Merced Sun-Star
Let comments flood in; Wal-Mart distribution center report is out
Draft document outlines what the effects would be if the warehouse were built...SCOTT JASON
A technical analysis about the proposed Wal-Mart distribution center isn't the best weekend reading, but some will be devouring it nonetheless.
Merced officials on Wednesday released the draft version of the report that chronicles how the proposed 1.1 million-square-foot warehouse will change the city's landscape if it's built.
By the end of the day, the city handed out 59 free CDs and sold seven printed copies of the report.
About three dozen business leaders sported buttons with "Jobs" written in large type surrounded by "Wal-Mart growing our economy."
A handful of the project's opponents showed up to grab copies of the report. Two police officers stood watch to make sure the release went peacefully.
City staff stressed that the presentation about the report's release wasn't a time to discuss opinions on the project. There was only one question asked: "When can we break ground?"
The short answer? Not for a while.
The city will take public comment for 60 days before all the letters go to the consultant firm that wrote the report. It must respond to every comment before releasing the final report.
No one knows how long that will take.
Then the city will hold public hearings about the project. Some will be before the Planning Commission before it heads to the City Council for the big vote to approve or deny the project.
For residents such as Vicki Ramirez, a member of the Merced County Jobs Coalition, nothing should hold up the center.
"Let me make it plain and simple: We need jobs in Merced County," she said. "I see people having trouble feeding their kids and keeping their homes."
Doug Fluetsch, chairman of the coalition, said the center's potential trumps all other issues -- even Merced's bad air days.
"The dialogue needs to happen. The discussion needs to happen, but there's no issue that can overshadow jobs," he said.
Tom Grave, with the Stop Wal-Mart Action Team, was the first person to buy a full printed copy of the report and the appendices, a $90 purchase.
He plans to pore over the information in the coming weeks. "I expect it to be a thorough document and fully identify the impacts," he said.
The city and Wal-Mart have been working to make sure the report's bulletproof and that legal challenges can't hold up in court. It's this report that's sued.
While the law doesn't allow the project to be halted because of incomplete environmental reviews, it can stall progress.
For copies of the report
People can get a copy of the Wal-Mart distribution center's environmental impact report on CD for free at City Hall. Printed copies cost $45. The report's also available at www.cityofmerced.org
Printed copies can also be read at the Merced County Library's main branch, 2100 O St.
For the next 60 days, until April 27, people can comment on the report by sending an e-mail to espinosak@cityofmerced.org, by faxing it to (209) 725-8775 or by mailing Kim Espinosa, planning manager, City of Merced Planning Department, 678 W. 18th St., Merced, CA 95340. Residents must include their full name and address to become part of the public record.
Fresno Bee
West Coast salmon numbers up, but not enough...JEFF BARNARD, Associated Press Writer
GRANTS PASS, Ore. West Coast salmon fishermen can expect another lousy fishing season - the third in a row.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council said Wednesday that there are barely enough chinook returning to California's Sacramento River to spawn a new generation.
That will likely mean no sport or commercial salmon fishing off California and little off Oregon, for fear of unintentionally killing too many Sacramento fish swimming with more prevalent stocks, said Chuck Tracy, head of the salmon section for the Portland-based council.
Even so, returns are forecast to be some of the best ever for coho and chinook returning to Oregon and Washington rivers, particularly the Columbia, which will mean a general improvement in fishing north of Cape Falcon on the northern Oregon Coast and into Washington.
"The only comfort is it's an upward trend, but not upward enough this year to expect anything but closures all the way up to Cape Falcon," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which represents California-based salmon fishermen.
Ocean seasons were generous in 2007, but the catch was poor. In 2008, the seasons were practically shut down coast-wide for fear of wiping out the Sacramento chinook run after it took a sudden drop. Both years Congress voted disaster assistance to salmon fishermen. California has traditionally had the biggest fleet, followed by Oregon and then Washington.
The average economic impact of the fishery dramatically dropped from $66 million between 2003 and 2007 to $6.9 million in 2008.
Last year's collapse was blamed primarily on poor ocean conditions producing little for salmon to eat. Fishermen and conservation groups also pointed to large irrigation withdrawals from the Sacramento Delta as juvenile salmon were migrating to the ocean in 2005 and 2006.
Scientists have said a switch in climatic conditions in recent years has produced more food in the ocean, setting up more abundant salmon returns in 2010.
In coming decades, salmon are expected to have it tougher, as warming temperatures reduce the amount of water stored in mountain snowpacks, diminishing flows in rivers where salmon spend the first part of their lives.
A draft report on 41 potential factors in the Sacramento decline is to be delivered to the council in April, when it meets in Milbrae, Calif., to set the final ocean salmon seasons.
Actual returns regularly fall short of forecasts, but this year's prediction for the Sacramento calls for 122,196 salmon if none are caught by fishermen - just 196 more than the minimum for spawning a new generation.
The Klamath River forecast was also up, but marked the fourth straight year below what is needed for a new generation. Low returns to the Klamath have been a perennial headache for fisheries managers due to dams, logging and poor water quality.
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., said he would work to see that any leftover 2008 disaster assistance is made available to fishermen.
A coalition of 100 outdoor gear and recreational fishing businesses called on President Barack Obama and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., to reverse the policies of the Bush administration on salmon in the Columbia Basin, where 13 salmon runs are on the threatened and endangered species lists.
"With the Obama administration and a new Congress, we now have our best opportunity to end the political and legal deadlock of the last eight years and bring our salmon back from the brink of extinction," Gareth Martins, marketing director for Osprey Packs, said in a statement.
State panel OKs Fresno doctor for two air-pollution boards...E.J. Schultz, Bee Capitol Bureau
SACRAMENTO -- Fresno cardiologist John Telles breezed through a state Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday on his appointment to two air-pollution boards.
The Rules Committee approved Telles with no dissenting votes, nearly a year after Gov. Schwarzenegger appointed him to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District board and the California Air Resources Board.
He is expected to be approved by the full Senate sometime this year.
Telles, a Democrat, replaced Fresno County Supervisor Judy Case. Case, a Republican, was ousted last year by the Democratic-controlled Senate over accusations by environmentalists that she catered to agriculture interests.
Telles was not the favored choice of environmentalists, but they have come to like him.
"Over the past year, Dr. Telles has offered a tremendous amount of oversight and accountability to both boards," Sarah Sharpe, environmental health director for Fresno Metro Ministry, said in testimony.
The Valley air board oversees local air-pollution rules. The state board oversees air-pollution regulations and greenhouse-gas emissions.
Telles fills one of four Valley board positions created by legislation in 2007 to increase the board's size to 15 members from 11. The expansion, pushed by environmentalists, adds two city appointees and two health experts to the board, which has been dominated by county appointees.
The other health slot was filled late last year when Schwarzenegger appointed Henry Forman, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California at Merced.
A city selection committee is still considering candidates for the two new city slots, as well as replacements for two city members who have recently left the board.
UC program in Fresno will help retrain workers...Doug Hoagland
The oldest and the newest campuses of the University of California will launch a new program in Fresno this summer that might help workers switching careers, moving up or trying to hang on to jobs during the recession.
Students can earn certificates of expertise after typically completing six to eight courses in fields such as solar energy and project management. More classes are planned for the fall, officials said.
UC Berkeley, which opened in 1868, and UC Merced, which opened in 2005, will jointly offer the continuing education and professional development program.
Officials from both campuses announced the new program Wednesday at the UC Merced Center on Shaw Avenue, where students will come for classes. They had no estimates about how many students would enroll this summer, but said the center can accommodate 225 to 375 students in the summer and fall.
The two schools started talking 18 months ago about the cooperative venture. It's taken on new urgency as the economy has sunk deeper into recession.
"I wish we could have done it earlier," UC Merced Chancellor Steve Kang said. "It's a sooner-the-better situation."
Students will not earn undergraduate or graduate degrees through the program.
It will take 18 months to two years for students to complete the certificate programs. Summer courses also will include counseling, digital publishing and computer systems and programming.
Courses will cost from $195 to more than $1,000, officials said.
UC Merced eventually will provide some professors and students who have completed doctoral degrees to teach courses.
However, industry experts will do most of the teaching. The UC Berkeley Extension program will oversee the academic content.
UC officials were asked whether their new program will undermine California State University, Fresno, by competing for the same workers who need job training.
"Our intention is absolutely not to undercut the local institutions ... but to complement their offerings," said Diana Wu, dean of UC Berkeley Extension.
UC officials are trying to offer courses not already available at Fresno State or community colleges in the central San Joaquin Valley, Wu said.
Fresno City College has been looking into offering green technology courses, but no decisions have been made, spokeswoman Kathy Bonilla said.
A top Fresno State official said she welcomes the new program.
"There is always room for helping our citizens become more knowledgeable," said Berta Gonzalez, associate vice president in the division of continuing and global education. "If the courses meet the market demand, people will take them."
New-home sales tumble to record low pace in Jan....JEANNINE AVERSA,AP Economics Writer
WASHINGTON New-home sales tumbled to a record-low annual pace in January and there's no relief in sight as mounting damage from the collapsed housing market pushes the country deeper into recession.
The Commerce Department reported Thursday that sales fell 10.2 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 309,000, the worst showing on records going back to 1963. It also was weaker than the pace of 330,000 that economists expected, and shattered the previous all-time monthly low set in September 1981.
Only the Northeast saw sales rise in January from the previous month.
Americans - battered by rising unemployment and dwindling nest eggs - are wary of making big-ticket purchases, such as a home. Even lower mortgage rates haven't broken through this negative mindset.
With nationwide sales sagging, an inventory barometer also ballooned to a record high. The government said it would take 13.3 months at the current sales pace to exhaust supply. That puts even more downward pressure on prices.
The median sales price fell to $201,100 in January, a record 9.9 percent drop from the previous month. The median price is the midpoint, where half sell for more and half for less. The average home price also dropped to $234,600 last month, a 9.8 percent decline from December.
Economists believe home sales this month were probably weak, too.
"The economy may have to stabilize some before buyers feel comfortable re-entering the market," said Abiel Reinhart, economist at JPMorgan Chase Bank.
Fallout from the housing crisis is one of the biggest problems facing the country. It has figured prominently into the U.S. recession, now in its second year. Foreclosures have spiked, financial companies have racked up multibillion-dollar losses and home builders have been clobbered.
Foreclosures are especially high in California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona - states that had once led the housing boom, which went bust several years ago.
At a hearing Thursday, Senate Democrats praised the Obama administration's plan to spend $75 billion from the $700 billion financial bailout fund to keep up to 4 million U.S. homeowners out of foreclosure.
"The previous administration just covered its ears," while lawmakers rang alarm bells about the escalating crisis as early as two years ago, said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. "Now we have one that is willing to call in the fire department."
A prominent Republican, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, was skeptical. He countered that subsidies will go to the same major lenders already receiving billions in taxpayer bailout money.
The administration's plans are "a further bailout to the very banks that helped us get into our current situation," Shelby said.
To help lure buyers, President Barack Obama's $787 billion stimulus package includes an $8,000 first-time homebuyer tax credit.
In January, sales fell 5.6 percent in the Midwest. They dropped 6.5 percent in the South and plunged 28 percent in the West. Sales rose 12.5 percent in the Northeast.
Builders are slashing home construction as skyrocketing foreclosures dump more properties on an already glutted market.
In the long run, the reduction in new projects should aid the housing market's recovery as fewer properties for sale help increase competition and stabilize prices. But at the moment, a stable housing market appears months away.
The National Association of Realtors said Wednesday that sales of existing homes fell 5.3 percent to an annual rate of 4.49 million last month, from 4.74 million in December. It was the weakest showing since July 1997.
New jobless claims jump unexpectedly to 667,000...CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER,AP Economics Writer
WASHINGTON New jobless claims rose more than expected last week and the number of Americans continuing to receive unemployment benefits has topped 5.1 million, fresh evidence the recession is increasingly forcing employers to shed jobs.
The Labor Department said Thursday that first-time requests for unemployment benefits jumped to 667,000 from the previous week's figure of 631,000. Analysts had expected a slight drop in claims.
The 667,000 new claims are the most since October 1982, though the labor force has grown by about half since then. The four-week average of initial claims, which smooths out fluctuations, rose to 639,000, the highest in more than 26 years.
JPMorgan Chase & Co. added to the bad news Thursday, saying that it would eliminate about 12,000 jobs as it folds in the operations of failed savings and loan Washington Mutual Inc.
Separately, U.S. manufacturers saw orders for big-ticket goods plunge by a larger-than-expected 5.2 percent in January as global economic troubles cut demand from customers at home and abroad.
The latest report on U.S. factory activity, released by the Commerce Department, showed orders falling for a record sixth straight month. The previous record of four months came in 1992.
And new home sales tumbled 10.2 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 309,000 last month, the worst showing on government records going back to 1963.
The median sales price fell to $201,100 in January, a record 9.9 percent drop from the previous month. The median price is the midpoint, where half sell for more and half for less. But even lower prices and low mortgage rates haven't ended the housing market slump.
All told, it points to more dismal news for an economy stuck in a negative cycle, where consumers scale back purchases as jobs vanish, home prices drop and stock portfolios shrink. Those factors fuel more job cuts by profit-starved businesses.
Companies are "becoming extremely cautious and ... shelving their capital spending plans and working with the minimal possible work force," said Zach Pandl, an economist at Normura Securities International.
Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at the IHS Global Insight consulting firm, said: "We have been looking for signs that the economy's rate of decline might be slowing, but can't find any."
The stock markets shook off the bad news and rose on hopes that the Obama administration is setting aside up to $750 billion to aid the U.S. financial services industry. The Dow Jones industrial average added about 80 points and broader indices also rose in midday trading.
Meanwhile, the number of people receiving unemployment insurance for more than one week also increased more than expected to 5.1 million. That's the fifth straight week the figure has set a new record-high on data going back to 1967, and compared with only about 2.8 million people a year ago.
As a proportion of the work force, the number of people continuing to receive benefits has reached its highest point since July 1983.
An additional 1.4 million people were receiving benefits under an extended unemployment compensation program approved by Congress last year, as of Feb. 7, the latest data available. That brings the total number of jobless benefit recipients to roughly 6.5 million.
The increase in continuing claims is an indication that many newly laid off workers are having difficulty finding jobs.
Economists consider jobless claims a timely, if volatile, indicator of the health of the labor markets and broader economy. A year ago, initial claims stood at about 359,000.
The labor market has deteriorated rapidly in recent months. Employers cut a net total of nearly 600,000 jobs in January, the highest monthly tally since 1974, sending the unemployment rate to 7.6 percent. Many economists expect the rate to reach 9 percent by the end of this year, even with the passage of President Barack Obama's $787 billion stimulus package.
More job losses were announced this week. The NFL said Wednesday that commissioner Roger Goodell has taken a 20 percent pay cut and the league dropped 169 jobs through buyouts, layoffs and other reductions. Spartanburg, S.C.-based textile maker Milliken & Co. said it would cut 650 jobs at facilities worldwide, while jeweler Zale Corp. said it will close 115 stores and eliminate 245 positions.
On Monday, troubled flash memory maker Spansion Inc. said it will lay off about 3,000 employees and computer chip maker Micron Technology Inc. announced it will slash as many as 2,000 workers by the end of August.
Among the states, New Jersey had the biggest increase in jobless claims for the week ending Feb. 14, a jump of 2,093 that it attributed to layoffs in the service, transportation and manufacturing industries. The next largest increases were in Virginia, Rhode Island, Vermont and South Dakota.
California saw the largest drop in claims, a decline of 16,550, which it attributed to fewer layoffs in service industries. Drops of 4,000 or more also were reported in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Illinois and New York.
Tulare Voice
Agri-Center Has 'Moved Past' Racetrack
Tulare - International Agri-Center officials say they are no longer a party to the racetrack project that developer Bud Long and the Tulare Motor Sports Complex L.P. have proposed and have left the door open only slightly to entering into another sale agreement with them.
Jerry Sinift, general manager, and Chief Financial Officer Fred Foster said Friday the Agri-Center was 100 percent behind making the deal come to fruition, but a lack of commitment and communication on the developer's part prompted it to end the escrow Jan. 20.
Tulare Motor Sports Complex L.P. entered into the escrow in June 2007 to purchase 350 acres of Agri-Center land that is key to the 711-acre project, which would include a NASCAR-level racetrack, a drag strip, hotels and other amenities.
The Agri-Center's land sits in the middle of the proposed project and the two parties were negotiating shared use of both facilities.
"Our motivation was the hotels," Sinift said. He explained the Agri-Center does not have the money to develop them on its own and they are key to the future of World Ag Expo, the February event that organizers hail as the largest of its kind in the world.
Despite the keen desire to have the hotels, the pending sale of the land is dead and the Agri-Center is talking with other groups about purchasing the land, Sinift and Foster said.
"We've move past this project. We're moving down the road," Sinift said.
Should the Motor Sports group still want the land, a new sales agreement would have to be negotiated and Foster said it would be much tougher today to come to an agreement than it was two years ago.
"There are some new issues," Foster said, explaining the creditability of the developers, a changed economy and other issues now cloud the sale.
"We would sit down and talk. The process would start all over again," Sinift said.
The City of Tulare had expected the Tulare County Local Agency Formation Commission to conduct a public hearing on March 4 to consider the its request to annex the land needed for the motor sports project, but the Agri-Center's decision may make that process difficult.
The project faces other obstacles as well, including lawsuits filed by Tulare County and the Sierra Club over the environmental impact report. A Fresno bank also has filed a lawsuit against the developer over a $1 million dispute.
Despite these complications, general TMSC partner Bud Long of Fresno told the Business Journal last week he intends to break ground on the project by early summer. The developers say the project will infuse millions of dollars into the local economy and create thousands of jobs in the county.
Sale History
Sinift and Foster said that while the Agri-Center board's vote to sell the land for the racetrack was not unanimous in early 2007, once the decision was made it was committed to the sale and project.
The sale would have benefited the Agri-Center in several ways, including allowing it to pay down debt, Sinift said.
"When the decision (to sell) was made our board was behind it. Our message never changed," Sinift said.
Foster agreed: "We've stepped up to the line all the way through." Escrow on the 350 acres had a Dec. 31, 2008, closing deadline and when it became apparent that could not be met, the developers asked for an extension on the escrow.
The developers had put $10,000 down on the multi-million dollar transaction, but the escrow required a payment of $240,000 within 24-hours of the close or the Dec. 31 deadline to keep it going, Foster said.
"We agreed to modify the agreement with an extension of 120 days if he paid the $240,000," said Foster, adding the offer was made 60 days prior to the escrow deadline.
The developers asked for a lesser amount, but Sinift and Foster said they could not get them to negotiate and all contacts during this period were initiated by the Agri-Center.
"The board said we've given this guy (Long) plenty of time. We had to chase him down every time [to discuss the escrow]," Foster said.
The escrow with the Agri-Center ended January 20.
"We really haven't had any conversation with him since the Jan. 20 deadline,” Sinift said.
Attempts to contact Long and one of his representatives for comment were unsuccessful.
The developer, according to the Agri-Center, failed to deliver on several promises, including having the land removed from Williamson Act protection. Such a move would increase property taxes and couldn't be reversed if the project fell through.
The Agri-Center sought the money to cover those costs, along with legal costs, the two officials said.
They also said Long promised to bring NASCAR officials to Tulare to make an announcement about the track and to bring NASCAR drivers as well. Neither has happened.
Sinift said the developers also promised he would be kept informed and made a part of the planning process, but that did not happen.
Agri-Center officials said they also were told NASCAR was looking to get out of racing at the Fontana track—site of this past weekend's Sprint Cup race—but they have since learned NASCAR is investing several million dollars to upgrade that facility.
The economy also has become a factor.
Two years ago a half billion dollar project seemed a good idea, "but today it doesn't make sense," Foster said.
Valley Voice
Jump Start for High Speed Rail
Visalia EIR Hearing Set for March
California - Passage of a state budget last week and inclusion of $8 billion in federal stimulus funding for high speed rail is helping to launch work on the much-discussed bullet train connecting northern and southern California. The proposed 220 mph train could make stops at a proposed Visalia or Hanford station.
The governor's signature on the budget will enable the California High Speed Rail Authority to start selling its voter-approved $9 billion worth of bonds as well as offering plans to use up to $2 billion in federal stimulus money for specific projects on the rail route that can be designed or built by September 2012.
Valley Maintenance Station
One of those projects could be purchase of land and construction of a heavy maintenance station in the Central Valley based on competitive grants. The rules on those grants through the state Department of Transportation should be available in 120 days, says Quentin Kopp who chairs the California High Speed Rail Authority.
Not wasting any time to begin environmental work on a key leg of the high speed rail route, five Central Valley community meetings are planned in coming weeks – so-called scoping sessions for the public to tell planners what they consider important when building the alignment from Bakersfield to Merced, says Eric VonBerg, consultant to the Rail Authority.
“We want to invite the public to provide input at our Visalia meeting March 24 from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Visalia Convention Center “and the next day in Fresno, said VonBerg. The input would guide the Authority as it designs the route through the Central Valley. He added testimony offered at the session will help guide the environmental assessment on the project. The EIR won't be officially launched until June.
Where's the Stop?
With that information in hand, VonBerg hopes to pare down the number of alignments and station stops proposed in the Visalia/Hanford area from five to two or three (see map). Those alignments assume trains from Bakersfield to Fresno would stay on the BNSF route or veer east to connect to the UP (Highway 99) rail route as they come into Tulare County. One alternate also includes running on the Highway 99 alignment.
The proposed station stops are all near Highway 198 between Hanford and Highway 99 or just north of Tulare on Highway 99.
VonBerg says the Central Valley is key to testing of the high speed rail technology with plans to build this leg first. “We will let the competitive train makers test their equipment” on this leg where they can more easily get up the 220 mph speed in the wide open country here.
Complicating plans for the Visalia stop is a desire to run trains as fast as possible connecting L.A. to the Bay Area. But sources say only some of the trains traveling every day would stop at a Visalia station. Those trains would need a long enough parallel tracking to slow down over several miles and speed back up before stopping in Bakersfield or Fresno.
Visalia and Tulare County lobbied hard for the Authority to consider a rail stop here as locals pointed to the fact that the population centers on the east side of the Valley need to be serviced by this new public statewide transportation system. Not helping any was the fact that Tulare County voters opposed the successful rail bond in the November election.
Besides the federal stimulus money and the state bonds, California is hoping for more federal money earmarked for 11 corridors nationwide, including California in the $23 billion measure pending in the U.S. Senate.
California Rail Authority vows to raise about a third of the money through private investment to build what is now expected to be a $45 billion high speed rail system.
Besides California passengers, some freight component is being considered, including possible special (UPS/FEDX) package express trains or cars and even cars carrying perishables like high-value fruit overnight to the large metro area from the Valley. That could make it attractive to ship via train from the industrial parks and packing facilities of Tulare and Kings counties.
Sacramento Bee
Senators delay confirmation of California Fish and Game chief...Matt Weiser
State senators Wednesday postponed the confirmation of Fish and Game Director Donald Koch, saying a hearing on the matter raised bigger issues about the department itself – and how regulators are managing California's beleaguered environment.
The Senate Rules Committee instead wants to question Koch's boss, Natural Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman, about whether the Schwarzenegger administration is truly committed to protecting the state's waterways and fish species.
"People respect you, and rightfully so," committee Chairman Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, told Koch. "But it's not just about you. It's about the direction of the department."
Koch was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in April 2008. A 30-year veteran of the department, Koch is former director of the Fish and Game's North Coast region and came out of retirement to accept its top position.
"Senator Steinberg and Secretary Chrisman have a great relationship, and we look forward to talking in the next few weeks," said Sandy Cooney, spokesman for the state's Natural Resources Agency.
The decision to put off Koch's confirmation came after a three-hour hearing in which little direct opposition emerged to Koch's appointment. In fact, more than a dozen witnesses spoke in his favor.
"The association believes that with Mr. Koch, the department will be in very good hands," said Anthony Thomas, vice president of government affairs for the California Forestry Association.
But many also raised concerns about whether Koch, even with the best intentions, would be able to do right by the state's environment.
Koch steps into the Fish and Game spotlight amid great turmoil in the department and throughout the state.
Several witnesses complained the department has failed to fulfill its law-enforcement responsibilities, whether by not hiring enough game wardens or by not asserting its permit authority over matters such as timber harvesting and stream alterations.
Of particular concern to some was the department's recent refusal to halt recreational suction-dredge mining, which the department's own scientists assert damages fish habitat. Another raised by several witnesses is inadequate protection of endangered salmon populations.
Few speakers blamed Koch for these problems. But they said the department has been starved of the money and authority it needs to carry out its responsibilities.
"It's tragic our state professes to be a leader in the 'green' movement, but will not hire or maintain enough staffing to protect our natural resources," said Jerry Karnow, a game warden and legislative liaison to the California Fish and Game Wardens Association. "At this time, the wardens association will not offer an endorsement of any director appointed by this governor."
Karnow noted the department employs only about 220 field-level game wardens to police wildlife crimes statewide. And last week, more than 90 of them got layoff notices as part of the administration's effort to balance the state budget.
Whether those layoffs go forward remains unclear.
"You may have a good man in a bad department," said Zeke Grader, executive director of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
Despite salmon's rebound, California unlikely to allow fishing...Mike Taugher...Contra Costa Times
WALNUT CREEK, Calif -- WALNUT CREEK, Calif. - Salmon fishing off California is probably headed for closure again this year even though salmon runs elsewhere on the West Coast rebounded nicely from a widespread decline.
From the Columbia River in Washington to the Klamath River in northern California, federal regulators said they anticipate healthy runs this fall and plenty of fish in the ocean.
But the traditional workhorse of California's salmon fishery, the Sacramento River's fall-run chinook, remains low. That is likely to mean that any fishing season off the coast of California and nearly all of Oregon will be sharply curtailed or banned.
"It's not an entire West Coast thing. It's a California and most of Oregon thing," said Chuck Tracy, a salmon scientist for the Pacific Fishery Management Council.
That stands in contrast to conditions last year, when all of the West Coast's salmon runs dropped severely. Fishing off most of the coast was shut down for the first time in history, prompting a federal disaster declaration and $170 million in federal aid to fishermen and fishing businesses.
Scientists say a natural variation in northern Pacific sea temperatures had been bad for salmon in recent years but that those conditions have reversed and are now very favorable. Because of that change, it is possible that 2010 will be a good year for California salmon.
The report released Wednesday projects 122,200 Sacramento fall-run salmon will return to spawn this year, which is twice as many as returned last year but just barely within the target range of 122,000 to 180,000 fish. Another way to look at that figure: It provides, at best, 200 fish for all anglers off of California and most of Oregon.
"They will likely have in-river sport fishing (in the Klamath.) That's the only thing these numbers guarantee," said Duncan MacLean, a salmon fisherman from Half Moon Bay, Calif., who represents California's commercial fishermen on an advisory panel to the council.
Because salmon live about three years and spend most of that time in the ocean, their numbers can rebound quickly given enough food in the sea and healthy rivers and spawning grounds.
For months, anglers and environmentalists have been buzzing about the low numbers of salmon that returned to the Sacramento River last fall, but Wednesday's report is the first official estimate on numbers expected this fall.
Though the numbers remain low, the fact that even the Sacramento River run was expected to double was encouraging, according to one of the state's leading fisheries biologists.
"That's actually good. Ocean conditions have been good," said Peter Moyle, a professor at University of California-Davis. "We're starting from pretty low numbers to begin with. The hatcheries have been cranking them out like mad."
The decline has been blamed mostly on an ocean cycle that had been producing less food until 2007.
"They didn't have anything to eat," said Churchill Grimes, director of a federal fisheries science laboratory in Santa Cruz, Calif., and the co-leader of a work group appointed last year to investigate the cause of the West Coast's salmon collapse.
"We're not for a minute saying we don't understand that the cause of the demise of the Central Valley salmon is death by a thousand cuts," Grimes added.
Those cuts in California's rivers and Delta include: dams that block fish from migrating to colder spawning grounds, pollution, habitat degradation, water diversions and reliance on hatcheries for salmon, Grimes said.
Hatcheries tend to produce fish that are genetically similar and so those fish tend to behave similarly. That can lead to wild populations swings, both up and down, Grimes said.
The council is gearing up to set fishing limits for salmon along the West Coast by early April.
Folsom, San Juan areas order severe water rationing...Matt Weiser
More than 400,000 people in the Sacramento region are now living under severe water rationing orders in response to California's worst drought in a generation, and more are likely to join them.
On Wednesday, both the San Juan Water District and the city of Folsom ordered all their water customers to immediately reduce consumption by 20 percent. The order is backed by "water cop" patrols and fines for repeat offenders.
They join Roseville, which imposed a similar requirement last week.
All three are under unique pressure in the region because they depend on pipelines tapping Folsom Lake. Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the lake, warned its urban customers they will get only 50 percent of normal water deliveries because this winter looks likely to create a third straight year of drought.
Folsom Lake stands at only 67 percent of average capacity for this time of year. Reservoirs statewide are in a similar condition, and many water agencies have had rationing orders in place for months.
Last week, state and federal water agencies urged all Californians to immediately cut their water use by 20 percent, whether they are required to do so or not. As the drought worsens, it's likely that more capital-area water agencies will respond with mandatory rationing orders.
In Folsom and parts of suburban Sacramento served by the San Juan Water District, new rules mean water cops will be out enforcing water-waste prohibitions. Leaks must be capped, no hosing of decks or pavement is allowed, and water may be served in restaurants only on request.
"We have to reduce our water uses by 20 percent right now," said Shauna Lorance, general manager of the San Juan district, which serves its own customers as well as Citrus Heights, Orangevale, Fair Oaks and part of Folsom. "Despite the recent rain, we're facing dangerously low water supplies."
The mandates are necessary because the Folsom Lake intakes serving these agencies could become ineffective if the lake level continues dropping. They are also concerned about looming spring weather and higher temperatures, which usually trigger a spike in water demand.
Both San Juan and the city of Folsom are in "Stage 3 Water Warning" conditions. In Folsom, this means customers may water landscaping only two days a week, and only between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m. For odd-numbered addresses, those days are Tuesday and Saturday; for even numbers, it's Wednesday and Sunday.
For San Juan customers, the irrigation requirements are a bit simpler.
"At this point, nobody should be irrigating," Lorance said.
Next month, however, the district is likely to enforce twice-weekly watering limits.
The two agencies also prohibit using hoses without shutoff nozzles, and no water may be used for construction purposes unless approved in advance.
In Folsom, first-time violators get a warning. A second violation within one month could result in the customer getting their water shut off. A third violation within six months brings fines.
"If we do not achieve voluntary compliance through personal contacts and written warnings, we will impose penalties," Folsom City Manager Kerry Miller warned in a written statement.
Folsom Lake is one of the principal recipients of water from Sierra Nevada snowpack. While recent storms have piled up the snow, it hasn't lowered the state's drought concerns.
That snowpack, the state's most important water bank, stands at just 76 percent of average and is even lower in the northern Sierra, home to the state's largest reservoirs.
State climatologists estimate there is only a 10 percent chance the Sierra Nevada snowpack will be restored to "normal" levels with the time remaining in the winter season. Even if normal snowfall does arrive, officials say it won't be enough to break the drought because reservoirs are so depleted.
Residents throughout the Sacramento region can obtain water conservation tips and rebates, and schedule a free water audit, by contacting the Regional Water Authority at www.rwah2o.org" target="_blank">http://www.rwah2o.org or (916) 967-7692.
U.S. plans to ensure solvency for 19 banks...Kevin G. Hall, McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON – Taking the wraps off its much anticipated bank-rescue plan, the Obama administration Wednesday announced that it will provide a virtually unlimited solvency guarantee to the nation's 19 largest banks.
Shortly after Treasury unveiled details of its plan, President Barack Obama appeared before TV cameras with congressional leaders to launch what he hopes will be a quick move to replace what he called a 20th century financial regulatory system.
"This financial crisis was not inevitable," Obama said, noting that his goal wasn't to inhibit the free market but to regulate it better to prevent a repeat of the global meltdown now occurring.
Wall Street showed a little resilience as investors got answers to some of their questions about banks, the Associated Press said.
The major indexes closed down about 1 percent Wednesday but recovered from much steeper losses early in the day, continuing the volatile trading that has buffeted the market.
"We're definitely in a bottoming process of the market, but it's not coming as quickly as some people would like," said Anthony Conroy, managing director and head trader for BNY ConvergEx Group.
According to AP, the Dow Jones industrial average ended down 80.05, or 1.1 percent, at 7,270.89 after rising 236 points on Tuesday and falling 251 on Monday.
The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 8.24, or 1.1 percent, to 764.90, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 16.40, or 1.1 percent, to 1,425.43. The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 11.04, or 2.7 percent, to 401.44.
While investors appeared to cheer the confidence-boosting design of the Capital Assistance Program, it may prove less popular with taxpayers because it amounts to a blank check to ensure that the top banks – those with assets over $100 billion – remain solvent.
The plan works like this: Through the end of April, federal regulators will pore over the books of the 19 largest banks, such as Citigroup, Bank of America, Wells Fargo. They'll be looking at conventional measures like the composition of a bank's cash on hand and at unconventional ones, such as how financial firms are valuing complex and opaque investments that are referred to as toxic assets.
The idea behind the so-called stress tests is to gauge whether the banks have enough capital to cope with a more severe downturn than the present one – a downturn in which the economy contracts by 3.3 percent and the unemployment rate tops 10 percent. That's far from the worst-case scenarios that some forecasters predict.
"Supervisors will work with institutions to estimate the range of possible future losses and the resources to absorb such losses over a two-year period," said a joint statement from four federal bank regulators, the Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Office of Thrift Supervision.
At the end of the exercise, if it's determined that banks lack enough capital to weather such a storm, they'll be given six months to raise more capital from private investors or to ask for a capital buffer from the government.
"The more specificity, the less uncertainty, the more it does provide banks an opportunity to raise private capital … is frankly the right way to go. It clearly is a time frame that I think is reasonable," said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist for PNC Financial Services, one of the 19 firms that will be put through the stress test.
If a bank is unable to raise private capital and needs to get capital from the federal government, it would do it in exchange for "convertible mandatory preferred shares." They could be converted into common stock on an as-needed basis, which would inject new capital into the bank. The government would become a shareholder in the company through its ownership of common stock.
The option to convert the preferred shares into common shares is a change in the rescue program designed to give the government greater flexibility in managing its assistance, the AP reported. The conversions would give the government larger ownership stakes and dilute current shareholders. That has raised concerns the government could ultimately take over, or nationalize, ailing banks, AP said.
The administration's plan has two goals. One is to ensure that banks have adequate capital cushions to withstand any downturn.
The other goal is to restore investor confidence by showing that these big financial firms have access to as much money as they need, because the government is willing to invest as needed.
How much will it cost? No one is saying.
There's no price tag on the CAP, at least until the stress tests are over in April.
San Francisco Chronicle
Sources: Obama cuts funds for Nevada nuclear dump...H. JOSEF HEBERT, Associated Press Writer
President Barack Obama is taking the first step toward blocking a nuclear waste dump at Nevada's Yucca Mountain by slashing money for the program in his first budget, according to congressional sources.
Obama's budget to be announced Thursday will eliminate virtually all funding for the Yucca project with the exception of money needed for license applications submitted last year to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"The Yucca Mountain program will be scaled back to those costs necessary to answer inquiries from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission while the administration devises a new strategy toward nuclear-waste disposal," the Energy Department will say as part of the budget document, said the sources, who asked not to be identified because the document had not been made public.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who has fought the Yucca dump for years, said Obama's decision to cut funding "represents our most significant victory to date in our battle to protect Nevada from becoming the country's toxic wasteland."
The site at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, has been under consideration for a quarter-century, although Nevada officials have argued that the volcanic ridge line is not the most suitable place to store 70,000 tons of reactor waste from commercial power plants.
Obama during his presidential campaign said Yucca Mountain has not been shown to be the best site based on the science, and he promised to review the project.
Earlier this week, House and Senate Democrats cut Yucca Mountain funding for the remainder of this fiscal year to $288 million, the lowest in recent years. Obama is not expected to provide a specific funding level in his budget, which instead will provide a general outline of spending for the 2010 fiscal year beginning in October.
By cutting the waste program, said Reid in a statement, Obama has taken "a critical first step toward fulfilling his promise to end the Yucca Mountain project ... President Obama recognizes that the proposed dump threatens the health and safety of Nevadans and millions of Americans."
Obama is expected to establish a commission to examine alternatives to Yucca Mountain, even as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission continues to consider the license application for the waste repository that was submitted by the Bush administration last year.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu has said he has no plans to withdraw the license application, a move that could draw lawsuits from the nuclear industry.
The NRC has up to four years to review the application. The Bush administration had hoped to have the Yucca dump available for waste shipments in 2020.
In a report to Congress in December, the Bush administration dismissed suggestions that reactor waste be kept at temporary storage sites at government facilities, an option that Obama has suggested. To keep waste in temporary storage Congress would have to change the 1982 nuclear-waste law that cited Yucca Mountain as the only future waste repository.
Reactor spent fuel is kept in pools and in concrete enclosures at reactor sites.
The government has estimated the Yucca Mountain project's total costs at $96.2 billion. About $13.5 billion already has been spent.
Congress urged to change century-old mining law...HOPE YEN, Associated Press Writer
Contradicting a Barack Obama campaign position, a former transition team official said mining companies could pay federal royalties of up to 8 percent for gold, silver and other hard-rock mining on public lands.
John Leshy, who served on the president's Interior Department transition team, told a House panel Thursday that revisions to a 137-year-old hard-rock mining law were long overdue. He said the government should reinstate environmental restrictions for hard-rock mining on public land that were wrongly abandoned by the Bush administration, contending that legislation that would impose environmental controls and first-ever royalty fees would not hurt the industry.
"Gold is, and has been for quite a long time, a very profitable industry," Leshy, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law, told the House Natural Resources subcommittee. "Its current position is indeed enviable in comparison to the economic carnage currently being visited across much of the American economy."
He said the industry "can readily absorb the modest royalties levied."
Leshy also expressed support for legislative provisions that would direct the Interior secretary to veto any mining proposal that causes substantial environmental harm. As the Interior Department's top lawyer in the Clinton administration, Leshy issued a 1999 legal opinion that said such mining proposals must be blocked by the department under current law — only to see it reversed during the Bush administration.
The mining industry is citing the declining economy as the latest reason to block congressional efforts to update the General Mining Act of 1872. That law was signed by President Ulysses Grant to help develop the West's mineral deposits in the 19th century.
Under the law, private companies haven't paid royalties to taxpayers for an estimated $245 billion worth of minerals extracted from public lands in more than a century. It also allows companies to buy public land for as little as $2.50 an acre.
Since Obama took office, the Interior Department has said the 1872 law should be updated based on a consensus reached between the environmental and mining communities.
Legislation introduced last month by Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, calls for an 8 percent gross royalty on mineral production from new mines on public lands and a 4 percent gross royalty on mines that are already in operation.
A similar mining reform measure passed the House 244-166 in 2007, but failed to make it out of a Senate committee due partly to opposition from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and a veto threat by then-President George W. Bush.
Mining is worth $5 billion yearly to Nevada, and Reid, a gold miner's son, says the proposed royalties are too high.
In November 2007, candidate Obama told reporters in Nevada that the measure was too burdensome on industry and could end up costing miners jobs in Nevada and other Western states. He said he hoped to find a compromise between environmental protection and a healthy mining industry.
"Given the difficulties that the industry is already having in maintaining its operations, I think it is important for us not to move with royalty payments that are so significantly higher than they were previously," Obama said at the time.
Sheri Eklund-Brown, chair of the Elko County board of commissioners in Nevada, told the House panel Thursday that the mining industry provides the highest-wage jobs in the state, and "today no community can have enough high-wage jobs."
Leshy said gold has more than tripled in value against the U.S. dollar since April 2001 to about $1,000 an ounce, more than double the average cost of production.
The majority of the federal lands where hard-rock mining operations occur are in 12 Western states: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
S.F. pushes PG&E on bay sediment toxicity probe...Robert Selna
Hazardous chemicals in bay sediment near San Francisco's single remaining large power plant threaten the health of people and marine life, yet Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has been slow to investigate the problem, according to Port of San Francisco officials and city leaders.
The carcinogenic chemicals are byproducts of coal tar, a thick, dark, gooey substance left over from industrial uses at the eastern waterfront site. Much of them came from the manufacturing of gas that lit the city's homes and street lights in the 1800s and is not related to current power-generating operations.
The large coal tar deposits and other compounds pollute the soil onshore, and the tar has oozed from the shoreline into the bay over the years.
The company knew about the contamination for at least a decade and cleaned up some of the land and covered up other sections so it didn't pose an immediate health risk to people who work there, according to a Chronicle review of documents provided by PG&E and interviews with utility officials.
Yet independent toxic chemical experts say they have no doubt that the contaminants have been migrating from the soil to the bay sediment for years in concentrations that are unsafe for marine life and humans. PG&E only now is starting to fully study that issue.
The area is not a popular swimming spot, but people have long fished from a nearby pier and the shoreline. Among other potential problems, eating fish exposed to the chemicals could cause cancer in people, the experts say.
"All I can say is that I wouldn't eat any of the fish myself," said John Fetzer, a former research chemist for Chevron and an expert in the coal tar contaminants called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs. "Even if the fish don't develop cancers, they accumulate them (the chemicals) in their fatty tissues."
Delay alleged
Port of San Francisco officials want PG&E to move more quickly to analyze the sediment and remove it if necessary. They are calling for state regulators to impose strict deadlines.
Sophie Maxwell, the San Francisco supervisor who represents the area, said PG&E has dragged its feet.
"When PG&E wants to do something faster, they manage," Maxwell said. "It's always an excuse to say that you're following the regulations, but when you want to move on something more quickly, you streamline the process."
PG&E representatives say they are cooperating with the port and want to resolve any environmental problems. Based on previous studies of the shoreline, the company does not believe that the coal tar-related chemicals are moving into the bay. They acknowledge, however, that without more research, there is no way to know for sure.
"We're trying to understand the source of the contaminants in the samples," said PG&E spokesman Joe Molica. "We're trying to characterize where the contaminants came from so that we can come up with a cleanup plan ... and to understand what impact our previous operations created."
The port owns property on and off the shore east of the Potrero Power Plant site and at Pier 70, which abuts the property to the north. The port has plans to eventually develop the long-dormant Pier 70 area with offices, restaurants, shops and parks.
Port officials say that coal tar-related chemicals were found on their side of the property line and believe that they traveled in groundwater from the power plant.
Toxics found in bay
While state regulators note that roughly 125 former manufactured-gas plants exist in the state, the San Francisco site is the only one located on a natural shoreline. Some other old plants are on waterfronts, but they have bulkheads that act as barriers between the polluted upland soil and the water.
Fetzer was hired by the city to review reports completed by environmental consultants in 2000 and 2001. He said those reports showed extremely high levels of toxics in the offshore mud.
"The levels in the sediment were roughly 100 times what the Environmental Protection Agency suggests for soil and drinking water," Fetzer said.
Contamination has likely increased over the years because the coal tar-related compounds continue to seep into the bay, he said.
"You have almost an infinite supply of stuff leeching out of there unless something gets done," Fetzer said. "What's on the site will keep going out into the bay."
The port argues that PG&E has tried to downplay the relationship between coal tar under the soil and similar contamination in the bay sediments.
"The connection between the onshore contamination and sediments seems like a logical conclusion," said Jay Ach, manager of regulatory and environmental affairs for the port.
PG&E's Molica counters, however, that other industrial operations could be to blame for any chemicals found in the bay.
State water pollution regulators are satisfied that PG&E is making reasonable progress in addressing the problem, so they have not demanded timelines for studies and possible cleanup. Port officials want specific deadlines.
PG&E responsible
Although PG&E is legally responsible for the coal-tar cleanup, it sold the land and power plant in the late 1990s. The diesel-burning plant is now owned by Mirant Corp. and is the center of a long-standing dispute among city officials over whether it should be closed. Some officials have pushed for cleaner, city-owned generators that would still run on fossil fuel. Others have called for retrofitting the current power plant and keeping it open while alternative power options are explored.
In addition, Supervisor Maxwell joined then-Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin and City Attorney Dennis Herrera last month in writing to the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board. They threatened legal action if the board did not stop Mirant from using a cooling system that kills hundreds of thousands of fish larvae, discharges heated water into the bay and stirs up toxics in the sediment.
The water board has said that it has no immediate plans to do so. Mirant has said it is working cooperatively with the regulators.
Stephen Hill, the toxics cleanup division chief for the water board, said he believes that the stance taken by the port, Maxwell and other city leaders to PG&E's cleanup efforts relates to the debate over closing the power plant.
"The back-and-forth between the city and PG&E is part of the adversarial issue," Hill said. "A lot of people in the city want the plant to be shut down."
Sewage spills foul San Francisco Bay over and over...JASON DEAREN, Associated Press Writer
Last weekend, 890,000 gallons of raw sewage and stormwater spilled into San Francisco Bay from an overloaded World War II-era treatment plant. Five days earlier, a ruptured pipe released 400,000 gallons of filth into the bay.
And those were just the big spills the public heard about.
On average, human waste spills into the San Francisco Bay more than five times a day, fouling the waters and shorelines of this environmental jewel and recreational treasure.
Decrepit pipes, outdated municipal sewage treatment systems and poor upkeep have been blamed for many of the spills into one the world's most famous and beautiful natural harbors. And some of the Bay Area's wealthiest communities have been identified as some of the most persistent polluters.
"It's like living in a situation sort of like a Third World country, where there's poor sanitary management," said Sejal Choksi of the environmental group San Francisco Baykeeper.
Some spills have been blamed not only for killing large numbers of fish but for causing respiratory infections, skin and eye irritation and diarrhea in swimmers. Signs warning against water contact are a common sight at beaches and marinas for those who swim, fish or sailboard in the bay, especially after storms.
Rick Avery, 47, of the Dolphin Swimming & Boating Club in San Francisco, said two of his bay swimming companions decided to stay out of the water after the 400,000-gallon spill last week. Avery said he once he became sick from swimming after a storm, when sewage systems often are overloaded. He had a stuffy nose and other cold symptoms.
"The water was so dirty that day, and we still swam," Avery said. "That was the only time that I got sick and handful of other people got sick."
In 2008 alone, more than 2,000 spills dumped an estimated 15 million gallons of raw or partially treated human waste into the waters of the bay, state officials said.
On Sunday and Monday, the east San Francisco Bay city of Richmond's more than half-century-old sewage system was overloaded by rain and spewed 890,000 gallons of filth mixed with rainwater. Officials said the system's deteriorating, leaky clay pipes cannot handle the extra load after a storm.
On Feb. 17, a 23-year-old pipe ruptured along the shoreline of Sausalito in well-to-do Marin County and sent a 400,000-gallon plume of waste into the bay, forcing health warnings on nearby beaches for more than a week and the closing of a fishing pier. Officials blamed shoddy workmanship and corrosion.
"A number of California jurisdictions have let their infrastructure age beyond the breaking point," said William L. Rukeyser, a state water board spokesman.
In January 2008, a 2.5-million-gallon sewage spill in Marin County led to fines by the state and federal government and beach closings north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Regulators accused the Sewerage Agency of Southern Marin of holding on to almost $550,000 that could have been used for maintenance for preventing such spills.
And last month, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the East Bay Municipal Utility District — which provides sewer service to about 10 cities, including hardscrabble Oakland, wealthy Walnut Creek, the environmentally conscious college town of Berkeley, and middle-class Hayward — to spend $2 million a year to fix leaky pipes that were allowing sewage to flow into the bay.
The EPA this week released $283 million in economic stimulus money earmarked for sewage system upgrades in California. But that is only a fraction of the needed repairs. San Jose alone has a sewage treatment plant that is more than 50 years old, and a $1 billion, 10-year plan to fix it.
The sewer lines in the ground are indeed old. In San Francisco, it's over 100 years old," said Bruce Wolfe, executive officer for the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. "There's a lot of effort that goes into maintenance, but one can only put enough Band-Aids on something for a time. At some point you've got to do a full remodel."
Inside Bay Area
Major high-speed rail dilemma discovered in San Carlos
Engineering problem is one of several fears city has about bullet train...Mike Rosenberg Daily News Staff Writer
New tracks in San Carlos for the state's proposed bullet train could bar high-profile vehicles from a key route to and from Highway 101, city engineers have discovered.
In the latest of several concerns Peninsula officials have raised about the planned high-speed rail line, San Carlos officials Monday sent the state a letter in which they explained how Holly Street would be negatively affected by the project.
Two tracks for the bullet train would be built parallel to the existing Caltrain tracks that run through San Carlos east of El Camino Real. The existing tracks cross Holly Street via a grade separation — where they are elevated above the U-shaped roadway. The rail bridge would need to be widened to accommodate the additional tracks, which would lower the vertical clearance of the street below, said Robert Weil, the city's public works director.
Fifteen feet of vertical clearance is needed underneath the bridge; the clearance is currently 15 feet, 3 inches. It appears the new tracks and wider bridge would reduce the clearance to less than 15 feet, Weil said.
"So something has to give," he said. "Either Holly Street has to be relowered or the whole rail structure has to be raised. Otherwise, a tall truck would run right into the bottom of the bridge."
Lowering Holly may be impossible because the street may not comply with roadway design standards, Weil said.
The California High Speed Rail Authority is accepting comments through April 6 before it begins planning the San Francisco-to-San Jose portion of the high-speed rail line, which is expected to whisk passengers from the Bay Area to Southern California in 2½ hours.
In their letter, San Carlos officials urged the rail authority to address the engineering conflict in detail and to determine the impacts of raising the bridge. Rail authority officials Monday told the San Carlos City Council that it may be possible to raise the bridge, said Assistant City Manger Brian Moura.
It isn't clear yet what sort of legal action the city could take to resolve the issue if the rail authority fails to develop a solution, Weil said. The authority only recently learned of the issue, said Deputy Director Dan Leavitt.
"There may be some adjustments to the road profile, that's something we'll look at," Leavitt said. "We'll certainly try to minimize any sort of impacts we can on existing facilities."
San Carlos' letter included roughly a dozen comments on the proposed bullet train. The authors called for a visual impact study and a noise volume analysis and raised concerns about potential increases in vibration. The letter did not mention other potential conflicts with the city's other grade separation, over Brittan Avenue.
A group representing the neighborhood near the tracks, Greater East San Carlos, will also submit a letter to the state, said President Ben Fuller. It cites eight concerns, including the need for long-term parking and increased landscaping around the tracks.
San Carlos is the latest of several Peninsula cities to question the bullet train project. It recently came under fire in Palo Alto and other towns, which have been meeting to discuss forming a consortium. to better negotiate with the rail authority.
USA Today
Army Corps cracks down on flunking levees
WASHINGTON — More than 100 levees in 16 states flunked maintenance inspections in the last two years and are so neglected that they could fail to stem a major flood, records from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers show.
The 114 levees received "unacceptable" maintenance ratings in corps inspections, meaning their deficiencies are so severe that it can be "reasonably foreseen" that they will not perform properly in a major flood, according to the records, which were requested by USA TODAY. As a result, the corps is advising state and local levee authorities that the levees no longer qualify for federal rehabilitation aid if damaged by floodwaters.
FULL LIST: 'Unacceptable' levees
People who rely on the levees should "be aware that there is reason for concern," says Tammy Conforti, head of the corps' levee safety program.
The corps built most of the levees and turned them over to state and local governments, which were supposed to maintain them. Some of the neglected levees protect urban, residential areas, such as the Arcade Creek levee in Sacramento; others guard rural or agricultural land.
The corps' levee inspections were revamped under a public safety initiative started after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A round of 63 levees with unacceptable maintenance lost eligibility for federal rehabilitation aid last year after they were not fixed within a one-time, one-year grace period.
Now, the addition of 114 levees to that list leaves a total of 177 nationwide that are so poorly maintained that they don't qualify for federal rehabilitation. That's 9% of the nearly 2,000 levees the corps inspects.
There are thousands of levees nationwide — the government has no precise number — that aren't subject to federal oversight, often because they were built by local or private sponsors. And many big levees, including some on the Mississippi River and around New Orleans, are federal projects where the corps handles major maintenance itself.
The corps will alert the Federal Emergency Management Agency to poorly maintained levees. If states and communities cannot certify to FEMA that those levees will handle a 100-year flood — one that has a 1% chance of hitting each year — owners of property behind them may have to buy flood insurance.
"Many of the levee boards don't have the funds to maintain them and really haven't … for years," says Michael Borengasser, National Flood Insurance Program coordinator for the state of Arkansas.
Federal taxpayers already have paid to rebuild many levees that failed in floods because of poor maintenance, says Larry Larson, director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. "For years, the corps has been threatening to kick them out of the (rehabilitation) program, but never really did," he adds. "Now, the corps is doing the right thing."
'Unacceptable' levees
Nearly 180 levees nationwide have been so poorly maintained by state and local agencies that they are being deemed ineligible for federal restoration funds if they fail in a major flood. In maintenance inspections last year, the corps gave 114 levees "unacceptable" maintenance ratings. They join 63 levees that were deemed ineligible for federal reconstruction last fall based on earlier inspections.
Los Angeles Times
Administration blocks more Bush-era oil shale development leases
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar cancels what he calls a 'headlong rush' to develop in the Mountain West. He also announces more research-only leases in the region...Jim Tankersley and Nicholas Riccardi
Reporting from Washington and Denver — The Interior Department on Wednesday blocked a Bush administration plan to open parts of the Mountain West for oil shale development, announcing that it would first study the water, power and land-use issues that complicate one of the nation's most abundant but controversial untapped sources of energy.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar canceled shale development leases on federal land in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming and launched a second round of leases in the region limited to research purposes. In doing so, he rebuked what he called former President George W. Bush's "headlong rush" to begin development.
"Those who have fantasized that oil shale is a panacea for America's energy needs have been living in a fantasy land," he said.
The move marked the third time in a month that the Obama administration has frozen late-term Bush decisions that sought to spur domestic energy development over objections from environmentalists.
President Obama has repeatedly pledged to reduce dependence on foreign oil, an effort he frequently links to his plans to spend billions on renewable-energy research, enhanced electricity transmission, efficiency improvement and other "green" areas of the economic stimulus bill.
That spending focuses almost exclusively on electricity use in homes and commercial buildings, but more than two-thirds of the oil consumed by the U.S. is devoted to transportation. Though Obama has called for accelerated efforts to develop electric cars, they are presently only a small fraction of all vehicles on the road.
That suggests the administration's energy initiatives, at least in the early stages, may not substantially reduce oil imports.
Glenn Vawter, executive director of the National Oil Shale Assn., said Salazar's decision on shale leases wasn't a surprise. But critics say the string of Interior announcements, which include canceling some oil leases near national parks and lengthening the public comments process for new offshore drilling, amount to reducing the effort to boost domestic oil production.
"Despite the valuable progress being made in the development of new energy sources and technologies, there is still no viable substitute for oil," Karen Harbert, president and chief executive of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy, told a congressional hearing on offshore drilling Wednesday.
Interior Department aides noted that even Bush officials, testifying before Congress last year, estimated that oil shale wouldn't be commercially viable until 2016 at earliest. Salazar said the department was not "anti-development."
"We want to be thoughtful and deliberate as we move forward," he said.
He also said he expected plug-in electric vehicles to play a large role in the administration's energy independence plans.
Replacing Bush's leases with additional research leases, Salazar said, will allow the department to examine the unresolved issues of shale, major deposits of which are in Colorado and other mountain states. Among the issues: how much power and water it would require to extract -- and where, in the often-parched West, the water would come from.
Some studies of commercial shale development have suggested that the technology would consume huge quantities of water and produce mountains of potentially toxic waste material.
Environmentalists celebrated Wednesday's announcement.
"This is a huge step forward in protecting America's Western lands from oil shale development, which is nothing more than a dirty, expensive pipe dream," said Bobby McEnaney, lands advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council 
Washington Post 
Environment would get big boost in Obama budget...DINA CAPPIELLO
WASHINGTON -- The environment would get a lot more green under President Barack Obama's proposed budget.
Obama would nearly triple funding for infrastructure projects that protect waterways and drinking water as part of the largest budget request for the EPA in eight years.
He is requesting $10.5 billion for the Environmental Protection Agency _ a nearly 50 percent increase over what President George Bush asked for last year.
The total includes $3.9 billion for improving the nation's sewage treatment plants and drinking water systems, as well as projects to protect sources of drinking water.
The budget also banks on raising billions starting in 2012 from auctioning permits to companies that emit the gases blamed for global warming.
New York Times
Energy secretary throws himself into climate debate, guns blazing...COLIN SULLIVAN, ClimateWire
SAN FRANCISCO -- When it comes to climate change, apparently Al Gore isn't the only Nobel laureate intent on shaking up the American public.
Enter Steven Chu, the new Energy secretary, who won the Nobel Prize as a physicist before getting into national politics. In his first interview as a Cabinet secretary earlier this month, Chu warned of a pending climate catastrophe that could see California's farm industry vanish and its snowpack nearly eliminated.
Chu was in office for less than two weeks when he sat down with the Los Angeles Times to convey an aggressive, home-grown view of global warming (Greenwire, Feb. 4). A Californian, Chu said his home state is in serious trouble over the next century unless action is taken to halt greenhouse gas emissions.
In jeopardy, he seemed to say, is not only a massive economic engine but a way of life. "We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California," Chu told the L.A. Times, adding that up to 90 percent of the vital snowpack in the Sierra Nevada could disappear by the end of the century.
His intent in making the dire projections was clear: "I'm hoping that the American people will wake up," Chu said in the interview.
But how true are these predictions? As with most things related to climate science, that depends on whom you ask.
An uncertain model?
Chu's assertion that 90 percent of the snowpack in the Sierra, which acts as a natural water storage system for California, could disappear is at the upper end of such estimates. By all accounts, it is a worst-case scenario that would play out only under the most extreme models.
A report by scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the University of California, Berkeley, bears this out. The study found that a 90 percent snowpack loss is likely in a world with "high fossil fuel-intensive economic growth" through 2100. That means CO2 concentrations would have to triple relative to pre-industrial levels and increase throughout the 21st century.
In contrast, the same study said the Sierra snowpack would lose 30 to 60 percent of its historic capacity under a "lower emissions scenario" in which heat-trapping emissions peak by midcentury and then decline. This point was not lost on John Andrew, a spokesman at California's Department of Water Resources who questioned the use of century-long models.
"That 90 percent number gets people's attention," he said. "But we specifically did not go out to the end of the century, because we thought things were just a little too uncertain."
The department, which oversees much of California's water infrastructure, has instead projected a lower 25 to 40 percent depletion by midcentury -- which itself is a dire problem, Andrew said. State officials sampled dozens of studies completed over the last decade and settled on the 25 to 40 percent range.
"He's obviously a Nobel laureate and knows a lot about energy, but I don't know how much he's up to date on water management," Andrew said. "People that know water in California know that even a 25 percent reduction by midcentury would be a really big deal."
'Shock and awe'
Matthew Kahn, an environmental economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, admitted that Chu's decision to cite the 90 percent projection may have been more of an attention-grabber than a precise estimate. But he doesn't fault the Energy secretary for doing so, given his new role as chief educator on warming.
"There might be an element of shock and awe here," he said. "But I don't think he's engaging in science fiction. It's his job to give everyone a heads-up."
In agreement with this point was Peter Gleick, a leading water resources expert and president of the Pacific Institute. Gleick said climate models have to take into account hundreds, if not thousands, of factors, and the 90 percent loss is "at the high end of those scenarios."
"He wasn't necessarily inaccurate," Gleick said. "It's a warning. What he's really saying is, if we don't do anything, this is the future we could face."
But given the vagaries of such estimates, some have questioned whether Chu's comments were responsible. More than a few skeptics, led by Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe (R), have been critical of Chu for citing the kinds of computer models that attempt to anticipate weather patterns 90 years removed.
"I'm afraid Secretary Chu has been misled by highly dubious scientific speculation," said Myron Ebell, director of global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "A little more experience of weather and common sense would be of use to him. Snowfall rises and falls cyclically in the West."
Frank Maisano, a senior principal at Bracewell & Giuliani, a Washington, D.C., firm that represents coal-fired utilities, took his criticism in another direction. He said Chu has had a hard time adjusting to the political realities of Washington and is hurting the federal debate on climate change.
"It's not helpful to focus on what's going to happen in 2100 when we have to figure out what we're going to do in the next two years related to really tough policy provisions," Maisano said. "It's much different in the policy world than when you're a scientist."
Defending Chu
But Jay Gulledge, a senior scientist at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, defended the models and said Chu wants to bring attention to the problem however he can. Gulledge attributed the focus on the high end to "a feature of risk management" that may be necessary in the current political environment.
Scientists may have the luxury of debating statistical details, but policymakers and government officials have been tasked with "avoiding the world possible outcomes," he said.
"It is hard to see how focusing on the upper end is either irresponsible or extreme," Gulledge wrote in an e-mail. "Wouldn't it be more extreme to focus on avoiding the lower end of the projected range?"
Others said the projections mean little because any major loss -- whether it's 50 percent or 90 percent -- means trouble in California. Tim Duane, a professor at Vermont Law School, said the hard reality is that a Sierra snowpack cut in half means a transformational event for the West, with more floods, wildfires and overall added stress to an already fragile water system.
"Even a 50 percent reduction would, in my view, require a complete restructuring of many aspects of California's society and economy," he said.
No more agriculture?
Experts interviewed for this article were less accommodating about Chu's reference to "no more agriculture in California."
Kahn, the University of California economist, didn't mince words: "I think that is baloney."
For one thing, Kahn believes water technology development would likely move forward rapidly by the end of the century. Technologies like desalination and recycling efforts could be far more accessible, and affordable, by 2100, he said.
Moreover, water-intensive crops like strawberries and alfalfa would more likely suffer in the short term, but much of that harm could be offset by a reorganization of California's water infrastructure, to include an emphasis on conservation, better groundwater storage and different crops.
"I understood what he was trying to say, but I don't think he was saying it well," Gleick said. "I don't think California agriculture is going to disappear, but it may be dramatically different."
Another possibility is new dams and reservoirs in California, a proposal that up until now has been a political non-starter in the Golden State. More storage on the surface to trap earlier runoff from the mountains could help, Gulledge said, but the price tag wouldn't be cheap.
"It is possible that a large increase in reservoir capacity could offset much of the loss in snowpack, but it would be expensive and not guaranteed to replace 100 percent of the capacity of the snowpack," he said.
Other possible causalities are the relatively low-elevation ski industry around Lake Tahoe in the Sierra and Napa Valley's wine business. Kahn thinks a slight change in temperature could move Napa to the north, while Gleick offered a blunt analysis for skiers and snowboarders.
"The skiing industry is really screwed in the long run," he said. "Anywhere they depend on snow at 6,000 or 7,000 feet is in trouble."
The Energy Department refused to answer several attempts to clarify Chu's remarks.
CNN Money
New home sales at all-time low
Census Bureau says sales of newly built homes fell 10% in January to the lowest level since reporting began in 1963...Ben Rooney
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Sales of newly constructed homes fell 10% in January, sinking to the lowest level on record, according to a government report released Thursday.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported that new home sales fell to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 309,000 in January from a revised 344,000 in December. It was the lowest level since the Census Bureau began keeping records in 1963.
Economists were expecting a sales rate of 324,000, according to consensus estimates compiled by Briefing.com.
The report also showed that the median sales price of new houses sold in January was $201,000, down 15% from $232,400 a year ago.
The decline in new home sales comes as builders continue to scale back construction and work off an inventory of empty properties, said Adam York, economic analyst at Wachovia Economics Group.
"We expect sales activity will remain constrained over the coming months as buyers struggle with access to credit and worry about their income prospects and the U.S. economy," York wrote in a research report.
One bright spot: the number of homes for sale at the end of January was 340,000, down from 357,000 at the end of December, according to the report.
Inventory levels have declined steadily in recent months and are now approaching healthy levels, according to York.
"With the prospect of the new home market returning to equilibrium by summer, the existing home market may be able to see improvement in the months thereafter," he said.
Sales fell 28% in the West, where the market was drastically overbuilt during the housing boom. In the Northeast, sales rose 12%.
JPMorgan warns of more housing woes
Bank notes that losses on home-equity loans could hit $1.4B per quarter; also says there will be 12,000 job cuts related to WaMu merger...David Ellis
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- JPMorgan Chase warned of more housing weakness across its mortgage portfolio this year and also said it would cut more jobs related to its purchase of failed savings and loan Washington Mutual than originally planned.
During presentations at the company's investor day in New York Thursday, executives noted that home-equity loan losses could climb as high as $1.4 billion per quarter this year.
The New York City-based bank said "non-credit impaired" loans would suffer in 2009 due in large part to the ongoing decline in home prices across the country, as well as the weaker economic climate.
"We obviously believe that home equity losses will continue to grow for some period of time," said Charlie Scharf, head of JPMorgan Chase's consumer banking business.
So far, the worst losses have been centered in states that have been hit hardest by the housing crisis, including Florida, California and Nevada.
Last quarter, JPMorgan Chase reported a $770 million loss on its home equity loan portfolio.
The company also indicated it was prepared for the national unemployment rate to climb to 9% by the end of 2009. But the bank stuck by previous expectations that net charge-offs, or loans it doesn't think are collectible, in its credit card portfolio would hit 7% during the current quarter.
While much of Thursday's presentations focused on the performance of the bank's different businesses, JPMorgan Chase also shed more light on its recent purchase of WaMu.
The bank indicated that it would cut approximately 12,000 as a result of the acquisition of WaMu's banking operations late last year. As of early December, JPMorgan Chase had outlined plans to lay off 9,200 employees at the Seattle-based WaMu.
It was not immediately known, however, if the nearly 3,000 remaining cuts would come from just WaMu or from other parts of JPMorgan Chase's banking businesses.
JPMorgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500) shares gained 9% in early morning trading on the New York Stock Exchange Thursday.
Have banks finally hit bottom?
Bank stocks have been on a tear this week. But analysts say investors should be very wary before diving back into this troubled group...Paul R. La Monica
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- This question seemed unthinkable just a week ago, but here goes: Have bank stocks finally hit bottom?
Nationalization fears, stress-test woes and general concerns about how much higher loan losses could rise before this recession is mercifully over have combined to whack shares of major banks this year.
But this week has been another story. The S&P Bank Index has been in the black for the past three days and was up another 12% late Thursday morning. Some of the most beaten down banks have skyrocketed.
Including this morning's gains, shares of Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500) are up nearly 50% this week. JPMorgan Chase's (JPM, Fortune 500) stock has gained 16% while Wells Fargo (WFC, Fortune 500) has climbed 33%.
And shares of Citigroup (C, Fortune 500), which reportedly is on the verge of agreeing to give the government as much as a 40% stake in the bank, are up more than 40% this week.
Talkback: Have bank stocks finally hit bottom?
Now of course, these eye-popping gains do little for anyone who's been holding on to the stocks for a while. Citi, for example, is still down nearly 60% this year and about 90% during the past twelve months.
But this week's rally makes it worth wondering if the worst is finally over for Wall Street's favorite whipping post.
Well, as encouraging as the recent upswing may be, it's hard to imagine that there won't be more volatility ahead for troubled banks.
The issue that still remains for BofA and Citi, for example, is whether the government will need to take over an even bigger chunk of those companies.
If so, the stocks could head right back down again, one investing expert said.
"The bottom is zero. And for the penny stock banks like Citigroup and Bank of America for that matter, what you are buying is not really a stock but an option," said Marc Groz, managing member of Topos, an investment advisory firm based in Stamford, Conn.
"The question is: Are these banks going to survive in their current form? Or are they going to be diluted to oblivion? If not, you win," Groz added.
To be sure, there's more to the banking sector than just Citi and BofA. Not all banks are at risk of needing new capital injections. Not all banks are in danger of being nationalized.
But in case you haven't noticed, the economy is in sorry shape right now. And until there is a sign of a recovery, most banks will probably suffer.
With that in mind, JPMorgan Chase, one of the "stronger" banks, warned Thursday that it expects losses in its home-equity loan portfolio to rise sharply this year.
So if you are going to take a gamble on any bank stock, you must, to paraphrase a popular cheerleader chant, be selective, be be selective.
"We are convinced that there are some banks you'd want to own coming out of this debacle. But our biggest problem is finding companies that are financially strong right now," said Ted Parrish, co-manager of the Henssler Equity fund.
Parrish said his fund sold stakes in Bank of America and BB&T (BBT, Fortune 500) in the past year. Currently, he owns Cullen/Frost Bankers (CFR), a Texas-based bank that decided to not apply for bailout funds last year, Bank of New York Mellon (BK, Fortune 500) and American Express (AXP, Fortune 500), which became a bank holding company last November.
Another money manager agreed that now is a good time to try and identify the long-term survivors in banking.
Blake Howells, director of equity research for Becker Capital Management, a Portland, Ore.-based institutional investment firm with about $1.6 billion in assets, said that some of the healthier banks were unfairly dumped in the past few weeks.
Howells said that when Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner unveiled plans of the new banking bailout on February 10, which included the stress test idea, the details were so vague that investors panicked.
But after Wednesday's announcement by the Treasury and bank regulators, which provided more information about the tests, it seems that investors have a much better idea of what the government actually plans to do.
"When Geithner first proposed the stress test, people didn't know what that meant. The pessimism got extreme," he said. "Now people are understanding that this may not be a pass/fail kind of test. It doesn't mean that common shareholders in most banks will be eliminated and it looks like the government is not going to nationalize the banking system."
Still, Howells also thinks investors need to be cautious. He said part of this week's rally is likely due to short covering, the phenomenon that takes place when bearish investors who bet that stocks would go down rush to buy them back as prices rise.
So instead of making a bold bet on the banks that are most frequently mentioned as nationalization targets, Howells said he's sticking with lower-risk banks that have done a better job of minimizing mortgage-related damage to their balance sheets. He owns U.S. Bancorp (USB, Fortune 500), JPMorgan Chase and TCF Financial (TCB), a regional bank based in Minnesota.
"This is the time to try and identify who some of the winners will be," Howells said. 
Problem bank list tops 250
FDIC reports that number of troubled institutions soared during the fourth quarter to the highest level since 1994...David Ellis
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The government's closely watched list of troubled banks grew during the fourth quarter to its highest level since 1994, regulators said Thursday.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. reported that the number of firms on its so-called "problem bank" list grew to 252 during the last three months of 2008, compared with 171 banks making the list in the prior quarter.
"There is no question that this is one of the most difficult periods we have encountered during the FDIC's 75 years of operation," agency Chairman Sheila Bair said Thursday.
Problem banks typically face difficulties with their finances, or are suffering through operations or management issues that pose a threat to their existence.
The institutions that wind up on the list are considered the most likely to fail, although few of them actually reach that point. On average, just 13% of banks on the FDIC's problem list have failed.
The FDIC - one of the top regulators of the nation's banking system - doesn't reveal the names of the banks on the list, but it does give the total assets of these institutions.
That number topped $159 billion during the most recent quarter, up from $116 billion the previous quarter.
As the U.S. economy has deteriorated, the pace of bank failures has quickened in recent months as banks struggle under the weight of rising loan losses.
Fourteen banks have failed so far this year, including last week's collapse of Silver Falls Bank, a relatively tiny Oregon-based institution located about an hour south of Portland.
Still, the current crop of bank failures hardly comes close to what happened during the savings & loan crisis two decades ago. More than 1,900 financial institutions went under during 1987-1991, peaking with the failure of 534 banks in 1989.
In the event of a failure, the FDIC fully insures individual accounts up to $250,000 for single accounts.
Record losses for the industry
Overall, the fourth quarter proved to be an incredibly difficult period for the more than 8,300 banks that make up the nation's banking industry.
During the period, the group posted a net loss of $26.2 billion, representing its largest quarterly hit in the 25 years that insured institutions have reported quarterly results.
Regulators blamed a combination of factors for the quarter including losses from trading activity, massive writedowns taken by banks as well as rising loan losses.
To cope with the deteriorating economic environment, banks set aside a whopping $69.3 billion in funds for future loan losses - more than double year-ago levels.
"The trend is clear - troubled loans are rising and will continue to rise in the near future," said Bair.
The latest assessment of the health of the nation's banking sector comes just a day after industry regulators unveiled plans to "stress test" the nation's 19 largest banks in order to gauge the size and scope of any future government aid.
Sor far, the Treasury Department has extended nearly $200 billion in aid to banks, with the bulk of that aid going to some of the nation's biggest lenders including Citigroup (C, Fortune 500), Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500) as well as Wells Fargo (WFC, Fortune 500) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500).
FDIC's Bair threw her support behind the open-bank assistance efforts taken so far, noting that her agency would face limitations if it attempted to place a leading bank into receivership.
Such actions would not only fall somewhat outside the agency's authority, but she also noted that the FDIC could face a "resource issue" if it attempted to undertake such a task.
3-2-09 Merced City Council Redevelopment Agency agenda...7:00 p.m.
3-3-09 Merced County Board of Supervisor meeting...10-00 a.m.
Posted 72 Hours Prior To Meeting
3-4-09 Merced City Planning Commission meeting...7:00 p.m.
Agendas are posted the Monday before a Wednesday Planning Commission Meeting
MCAG March Calendar
Mar. 05 - Technical Planning Committee Meeting...10:00 a.m. 
Mar. 06 - Citizens Advisory Committee Meeting ...8:30 a.m.
Mar. 11 - Technical Review Board Meeting...12:00 p.m.
Mar. 19 - Governing Board Meeting...3:00 p.m.