earth."
Jack Gerard, the president of the American Petroleum Institute, objected to the decision, saying that it ran counter to President Barack Obama's goal of reducing reliance on foreign oil.
"We hope today's decision does not signal the administration is returning to the failed policies of the past, leaving much of America's vast energy resources locked up while the nation's demand for energy continues to grow," he said in a statement.
Environmental groups had sued to try to block the sale, and U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina issued a temporary restraining order in January that prevented the Bureau of Land Management from going ahead with the leases.
Salazar's decision requires the BLM to return about $6 million to the companies that bid on the leases.
The decision didn't affect the leases on nearly 20,000 other acres of public land in Utah that were auctioned Dec. 19.
Salazar said at a news conference Wednesday announcing the decision that he was reviewing about a dozen other decisions that he said were rushed through in the last days of the Bush administration, but he declined to give any hints about what he'd do.
One of them was a go-ahead for oil and gas development off the coasts.
"It's very much on the table," the interior secretary said. Obama has said the Outer Continental Shelf might contain appropriate places to explore and develop, Salazar said. "We simply are in the process of reviewing what kind of changes ought to be made," he said.
Republicans in the House of Representatives announced Wednesday that dozens of their members, led by Reps. Kevin Brady of Texas and John Shimkus of Illinois, had written to Obama urging him to go ahead with the offshore leasing. They argued that jobs and energy security were at stake.
"We depend on the resources we extract from our land for a great part of our energy portfolio," Salazar said.
The U.S. gets about one-third of its oil and gas and 50 percent of its coal from federal lands, Salazar said, and he predicted that the country would continue to use oil, gas and coal "as we open up the new energy frontier we're creating." He has said in the past that carbon-based fuels are needed until alternative fuels are more widely available.
Obama administration sounds climate alarm...Anthony York
In his first days in office, President Obama’s energy secretary, Californian Steven Chu, had dire warnings for the impacts of global warming on California agriculture.
The comments made by Chu during his interview with the Los Angeles Times are an early indication of how the Obama administration will wrestle with the issue of global climate change, and the stark differences between the current president and his predecessor, George W. Bush.
“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.
Chu’s comments come as California is in the throes of a drought that some scientists fear could be the worst in the state’s history. The state’s Sierra snowpack is only at 61 percent of normal, according to a recent survey.
His remarks to the Times go further than comments posted on Obama’s Web site before Chu’s confirmation.
“We simply do not know what will be happening if we go into higher average temperatures 4,-6 degrees. If you compare the temperature we are in the world to the ice ages, it was only about 6 degrees Centigrade colder.” So, Chu said, it “would not take much imagination” to envision that a warmer world would be a very different world.
“It would be very hard to adapt,” if the planet continues to warm, said Chu.
In California, the governor continues to use the draught to push for increased water storage capacity.
“‘California is headed toward one of the worst water crises in its history, underscoring the need to upgrade our water infrastructure by increasing water storage, improving conveyance, protecting the (Sacramento) Delta’s ecosystem and promoting greater water conservation,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement.
In a separate statement, Water Resources director Lester Snow said, “We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history.”
The drought has increased the call for the state to increase its water storage capacity. But above-ground water storage proposals continue to meet stiff opposition from environmental groups in the Capitol.
Senate Republican Leader Dave Cogdill, R-Fresno, has made water storage a top legislative priority. And Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has expressed optimism that a deal could be reached between agriculture, business and environmental groups, and hoped to make a water deal an early momentum builder in the Legislature.
“A water bond is teed up,” Steinberg told Capitol Weekly back in December. “Not the conveyance issues. There have been two years of negotiations and the differences have been narrowed to a very small range of issues. Why can’t we finalize that in the first 120 days. We won’t put it on the ballot until 2010, but why can’t we get the work done?”
In the meantime, Chu said he hopes his comments will get attention not just in California, but across the country.
“I’m hoping that the American people will wake up,” Chu told the Times.
Environmental lawsuit challenges river oversight
Suit claims water quality officials are not doing enough to clean up North Coast streams...ROBERT DIGITALE
A coalition of conservation and fishing groups Wednesday filed a lawsuit contending that California water quality officials have failed to do enough to clean up streams and rivers along the North Coast.
The lawsuit claims that the North Coast Water Quality Control Board and state water board have taken too long to implement action plans to clean up more than 15 waterways from southern Sonoma County to the Oregon border. The rivers include the Russian, Navarro, Albion, Eel and Mattole.
“We’re hoping to both restore the health of these rivers and to provide the cool clean water for these salmon populations to be restored,” said George Torgun, an attorney with the Oakland-based environmental legal group Earthjustice.
Catherine Kuhlman, executive officer of the North Coast water board in Santa Rosa, said she was dismayed that the lawsuit seems to focus on completing paperwork rather than on the actual results her staff has accomplished to reduce sediment and other pollutants from the region’s rivers.
Kuhlmans also said her current staff of about 78 is nearly half the size it was in 2000.
“The bottom line is we’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got,” Kuhlman said.
Many North Coast rivers suffer from two much sediment and nutrients and occasionally high temperatures. Conservationists contend that the pollution comes from logging, grazing, farming, mining and from the runoff off dirt roads.
In 1995, some of the same conservation groups took the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to court and won a settlement in which the federal agency agreed to set pollutions limits for the region’s rivers. With the exception of the Klamath River watershed, that work has been completed.
The suit contends that except for three rivers, the state has failed to complete specific action plans for reducing pollution on each waterway.
Among the organizations that joined in the lawsuit are the Sierra Club, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and conservation groups for three river watersheds.
Asked if the state should be moving faster on cleaning up the region’s rivers, Kuhlman replied, “That’s a decision for the legislature and the governor to make. I take what they give me.”
Torgun said the action plans are required under the state’s water quality act. “A lack of funding isn’t a good excuse for not complying with the law,” he said.
Home building activity expected to slow
Output seen falling below even last year's record low...Bruce Spence
Housing production in California in 2009 is expected to decrease from the already record-low numbers seen in 2008, the California Building Industry Association forecast Tuesday.
The Sacramento-based trade group predicted that 63,400 houses and apartments will be produced this year, a 3 percent drop from the record-low 65,380 units produced in 2008. In comparison, the low point of the home building recession in the early 1990s hit 84,656 units in 1993.
The group said 30,000 single-family homes will be built statewide this year, down 9 percent from 33,048 built last year. Multifamily units are expected to increase to 33,400 this year, up 3 percent from 32,332 permits in 2008.
The forecast said 700 single-family homes will be built this year in San Joaquin County, down from 770 last year - and down hugely from 2,138 in 2007.
Few apartments are built in the county typically, but 46 were built last year, according to the Construction Industry Research Board, which tracks the building sector in California.
Kevin Huber, president of Stockton-based Grupe Co., said foreclosures have significantly affected development and home building in both the short and medium term, because foreclosures are selling well below what it costs to develop and build new homes.
"Nobody's going to start a new home knowing you're going to lose money," he said.
There's probably 18 months to two years more of foreclosures dominating the marketplace before home builders can compete again in a "normal" market, he said.
Joe Anfuso, president and CEO of Stockton-based Florsheim Homes, said there's little positive in the short-term future for developers and home builders in the residential real estate market these days.
Low-priced foreclosure homes are attracting almost all buyers, and home builders can't compete with the prices, he said.
The area continues to have huge promise for the long-term future, though, he said. In California, the Central Valley will be the place where affordable homes for working families get produced.
"It's hard to see it now, but this will continue to be the place for that growth," Anfuso said.
It's not hard to see for some.
Huber said the current "very rough down cycle" has been difficult for builders, but it also creates an opportunity for long-term investment.
"You can buy today for substantially less than what it would cost you to develop," he said.
For example, it typically costs between $40,000 and $50,000 to develop a Stockton lot with the infrastructure - curbs, gutters, utilities and so on - needed to get ready to build, Huber said. And that doesn't count the cost of the land itself.
In the past few weeks, though, ready-to-build "finished" lots have been sold for between $5,000 and $7,500 each, he said.
That's as little as 10 cents on the dollar from those who bought and developed land while the boom was on but found themselves hurting in the bust and forced to sell.
"In the last year, we have bought some distressed property," Huber said.
Robert Rivinius, CBIA's president and CEO, used the release of the 2009 forecast to renew his pitch for legislative relief to stimulate housing and, thus, the economy. The association wants state and federal lawmakers to enact a tax credit for new home buyers.
Rivinius cited a temporary home buyer tax credit enacted by Congress during the 1970s when the housing market was going through a similar downturn.
"Within months of its enactment, home sales doubled, and within two years, new housing construction was back to normal levels nationwide," he said. "We continue to believe that in today's economic climate, a tax credit for new home buyers would provide a much needed jolt to the languishing housing market, and in turn, the entire economy."
Taxpayers Sue to Stop Hobby Mining
Taxpayers sue Cal Fish and Game for misuse of tax dollars...Karuk Tribe
Oakland, CA Feb. 5, 2009 â€“ Today taxpayers filed suit against California Fish and Game for using taxpayer dollars to fund an illegal recreational gold mining program in Alameda County Superior Court.
"Its morally reprehensible and illegal for California Fish and Game to use tax dollars to subsidize the destruction of our fisheries in the midst of a budget crisis," said Dave Bitts, a commercial salmon fishermen from Humboldt Bay.
Suction dredges are powered by gas or diesel engines that are mounted on floating pontoons in the river. Attached to the engine is a powerful vacuum hose which the dredger uses to suction up the gravel and sand (sediment) from the bottom of the river. The material passes through a sluice box where heavier gold particles can settle into a series of riffles. The rest of the gravel is simply dumped back into the river. Often this reintroduces mercury left over from historic mining operations to the water column threatening communities downstream. Depending on size, location and density of these machines they can turn a clear running mountain stream into a murky watercourse unfit for swimming.
In 2005 the Karuk Tribe sued Fish and Game for allowing the practice of suction dredge mining to occur in areas known to be critical habitat for endangered and at-risk species such as Coho salmon, Pacific lamprey, and green sturgeon. At the time, Fish and Game officials submitted declarations to the Court admitting that suction dredge mining under its current regulations violates CEQA and Fish and Game Code Â§Â§5653 and 5653.9 (the statues which authorize the Department to issue permits for suction dredging under certain conditions) because the activity causes deleterious harm to fish â€“ including endangered fish, such as the Coho salmon.
The suit ended in a court order directing Fish and Game to conduct a CEQA review and amend its regulations by June 20, 2008. Fish and Game has yet to initiate the process.
"Looks like DFG actually stands for Department of Frontier Greed," said Leaf Hillman, Vice Chairman of the Karuk Tribe. "While legislators are cutting basic programs for our children and elders in an effort to balance the budget, DFG is subsidizing hobby mining. Miners should not be allowed to mine in critical habitats and they should pay their own way if they mine at all."
Specifically, the suit charges that the suction dredge program violates: (1) the previous court Order; (2) CEQA, for failure to conduct a subsequent or supplemental EIR in order to provide protections for endangered and threatened fish listed since 1994; and (3) Fish and Game Code Â§Â§5653 and 5653.9, for failure to promulgate regulations in compliance with CEQA and for issuing permits when it has determined that the activity causes deleterious harm to fish.
The suit comes two weeks after Fish and Game Director Don Koch rejected a petition from the Karuk Tribe, PCFFA, and others to use emergency rule making authority to enact modest restrictions on where and when suction dredging could take place.
"Fish and Game is quick to kick California's 2.4 million fishermen off the river, but they continually go to bat for 3,000 hobby miners," said plaintiff Craig Tucker. "As a taxpayer I am sick and tired of government handouts to hobby miners that are destroying California's rivers."
Arguments for a preliminary injunction will likely be heard in early spring.
San Francisco Chronicle
Enviros sue over North Coast river pollution...(02-04) 16:07 PST San Francisco, CA (AP) --
Eight environmental and fishing groups want a judge to compel water quality boards for the state of California and North Coast region to prepare binding clean-up plans for more than a dozen rivers and streams.
Led by San Francisco-based Earthjustice, the groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday alleging that delays in setting concrete strategies for reducing pollution levels have caused Northern California salmon populations to plummet.
Catherine Cuhlman, executive officer of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control, says the board has been hampered by staff cuts that have cost it about half its employees in the last seven years.
In the meantime, the water board has finished a plan for the Garcia, Scott and Shasta rivers. Cuhlman says the Klamath and Russian rivers are next.
Mining company to pay Grass Valley over old tunnel...(02-04) 10:25 PST Grass Valley, CA (AP) --
A Denver-based mining company has agreed to pay the city of Grass Valley $4 million to settle a case over toxic water that has been spewing from a Gold Rush-era mine tunnel.
Newmont Mining Corp. will pay $2 million in attorney fees and $2 million in costs incurred at the city's sewer plant since 2000. It also agreed to build a small, $2 million wastewater treatment plant.
The settlement ends a five-year-old legal battle that began when city workers expanding the plant hit the old tunnel, launching almost 500,000 gallons of water per day into the treatment plant.
Newmont did not admit wrongdoing in the settlement.
UC regents to vote on changing admission rules...TERENCE CHEA, Associated Press Writer
The University of California's governing board is set to vote on new rules that would dramatically change the way the 10-campus system determines which students are offered undergraduate admission.
A committee of the UC Board of Regents on Wednesday approved a plan that reduces the number of high school seniors guaranteed admission to the university but expands the number whose applications would be given a thorough review by admissions officers. The full board is set to vote on the proposal Thursday.
Backers of the plan said it would encourage more students to apply, expand the pool of undergraduate applications by 12 to 17 percent and likely boost student diversity at UC campuses.
"It increases opportunity for all groups by opening the door for consideration for admission to a larger number of students," UC President Mark Yudof said at the meeting. "We believe this is a positive step that will make the university look more like the state of California."
But some critics suspect the plan is an attempt to sidestep a 1996 ballot measure that banned affirmative action at public institutions in California.
Some groups urged the regents to postpone a final vote on the plan, which has been in development since 2004, because they say it could unintentionally hurt access to UC among some groups of students.
"This is a proposal that warrants more study and evaluation because the potential consequences are so dramatic," said Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action.
The plan, which would take effect in fall 2012, makes several major changes to the university's admissions policy.
Under current rules dating back to 1960, the top 12.5 percent of the state's high school graduates — as well as the top 4 percent at each high school — are guaranteed admission to at least one UC campus, though necessarily at the schools to which they applied. Most students who don't qualify for the admission guarantee are automatically rejected.
Under the plan approved by the UC committee Wednesday, the admission guarantee would only be given to the top 9 percent of graduates statewide and the top 9 percent at each high school. Combined, these two groups would make up about 10 percent of California's high school graduates.
But a larger number of applicants who meet new eligibility requirements would be entitled to a "comprehensive review" of their applications. To be eligible, applicants would need to have completed 11 of 15 college preparatory courses, have at least a 3.0 grade point average and take the ACT or SAT exams.
Applicants will no longer be required to take two SAT subject exams, which the plan's backers say automatically excludes thousands of qualified students who didn't take those tests.
Also Wednesday, a committee of UC regents approved a plan that would guarantee that lower-income students — those from families earning less than the state's median household income of $60,000 — receive enough financial aid to at least cover UC fees.
The full board is expected to vote on the so-called Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan Thursday.
Regents' panel OKs big change in UC admissions...Patricia Yollin
A lot more young people will have a shot at getting into the University of California under new eligibility rules, approved by a UC Board of Regents committee on Wednesday, that represent the most sweeping changes in admission standards in almost 50 years.
"The bottom line is that it will be more diverse and more fair," said UC President Mark Yudof.
The full board is expected to approve these changes today:
-- SAT subject tests would no longer be necessary.
-- The pool of applicants who would be considered would widen, but the number guaranteed entry into one of the university's nine undergraduate campuses would shrink.
-- The top 9 percent of high school graduates statewide would be assured entry, compared with 12.5 percent previously, as well as those in the top 9 percent of their graduating class - up from 4 percent in the past.
Taken together, the two groups would constitute 10.1 percent of California's graduating class, based on projections by the university.
The revised requirements would affect the freshman class of 2012.
The changes would allow high school students to be considered - and granted a full review of their application - who complete by the end of junior year at least 11 of 15 college prep courses required by UC, achieve a weighted 3.0 grade-point average and take either the ACT Plus Writing or SAT Reasoning Test.
UC was the only public education system in the country that made students take two SAT subject tests. The result: 22,000 high school graduates in California who otherwise would have been eligible were disqualified in 2007 from applying to the university.
Figures based on '07 data
Members of the UC Academic Senate, who spent almost four years putting together the eligibility proposal, based that figure on 2007 data from the California Postsecondary Education Commission.
That data also made them conclude that 21.7 percent of high school graduates in the state would have been entitled to a comprehensive review of their applications in 2007, compared with the 13.4 percent who were actually eligible for UC in that period.
"This proposal will give us a chance to look at those (kinds of) lost students," said Regent Eddie Island. "They might not get in, but we'll look at them as individuals."
The promise of UC admission to the top 12.5 percent of graduates goes back to the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education. A few regents worried about deviating from such a venerable road map.
"I feel like I got out my lantern, like Diogenes, looking for the master plan," Yudof said.
He emphasized that he had talked to legislators, California State University chief Charles Reed and community college leaders.
"They were all simpatico with this," Yudof said.
To avoid a perception that the university was lowering its standards, Yudof had asked the creators of the proposal to raise the required GPA to a 3.0, weighted with honors courses, instead of an unweighted 2.8. That change was reflected in the plan the regents' Committee on Educational Policy unanimously voted for Wednesday.
Although eligibility changes had been discussed in four earlier regents' meetings, there was still much confusion.
"Now I can see why I was not UC eligible," said Regent Norman Pattiz. "How are we going to get this in a little pamphlet and hand it to parents to see what it takes?"
Some people saw the shift - endorsed by the University of California Student Association - as a way to get around Proposition 209, which was approved by voters in 1996 and ended race- and gender-based anti-discrimination programs in state, county and city hiring, contracting and school admissions.
Yudof said he supported affirmative action but would obey Prop. 209 because it is the law. He was sure the new rules would increase diversity, but said it was too early to know the specific impact.
"We want to change the behavior of applicants and admissions officers," he said.
A student's 'whole file'
And by looking at the "whole file," as he put it, colleges can find out if a student did volunteer work or overcame a hardship or wrote the Great American Novel or climbed Mount Everest.
Although the changes dominated the meeting, few members of the public addressed them. Most, instead, were angry about soon having to contribute to their retirement fund without being represented on the pension board.
"We won't pay without a say," they chanted.
One protester was Ellie Corley, 72, an administrative assistant in the UC controller's office who has worked at the university for 33 years and makes $35,000 a year.
She got laid off in January and will leave in March.
"The university talks about equity and inclusion," Corley said. "I've never seen it."
Contra Costa Times
Oakland port truck pollution burdens public health, study says...Denis Cuff
Air pollution from diesel trucks visiting the Port of Oakland places an economic burden on the Bay Area by increasing the risk of people getting sick; missing work, school and other activities; and even dying prematurely, according to a report commissioned by a coalition of labor and environmental groups.
The total estimated price tag of health impacts from the truck pollution is $153 million a year — $151 million of it from the risk that 18 premature deaths annually will occur in the region from the effects of truck exhaust, according to the report released Wednesday by two Oakland-based groups. The Pacific Institute, a research organization, and the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy prepared the report for the Coalition for Safe and Clean Ports, an alliance of environmental, community and labor groups.
According to statistical analysis in the new report, port truck pollution is also responsible annually for nine hospital admissions for respiratory problems, four admissions for heart problems, 284 asthma attacks, 23 cases of acute bronchitis, 1,650 lost work days, 5,042 days of missed school and 17,875 cases where people restricted activities because of pollution.
The highest risks, the study says, are to people closest to the truck pollution: West Oakland residents and the truck drivers.
"The basic unfairness here is that the owners of the goods being moved and the shippers are shifting their costs of doing business onto the community and port neighbors," said Jennifer Lin, research director for the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy. "These costs are preventable, though, if we can change the system of trucking at the port."
The report urges Oakland port commissioners to require trucking companies that use the port to make their drivers full-time employees, instead of hiring them as independent contractors. This would make the companies responsible for the steep cost of upgrading or replacing diesel trucks to slash pollution.
Most of the 1,500 truckers hauling freight in and out of the port are independent contractors who make less than $11 per hour and cannot afford expensive upgrades, the study said.
The Port of Oakland is looking into requiring trucking companies to put their drivers on their payroll. Before making any decision, the port commission is awaiting results of a study expected next month on the economic impacts of the proposal, said Robert Bernardo, a port spokesman.
He said port officials had not had time to evaluate and comment on the health impact report.
Lin of the East Bay Alliance said her study was based largely on California Air Resources Board figures for impacts of port truck pollution statewide. She and other researchers pulled out estimates for impacts in the Bay Area, then placed a price tag on them with costs commonly used by federal and state pollution regulators.
During a teleconference on the report Wednesday, Athena Applon, 26, of West Oakland said she thinks truck pollution has contributed to the asthma that she and 19 other family members have. "You can see all the black smoke as the trucks go by."
Representatives of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District said they had not had time to evaluate the new report but noted that the air district is pushing the port to speed up efforts to clean up trucks.
Los Angeles Times
So many urgent projects await a budget solution...George Skelton, Capitol Journal
From Sacramento — Stuff's piling up in California's Capitol: "To-Do" lists crammed with issues labeled "Attention Required" and "Decision Needed."
But the principal decision-makers -- the governor and legislative leaders, or "Big Five" -- have been immersed in a gigantic deficit hole, agonizing over how to get the state out. They need a solution that can be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, a Herculean hurdle.
Meantime, everything else waits: water system upgrades, overcrowded prisons, other public works, healthcare, education. . . .
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told reporters:
"I think that the legislators and the governor's office can work on more important things than just spend three months every year . . . like we did this last summer . . . on the budget, where we should have really negotiated about water to protect California . . . or to build more infrastructure, or fix our education system and so on. We get stuck every year with the same thing."
That complaint came from the governor more than a year ago.
Since then, the budget deficit has grown much deeper and the Capitol's preoccupation with it all-consuming.
"The reality is that our state is incapacitated until we solve the budget crisis," Schwarzenegger observed in his State of the State address three weeks ago. "The $42-billion deficit is a rock upon our chest."
When a balanced budget finally is negotiated and "some of the raw emotions have passed," the governor continued, he will send the Legislature his policy agenda. "These proposals are sitting on my desk right now. And let me tell you, I have big plans for this state. They include action on the economy, on water, the environment, education and healthcare reform, government efficiency. . . ."
For now, however, it's all moot.
New Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) had ambitious plans when he took over his legislative house in December. "Let's shake it up here. Let's turn it around," he exhorted his colleagues. "Let's demonstrate some early, big successes."
So far no successes, big or little.
Steinberg had hoped -- and still does -- to pass legislation guaranteeing medical insurance for all California children. An estimated 600,000 are uncovered. He and Schwarzenegger were probably going to team up on that effort. They still might.
"There are many reasons why we need to get this [budget agreement] done and done now," Steinberg says. "There's the fiscal crisis. But there's also another reason. We want to start focusing on a positive agenda for California and not just be mired week after week in crisis."
More than two years ago, voters approved $42 billion in bonds to build infrastructure for transportation, housing, schools, flood control, water and parks. Ordinarily, that would be an economic stimulus. But little has been built; only $4 billion spent. Projects have been halted because of the cash crunch. And the state can't find bond-buyers until it becomes more fiscally sound.
The Legislature, for years, has procrastinated pathetically on water.
Nature seems to be producing the third straight year of drought. The Sierra snowpack is only 61% of normal. And the Legislature hasn't prepared us for it.
"It's shaping up to be one of the worst droughts ever," says Lester Snow, director of the state Department of Water Resources. "We won't be able to tell until we get to the end of March. That's when there's no hope of a big storm coming in and saving us."
Rationing would be a certainty. So would increased water marketing -- one entity selling its water to another. Snow says the administration may ask for emergency legislation to "restructure" water rights and alter pricing to discourage consumption.
"The reason the drought impact would be so severe is we keep putting off these investments in our water system," Snow says. "Our demand keeps getting greater and environmental restrictions have increased. That means very dire economic consequences."
Schwarzenegger for two years has been trying to create a $10-billion water bond proposal. It could include money for storage -- underground and in reservoirs -- wastewater recycling, desalination, conservation and new plumbing for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. But Democrats and environmentalists have balked at new dams, and Republicans and farmers have blocked anything that doesn't include a reservoir or two. And there's still no consensus on a delta fix.
Meanwhile, the administration wants the Legislature to pass a bill requiring a 20% cut in urban water use by 2020.
Prisons need urgent attention.
The state -- led by Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown and Schwarzenegger -- is in a nasty fight with a prison healthcare overseer appointed by a federal judge. The overseer, law professor J. Clark Kelso, essentially wants to back a federal truck up to the state vault and haul off $8 billion to build what Brown calls "gold-plated utopian" hospital facilities for prisoners.
He'll "never get that money," Schwarzenegger vowed last week.
The governor and Brown are asking U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson to return control of prison healthcare to the state. But the state needs to convince the judge that it's capable.
Schwarzenegger is asking the Legislature for parole reform that would reduce recidivism and free up prison beds, including for sick inmates.
It also would help greatly, says state prisons director Matt Cate, if the Legislature retooled an unsold $7.4-billion prison bond it passed in 2007. That measure, which didn't require voter approval, was designed to build 53,000 more prison and local jail beds. It could resolve many of the judge's problems, but needs some rewording, Cate asserts.
"If we could get the Legislature to make a couple of quick fixes. . . ."
But the Legislature won't be doing anything until it finally passes an honestly balanced budget.
You can't fault the Legislature and governor for letting stuff stack up while they focus on the deficit. You can fault them for bringing the state to this downhill slope toward insolvency.
A new diet for North Coast rivers...Eric Bailey, Greenspace...2-4-09
Total Maximum Daily Load shouldn’t be confused with the latest dietary fiber standard. In the real world of rivers and environmental regulations, the alphabet soup that is TMDL has long been feared and fought over on the rugged north coast of California.
Now a coalition of conservation and fishing groups is pushing to end the battle once and for all.
In plain English, TMDL standards set the limit for how much sediment and other pollutants are allowed in rivers and streams. Scientists say the North Coast’s waterways long have been degraded by runoff from logging, mining, agriculture, grazing and urban development.
The result has been declining conditions that have undercut fish, most notably salmon and steelhead, now on the endangered species list. Recent years have seen commercial and recreational salmon fishing cut or dramatically curtailed because of declining river health.
Enter TMDL. More than a decade ago, environmentalists sued to force regulators to aggressively implement the Clean Water Act’s TMDL standards on the North Coast. The result was a decree requiring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set pollution limits for 17 North Coast rivers and streams by 2007.
Although the feds have completed most of that work, state water quality agencies have cemented cleanup plans for just three of the rivers. State officials say budget and staff cutbacks have hamstrung their efforts. But environmentalists want to force the issue and get the North Coast’s rivers back on the road to health.
A coalition that includes the Sierra Club and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Assns. sued anew Wednesday in San Francisco to prod the state and regional water boards to come up with plans of action for the remaining rivers.
The time for excuses is over, said Scott Greacen of the Environmental Protection Information Center. "The state has dragged its feet and ignored the law for far too long."
Jobless claims highest in 26 years
The number of Americans who applied for unemployment benefits for the first time tops 600,000. Continuing claims set record high...Catherine Clifford
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The number of Americans filing for first-time unemployment benefits surged last week to a level not seen since October 1982, according to a government report released Thursday.
The number of initial jobless claims jumped to a much-higher-than-expected 626,000 in the week ended Jan, 31, according to the Labor Department. That's up from a revised 591,000 in the previous week and the highest level since the last week of October 1982, when jobless claims reached 637,000.
Economists polled by Briefing.com were expecting the number to come in at 580,000 for the most recent week.
The four-week moving average for weekly claims totaled 582,250, up from the previous week's revised figure of 543,250.
One economist said that as bad as the report is for the labor markets, the sharp spike in the initial claims could be a peak.
That would indicate the recession is closer to the end than it is to the start, according to Robert Brusca, chief economist at Fact and Opinion Economics.
"In recessions, you tend to get spike highs in claims," said Brusca. "They tend to get up to some high level very quickly and then they tend to back off."
"History tells you that claims don't continue to deteriorate this rapidly for that long," said Brusca.
The number of workers receiving unemployment checks for one week or more rose to a record 4,788,000 in the week ended Jan. 24, the most recent data available. That tops the previous week's record of 4,768,000.
Brusca does not think that continuing claims can stay at record levels for much longer, either. The economy fell quickly, and that should lead to a sharper recovery.
Brusca said a sharp recovery would also be facilitated by the government stimulus plan and aggressive monetary policy. The economy has "extremely low interest rates to help foster a turn around and a lot of fiscal help coming from the government," he said.
The four-week moving average for continuing claims was 4,672,000, up from the previous week's revised moving average of 4,628,000.
The number came ahead of the government's January unemployment report, due out Friday. The unemployment rate is expected to jump to 7.5% in January, up from 7.2% the previous month, according to a consensus estimate from Briefing.com. Employers are expected to have slashed 500,000 jobs in the month.
The jobs problem you don't know about
The sharp jump in layoffs gets all the attention, but it's the lack of hiring and job openings that pose greater risks for the labor market and economy...Chris Isidore
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- January was one of the worst months for layoffs ever, with nearly a quarter million job cut announcements grabbing headlines.
But the real problem in the U.S. labor market today isn't layoffs. It's a hiring freeze that is gripping most work places -- and has not gotten nearly as much attention as the job cuts.
"The hiring rate has caved. That's why the job market is as bad as it is," said Mark Zandi, chief economist with Moody's Economy.com. "Given this low hiring rate, unemployment would still rise even if layoffs were falling."
The government's key employment report, due Friday morning, doesn't detail hiring and job openings. It instead gives overall change in the number of workers on U.S. payrolls.
It's expected to be another terrible number; economists surveyed by Briefing.com forecast a net loss of 540,000 in January, which follows the 524,000 loss in December. The unemployment rate is forecast to rise to 7.5% from 7.2%, which would be a 16-year high.
But since 2000, the Labor Department has also tracked hiring, job openings and layoffs. And the most recent readings on those statistics show that the level of hiring and job openings has actually tumbled more than layoffs have soared.
Through November, the number of layoffs was up 17% from year-earlier levels. But the amount of workers who were hired during November was down 26%, and the number of job openings tumbled 30%.
While layoffs are likely up from the November levels, the hit to hiring has also gotten much more severe, according to experts. And that means that once people do lose their job, it's going to be even tougher to find a new one.
The Conference Board's tracking of online job listings shows a decline of more than 1 million listings in the last two months alone. That's a 23% decline in postings since November. The weakness in job postings is widespread, with only two states, North Dakota and Wyoming, having fewer unemployed people than advertised job openings.
During the last recession in 2001, there was not nearly as sharp a drop in hiring and job openings. In fact, the hiring and job opening rates, which compare new hires and openings to the overall number of workers, are both at their lowest level on record.
And economists say that even if the number of layoffs peaks soon, the pace of hiring and job openings may remain soft for months to come.
"The issue of hiring is often overlooked," said Gad Levanon, senior economist for The Conference Board. "But it's the key to the labor market. In the last recession, layoffs reached their peak in late 2001. But hiring didn't reach its lowest level until 2003, and that's when the job losses finally ended."
Andrew Reina, practice director for job placement firm Ajilon Finance Solutions, said hiring freezes are now the rule at most companies.
"A lot of our clients are looking at hiring freezes, certainly in the short term, and most likely through the first half of this year," he said.
Economist Robert Brusca of FAO Economics added that hiring freezes are an easier way for many companies to reduce work forces than layoffs, since even in bad times people will leave companies on their own.
And he said the hiring freezes won't end until companies have some confidence that the economy and demand for their products are ready to turn around.
"It's pretty clear that fear is running the show right now," he said
Bank of America or THE Bank of America?
Fears that the struggling bank may be nationalized have resurfaced as BofA's stock hits a nearly 20-year low. Some think CEO Ken Lewis needs to step down...Paul R. La Monica
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Is Bank of America literally destined to become THE Bank of America?
The Charlotte-based banking giant has already received $45 billion in taxpayer money. And the scary thing is that some think it may need even more to survive....possibly even an outright takeover by the government.
Shares tumbled nearly 18% early Thursday morning before bouncing back sharply later in the day and clawing into positive territory.
But at one point Thursday, the stock was trading below $4 a share, its lowest point in nearly 20 years.
That followed an 11% plunge Wednesday amid renewed speculation of nationalization.
BofA (BAC, Fortune 500) is struggling to digest the acquisitions of Merrill Lynch and mortgage lender Countrywide, and nothing it has done lately has given investors reason to be hopeful.
On Wednesday, BofA said that to cut costs it would sell three of its corporate jets and a helicopter it inherited in the Merrill deal.
Talkback: Should the government nationalize BofA?
Last week, the bank unveiled what it called its Lending and Investing Initiative, essentially a promise to track and report how it is using money from the government's Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP.
But those moves have been rightfully ignored by investors as little more than attempts to boost the bank's image.
BofA is hardly the only bank that has gotten whacked this week. Also getting hit were Citigroup (C, Fortune 500), JPMorgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500) and Wells Fargo (WFC, Fortune 500).
That's largely due to concerns that the Obama administration might not actually unveil a plan for a so-called "aggregator bank" to buy up the spoiled assets sitting on many banks' balance sheets.
But BofA's stock has been the worst performer by far in recent days. Simply put, the continued weakness in BofA's shares is a sign that something drastic has to be done...stat.
Andrew Marquardt, an analyst with Fox-Pitt Kelton Cochran Caronia Waller, wrote in a research note Thursday morning that there needs to be "new leadership with a clear and consistent strategic plan to manage through the existing tough period."
"Inconsistency and poor vision at the helm has added to lack of conviction and confidence by investors and analysts," he added.
Is Lewis' job safe?
So far, BofA CEO Ken Lewis has continued to have the backing of his company's board of directors. But how much longer will that be the case? Former Merrill CEO John Thain has already lost his job. A spokesperson for Bank of America would not comment about the company's stock price or Lewis' status.
Some are calling for Lewis to go next. Jerry Finger, an investor who owns more than a million shares of BofA through his Houston-based firm Finger Interests, has said in various interviews that he would like to see Lewis step down.
Finger, who could not immediately be reached for comment, is leading a class-action lawsuit against the company. In the complaint, the plaintiffs allege that Lewis and Thain failed to protect shareholder interests when hammering out the BofA-Merrill deal.
But Lewis still has some fans. Richard Bove, an analyst with Ladenburg Thalmann, wrote in a report Thursday morning that "Ken Lewis may be the best operating manager of any bank in the United States."
Bove added that even though "investors believe that this bank is about to fail and be nationalized by the United States government," he thinks that "these fears simply make no sense whatsoever."
He pointed out that BofA, despite its fourth-quarter loss, is still cash-flow positive and that the bank reported a net increase in deposits of nearly $9 billion in the quarter.
Dan Genter, president and CEO of RNC Genter Capital Management, an investment firm in Los Angeles with about $2.7 billion in assets, added that bringing in a new CEO would not necessarily solve the bank's problems. But he conceded that Lewis' job could be in danger.
"I'm hoping they don't make a change. But this is an atmosphere that's punitive. The market is rewarding revenge to some degree," said Genter, whose firm owns a small stake in BofA.
And one hedge fund manager that used to own shares of BofA and Merrill Lynch last year said that he thinks Citigroup is in more trouble than BofA because of Citi's bigger exposure to bad trading bets.
"Nobody really knows what's on Bank of America's balance sheet. But I think you have to draw a distinction between them and Citigroup," said Morris Mark, president of Mark Asset Group, a New York-based hedge fund firm.
Nonetheless, an analyst with one investment firm that sold its stake in BofA late last year said Lewis does deserve blame for taking on all the risks that came with trying to digest two sizable mergers in the face of a severe economic slump.
"Lewis could have weathered this downturn if it was just Bank of America and its assets, but now he's got to deal with Countrywide and Merrill, whose problems I don't think he fully understood," said Virge Trotter, a senior analyst with Manning & Napier Advisors, a money management firm based in Rochester, N.Y.
Trotter added that BofA arguably could have gotten better deals for both Countrywide and Merrill Lynch if they were allowed to collapse first.
He noted how JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon waited until he got loan guarantees from the Federal Reserve before deciding to buy investment bank Bear Stearns. And JPMorgan Chase didn't pounce on savings and loan Washington Mutual until after the savings and loan failed and was seized by the FDIC.
"Lewis is the captain of the ship so he has to take some responsibility. It seems that he paid full price last year and got too greedy," Trotter said.
2-11-09 Merced County Planning Commission agenda...9:00 a.m.
2-11-09 MCAG Technial Review Board meeting...12-00 p.m.
2-12-09 Merced County Hearing Officer agenda...8:30 a.m...Cancelled