Badlands Journal
Central Valley Safe Environment Network reply to Rominger/Dimock op-ed in SF Chronicle, Feb. 11...Central Valley Safe Environment Network Board of Directors
Central Valley Safe Environment Network (CVSEN) is a coalition of grassroots groups that has defended environmental, social and economic justice in the San Joaquin Valley for 25 years, built largely on the principles of organization of Saul Alinksy in Chicago.
CVSEN is outraged by the smear of Lloyd Carter by Richard Rominger and Michael Dimock in the San Francisco Chronicle on Feb. 11.
Rominger and Dimock wrote in part:
"Even more disturbing is that rising emotion over water is sparking hostility. Last Thursday in Fresno, a representative of the California Water Impact Network told a television reporter during a debate that saving farmworkers' jobs is a mistake because they are the "least educated people in America ... they turn to lives of crime, they go on welfare, go into drug trafficking ...." This is this blatantly racist, and evokes images of Europe in the 1930s and '40s." --http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/02/11/EDKB15RJ1M.DTL&type=printable
Richard Rominger is the former secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, Assistant Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture.  Michael R. Dimock is president of Roots of Change, a collaborative supporting development of a sustainable food system in California.
Transcribed by the illiterate Fox Fresno TV outlet, what Carter said roughly (you have to imagine the grammar and spelling):
"...Their not even American citizens for starters. Do you think we should employ illegal aliens? What parent raises their child to be a farm worker? These kids are the least education people in America or the southwest corner of this Valley. They turn to lives of crime. They go on welfare. They get into drug trafficking and they join gangs," Carter said shockingly." -- http://www.kmph.com/Global/story.asp?S=9792222&nav=menu612_7
Shortly, afterwards, Carter sincerely and fully apologized for his overly generalized comments on social conditions in the poorest congressional district in the nation.
Rominger and Dimock’s insinuation and smear are over the top.
Central Valley Safe Environment Network
Central Valley Safe Environment Network is a coalition of organizations and individuals throughout the San Joaquin Valley that is committed to the concept of "Eco-Justice" -- the ecological defense of the natural resources and the people. To that end it is committed to the stewardship, and protection of the resources of the greater San Joaquin Valley, including air and water quality, the preservation of agricultural land, and the protection of wildlife and its habitat. In serving as a community resource and being action-oriented, CVSEN desires to continue to assure there will be a safe food chain, efficient use of natural resources and a healthy environment. CVSEN is also committed to public education regarding these various issues and it is committed to ensuring governmental compliance with federal and state law. CVSEN is composed of farmers, ranchers, city dwellers, environmentalists, ethnic, political,and religious groups, and other stakeholders.
P.O. Box 64
Merced CA 95341
Merced Sun-Star
Fewer Merced County homes in foreclosure
It's probably not the start of a trend toward improvement, experts say...SCOTT JASON
Despite a decline in foreclosures, Merced still leads the state and nation in the rate that homes are going back to the banks.
Figures released Thursday by RealtyTrac show that in the county, one out of every 59 houses, or 1,401 homes, received a foreclosure filing in January. A year ago, 663 houses were in some stage of foreclosure.
Nonetheless, Merced's rate declined 23 percent from December, when more than 1,800 homes were mired in the foreclosure process.
Nationwide, Merced's foreclosure rate is followed by Las Vegas and Cape Coral in Florida.
California as a whole saw a 14 percent decrease in homeowners defaulting on mortgages. The nation saw a 10 percent fall.
The respite is more of a hiccup than a sign of the end, RealtyTrac spokesman Daren Blomquist said.
"It's a temporary lull. We've seen it in other months as well," he said. "We don't think we're out of the woods."
Many forces besides subprime loans are driving foreclosures. Higher unemployment means people won't be able to make their payments. Prices also keep falling, which gives owners less reason to want to pay off a $300,000 home that's only worth $150,000.
In California, it takes three months of missed payments before foreclosure proceedings begin, so the effect of people losing their jobs now won't hit until spring, he said.
On top of all this, Blomquist said, another kind of loan, called Option-ARM, will begin resetting this year and continue into 2010 and 2011.
A Fitch Ratings report released in fall 2008 forecasts $29 billion worth of those mortgages to reset by this year's end. Another $67 billion will reset in 2010, the report says.
Those loans offered the buyer a low minimum payment, though the homeowner has the option to make larger payments.
After five years, the loan resets, and the payment will be higher for those who had been making the low payment. The rating agency predicts an average 63 percent increase in mortgage payments, causing more homeowners to default on the loan.
Blomquist said the foreclosure rates will increase later this year unless the government comes up with significant foreclosure aid.
"If it's not up, it's not because of market recovery," he said. "It's because of government intervention."
Real estate agent Andy Krotik said the state's effort to reduce foreclosures has only delayed the inevitable.
"Strap up. Hold on," he said. "The wave is coming."
The other kind of bad mortgage, along with the economic turmoil, will lead to increases down the line, he said.
He's remained busy cleaning up foreclosed homes now owned by banks and then selling them, for the most part, to first-time home buyers who finally can afford a home in Merced County. The median price of homes has fallen to $125,000.
"It's discouraging," he said, "but unfortunately we're busier than ever for a lot of the wrong reasons."
Crisis list
California counties with the highest foreclosure rate
1. Merced County
2. Riverside County
3. Stanislaus County
4. San Joaquin County
5. San Bernardino County
Source: RealtyTrac
Modesto Bee
Where's the Bottom?: No way prices will fall 31%, Realtors say...J.N. Sbranti
A new national housing study predicts Stanislaus County home prices will fall an additional 31 percent during the next 18 months, but local real estate leaders don't believe it.
Moody's Economy.com study "Housing in Crisis: When Will Metro Markets Recover?" forecasts how low prices will fall and when various parts of the nation will stabilize.
The study projects for a "peak to trough" housing price drop of 67 percent in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties and a 69 percent drop in Merced County, compared with what homes sold for during the 2005 height of the housing boom.
The three counties are "ground zero of the housing bust," said Moody's economist Andres Carbacho-Burgos. Nationwide, the peak to trough home price drop is expected to average 36 percent.
The economist said Moody's prediction for continued price declines throughout the Northern San Joaquin Valley is based on assorted factors, including declining population, rising unemployment and continuing foreclosures.
For Stanislaus, the study predicts 1,800 more people will migrate out of the county than migrate in during 2009, and 1,000 more will be lost in 2010. It expects the county's unemployment rate to climb to 17 percent this year and to almost 19 percent next year.
"If a metro region is losing population, that's going to reduce housing demand and push down prices," Carbacho-Burgos explained.
Continued foreclosures also are hurting the housing market. According to the study:
"A growing number of homeowners, particularly those who purchased their homes in 2005 or 2006, are underwater. That is, they owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. That has created a powerful incentive for those residents to walk away from their mortgage obligations. Although this is a national phenomenon, the problem is more acute in the Central Valley. This negative feedback loop of falling prices and rising foreclosures is a major downside risk to the forecast."
Moody's, an independent provider of economic, financial, country and industry research, based its home value prediction partly on Case-Shiller House Price Growth indicators. Case-Shiller predicted Stanislaus home prices would decline 30.4 percent in 2009 and 5.1 percent in 2010.
As prices for homes fall, Carbacho-Burgos said, more and more homeowners will have negative equity -- owing more than their homes are worth. He said such homeowners "might decide to improve their balance sheet" by defaulting on mortgages and letting homes be foreclosed.
The study noted that the San Joaquin Valley's mortgage default rate last fall was 5.5 percent, which was nearly three times the national average of 1.9 percent.
"Foreclosure sales, which take place at substantial discounts, are putting tremendous downward pressure on prices," the study warned.
It predicted the Northern San Joaquin Valley "will not see substantial price increases until 2011."
Several Stanislaus real estate leaders doubt the accuracy of the gloomy study, especially the forecast that the county's home prices will plummet 31 percent more by mid-2010.
"They are not looking at the data correctly for our region," insisted John Melo, chief executive officer of Century 21 M&M and Associates. "I don't see homes that we're selling now for $100,000 dropping 31 percent. No way."
Melo said home sales are brisk, with multiple offers to buy being made for nearly every entry-level home. Besides attracting first-time buyers from within the region, Melo said Stanislaus homes are being bought by people from elsewhere in California and out of state.
"We're selling to commuters again," Melo said. "And we're getting folks looking to buy here because they want to return to California after retiring."
Such increasing demand is reducing the supply of homes on the market, which is a sign the market is improving.
"Our listing inventory has declined about 20 percent in the last six months, and our days on the market also has declined about 20 percent," said Chad Costa, a Realtor with Re/Max Executive. He noted how last spring it took more than 100 days on average to sell a Modesto home, but that's fallen to 79 days.
Home prices have fallen so much, Costa said, that now mortgage payments often are cheaper than rental payments. He said a $150,000 house purchased with a 3.5 percent down payment and an FHA-insured loan costs about $1,050 per month to own, compared with about $1,200 a month to rent.
That's increasing the number of would-be homeowners.
"Investors also are pouring into the market to buy homes," said Mike Zagaris, president of PMZ Real Estate. "Bankers tell me they are being inundated with investors who are begging to borrow money to buy homes at these prices."
With supply shrinking and demand growing, Zagaris said he seriously doubts Moody's conclusion that home prices will continue falling.
"If I had to guess," Zagaris said, "I'd guess we're at the bottom now."
Fresno Bee
Activists threaten to sue EPA over farm air rules...Local briefs
Activists on Thursday threatened to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, saying it is dragging its heels on two farm air-quality rules.
If EPA does not take action on the rules in the next 60 days, the Valley-based Association of Irritated Residents will file suit, group officials said. It would be the third time in the past year that the group has sued to force EPA action on San Joaquin Valley air rules.
The rules would require new and expanding farm operations, such as dairies, to use the best available air pollution control technology and take part in a program to pay for excess pollution.
'Respect they deserve'...Joseph R. Riofrio, City council member, Mendota...Letters to the editor 
Now that Lloyd Carter has had his 15 minutes of infamy, I would like to look at the issue of water and what it means to a community like Mendota.
We are in the heart of the most agriculturally abundant county in the world. Even in times of adequate water deliveries, Mendota has remained one of the poorest cities in the country -- the hardest work for the worst pay.
Farmworkers who reside in Mendota and other Valley communities are exploited from the time they get in the vans to the time they step off into the chemical-laden fields, then off to the excessive fee-charging mini-marts to cash their checks.
Let's assume Lloyd Carter is removed from whatever board he chairs, and that somehow the Valley gets all the water needed to grow the crops we're famous for. We still have a long way to go to give the people who are doing the heavy lifting the respect they deserve. It's not just stupid comments that are the problem; we must now begin to address what the reasons are that cities like Mendota, Orange Cove and San Joaquin continue to barely exist, even when the water is flowing.
'We are all at risk'...Obie R. Silverwood, Sanger...Letters to the editor 
In your letters Feb. 10, three writers criticized Lloyd Carter, calling him a slanderer, ignorant and a hateful racist because he said we should not hire illegal immigrants, and that their children are poorly educated, turn to crime and welfare and join gangs.
Mr. Carter has now been forced to resign from the board of the California Water Impact Network, and I would not be surprised if he gets fired from his deputy attorney general job over this. Thus far, Mr. Carter has been tried and found guilty in the court of "political correctness."
But before crucifying Mr. Carter, it would be informative to know exactly what percentage of illegal immigrants or their children do poorly in school, or go on welfare or commit crimes such as graffiti, drive-by shootings, stabbings, carjackings, robberies, drunken driving, drug and gang-related offenses.
If those percentages are small, then Mr. Carter is wrong and deserves his fate. However, if those percentages are substantial, should Mr. Carter be pilloried for voicing a fact? If so, then we are all at risk of losing our freedom of speech to the tyranny of political correctness.
Capital Press
Water debate delivers doom, not answers
Environmentalists, ag square off over policy at FSU meeting...Cecilia Parsons...2-12-09
The debate did little to wring water from the sky but it did bring in a flood of farmers who were looking for answers.
On Feb. 4, environmental and agriculture advocates squared off over water policy before an overflow crowd at the Fresno State University satellite student union.
Agreeing only that California's water delivery system was broken, each side defended directions they believed state and federal water agencies should take to repair the system.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and surface water deliveries to west side and east side water users were at the center of the three-hour debate.
Valley agriculture interests were represented by Tom Birmingham, general manager of Westlands Water District; Kole Upton, a Chowchilla farmer and former chairman of the Friant Water Users Authority; and Jim Beck, general manager of Kern County Water Agency. Representing environmental concerns were Lloyd Carter and Michael Jackson of the California Water Impact Network, and Bill Jennings, chairman of the California Sportsfishing Protection Alliance.
Neither side claimed all the answers, but no one had one for west side pistachio grower Larry Easterly. Easterly said he will receive only a fraction of the water necessary to produce a crop this year. Because of drought conditions, state and federal water project officials announced recently that they would cut deliveries of surface water, supplies that are vital on farms without sufficient groundwater supplies.
"Damage done by government interference in our business is devastating," Easterly told the debate panel during the question-and-answer session.
Debate over the delta centered on availability and quality of water that moves through the largest estuary on the West Coast as well as protections offered to fish species such as the Delta smelt.
Jennings charged that water rights, which fish don't have, have historically been over-committed.
The state water board has granted water eight and a half times the capacity of the Delta, he said.
Jennings claimed that communities and farms that rely on surface water deliveries have built their lives around "paper water."
Birmingham agreed that water is over-committed, but argued that management of the water in the Delta is lacking.
A solution would be new infrastructure, more storage and more conveyance and comprehensive management of the ecosystem, he said.
Doing nothing to fix the crisis in the delta is not an option, Beck said. Shutting down pumps to protect fish was not a solution for the ecosystem, he said. The state should look at other stressors to the delta including the toxic waste that cities dump into the estuary, Beck added.
There was no agreement over the proposed peripheral canal, a conveyance that would route water around the east side of the delta for delivery to farms and communities to its south. Jennings said the canal would increase salt-water intrusion into the delta, harming farms there as well as fish.
Birmingham argued that the canal would not impair Delta water quality, and that an added benefit of the canal would be better water quality delivered to farms.
Less salts in the water would mean less salts in drainage water into rivers, he reasoned.
Carter predicted that agriculture in the valley and throughout the state would shrink without affordable water supplies. Cities can pay $600 for an acre foot of water, not farmers, he said. Adding surface storage is not an efficient use of the water, Carter said.
Closely tied to the delta, the second hot issue debated was the restoration of a salmon fishery in the San Joaquin River. East side farms from Kern County to Madera County receive diverted water from the river via the Friant-Kern Canal.
A 2006 settlement of a federal lawsuit will send 200,000 acre feet down the river channel to restore a salmon fishery.
What has transpired since the settlement was signed has caused dissension between some growers.
Lawsuits by environmental groups brought court rulings that shut down Delta pumps that delivered water to west side farms.
Upton, who served on the Friant board when the settlement was signed, has become a vocal opponent, doubting that the water management goals in the settlement will ever occur because less water will be available.
Carter argued that people who live in the San Joaquin River watershed - westside farmers - should have first crack at the water.
"We fear we didn't get enough water, " said Jackson about the spring salmon run environmental groups hope to re-establish in the river.
Birmingham said Westlands supports the settlement as it limits the district's exposure to water losses. But said he doubted the sincerity of environmental groups who want to spend $800 million to restore a salmon run when experts have predicted the project will fail.
"Maybe those resources could be better spend somewhere else," he suggested.
Rainfall too little, too late?
Snowpacks still well below normal for this time of year...Tim Hearden...2-12-09
It's the break that California farmers and ranchers have been waiting for. But is it too little, too late?
Stingy as it may have been with its precipitation yields, the round of rain and snowfall that arrived late last week signaled - finally - the start of a wet pattern that's expected to last at least a couple of weeks, weather experts say.
From Thursday, Feb. 5, through Monday, Feb. 9, Redding received 0.86 inches of rain, Fresno got 0.82 inches and Bakersfield registered 1.22 inches - hardly enough to replenish water-starved reservoirs or ease fears of a debilitating drought this summer.
But more storms are on the way this weekend and next week, as a stubborn ridge of high pressure has released a grip it had held on the West Coast for much of the winter, National Weather Service meteorologist Cynthia Palmer said.
"We are in a wet pattern, which is more typical for our winters," said Palmer, who's based in Sacramento. "Things have finally shifted with the ridge, and it's now backing more over the Pacific ... allowing lows and troughs to come into the West Coast."
The pattern will likely produce periods of rain and snow interrupted by breaks of a day or two. The next couple of systems will keep snow levels at about 2,000 feet, Palmer said Tuesday, Feb. 10.
"The good thing is these are much colder systems coming in, so we're looking at relatively low snow levels," she said. "There will be more snow producers for our mountains, and even some of the foothills could see some snow out of this."
Any snow would be welcome news for summer runoff prospects. Snowpacks are still well below normal for this time of year, said Elissa Lynn, senior meteorologist for the California Department of Water Resources.
Levels in the Northern Sierras are 47 percent of normal, while they're 61 percent of normal in the Central Sierras and 71 percent of normal in the Southern Sierras, she said. Statewide, the snowpack is at 60 percent of normal, she said.
"It's gone up slightly but not substantially" as a result of the most recent weather systems, Lynn said Tuesday.
Jack Cowley, who grows hay and runs 1,000 mother cows on 1,500 acres in Montague, in Siskiyou County, is skeptical that anything that comes will help him.
"Where I'm at in Little Shasta Valley, we're really not getting a lot of this moisture," Cowley said. "It's just passing around us. This last storm a couple of days ago gave us almost nothing. The ground got white a little bit, and that was it."
In fact, Cowley was on his tractor Tuesday doing some of his springtime work because the ground was so dry, he said.
A reservoir for the local water district can hold 50,000 acre feet of water, but it has only 7,000 acre feet in it, he said.
Lynn has said California would need extraordinary rainfall this season to bring the state's reservoirs even close to their normal levels.
As of the Department of Water Resources' latest summary, Shasta Lake was still at 31 percent of capacity, Lake Oroville was at 28 percent, Folsom Lake was at 24 percent and the San Luis Reservoir was at 32 percent.

Rainfall totals

Here are the rainfall totals for cities from Thursday, Feb. 5, through Monday, Feb. 9, according to the National Weather Service:
Redding: 0.86 inches
Marysville-Yuba City: 0.32 inches
Napa: 0.59 inches
Sacramento (downtown): 0.38 inches
Modesto: 0.40 inches
Salinas: 1.18 inches
Merced: 0.61 inches
Fresno: 0.82 inches
Hanford: 0.48 inches
Bakersfield: 1.22 inches
Reservoir levels
Here are the percentages of capacity for California reservoirs as of midnight Jan. 26, according to the Department of Water Resources California Data Exchange Center's latest Executive Update:
Trinity Lake: 40 percent
Shasta Lake: 31 percent
Lake Oroville: 28 percent
New Bullards Bar Reservoir: 49 percent
Folsom Lake: 24 percent
New Melones Reservoir: 48 percent
Don Pedro Reservoir: 54 percent
Lake McClure: 27 percent
Millerton Lake: 41 percent
Pine Flat Reservoir: 22 percent
Lake Isabella: 22 percent
San Luis Reservoir: 32 percent

Stockton Record
Water news is sobering...Alex Breitler's blog
Hallelujiah; it's raining. "Lined-up storms could ease drought," read one headline this week.
Let's sober ourselves.
Take a quick look at Lake Shasta. Sure, it's 200 miles north of us in Stockton, but as the state's biggest reservoir, it's where any drought begins and ends.
As of Wednesday, there was 1,454,967 acre-feet of water in the lake. Big number, right? Not really. Shasta's capacity is 4,552,000 million acre-feet.
Anyway, that's not the point. At this Web site you can click and scroll through Shasta's storage every day of the year. If you do that you'll see the lake has been gradually filling since late October. Logical, due to rain and snow in the Sacramento River watershed.
Right about Halloween, Shasta bottomed out at 1.28 million acre-feet. So if you do the math we've gained about 17,000 acre-feet to the current level of 1.45 million a-f.
Here, to me, is what's scary. Before it bottomed out, the last time Shasta was 1.45 million acre-feet was Sept. 15. Practically the end of summer.
So to recap: Right now, in mid-February, with nearly two months of winter already behind us, we have roughly the same amount of water in our largest reservoir as as had toward the end of summer 2008.
Manteca Bulletin
SSJID drought strategy leaves Woodward boat ramp high & dry...Jason Campbell
OAKDALE – Ron Doughery knows that his new hobby of walking the exposed shallows of Woodward Reservoir isn’t going to be something that’s possible forever.
But it looks like it’ll be keeping him busy for quite a while.
While most Californians are still figuring out how to weather the current financial crisis, the third consecutive dry winter is almost over and has left the feeding grounds for Northern California’s most precious resource – water – barren and without any sign of improving anytime soon.
South County farmers that have long benefitted by the pioneering move to dam up the Stanislaus River to generate power and store agricultural water are now facing the prospect of heading into another crippling summer worrying about whether the tap that spits out their livelihood will continue to flow.
“Looking at it now I don’t see how it’s going to fill up anytime soon unless it snows nonstop between now and summer,” Dougherty said while taking the short walk around the reservoir’s edge searching for lost items that would typically be far below the surface. “It looks like this could all dry up by July.”
On Tuesday the South San Joaquin Irrigation District – which owns Woodward Reservoir and leases it to Stanislaus County for recreational use – dedicated a portion of their first February meeting to discuss how the pending shortage will affect their ability to effectively serve their customers. The reservoir is some 16 miles northeast of Manteca and also supplies treated drinking water for Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy as well as irrigation water for farms.
Thanks to the same soil composition that helped make the San Joaquin Valley one of the most fertile growing places in the world,  SSJID officials already have to deal with seepage problems around the 100-year-old holding basin – which because of its location is considerably shallower than other reservoirs and is more susceptible to evaporation.
The reservoir, which holds 33,000 acre feet, usually loses 20,000 and 30,000 acre feet of water a year to seepage and evaporation. The SSJID plans to release 700 acre feet of water at a time from its reservoirs in the higher elevations and divert it into Woodward Reservoir. That is how much water is used for reach irrigation run.
In order to brace for the worst, the district’s board has decided to keep Woodward – which has a peak elevation of  210 feet - at 190-feet by monitoring both the influx of the melting snowpack and the outflow for both drinking and farming purposes.
In other words, it isn’t going to get much fuller than it is right now.
And the shallow season has somewhat rearranged the focal points of what is also a popular recreation destination for area residents.
With its unique location jutting away from the shore to be nearly surrounded by water, T-Island is often packed during summer weekends where families fill-up the full-access sites to enjoy quality in the great outdoors.
Today it’s empty and offers only a pristine view of the rapidly receding waters.
The boat ramp now ends five feet shy of the water. It is a good-sized hike from the camp sites to the water’s edge.
While Dougherty – who has made Woodward his home since late-fall – enjoys his daily uninterrupted walks around the lake, he also knows that the path he’s taking also means that some very uncertain times may be ahead.
“I had heard that they were predicting that it’s supposed to be a dry time for us – not a lot of rain,” he said while clutching a freshly discovered gold earring. “If that’s true I hope this is the end of it because it doesn’t look like this can go on forever.”
San Francisco Chronicle
U.S. agrees to consider protections for pikas...Jane Kay, Chronicle Environment Writer
A furry relative of the rabbit that lives in the High Sierra is the first mammal outside of Alaska that the federal government has agreed to consider for protection from harmful effects of global warming.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, under settlement of a lawsuit, agreed Thursday to look into the status of the American pika, an obscure animal weighing one-third of a pound that emits squeaks heard by hikers in Yosemite National Park and elsewhere.
By May, the agency must complete its investigation, and decide if the animal deserves protection under the Endangered Species Act, which would result in strategies to raise its declining populations. The polar bear is the only mammal that has been put under the law because of threats from changing climate.
The pika is so sensitive to heat that it generally can't survive out of its mountain burrows if the temperature rises above 80 degrees, scientists say. Its situation is made more dire because only during the short mountain summers can it gather the 60 pounds of grasses and flowers it needs in storage to last through the winter, researchers say.
Surveys in the Great Basin show that more than one-third of the populations are disappearing, according to Erik Beever, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Out of 25 former populations found decades ago, only 16 could be located in a recent search. California populations that live at the lower elevations already are suffering from rising temperatures, scientists say.
Early naturalists recognized about three dozen subspecies of American pika, five of which inhabit California. They live at elevations as low as 5,000 to 9,000 feet in Modoc, Lassen and Siskiyou counties and the northern Sierra Nevada from Mount Shasta south to Donner Pass. The Mount Whitney pika's habitat in Tulare, Fresno and Inyo counties in the southern Sierra is as high as 8,500 to 13,000 feet in elevation.
"Pikas are intolerant to higher temperatures, and the scientists are finding that the lower-elevation populations are disappearing," said Shaye Wolf, a biologist on staff of the Center for Biological Diversity.
The environmental group brought the suit against the federal government in August to force consideration under the act.
The Center for Biological Diversity is switching half of its nationwide resources to San Francisco to open a Climate Law Institute, which will focus on addressing "the greatest environmental threat of our time," executive director Kieran Suckling said Thursday.
The center has $6.3 million in seed money, and expects to raise $17 million over the next five years, he said. Part of the funds come from the Sandler Family Foundation in San Francisco and the Los Angeles-based California Community Foundation. The center works to protect species in oceans, urban wildlands, public lands and internationally.
Stimulus package's impact on environment...Peter Fimrite
How much money: The package includes $750 million for the National Park Service for projects in California and other states. That's far short of the nearly $2 billion proposed in the original House version.
State environmental officials hope to get funds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for restoration projects, while the Bureau of Reclamation would use $1 billion to provide clean drinking water to rural areas and ensure there is an adequate water supply in California and other Western states impacted by drought.
Where it might go: The park service has $1.6 billion worth of shovel-ready projects, including a $13.8 million project to replace drinking water tanks and distribution lines at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park and improve fire suppression and alarm systems at the park's Ash Mountain visitor center.
The main road through Death Valley National Park, known as Bonnie Claire Road, needs $11.2 million worth of widening and repair work.
In the Bay Area, the California Coastal Conservancy wants to use $30 million for restoration of former Cargill Inc. salt ponds around San Francisco Bay, part of a $1 billion effort over 30 years. The restoration would support the California clapper rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hope to spend $14 million on the restoration of wetlands at Hamilton Field, a project that officials say could create 204 jobs this year and 100 more next year.
Protections against sea-level rise are expected to be funded.
Bottom line: While the recovery package may stimulate environmental programs, the big beneficiaries will be contractors that fix trails, roads, historic buildings and monuments in national parks.
"There are going to be a lot of opportunities for us to do work in the parks on roads and on infrastructure projects that are very important," said park service spokesman Jeffrey Olson. "We have a $9 billion backlog of projects and half are roads projects."
Transportation benefits from stimulus...Michael Cabanatuan
How much money: About $4.5 billion for California, and $1 billion for the Bay Area.
Where it might go: Bay Area officials expect to devote about 70 percent of what the region gets on rehabilitation projects for streets, roads and highways, replacement buses, new ferry engines and repairs to Muni Metro light rail vehicles. Caltrans plans to use much of the money it receives to ensure that bond projects such as the Caldecott Tunnel's fourth bore get built.
Some could also go toward construction of foundations for a rail station in the new Transbay Terminal, a rail link between BART and the Oakland airport, ramp metering and development of a regional toll lane network.
Bottom line: The economic stimulus package will help California's beleaguered and deteriorating road, highway and transit systems and keep money flowing to transportation projects hampered by the state budget crisis. But the biggest winner is the state's effort to build the nation's first high-speed rail system.
The package includes $8 billion for high-speed rail - $6 billion more than had been anticipated.
"I had to sit down when I heard it," said Quentin Kopp, chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority.
The authority had asked for about $2 billion - enough to pay for electrification of the Caltrain right of way, projects to separate rails and between Los Angeles and Anaheim, rights of way and construction of a San Joaquin Valley maintenance facility and train storage yards in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
But it could get more. Federal officials have identified 11 high-speed rail routes around the nation, but California is expected to compete favorably for the funding because it is the only one with a plan and committed funding - $9 billion approved by voters in November.
How stimulus could boost green technology...David R. Baker
How much money: $50 billion nationwide.
Who might benefit: Renewable power developers, electric utilities, green tech companies.
How many jobs: 119,000 solar, 90,000 wind. (Estimates are from the Solar Energy Industries Association and the American Wind Energy Association.)
Bottom line: The stimulus bill's tight focus on alternative energy could help California in two big ways.
The bill could speed up construction of the wind farms and large solar plants that California needs to meet its goals for expanding the use of renewable power. And it could boost nationwide sales for many green-tech businesses based in the Golden State.
Companies trying to build wind and solar plants have had a hard time finding financing ever since the credit crisis hit. The stimulus bill would let them tap $6 billion in loan guarantees for their projects. Solar plant developers already receive tax credits worth 30 percent of construction costs, but the stimulus bill would give them the option of getting the money up front as a grant.
Wind-farm developers, who previously received a production tax credit paid out slowly over time, could now choose to take a 30 percent tax credit the year their projects open for business. And the production tax credit for wind, which had been scheduled to expire this year, would be extended through 2012.
"We're hoping this gets things moving again," said Gregory Wetstone, government affairs director for the American Wind Energy Association. "It's a great package for renewable energy."
The stimulus bill would create a 30 percent investment tax credit for factories making renewable-energy equipment, such as solar cells, wind turbine blades and advanced batteries.
The bill would invest heavily in energy transmission and efficiency. About $11 billion would be devoted to expanding and upgrading the nation's electric grid. And $4.5 billion would go toward making federal buildings more energy efficient.
While the stimulus package funnels most of its energy investments into companies, it also sets aside some money for consumers. About $5 billion would pay for weatherizing "modest-income homes." And homeowners who pay for their own efficiency upgrades could get a tax credit worth up to 30 percent of the money they spend, with a limit of $1,500.
Inside Bay Area
Bay Area mouse spurs national debate over stimulus bill...Paul Rogers, Mercury News
It was the mouse that roared.
A 1-inch-tall endangered rodent found in the marshes of San Jose and other San Francisco Bay cities became a national symbol of wasteful spending Thursday for opponents of President Obama's stimulus plans.
"Pork for Rats?" CNN trumpeted. "Pelosi's mouse slated for $30M slice of cheese," proclaimed the Washington Times.
Trouble is, the facts were mostly wrong. But the lightning speed of Internet news enabled it to take on an urban legend stature within hours.
The tale began Wednesday, when Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, sent an e-mail to reporters and political leaders that noted Republican staff members have been asking federal agencies how they would spend the stimulus money.
"One response? $30 million for wetland restoration in the San Francisco Bay Area — including work to protect the Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse," wrote Steel.
The Washington Times then wrote a story claiming the money is contained in the bill, and suggested it was put there by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco. Blogger Matt Drudge, whose Web site receives 26 million hits a day, posted a link to that story.
And by midday Thursday, the tiny salt marsh harvest mouse — and Democratic supporters of the stimulus bill — had been ridiculed by hosts Megyn Kelly and Bill Hemmer on Fox News; Rep. Mike Pence, R-Indiana on CNN; MSNBC host Joe Scarborough and by bloggers from coast to coast.
Steel, however, said the Washington Times story is incorrect.
"There is no language in the bill that says this money will go to this project," Steel told MediaNews. "There are large pots of money in the bill that go to various agencies. One of those agencies said the salt marsh harvest mouse project is something we'd do if you gave us the money."
It turns out, however, the $30 million is the total amount that the California Coastal Conservancy, a state agency, recommended more than a month to numerous federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers, looking for lists of "shovel ready" projects as part of the stimulus bill planning.
The conservancy's list included five major ongoing wetlands restoration projects totaling nearly 4,000 acres, said civil engineer Steve Ritchie, a Coastal Commission staff member who helped draw it up.
Those projects, which range from Napa County to Silicon Valley, involve moving levees, creating islands and converting former industrial salt ponds back to marshes. Each could begin by year's end and would benefit dozens of species, including salmon, steelhead trout, ducks, egrets, and yes, the endangered mouse, Ritchie said.
The work also would provide increased flood protection to homes and businesses around San Francisco Bay, he said. In 2003, the Bush administration endorsed and helped fund the largest one, the purchase of former Cargill salt ponds for wetlands restoration.
"This isn't school kids planting little sprigs of plants. We are talking about thousands of acres, building levees and islands with heavy equipment," said Ritchie. "It's at least 100 new jobs."
Even if the stimulus passes, there's no guarantee the projects will get the money. That will be up to the Army Corps of Engineers, which does everything from harbor dredging to building dams to restoring wetlands.
Monterey Herald
Homebuilders disappointed
Tax credit not what they hoped for...ALAN ZIBEL and ALEX VEIGA, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — A new tax credit of up to $8,000 for first-time homebuyers that's being included in the economic stimulus package was far less than the homebuilding industry wanted, and analysts expect it will provide only a modest boost to the battered U.S. housing market.
The tax credit is part of the economic stimulus package expected to be signed by President Barack Obama on Monday. It was scaled back from a Senate proposal of $15,000 and limited to first-time buyers who act between the start of this year and the end of November.
The credit for 10 percent of the value of a home, up to $8,000 was estimated to cost the government $6.6 billion.
It starts phasing out for couples with incomes above $150,000 and single filers with incomes above $75,000. Buyers will have to repay the credit if they sell their homes within three years.
Struggling homebuilders, already looking ahead to the traditional spring selling season, had been counting on Congress to help spur pent-up sales after completing the worst year for new home sales since 1982.
Executives for one major builder, Beazer Homes USA Inc., noted this week that they had seen an uptick in traffic over the weekend as many prospective buyers learned of the Senate's original incentive provision.
But with that proposal gone, Wall Street analysts said the homebuyer provision will have a negligible effect on homebuilders' fortunes.
"Congress, unambiguously, left the builders out in the cold," said
Deutsche Bank analyst Nishu Sood. "It's a pretty big disappointment that they scaled it back." Real estate agents were more optimistic. The National Association of Realtors projected the change will stimulate an additional 200,000 home sales.
"It'll make a big impact, I think on our market," said Paula Swayne, a real estate broker in Sacramento, an area flooded with foreclosures and sales of distressed properties. "Buyers will finally have to get off the fence in order to use it ... There are so many affordable houses."
The big unknown, however, was the state of the economy. With employers laying off thousands of workers, many potential homebuyers are nervous about making such a big financial commitment.
Mortgage rates remain low, falling this week to a national average of 5.16 percent for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, according to mortgage finance company Freddie Mac.
But credit remains tight and borrowers need a down payment of at least 3.5 percent to qualify for a loan backed by Federal Housing Administration, a popular option for many first-time buyers.
Many potential buyers haven't saved up enough money for a down payment. "If you don't have a way to get that, the tax credit doesn't do them much good," said James McCanless, an analyst who covers builders for FTN Midwest Securities.
But if the government can prod lenders to loosen credit standards and buy enough mortgage-backed securities to keep mortgage rates low, the tax credit could make a difference, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com.
"I don't think it's enough to jolt the housing market back to life, but it's a plus," he said.
Last year, Congress enacted a $7,500 tax credit for first-time buyers, but that had to be paid back over 15 years and the impact on home sales was negligible. First-time buyers, in last year's law, were defined as those who haven't owned their own homes for three years.
When the new credit is signed into law, Chris Sipe, a loan officer with Mason Dixon Funding in Rockville, Md., plans to e-mail the more than 1,000 contacts in his database to let them know about the opportunity.
"The bulk of the market right now is first-time buyers," he said.
First-time homebuyers bought 2.2 million new and existing homes last year, according to the National Association of Realtors, making up about 41 percent of total U.S. home sales, up from 39 percent in 2007 and 36 percent in 2006.
Concerns about the bill's overall costs, plus criticism that a much larger credit would not benefit borrowers on the verge or foreclosure,and mainly help people with healthy enough incomes to buy a house helped sink plans for a much larger credit.
The homebuilding industry mounted an unsuccessful push for a credit for up to $20,000 for all buyers.
"What the builders wanted was massive relief — not targeted toward where the real problem was — paid for by everybody," said Thomas Lawler, a Northern Virginia housing economist. "That seemed to be pretty egregious."
Sales fell in the fourth quarter of last year around the country, except for six states where buyers have been able to snap up foreclosed homes at a bargain: Nevada, California, Arizona, Florida, Minnesota and Virginia, the National Association of Realtors said Thursday. Nationwide, the median sales price was $180,100, down 12 percent from a year ago.
Ledger Dispatch
Impending septic tank regulations prompt stern letter from county...Jerry Budrick
The California State Water Resources Control Board is facing a massive revolt by septic tank owners throughout Northern California.
Assembly Bill 885, passed by the legislature in 2000, has been making its way slowly toward implementation of regulations that will have to be followed in all 58 California counties. Opposition to the regulations has been mounting exponentially, moving the water board to decide to extend the comment period to Feb. 23. So many turned out to speak against the regulations at a public hearing in Santa Rosa that the city was forced to reschedule.
On Tuesday, a draft comment letter proposed to be sent to the water board was presented to Amador supervisors by county environmental health director Mike Israel. As stated in the letter, "the Amador County Board of Supervisors strongly opposes adoption of regulations and waiver in their present form." The supervisors unanimously approved sending the letter, as soon as it's ready and signed by the chairman of the board, Ted Novelli.
District 2 Supervisor Richard Forster cautioned that the county lobbyist sagely predicted that the "green" nature of AB 885 will virtually guarantee its implementation. "We have a green governor and a Democratic legislature," Forster paraphrased the lobbyist as saying, "and we're not going to get this bill killed. We might be able to get it modified."
"The regulations exceed the statutory authority of AB 885," Israel declared, pointing out that the bill states that only newly installed or repaired systems or systems known to be causing contamination are intended to be included in the regulations. Groundwater sampling, Israel noted, would be unfairly imposed. "There is an obvious unfairness in that only people with both wells and septics must monitor," he said.
"Isn't there a provision that, if you don't have a well, you have to install a monitoring well?" asked District 4 Supervisor Louis Boitano.
Israel stated in the draft letter that "there is no explicit language in AB 885 about groundwater monitoring. The criteria for siting and installation of monitoring wells is tightly defined but the owner could elect to sample an existing water well regardless of distance or gradient."
The letter asserts that AB 885 regulations will not protect impaired waters, which was the bill's original intent. They fail to deal with the nitrogen removal standard and have no great options for siting and design of septic systems within 600 feet of an impaired body of water. "The mandated five-year septic tank inspection frequency will result in increased pumping," the letter predicts. Israel estimated that increased pumping frequency could double the impact on already scarce waste facilities.
Soil depth requirements were discussed. The letter warns that the absence of an avenue for variance or deviation from soil depth and composition requirements "could constitute a taking if heretofore useable parcels are rendered unbuildable by the regulations."
"I would like you to stress the 'taking' issue," Forster said. "My constituents in the Camanche area could be forced to install a community system."
A community system has been in a study phase for some time, but ongoing tests for the presence of the California tiger salamander in the Camanche area can not be completed without many more days of rain.
Costs for implementation are downplayed in the draft environmental impact report, Israel noted. "The DEIR ignores the cost to the county. No regulations are self-implementing. That's an oxymoron."
"The state should give room for flexibility," District 5 Supervisor Brian Oneto said. "For instance, one person living on a septic system shouldn't be treated the same as a house with 10 children."
Since AB 885 was adopted in 2000, the regulations have been nine years in the development stage, with input from community service districts, county environmental health departments, state environmental protection agencies and board, water districts and associations. "They were supposed to be completed in 2004," Israel said.
They are clearly not done yet. On Feb. 4, the state Water Resources Control Board said that it will redraft the regulations. "The state Water Board is sensitive to the concerns raised at the public workshops, and the regulations will be revised following consideration of the public comments, as appropriate," the board said in announcing the changes.
Amador County's letter may add fuel to the fire of resistance from the Regional Council of Rural Counties, which represents the interests of 31 California counties, including Amador. RCRC, on Monday, sent a letter more than 30 pages long to the water board, outlining numerous objections to the proposed regulations.
Plumas County News
Google Earth offers "Stairway of Power Tour"...M. Kate West, Chester Editor
Taking the “Stairway of Power Tour” on Google Earth leaves one feeling a bit like Aladdin on a magic carpet ride.
The Google Earth computer virtual tours and accompanying information sheets are provided at the Chester branch library, free of charge, to the community by the Almanor Basin Watershed Advisory Committee,
There are five different tours available to interested cyber travelers in a 3-D landscape. With the handbook put together by ABWAC Watershed Coordinator Kelly Weintraub, users can navigate around the watershed and even detour up any given stream.
The user can also explore further and learn how the area is zoned, and who owns which parcel of land. The properties of landowners Collins Pine, the United States Forest Service Sierra Pacific Industries are clearly marked.
“This is a place where people can come and access all of the data that has been collected in Almanor, so they may learn what is in their watershed. They don’t have to have a computer or high-speed Internet, and it is all free,” said Weintraub.
Plumas County Environmental Health, Pacific Gas & Electric, the California Department of Water Resources and the Regional Water Quality Control Board work all worked to collect the data for the program.
“What is so neat about the system is the agencies have always worked independently in their data collection and we have brought it together in one place,” said Weintraub.
She added, “Now you don’t have to research the Web sites for PG&E and DWS for data. This program lets people see how the watershed is as a whole.”
She said the program even identifies the boundaries of private water districts and planned developments.
Weintraub said the program also allows the user to layer information like major streams and a geology layer to see what’s underneath and how everything fits together.
“The Stairway of Power tour is pretty amazing in what the pictures show. You can see water and dams; it’s pretty detailed,” she said.
She said users should take a moment to note each stop on the tour has a bubble that provides information and defines the route of water flow.
Weintraub said the Almanor GIS database includes water quality monitoring information, where wildlife species have been sighted, specific Plumas County zoning, major landowners and infrastructure such as railroads and power lines.
“The tour also shows how all three watersheds flow together down to Oroville and the rest of California,” she added.
She said the information binder also contains extra facts about the watershed and the recommendations contained in the Lake Almanor Watershed Assessment.
Sierra Institute
Virtual Watershed Tour
The Lake Almanor Watershed Assessment project compiled large amounts of digital mapping information. Much of this data was used to create the maps published in the final report.
New online mapping tools are making it easier for us to share mapping information online. The Sierra Institute has compiled most of the available mapping for the Almanor Basin into a 'virtual tour'. We have done this by creating overlays which drape map layers such as zoning, streams, subwatersheds, and geologic type over a three dimensional landscape that the user can move interactively. This 'virtual tour' uses a free software program called “Google Earth.”
Google Earth allows anyone with a moderately fast internet connection to view 3-D satellite imagery of anywhere on earth. While the satellite images used are not "real-time", the Almanor Basin and most of Northern California were imaged in 2005.
To view the virtual tour:
1.  Install the Google Earth software program on your computer by clicking here.
2. Download one of the Almanor Basin Virtual Tours from the list below.
3. Open the Google Earth software, and use the 'FILE>OPEN> menu to load the file that you have downloaded (.kmz)
4. The tour that you load will show up in the 'Table of Contents' on the left-hand side of your screen. Highlight the folder that you want to tour, and click the '>' (play) button at the bottom of the menu.
Click here to download the Almanor Basin virtual tour to your computer.
Click here to download the Stairway of Power tour to your computer.
Click here to download Almanor Basin GIS layers in Google Earth.
Washington Post
At Wal-Mart, a Health-Care Turnaround
Once Criticized, Company Is Now an Innovator in Employee Coverage...Ceci Connolly. Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.
Washington policymakers contemplating a fundamental overhaul of the nation's troubled health-care system may want to study the saga of Wal-Mart.
Once vilified for its stingy health benefits, the world's largest company has become an unlikely leader in the effort to provide affordable care without bankrupting employers, their workers or taxpayers in the process. From its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., the retailer is doing in the real world what many in Washington are only beginning to talk about.
At a time when other firms are scaling back or eliminating health coverage, Wal-Mart has made a serious dent in the problem of the uninsured. New figures being released today show that 5.5 percent of its employees now lack health insurance, compared with a nationwide rate of 18 percent.
The company has also put into practice many of the innovations that experts say will lead to higher-quality, more efficient care. Using its high-tech marketing savvy, Wal-Mart has introduced digital records, partnered with prestigious organizations such as the Mayo Clinic, and begun targeting costly health problems such as obesity and premature births.
Yet for all of Wal-Mart's achievements, the story of its immersion in the world of health policy is also a warning about the depth and breadth of one of the thorniest challenges facing the country today.
In attempting to strike a balance between healthy profits and healthy workers, Wal-Mart, like many businesses, still falls short of the comprehensive care that President Obama says he wants for Americans.
To reach near-universal coverage, the largest private employer in the nation relies heavily on the government and other employers to play a role. Of the company's 1.4 million workers, 52 percent are in a Wal-Mart health plan. Despite revenue that is expected to exceed $400 billion for 2008, the company charges its low-wage workers a substantial portion of their income for medical coverage.
Though proud of what it sees as dramatic progress, Wal-Mart itself warns that in a global market with a weakened economy, it cannot -- or will not be able to -- accept annual health-care increases of about 8 percent indefinitely.
"It starts to impact us competitively," said Linda Dillman, the company vice president tapped to oversee the health plan.
To Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union and a frequent Wal-Mart critic, the company's health contributions are not commensurate with its financial success. The moral, he said, is that "volunteerism has its limits."
But to Mark Smith, head of the California HealthCare Foundation, an independent nonprofit focused on health-care quality and efficiency, Wal-Mart's experience provides a different lesson.
"Even a company as big and successful as Wal-Mart cannot possibly solve this problem on its own," he said. "There are limits to what one company can do."
'It Had to Do Something'
It began with an internal memo, union agitators and some awfully bad press.
In fall 2005, the union-sponsored Wal-Mart Watch got its hands on a company memo outlining ways to clamp down on soaring health-care bills. Among the suggestions: Stop hiring unhealthy people.
Frustration with Wal-Mart had been building. Main Streets across the country chafed at the big-box store's arrival; labor activists complained that workers had to wait up to two years to qualify for the company health plan, which in many cases cost nearly 10 percent of the typical $20,000-a-year salary.
Yes, some U.S. companies did not provide any health insurance. But the skimpy Wal-Mart coverage seemed particularly galling compared with the billions in personal wealth amassed by the company's founding family, the Waltons.
The retailer symbolized by a bright-yellow smiley face was suddenly tagged with a red bull's-eye. Unions underwrote two aggressive anti-Wal-Mart campaigns, staffed primarily with Democratic political operatives. Teachers boycotted the back-to-school shopping season.
Several states, including Maryland, considered legislation in 2006 requiring that large employers commit a certain portion of their revenue to employee health care. Though the bills never said so, they were aimed at just one company.
The criticism stung, but more important, it began to affect the bottom line. Between 2000 and late 2005, Wal-Mart's stock fell 27 percent.
"It was hurting them when they tried to open a new store," Smith said. "For normal competitive reasons and its corporate image, it had to do something."
In 2006, then-chief executive Lee Scott appointed Dillman, his technology guru at the time, to take over health care. Though she maintains that Wal-Mart's program was never as bad as opponents suggested, Dillman moved quickly to make changes.
First, the wait to enroll in the health plan was reduced from two years to one for part-time employees and to six months for full-time workers. By the following year, an additional 50,000 workers were eligible.
Next, Wal-Mart put its marketing genius to work, doing sophisticated research on its own personnel.
"Any retailer will tell you that's what they do with their customers," Dillman said in a recent interview. "There are very sophisticated methods of doing this. If you want people to sign up, go find out what they need."
Employees said they wanted more choices, especially low-cost emergency coverage options. Wal-Mart responded with a menu of deductibles, co-payments and maximum out-of-pocket costs. It teamed up with the Internet site WebMD to simplify enrollment, created electronic health records and expanded its $4 generic drug plan from the 350 medications available to customers to more than 2,000 for employees.
Many workers have chosen low-premium, high-deductible plans that analysts say provide less coverage for preventive and primary care. The company tries to mitigate that with an upfront credit of between $100 and $500 that can be used on any medical expense.
"We're seeing utilization on types of care you would hope," such as checkups and the generic drugs, Dillman said. "And they're managing costs at the same time."
From 2007 to 2008, the retailer saw a 78 percent increase in 16-to-24-year-old workers who opted for the high-deductible plans. "It's better to have them in that than to have nothing, which is where most of them were," Dillman said.
Others, such as Cynthia Murray of Hyattsville, say a $180 premium out of a biweekly paycheck that averages $489 after taxes is too steep. Murray and her husband have been without health coverage for the nine years she has worked at Wal-Mart. "I just pray a whole lot I don't get sick," she said.
Seeking the Best Value
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Wal-Mart contracted with the Mayo Clinic for all transplant services, calculating that it could save money by using a single provider with a sterling performance record.
Whether purchasing toasters or transplants, "Wal-Mart looks for value," said Brooks Edwards, director of Mayo's transplant center in Rochester, Minn., one of several Mayo centers around the nation. "One of the most cost-effective things we do is weed out the patients that don't need a transplant."
Where other medical centers might recommend a heart transplant, for example, Mayo might opt for a simpler valve surgery. The strategy of evaluating various treatments, known as comparative effectiveness research, is gaining currency in policy circles. The economic stimulus bill sets aside $1 billion to pursue it.
Wal-Mart's newest initiative, "Life With Baby," is aimed at reducing the rate of premature births among employees, which is double the national average, Dillman said. Mothers-to-be are matched with a registered nurse who counsels them on issues such as diet, stress and smoking. The support continues with lactation instruction and vaccinations for the child's first year.
"Wow, it was really good. It helped me so much," said Cristina Majano, a 23-year-old new mother who works at a Wal-Mart in Northern Virginia.
For her first four years on the job, Majano did not purchase health insurance. "I was younger and didn't think I needed it," she said.
The coverage, even with a $1,000 deductible, is worth it for her and her daughter, Majano said. But she and her husband decided they could not afford to add him to the plan.
Wal-Mart, taking a cue from leading policy analysts, hopes to continue to focus on major cost drivers, moving next to back pain and diabetes.
"This is like the national discussion," Dillman said. "First you've got to get them in the plan, then figure out how to help them take care of themselves, stay healthy and get the care they need."
Appeals court overturns new mountaintop mine rules...TIM HUBER, The Associated Press
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A federal appeals court Friday overturned a ruling requiring more extensive environmental reviews of mountaintop removal, a form of coal mining in Appalachia that blasts away whole peaks.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has the authority to issue Clean Water Act permits for mountaintop removal coal mines without more extensive reviews.
The ruling is a blow to environmentalists and coalfield neighbors who oppose the highly efficient but destructive practice that exposes thin, shallow coal seams. Rocks, dirt and other debris typically are dumped into valleys containing intermittent streams, which is how clean water rules become involved.
The decision is a big win for mine operators. The coal industry says most of the nearly 130 million tons of coal produced at mountaintop mines in Appalachia goes to generate electricity for 24.7 million U.S. customers. Moreover, mountaintop mines employ some 14,000 people across West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Mountaintop permits have slowed to a trickle since March 2007, when the Corps was ordered by U.S. District Judge Chuck Chambers to rescind several permits. It was Chambers' ruling that the appeals court overturned.
"It's Friday the 13th, what do you expect?" said Janet Keating, executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
"We are deeply disappointed," Keating said. Her coalition plans to get together with two other environmental groups involved in the case to determine their next step.
The Corps is reviewing the decision to determine how it affects the agency's process, spokeswoman Peggy Noel said.
"We'll follow the guidance that the court tells us to do," Noel said. "Public health and safety is a top priorty of the Corps."
West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney praised the decision, saying it brings stability to the industry at a time when it faces sluggish demand due to the weak economy.
"It's so reassuring to have the stability of the appeals court that recognizes the professionalism of the Corps of Engineers," Raney said. "They really protected the jobs of the miners."
Appalachian mining giant Massey Energy Co. also praised the ruling, which directly involved several permits issued for the Richmond, Va.-based company's mines.
"Even though we have not had an opportunity to fully review the 4th Circuit's decision, we are pleased with the fact it has rejected Judge Chambers' previous ruling," Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater said in an e-mail. "This should put an end to much of the uncertainty regarding the issuance of surface mine permits."
Massey, the nation's fourth-largest coal producer, and other mine operators have been bracing for the better part of two years for potential production cuts stemming from an inability to get permits.
"Naturally people will be looking at what it says for environmental policy going forward. I think it's also potentially very significant economic news and very good news for the region," National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich said.
Coal companies have been cutting production, closing mines and laying off workers across the country amid anemic demand, particularly for utility coal overseas and coking coal used to fire steel mill blast furnaces. At least 1,310 jobs have been trimmed at various Appalachian mines in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, American consumers are facing higher electric rates as 2009 coal delivery contracts take effect that were signed last year, at a time when prices had risen as much as double from the year before.
"We think this could easily free up more supply," Popovich said. That could help bring down fuel costs for electricity.
Despite Pledges, Package Has Some Pork ...Dan Eggen and Ellen Nakashima. Staff writers Kimberly Kindy and Steven Mufson contributed to this report.
The compromise stimulus bill adopted by House and Senate negotiators this week is not free of spending that benefits specific communities, industries or groups, despite vows by President Obama that the legislation would be kept clear of pet projects, according to lawmakers, legislative aides and anti-tax groups.
The deal provides $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, for example, including money that could benefit a controversial proposal for a magnetic-levitation rail line between Disneyland, in California, and Las Vegas, a project favored by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). The 311-mph train could make the trip from Sin City to Tomorrowland in less than two hours, according to backers.
A new alliance of battery companies won $2 billion in grants and loans in the stimulus package to jump-start the domestic lithium ion industry. Filipino veterans, most of whom do not live in the United States, will get $200 million in long-awaited compensation for service in World War II.
The nation's small shipyards also made out well, with $100 million in grant money -- a tenfold increase in funding from last year, when the federal Maritime Administration launched the program to benefit yards in places such as Ketchikan, Alaska, and Bayou La Batre, Ala.
None of the items in the sprawling $789 billion package are traditional earmarks -- funding for a project inserted by a lawmaker bypassing the normal budgeting process -- according to the White House and Democratic leaders. Republicans also killed or reduced a number of projects they considered objectionable, such as $200 million to re-sod the Mall in Washington and money for a new Coast Guard polar icebreaker.
But many Republicans, anti-tax advocates and other critics argue that the final version of the bill is still larded with wasteful spending and dubious initiatives that will do little to create jobs or spur financial markets. The legislation's sheer size and complexity set off a lobbying spectacle over the past few weeks, as diverse interests including pharmaceutical companies, cement firms and manufacturers of energy-saving light bulbs converged on Washington to elbow for their share.
"You have a moving vehicle, and people are trying to pile on and influence it in any way they can," said David Merritt, a health policy adviser to the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who is now a project director with Newt Gingrich's Center for Health Transformation.
Stimulus advocates say the GOP complaints are overheated and generally focus on projects that Republicans dislike for ideological reasons. Chad Stone, chief economist at the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, defended the bill. "The overwhelming bulk of what is in the package is effective and well-designed stimulus," he said.
Money for high-speed rail ballooned during the stimulus debate, from nothing in the House bill to $2 billion in the Senate version and finally $8 billion in the conference report, which was put together by Reid and other Democratic leaders.
Reid spokesman Jon Summers said in a statement that the transportation secretary "will have complete flexibility as to which program he uses to allocate the funds," but he acknowledged that "the proposed Los Angeles-Las Vegas rail project would be eligible." Summers said the rail funding "was a major priority for President Obama, and Sen. Reid as a conferee supported it."
One of the biggest targets of GOP complaints was a measure in the Senate version of the bill that did not name a recipient but would have provided $2 billion for "one or more near zero emissions power plant(s)." Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and other Republicans say the provision was clearly directed at reviving the FutureGen Alliance project, a proposed "clean coal" plant in Illinois.
Coburn called the item the "largest earmark in American history," but in the end he was able to claim only a partial victory, as the conference bill still contains $1 billion that could be spent on FutureGen.
Another $800 million is set aside for other carbon-capture projects, and a clause allows the money to go to projects that use petroleum coke instead of coal. That would probably benefit a company called Hydrogen Energy, which is jointly owned by British Petroleum and the multinational mining company Rio Tinto and has plans to build a power plant in California.
A provision introduced by freshman Rep. Larry Kissell (D-N.C.), a former textile industry employee, will require the Transportation Security Administration to purchase uniforms manufactured in the United States; most TSA clothing is currently assembled in Mexico and Honduras from U.S.-made fabric. The cost of the requirement is unclear -- the agency spends about $3 million on 12,000 new uniforms each year -- but labor and trade groups argue that it will create 21,000 U.S. jobs.
"We view this as a very inexpensive way to create jobs and also stabilize jobs in place," said Lloyd Wood of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition.