Merced Sun-Star
San Joaquin River battle far from over in Central Valley
Fresh water starts flowing in October, but other issues arise....MARK GROSSI, The Fresno Bee
The revival of the San Joaquin River will officially begin with a shot of fresh water in October -- capping decades of courtroom battles and years of delicate negotiations over funding.
But the wrangling over the state's second-longest river is far from over.
People are only now beginning to discuss other issues, such a proposal by developers in Madera County to pour treated sewage into the river not far from salmon-spawning areas.
Some people also are wondering how to keep downstream water users from siphoning the restoration water. And east-side farmers, who will give up irrigation water for the restoration, want authorities to recapture and return some water to farm fields.
Meanwhile, a lot of people are ready to argue about the exact course of the rebuilt river.
Congress soon is expected to give the green light to $88 million in restoration funding for a settlement in the river lawsuit, which was filed nearly 21 years ago to restore salmon to the river. The full restoration price tag could eventually be 10 times higher.
The restoration would make the river a continuous stream again, connecting a fractured, 153-mile stretch from Friant Dam to the mouth of the Merced River. Beyond the Merced the river has remained a flowing stream to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
With the first revival flows coming this fall, local activists say it's time to consider the river differently.
"It will become a statewide drinking water source. It will become habitat for endangered species and migratory fish," said Chris Acree, executive director of Fresno-based Revive the San Joaquin. "It will become a new recreational source." A lot more people along this 350-mile river will pay closer attention now. Some already have a major criticism of the river restoration: Only a handful of government agencies are directly involved in the planning.
The five state and federal agencies, led by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, provide monthly reports available on the Web. But most people will have to get the real details from thick, environmental documents that will be released later this year.
The interested groups range from landowners near Friant Dam to water agencies more than 150 river miles downstream on the Merced, Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers. They are so-called third parties, but they say they are directly affected.
One such group, represented by the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Authority, includes landowners whose property could be altered drastically in the restoration. The landowners plan to hire engineering consultants to check the government's work, officials said.
"Either you trust the government, or you don't," said authority executive director Steve Chedester. "And we don't. The landowners want to confirm or to verify the plans and, if need be, dispute them." Bureau of Reclamation officials say plans for this project -- the West's largest river restoration -- are coming together as quickly as possible. Officials are separately considering many different stretches of the restoration.
One important stretch is northeast of Dos Palos. It is little more than a withered slough. During big snowmelt years when huge amounts of water pour out of the mountains, the river's water has been sent through a parallel channel called the Eastside Bypass.
Should the restored river go through the bypass, or should federal officials dig a channel along the old river course? Area landowners say they don't think public money should be used to rebuild the old channel when the massive bypass is already built.
The decision will be made as the environmental documentation is completed, said Jason Phillips, bureau project manager based in Sacramento. The bureau's timeline shows any extensive work on that part of the channel would take place in early 2012.
Phillips said this year's release of water -- called an interim flow -- will teach officials a lot about the river channel. Nobody knows how much water the dried river bed will absorb.
"There are hypotheses, but we don't have the data we need yet," he said.
By Dec. 31, 2012, salmon are supposed to be re-introduced into the river. At that point, the river is supposed to be a continuous stream from Friant Dam to the delta.
Fresno-area activists are afraid the river will some day carry water tainted with treated sewage from proposed developments near the river.
Acree of Revive the San Joaquin said his group is a party to a lawsuit against Madera County, which already has approved two developments, the Northshore at Millerton and Tesoro Viejo.
The developers of the two projects would build 8,200 homes along Highway 41 near Millerton Lake. The projects are part of the Rio Mesa area that some day could be home to 100,000 residents.
Acree said the developers need to provide a plan to deal with the treated waste water without flushing it into the river.
"They didn't even give lip service to the river restoration in the EIR," said Acree. "It's like the plan to restore an endangered species does not exist." Madera County officials, who approved the developments, defend the projects, saying they meet tough environmental state standards.
Downstream, the restoration-channel work ends where the Merced River meets the San Joaquin, but possible conflicts continue for another 118 miles to the delta. Farms, cities and industries use the river as it passes through the rest of the Valley.
Many have rights to water from the San Joaquin River, but no one has talked much about the fate of the restoration water once it passes the mouth of the Merced River.
UC Merced to chip in on virtual brain project...Michelle Hatfield, The Modesto Bee
MERCED -- To build the next generation of computer chips, the nation's best technology agencies looked to researchers at the University of California at Merced to be the brains of the operation.
The four-year-old campus is joining four elite universities on a project to develop a computer chip that acts more like neural networks found in animal and human brains.
Leading the UC Merced team is Chris Kello, a new associate professor of cognitive science.
Called cognitive computing, the project is an effort to build a virtual brain. It involves a partnership between IBM and five universities -- UC Merced, Stanford, Cornell, Columbia and Wisconsin -- with $4.9 million in funding through the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Also participating on the UC Merced team are Paul Maglio, adjunct professor of cognitive science and senior manager at IBM; David Noelle, assistant professor; and Marshall Mayberry, postdoctoral researcher in cognitive science.
The first phase involves building an engineering component that acts similar to brain neurons -- the device has to be small and can't use too much power, Kello said. UC Merced's part starts with the second phase and involves analyzing the instrument's intelligence.
"How will we test this virtual brain? We need to get information and intelligence into the brain and then test it," said Kello, 40. "We'll have intelligence benchmarks, similar to IQ tests."
The idea is to train and teach the electronic brain to pass the tests. The overall project could take up to a decade, and end with scientists developing a gadget that will complement today's computers.
Though the project shows how quickly technology is evolving, Kello said the device will not be a full rat or human brain.
"It'll be a device that learns, adapts and performs simple tasks. It'll recognize objects and remember. We want it to be able to respond to changes," he said. "But it is a brain in a jar. It's not connected to anything. It's a virtual brain in a jar."
Los Angeles Times
Could green kill the desert?
If we're not careful, our rush to produce green energy could do irrevocable damage to some fragile California ecosystems.
By Bruce M. Pavlik, professor of biology at Mills College, Oakland, and the author of "The California Deserts: An Ecological Rediscovery."
California's desert lands are in some ways a perfect fit with the renewable energy industries necessary to combat climate change. There's sun. There's wind. There's space.
But without careful planning and regulation, these "climate solutions" could irrevocably damage the planet they are intended to protect.
The biologically rich but arid desert ecosystems are remarkably fragile. Once topsoil and plant life have been disrupted for the placement of solar arrays, wind farms, power plants, transmission lines and CO2 scrubbers, restoration would be cost-prohibitive, if not technically impossible. And widespread desert construction -- even of projects aimed at environmental mitigation -- would devastate the very organisms and ecosystems best able to adjust to a warming world.
Nevertheless, there is a public land rush underway. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is processing more than 180 permit applications from private companies to build solar and wind projects in the California deserts.
One such venture, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, will begin construction this year in a beautiful valley near the California-Nevada border in San Bernardino County. It will occupy 3,400 acres, and that doesn't include the land needed for transmission lines.
Most projects are even larger, averaging 8,000 acres, with a few exceeding 20,000 acres. The total public land under consideration for alternative energy production exceeds 1.45 million acres in this state alone.
The scale of some proposals borders on fantasy. One Columbia University scientist, Wallace Broecker, has proposed installing 60 million CO2 scrubbers, each a 50-foot-tall tower, throughout the world's deserts -- 17 million of them in the United States -- for the purpose of capturing greenhouse gases.
One appeal of locating projects in remote regions is that there isn't as much NIMBYism in those areas, so approvals can be easier to get. But there is another way. Why not install scrubbers in parking garages, skyscrapers, transit tunnels and other existing structures? Existing commercial and residential rooftops, landfills, marginal agricultural lands and mine sites could readily accommodate these green technologies, and we would be creating energy closer to where it is needed.
At this point in the evolution of our ecological psychology, we need to acknowledge the true costs of any energy development. When a dam is built, a river is lost. But people who turn on their tap and draw that water rarely think about the river that was destroyed to produce it. Similarly, if we choose to place our "ugly" industrial technologies in the wilderness, there will be less awareness of the damage, less incentive to conserve.
The out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach to solving such problems exacerbates parochial thinking and reduces the obligation of each citizen to contribute by consuming less, or by allowing solar panels to be installed on rooftops.
Besides, haven't we learned these lessons from the destruction of other valuable ecosystems? We now spend billions of dollars every year to repair levees and restore wetlands that never should have been "reclaimed" in the name of land development.
Although the government should be encouraging alternative energy, the cumulative effects of projects need to be analyzed across the entire desert landscape. Many are within or adjacent to designated wilderness, desert tortoise habitats, archaeological sites and the BLM's areas of critical environmental concern. Roads, rails and aqueducts already harm desert bighorn sheep and other sensitive species while spreading weeds, increasing fire frequency and degrading the life-giving qualities of the native vegetation.
Such large-scale effects cannot be addressed on a project-by-project basis, as is done through the existing environmental review process. We need effective, desert-wide planning that engages the major public and private stakeholders that determine the fate of California desert land.
The costs of industrializing the biologically rich California deserts will be measured in terms of species extinction, ecosystem degradation and the perpetuation of human self-deception.
We know better than to rush. A cautious, informed and integrated approach will secure sustainable, clean energy without sacrificing the future of these precious lands.
Washington Post
Dairy cows head for slaughter as milk prices sour...TRACIE CONE, The Associated Press
TURLOCK, Calif. -- Hundreds of thousands of America's dairy cows are being turned into hamburgers because milk prices have dropped so low that farmers can no longer afford to feed the animals.
Dairy farmers say they have little choice but to sell part of their herds for slaughter because they face a perfect storm of destructive economic forces. At home, feed prices are rising and cash-strapped consumers are eating out less often. Abroad, the global recession has cut into demand for butter and cheese exported from the U.S.
Prices for milk now are about half what it costs farmers to produce the staple, and consumer prices are falling. Unless the market can be bolstered, industry officials project that more than 1.5 million of the nation's 9.3 million milking cows could be slaughtered this year as dairy operators look to cut costs and generate cash.
"This could destroy our dairy infrastructure," said Mike Marsh, CEO of the United Western Dairymen trade association.
Three months ago, mature milkers would sell for $2,500 to another dairy, but with nobody buying, dairymen are selling them on the beef market for only $1,100 each.
It is not just elderly cows that are going to slaughter, said Jon Dolieslager, owner of the Tulare County Stockyard in the heart of California dairy country.
The 262,500 slaughtered nationally in January is 43,500 more than in January 2008. Since September, federal livestock reports show that dairy cow slaughter is up 30 percent, while beef cow slaughter is down 14 percent.
"If milk was worth something, they'd be keeping them," said Dolieslager.
Some dairymen have become so desperate that they are not even bothering to haul to feedlots the newborns whose births keep milk flowing at higher levels.
Investigators in San Joaquin County are trying to determine who dumped 30 dead bull calves on country roads to avoid rendering costs or hauling them to auction, where they fetch $5 each but cost hundreds and hundreds more to bottle feed special formula. The group Farm Sanctuary is offering a $2,000 reward for the culprit.
"Apparently it was someone trying to save money who just dumped them," said Susie Coston, the group's national shelter director.
As of Feb. 2, the price farmers receive for a gallon of milk has been 80 cents a gallon, less than half the $1.65 a gallon the California Department of Food and Agriculture estimates it costs to produce.
"I don't ever remember being able to produce milk at that price," said dairyman Ray Souza, who got into the business in 1963.
The new price was the biggest one-month drop in 54 years in California and doomed cow No. 4424, a fat Holstein who instinctively lumbers to her place in the milk line but has become an economic liability at Souza's dairy.
"She's not giving enough milk," Souza said as he scanned computer records showing output for each of his 900 milkers. "She can't stay here."
The price is set by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and is based on the price paid for powdered milk, where 37 percent of California's milk is sold. Only 14 percent goes into sales as liquid milk.
U.S. milk, butter and cheese, which enjoyed record worldwide sales last year, no longer are in demand because of the triple whammy of decreased international consumption in a falling economy, a stronger dollar that makes exports less attractive and the scare over melamine contamination in Chinese milk.
Those trade issues have coincided with a three-year California drought that has increased the price and availability of alfalfa hay, and corn costs that have doubled because of competition from ethanol producers.
"We need to get supply and demand into alignment as quickly as possible so this economic trainwreck isn't strung out," said Marsh of the industry association.
New York Times
Obama's Stimulus Package
Big Ideas, Grand Plans, Modest Budgets...MICHAEL COOPER...2-15-09
There is no shortage of big dreams or grand schemes as the United States struggles to rebuild itself for the 21st century. But many of the most ambitious projects in the country — a representative sample of which are listed below — stand to get only modest amounts of money, if any, from the economic stimulus package that Congress approved on Friday.
From a public works perspective, the $789 billion stimulus package is unlikely to transform the physical fabric of the nation as the New Deal did when it built hundreds of airports, tens of thousands of bridges, and hundreds of thousands of buildings and miles of roads.
The final plan devotes more than $100 billion to public works projects — but that is only a fraction of the $2.2 trillion that the American Society of Civil Engineers says is needed to put the nation’s infrastructure into a state of good repair. And much of it is likely to be spent on small needs sprinkled throughout the 50 states — repaving a road here, painting a bridge there — rather than on bigger, more transformative, but slower projects. To put the scope of the spending into perspective, think of it this way: the bill will devote about $50 billion to transportation projects, which is about what the federal government authorizes for transportation every year. The money will be welcome, but hardly enough to transform transportation. And since many local governments have curtailed their own construction programs to save money, in some places the stimulus may end up simply keeping public works at their pre-recession pace.
Advocates say they are worried that the plan represents a missed opportunity. “The equation shouldn’t be do we do short-term investment or do we do long-term investment, because we need both,” said Felix Rohatyn, the financier whose new book, “Bold Endeavors: How Our Government Built America, and Why It Must Rebuild Now” (Simon & Schuster, 2009), uses examples like the building of the Erie Canal, the transcontinental railroad and the Interstate System to argue that the nation needs to build for the future with more ambitious, better-planned projects today. “Infrastructure is an investment, not an expense.”
Californians want finally to bring high-speed rail to the United States. Planners want to build bridges to Canada from Detroit, a tunnel for trucks to the Port of Miami and a new one for trains between New York and New Jersey. Transit systems want to expand, ports want more capacity and freight train companies want to untangle bottlenecks on the tracks.
But even with the biggest push for infrastructure spending in years, most of these big-ticket projects are unlikely to get very far from the stimulus alone. Some may not qualify for aid at all. Others will get modest down payments, which they hope will be enough to keep them going. A few may see enough federal money to become reality. Here is a look at 11 ambitious infrastructure projects around the country — some of which have been in the planning stages for decades, and others of which have been identified recently as pressing needs by officials in their regions.
California High-Speed Rail: $45 billion
High-speed trains are increasingly common in Asia and Europe, but they have yet to make it to the United States. Now Californians are trying to change that. In November, California’s voters approved a measure authorizing $10 billion in borrowing to begin work on an 800-mile high-speed train capable of going more than twice as fast as the average speed of the Acela trains on the East Coast, and which could make the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours and 40 minutes. Supporters say that the plan would reduce congestion on highways and at airports and invigorate the economy; skeptics question whether the plan makes economic sense. The final bill includes $8 billion for high-speed rail; but there are 11 regions that could compete for the money, which would at most be a small down payment on what promises to be a costly project.
NextGen Air Traffic Control: $15 billionto $22 billion
With long flight delays increasingly common, many aviation experts argue that a complete overhaul of the air traffic control system is needed. For more than a decade the Federal Aviation Administration has talked about what it calls NextGen — a plan to move from the current radar-based system to satellite navigation, in which airplanes would use G.P.S.-like technology to find their positions and broadcast that information to other planes and to controllers on the ground. Backers say that the new technology would relieve congestion delays by allowing planes to fly closer together and to chart more direct flight paths. But the plan would require substantial investment not only by the government, but by the airlines as well.
California Drinking Water: Tens of billions of dollars
Officials say that a major source of drinking water for about 25 million Californians is at risk. That water currently comes from the delta where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers meet, and the levees that protect the region are more than 100 years old and are vulnerable to earthquakes. A state task force recommended restoring the delta’s endangered habitat and building a new aqueduct to bring water from Northern California to the arid south, without passing through the delta. A similar proposal was voted down in 1982 because northerners viewed it as a water grab by the south, and farmers in the delta region feared losing their water. But the current drought, and climate change, have provided a new sense of urgency. The bill included $50 million that can be used in the delta region, but that is only a tiny fraction of what the state estimates it will eventually need.
Gulf Ports: $1.04 billion for New Orleans; $1 billion for Gulfport, Miss.
Several ports on the Gulf of Mexico have begun ambitious expansion plans, which they say will put them in contention to handle more cargo from Asia after the Panama Canal finishes a widening project that will allow bigger ships through. The Port of New Orleans has a billion-dollar expansion to help anchor the economy of a region still battered by Hurricane Katrina. And the port in Gulfport, Miss., has its own billion-dollar plan to rebuild itself above sea level. It plans to pay for part of it with money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to the dismay of local housing advocates. Proponents say that both plans could save and add jobs in the hurricane-ravaged region, but there have been indications that less cargo is coming in because of the economic downturn, and they would still have to compete with the West Coast ports, which get most of the cargo from Asia, and, closer to home, Houston’s bustling port.
Seattle Highway Tunnel: $4.24 billion, to be paid by the state, the city and the county
The elevated highway that runs along Seattle’s waterfront, the Alaskan Way Viaduct, is considered near the end of its useful life. It has been worn down by more traffic than was anticipated when it opened in 1953, damaged by a past earthquake, and deemed vulnerable should another one hit. Last month, state and local officials in Washington announced that they want to tear it down and replace it with a 1.7-mile tunnel, while strengthening the sea wall and expanding transit in the area. Supporters say the project, which still needs legislative and environmental approval, will make drivers safer while easing access to the city’s waterfront. Skeptics warn about the delays and huge cost overruns Boston faced when it sank its highway in the Big Dig.
Hudson Rail Tunnel: $8.75 billion
At rush hour, the railway tunnels under the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey operate at peak capacity, so there is no way to run more trains back and forth even though the demand is great. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and New Jersey Transit have been planning to build a second tunnel, which they estimate could take 22,000 automobiles off the streets at rush hour. The project has federal approval, and is mostly locally financed. An infusion of federal money could get the project well on its way to reality.
Chicago Rail Network: $2.5 billion
A quarter of the nation’s rail freight rolls through Chicago, but the rail network there has become so snarled that it can sometimes take longer for freight trains to make it through Chicago than to reach Chicago from the West Coast in the first place — slowing the movement of goods across the country and adding to their cost. For years there have been plans to untangle the system, but they have faced problems getting financing. Now some projects are getting started, but there is a long way to go.
Miami Port Tunnel: $1 billion
Trucks cannot reach the bustling Port of Miami, which is on an island, without rattling through downtown Miami. Local officials and developers in downtown Miami want to build a tunnel to the port to relieve that truck congestion. But the project, which was to be built through a public-private partnership, was dealt a serious setback late last year when the state announced that its private partners were having trouble raising money. Local officials would like to see federal aid for the project.
Second Avenue Subway: $4.35 billion
New York is moving ahead with its long-delayed plans to build its first new subway line in generations, restarting a project that was last halted during the 1970s fiscal crisis, leaving unused, unfinished tunnels beneath city streets. Work is going on now, but the question is whether the project can weather yet another fiscal crisis. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is under considerable financial stress and is looking for sources of money to keep its ambitious capital program going forward.
Bridge to Canada: $1.8 billion (U.S. share)
It is one of the nation’s busiest border crossings, but Detroit is linked to Canada only by a tunnel and an 80-year-old privately owned bridge. The United States and Canada are working together to build what they are calling the Detroit River International Crossing, a new six-lane bridge, and last month they got the final environmental clearance from the federal government. (They still need some local government approvals to acquire some land.) But the owner of the current bridge, the Ambassador Bridge, is moving ahead with a plan to build a new, privately owned bridge to replace the one he owns. With border crossings down these days, it is unclear if the Detroit River needs two new bridges, though state officials say it does. And officials say the severely depressed local economy could use the 10,000 jobs they say the public bridge project would generate on the Michigan side of the border.
Dulles Airport Train: $5.2 billion
Sometimes arriving at Dulles International Airport can feel like only half the journey to the nation’s capital: what follows is a 25-mile, $58 cab ride. But last month the federal Department of Transportation gave its approval to a plan to extend Washington’s Metrorail through northern Virginia to the airport by 2015. The first phase of the project already depends on the federal government for $900 million.