The fish...Badlands Journal editorial board
"Capitalists forget the masses. Socialists forget the money." -- Mike Tharp, executive editor, Merced Sun-Star.
"Capitalists and newspaper editors work without aid of memory." Badlands Journal editoral board.
In the stirring, hairy-chested whine beneath, written on a weekend when, long after every newspaper in the region has seen all its finance, insurance and real estate flak predictions of the easing of foreclosures and the bottom of real estate prices buried by reality, Sonny Star's top editor calls for a Big public works project for Merced to provide work and restore civic confidence.
In general, Californians believe that the history of everything from the state to their subdivision began when they arrived. This appears to be doubly true of the manly Tharp, recently returned from the Green Zone in Baghdad, who calls in vigorous prose for the government to build something around Merced. Right now, if you please.
The government continues to sink hundreds of millions of weakening dollars into a win-win, public-private partnership project adjoining Merced. The project is called UC Merced. It was repeatedly presented by several generations of UC administrators, UC Merced boosters, politicians and business leaders -- and incessantly by UC Merced Bobcatflaksters -- to be a publicly funded "high-tech, bio-tech engine of growth." But we don't hear so much as a backfire, let alone a Great Purring Sound.
UC Merced was touted by every expert consultant that could extract a fee from UC or one of its local concubines like the Great Valley Center as the epitome of the "New Economy," an economy that grows geometrically instead or merely arithmetically, like dull and plodding agriculture. These learned shills for finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) neglected to quite explain the rate of escalation of debt the "New Economy" entailed. The "New Economy" is now crashing about the world's ears no less than Merced's.
In fact rather than flak, UC Merced was the anchor tenant for the tremendous, ruinous urban sprawl that has earned the region the distinction of leading the nation in foreclosure rates.
This view by the mighty Tharp, who yearns to see whole hillsides of rock demolished once again by dinosaur-sized machinery, is a fossil of some primitive, large-mouth bass-like species found in a layer of the political sediment lying beside the ambitious works of Earl Warren, Pat Brown, Bernie Sisk, C. Ray Robinson, Ralph Brody, Hugh Burns and John "Chuck" Erreca, when you could see the Sierra and the Coast Range most days on 99, when Buck and Merle were laying down their sound in Bakersfield, when the Valley was full of canneries, when unions were active in the fields, sheds, warehouses and canneries, when Elk Hills Naval Reserve belonged to the government, when boxcars and gondolas in October were filled with departing farmworkers, and when there was no environmental law at all.
We're not suggesting in the least that Tharp is a fossil -- just that fossil ideas need to be examined like any other artifact, in light of their proper historical setting.
In Merced, with its sharp division between the people and all levels of government (capped by a congressman who's moved to Maryland from the epicenter of national foreclosure rates), government is erecting moats and walls to defend its small, landed elite from the unruly peasants as the real, structural fossil of the Valley heaves to the surface in the financial earthquake -- our agrarian feudalism. Our landed aristocracy may not have contributed much blood to the imperial wars of the nation, but they did contribute much agricultural product and they have contributed an enormous amount of money to its elected officials for the privilege of establishing our lovely local social order, based on massive public works projects -- railroads, irrigation systems and highways for the benefit of gigantic agricultural enterprises dependent on alarmed bankers. If significant parts of Valley agriculture do not receive any water this year due to drought, we are likely to see a reversal of a 30-year trend toward housing farm labor year-round and a return to the rules of the Miller-Lux Ranch: permit tramps (a word of California origin), but for no more than three days in any one location. If the job-loss card has been played and lost in court and Congress, what this Valley really is about will again appear, nakedly (not that Valley media won't try to disguise it). Meanwhile, the cities and counties are broke.
In short, the future is always chaotic and unpredictable. With reference to Tharp's public-works theme, the grand actions of that former layer of political sediment had some bad consequences, beginning with the failure to solve the natural California problem of drought and included an unacceptable amount of predictable, documented environmental destruction. It was arrogant to assume they could solve the problem of drought and stupid to have ignored heavy metals in the soil on the west side. Adding to the dilemma has been a decent urge to house farmworkers permanently rather than depend on an annual migratory stream and to have those migrants depend on the Valley in the old seasonal pattern, now involving Mexico practically exclusively. And Mexico, these days, has become the latest, best argument for ending drug prohibition in the US.
The Valley's political economic disaster clearly does require forgiveness and binding promises, but not in the contemporary style of coerced consensus led by "value-free" facilitators. We do not want nor will accept -- and we have proven this -- corporate hacks pretending to be experts in scientific and communication skills, who are in fact liars or so ignorant there is no difference. Is the society capable of raising anyone to leadership who has not been so corrupted and coerced in the process of elevation that her utterance is idiotic? Good faith is the challenge the Valley faces today. While "feeding the world," how do we feed, support and educate our own so that our society, which has deteriorated so much in past decades, does not become a "failed region" in a wounded goliath state. It goes far beyond strawman arguments about capitalism and socialism.
Yet the future is chaotic and unpredictable and a thorough skeptic concludes that it might, as always, be better to start thinking Small.
Badlands Journal editorial board
Mike Tharp: It's time to start thinking big again...Mike Tharp...3-14-09
We need a dam.
A dam like New Exchequer Dam. Like McSwain Dam.
We need a project like those two Merced Irrigation District hydroelectric powerhouses dating from 1967 -- when they were finished -- and the improvements made all along the timeline.
We don't need new dams as such.
What we need are projects like those two dams that led to the water and power we all now use.
What we need is the communal commitment to projects that will rebuild our roads and bridges and other concrete (literally and figuratively) finished products.
Projects that will give people jobs, restrengthening the veins and arteries of commerce so we can restore our industrial base.
And our confidence as a community.
It's instructive and inspiring to watch a grainy Disney-like documentary made in the '60s about how those two dams changed and improved our lives and livelihoods.
With background music heavy on flutes, oboes and kettle drums, the film chronicles the three-year process of blowing up parts of a mountain, then using 5.5 million cubic yards of its rocks to hold back water.
It shows men driving stegosaurus-sized yellow trucks over 15 miles of road after brontosaurus-sized excavators filled them with earth and rocks.
Over the course of building the dam, they cut travel time to 24 minutes from 40.
Eighteen months of blasting shattered granite walls, while a mile away, other workers were laying out a gated spillway.
Ingeniously, the project engineers used the old Exchequer Dam to raise one of the largest rock-fill dams in the world at the time.
This week what's left of the old dam rested about 20 feet below the waterline.
Finished in 1967, Exchequer now holds back a million acre-feet of water, four times as much as originally expected. (An acre-foot is around 326,000 gallons, enough to supply a typical Valley family for a year.)
As one prominent player at the time said, "A $55 million project is a challenge for 55,000 people" -- the county population back then.
A model of the dam turned up in the Smithsonian and Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.
Besides the gee-whiz engineering feat, the New Exchequer Dam is worth paying attention to today because MID contracted with Pacific Gas & Electric to finance the project at no cost to taxpayers or growers.
MID agreed to sell electricity to PG&E at a price that would underwrite the cost of the dam.
Over the past generation, New Exchequer and its sister dam, McSwain (named after "Mr. MID," Kenneth L. McSwain), have provided water to some 2,000 of our farmers, ranchers and growers and 10 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity to a lot of customers. (The average household in America consumes 10,656 kilowatt-hours a year, according to the Department of Energy.)
Why do we need a New Exchequer Dam-like project today?
Because it blended the best of capitalism and socialism.
Now before any MID or Tudor Engineering people (the designer that won a national award for the dam) break out the torches and pitchforks to march on the Sun-Star, here's why:
The project was planned, designed, built and manned by private enterprise, coupled with a quasi-public agency.
They included PG&E, Tudor, many local contractors and MID, whose mission statement reads in part: "fostering a public service attitude among all District employees; encouraging community involvement in District affairs."
The results back in 1967 were win-win-win.
G&E got its electricity, MID ran the operation and Mercedians benefited from the water and power.
This is the model that the Obama administration, California state government and Merced County should bookmark under "Favorites" on their browser.
This is exactly the kind of business that America should be doing now.
The bailout funds for banks and the thousands of silly earmarks demand that we should stop the madness of pork and patronage and look to fund projects that work.
Thousands of Mercedians and other folks outside here made a living from the dam.
They did it by making something that would turn a profit for a design firm, an almond grower in Planada, an engineer at MID and a housewife in South Merced who turns on the lights when she gets home from work.
Sure, mistakes were made.
In 1965 heavy rains caused water to break over the old dam's spillway, and work was delayed for a couple of months.
The hybrid rock and asphalt plates laid down to keep the lake from overflowing didn't work as well as planned. New Exchequer Dam was imperfect.
But the human beings who raised it from the carcass of an old dam and stacked the rubble to make the new one corrected the mistakes.
Their purpose was clear: water and power for money and the masses.
Capitalists forget the masses. Socialists forget the money.
Missing UC Merced student surfaces in Southern California...Victor A. Patton
A UC Merced student who was reported missing has been found safe in Southern California, university officials reported Saturday.
The student, 24-year-old Leonardo Villalpando-Ochoa, was reported missing by his parents on March 6 and UC Merced police had been looking for him.
Patti Istas, UC Merced's spokeswoman, did not elaborate on the circumstances surrounding Villalpando-Ochoa's disappearance. "As far as I know, he is back with his family now," Istas said.
Villalpando-Ochoa is a senior at the campus.
Courts strike a heavy blow against free speech in Orange County case...Editorial
Just in time for Sunshine Week, the courts have seriously undercut the free speech protections of individual elected officials.
The case involves the Orange Unified School District in Southern California. At a 2006 meeting, the district's board took offense at comments by a dissenting member, Steve Rocco, who questioned the board's handling of a personnel matter.
In response, the district's superintendent edited a DVD of the proceedings to eliminate Rocco's comments from the public record, and the board later voted to censure him.
News reports have described Rocco as "eccentric" and "colorful," and we have little doubt his behavior irritated the district's board. Yet California law does not allow elected bodies to punish members because they make annoying statements.
The state's Brown Act states that "the legislative body of a local agency shall not prohibit public criticism" of either the agency or its elected board.
As part of its mission, an open government group called Californians Aware filed a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court. CalAware and its then-president, Richard McKee, asked the judge to overturn the censure and rule that editing of the meeting's video was unlawful.
The Orange Unified School District then went on the attack. Its lawyers filed a motion against McGee and CalAware, arguing they were trying to stifle the district's right to free speech, and were this in violation of a state law aimed at preventing "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation," or SLAPP suits.
A little history is in order. Up until the 1990s, businesses and other interests were using the courts to squelch public critics by saddling them with big legal costs.
Lawmakers passed an anti-SLAPP law to protect dissent. Yet somehow the school district's lawyers convinced the trial judge that the anti-SLAPP law applied to the school district's actions. The court ruled that Rocco's comments were "boorish" and that the district, by editing the video, had a right to control its own speech.
It gets worse from there. The Fourth Appellate District of Santa Ana agreed with the trial court, and ruled that McKee and CalAware had to pay the district's legal fees. The state Supreme Court declined to hear the case, leaving McKee and his group with roughly a $100,000 bill.
CalAware is now trying to raise funds for this tab. More important, it wants assurance the state's anti-SLAPP law isn't used again to trump the Brown Act.
Lawmakers could and should provide this by amending the Brown Act so it isn't subject to a "motion to strike" under the state's anti-SLAPP law. By doing so, they would send a strong message that the courts erred by giving bureaucracies more rights than are granted to individuals.
Growth-restricting deal earns Stockton a rare spot among green cities
City officials make first trip in years to Yosemite forum...David Siders
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK - It was before the bar opened at the Local Government Commission's 18th annual conference for local elected officials, and Stockton City Manager Gordon Palmer and City Councilwoman Susan Eggman were addressing an audience interested in making cities more compact, walkable and green.
The conference, in Yosemite National Park, was one Stockton had not attended in years.
"If anyone knows Stockton, you know that we have a little bit of a problem with sprawl," Eggman said.
The Local Government Commission, a nonprofit group in Sacramento, had invited Eggman and Palmer to Yosemite Lodge to talk about Stockton's growth-restricting deal last year with state Attorney General Jerry Brown and the Sierra Club over Stockton's General Plan.
Their presentation followed a "Boxed Lunch and Hiking Break" and came before dinner and an evening session, "Transitioning to a Green Economy."
The PowerPoint started with what Eggman called "BAG - Before the Attorney General." Even before the General Plan settlement, she said, Stockton was concerned about the environment.
In January 2008, the city promised to measure and reduce its carbon footprint, and it became the first Central Valley city to require that future municipal buildings meet strict standards for green building and design. Popular Science magazine rated Stockton No. 49 on its list of the nation's 50 greenest cities.
But praise from environmentalists was mild in comparison to their criticism of the city's General Plan, which was adopted in 2007 and called for Stockton's population to about double by 2035, mostly in subdivisions at the city limits.
The Sierra Club sued the city, claiming the plan blessed sprawl, and Brown threatened to join the club in court.
Palmer said that in his initial meeting with Brown, "Jerry lays the map down on the table and says, 'Your map is bad. Your plan is bad.' "
There were about 65 people in the audience, and many of them laughed.
In settling with the Sierra Club and Brown, Stockton agreed to consider measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the impact of development on the environment.
"You're not at the bottom of the barrel anymore," said Judy Corbett, executive director of the Local Government Commission. "That's what really tickled me, to see Stockton stepping up front. That's just too cool for words."
The PowerPoint ended with Eggman describing a campaign by developer A.G. Spanos Cos. to force a referendum on the General Plan settlement.
Before abandoning its campaign in October, one of Spanos Cos.' objections to the settlement was the cost of implementing green building standards and other deal points.
The Building Industry Association of the Delta's John Beckman said he is concerned about that, too.
"All of these principles that people are putting in place, these mandates, drive up the cost of housing so much that by the time you build a house, the guy who lives in the Central Valley can't afford to buy your house for what it cost you to build it," he said.
Such standards might be appropriate in Marin County, where people can afford them, Beckman said. Stockton, he said, cannot.
Two speakers followed Eggman and Palmer, and then the cash bar opened.
Someone brought a glass of wine to Dominic Farinha, an Alameda County planner and a Patterson city councilman.
Farinha said Stockton's initial reliance on "the standard way of doing things" is how it "kind of got into trouble" with the General Plan.
But for the city's negotiation of a settlement and withstanding pressure to abandon it, he said, "They were able to rise from the ashes and become a model."
San Francisco Chronicle
Where are the salmon solutions?...Editorial
First it was a one-year ban, and now it's likely to be a second year with virtually no salmon fishing in California's ocean waters. This losing streak may continue if a predicted bare minimum of returning fish don't swim up the Sacramento River this fall.
The affected interest groups - commercial fishermen, sports and environmental groups, plus government agencies - are showing remarkable patience and discipline in going along with a costly, job-killing timeout. It's a united front built on the hope that once-plentiful stocks will return.
But other than keeping fish hooks out of the water, where are the solutions to this crisis? This week there may be answers when a federal study is released on the decline.
So far, the explanations have ranged across a spread of human intrusions: pesticide runoff, water diversions and bankside development. There's another culprit that's drawn special attention: changing ocean currents that have carried off the food that sustain young fish to maturity.
But nature's hand gives Sacramento an easy pass. For years the state Fish and Game Department has been starved of wardens, who monitor illegal water diversions and poaching. By one count there are 200 to cover the entire state, a figure so small it invites law-breaking.
Also, the department staff oversees building plans and timber cuts in river corridors. With fewer hands, this work can't be done carefully.
Salmon may live a hazardous life at sea where forage is scarce, but none of the young fish will ever get there if salmon-rearing conditions in the Sacramento and scores of other rivers and creeks aren't protected.
This neglect has lasted for years, and it didn't begin with this year's monumental budget battle. But it can't be allowed to continue for the health of either the salmon or the California Department of Fish and Game. A stable funding source must be found.
A state Assembly hearing last week in Sacramento heard these arguments from legal and environmental voices. There are plenty of laws, policy studies and scientific advice on easing the salmon crisis, these experts said. What's needed is resolve and money, much of it directed to the state's wildlife agencies, to produce results.
Unless this commitment is found, an iconic fish - and the human industry built around it - could slowly die out. California can't allow its native salmon to be a memory.
Homebuilder sentiment index unchanged in March...ALEX VEIGA, The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES -- A key gauge of homebuilders' confidence remained near historic lows in March, as builders saw a drop in prospective homebuyers visiting model homes amid rising job losses and economic fears, according to a survey released Monday.
The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo housing market index stood at nine, one point off the all-time low hit in January.
The report reflects a survey of 384 residential developers nationwide, tracking builders' perceptions of market conditions. Index readings lower than 50 indicate negative sentiment about the market. The index has been below 10 since November, reflecting the toughest market conditions in a generation.
Scores of employers have announced broad layoffs in recent months giving many would-be homebuyers pause. Builders say strict mortgage requirements are also stymieing some potential sales.
"The economy continues to be the main drag on home sales activity right now, in terms of consumer confidence across most of the country," said David Crowe, chief economist for the Washington-based trade association.
Regionally, builder confidence rose by one point in the Northeast to nine. The index remained unchanged from last month in the Midwest, South and West.
Builders surveyed said current markets conditions didn't change from February's index at seven. Their expectations for sales over the next six months remained at 15.
But builders' assessment of buyer traffic dropped two points to nine. That decline reverses an uptick in February, when builders reported that prospective buyers were responding to lower mortgage rates and aggressive incentives.
The industry hoped to get a lift from an $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers included in the economic stimulus package enacted last month, but so far it has failed to stoke significant sales.
Last week, Ara Hovnanian, chief executive of Red Bank, N.J.-based homebuilderHovnanian Enterprises Inc., said the stimulus plan was essentially a "nonevent from housing's perspective