Merced City Council forges ahead on Wal-Mart distribution center
City leaders vote 5-1 to keep April 28 deadline for public comment on the environmental impact report...SCOTT JASON
The public's time to comment on the proposed Wal-Mart distribution center will remain on schedule, a split Merced City Council decided Monday.
Elected leaders heard pleas from people who felt more needs to be done to keep the public informed and from others who believe the city shouldn't delay a project three years in the making that will employ up to 1,200 full-time workers.
"Please consider the city of Merced residents who need jobs and who need them as soon as possible," said Doug Fluetsch, distribution center supporter and chairman of the Merced County Jobs Coalition.
The City Council voted 5-1 to keep the April 28 deadline to field comments about the proposed Wal-Mart distribution center, a 1.1 million warehouse on 230 acres in southeast Merced.
Mayor Ellie Wooten, Councilmen Joe Cortez, Noah Lor and Bill Spriggs, and Councilwoman Michele Gabriault-Acosta voted to stay on the course the city set. Councilman Jim Sanders was absent. Mayor Pro Tem John Carlisle cast the dissenting vote.
Although the vote wasn't tied to whether the project will be approved or not, it lends some insight into which council members are skeptical of it and which ones feel comfortable with it being built.
Spriggs said he took the report on a recent flight and it helped him fall asleep. "It's pretty boring stuff," he said. "When you dig into the (environmental report) there are great sections on mitigation."
Two weeks ago, several residents told the council that 60 days wasn't long enough to read and understand the warehouse's 441-page environmental impact report and 675-page technical review, both released in late February.
The comment period is 15 days longer than the 45 days required by state law.
They also asked that it be translated to Hmong and Spanish and that informational meetings be held in the next month to discuss what's in the report.
None of the proposals gained any traction, though the city will work with Merced Lao Family Community and the Merced County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to have translators at public hearings.
Carlisle wondered what the downside to a longer comment period would be, especially for a project with such high interest. "We'd be doing a disservice if we rush through what's been a three-year process," he said.
Resident Lisa Kayser-Grant said residents deserve to have their opinions heard on a complex report that took years to write and was reviewed by a third-party for a year.
"Time's been given to everyone but the public," she said.
Environmental lawyer Richard Harriman noted that he's not involved in the fight over the center, but said the city offering translators at public hearings and not having copies of the report in Spanish or Hmong could pose legal questions.
"It's simply not consistent," he said.
Cortez, before casting his vote, said that a translation would take too long and that the city needs to move on.
"(The economy) is going to get worse," Cortez said. "My job is to start thinking about jobs."
Our View: Do public business in the open
Sunshine Week puts the focus on the public's right to know.
This is Sunshine Week, the annual effort to bring the activities of government at every level squarely into the public eye where they belong.
It's an ongoing effort, not limited to one week each year, and it's fundamentally important to the health of our representative democracy.
Although Sunshine Week is largely the work of journalists -- it's organized by the American Society of Newspaper Editors -- it really isn't about the media. It's about the the public's need and right to know what government is doing in its name.
We've seen many recent examples of actions by government that were detrimental to the people of this country, but were hidden or disguised by those in government for a variety of purposes: unaccountable spending of bailout funds by Wall Street and banks, slipshod oversight of children's toys, egregious abuses of wounded veterans at the Walter Reed Army Hospital.
Locally, the Merced Union High School District board of trustees met last week and kept a room full of teachers waiting and in the dark. They just wanted to hear if they were going to lose their jobs.
Sun-Star reporter Danielle Gaines wrote in Friday's newspaper: "Doors were locked, agenda items were discussed out of order and closed session discussions were relayed to the large crowd with little clarity."
The reasons for government obfuscation are sometimes sinister, but more often they are about embarrassing mistakes that officials want to hide, or just to keep pesky citizens from burdening public employees with work they don't want to do.
Another area in which the public can make a difference is by supporting efforts to open up the records of campaign contributions.
Knowing where candidates' support lies is crucial to understanding the positions they take on issues. In an era driven at computer speed, it's ridiculous to find that last-minute donations can be hidden from the public until weeks after the election -- when it's too late.
An example: In Washington, D.C., both the House and the White House are required to file donations electronically, which means they are nearly instantly available. Not so in the Senate, where such records are still kept on paper.
The Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act (S. 482), now pending, would change that, but similar efforts have failed in the past, and there is no guarantee this one will succeed, despite the fact that no senator has been so bold as to publicly oppose it.
President Obama has promised more transparency in government, and that's good. But the key is holding him to that promise. Indeed, that's the key at every level of government. It's not enough to let officials promise openness. It has to be demanded constantly, and there must be consequences for officials who fail to do the public's business out in the open.
That can't happen unless the public takes on the task. The media can do a great deal to protect and promote access to public information, but it really rests with citizens to make sure that it happens. Demand to know what's being done in your name. It's your right.
New-home construction logs unexpected gain...JEANNINE AVERSA, AP Economics Writer
WASHINGTON -- The number of new housing projects that builders broke ground on in February rose sharply, defying economists' forecasts for yet another drop in activity.
The Commerce Department reported Tuesday that construction of new homes and apartments jumped 22.2 percent from January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 583,000 units. Economists were expecting construction to drop to a pace of around 450,000 units.
February's pickup was led by a big increase in apartment construction.
By region, all parts of the country reported an increase in overall housing construction, except for the West, which led the housing boom and has been hard hit by the bust.
Some economists said the new housing figures offered a glimmer of hope.
"While it may be premature to call an absolute bottom in residential construction, we are clearly getting close," said Adam York, economist at Wachovia.
Overall housing construction activity fell to a pace of 477,000 units in January, according to revised figures. That was a little higher than first reported but still marked a record low.
Applications for building permits, considered a reliable sign of future activity, also rose in February by 3 percent to an annual rate of 547,000. Economists were expecting permits to fall to a pace of 500,000 units.
Even with February's rare burst of activity, housing construction is down a whopping 47.3 percent from a year ago.
"This is a temporary rebound, not a recovery," said Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics.
The collapse of the once high-flying housing market has been devastating to the United States' economic health.
Its spreading fallout has contributed to big pullbacks by consumers and businesses alike, plunging the economy into a recession now in its second year.
The Obama administration has announced a $75 billion program to stem skyrocketing home foreclosures, which have dumped even more properties on an already crippled market.
More than 2 million American homeowners faced foreclosure proceedings last year, and that number could soar as high as 10 million in the coming years depending on the severity of the recession, according to a report last month by Credit Suisse.
Home mortgages are harder to come by because of the credit crisis and unemployment is at a quarter-century peak of 8.1 percent, factors that will make it difficult for the depressed housing market to snap back to full health.
Builders aren't optimistic that will happen any time soon.
The National Association of Home Builders' housing market index was flat in March at a reading of nine. That was one point above the all-time low reached in January. 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.
Tighter lending standards for home mortgages, rising defaults and fear about the housing market's future have sidelined buyers, an absence felt acutely by homebuilders such as D.R. Horton Inc., Pulte Homes Inc. and Centex Corp.
Nature Conservancy buys Shasta ranchland in hopes of restoring salmon run...Chris Bowman
The Nature Conservancy has bought ranchland near Mount Shasta to repair a cow-ravaged tributary of Shasta River, historically one of the most productive salmon streams in California.
Restoring Big Springs Creek could be "a silver bullet" in reviving runs of salmon, steelhead and other fish throughout the Klamath Basin, said Henry Little, project director for the conservancy in California.
The conservation organization bought all but 407 acres of the 4,543- acre Shasta Big Springs Ranch in Siskiyou County, according to an announcement scheduled for release today.
The conservancy has been eyeing the creek for decades because of its potential to provide ideal spawning grounds year-round, said Peter Moyle, a UC Davis professor of fish biology.
"It has got everything a salmon could want: a year-round cold water supply, steady flows and incredible amounts of food," Moyle said.
The creek is fed by the only glaciers in the continental United States known to be growing in the face of global warming.
While warmer temperatures have caused the retreat of glaciers in the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains, those flanking Mount Shasta have advanced as a result of changing weather patterns over the Pacific Ocean, glaciologists say.
A warmer Pacific means more moisture sweeping over Northern California, falling as snow on Mount Shasta, which reaches 14,162 feet above sea level at the southern end of the Cascade Range.
Most of the snowmelt runs below ground through porous volcanic rock, rather than running off in streams. The water then bubbles up from the creek bottom at about 55 degrees, just right for salmon, Moyle said.
The special hydrology makes Big Springs Creek exceptionally resilient during climate change. As other streams turn warmer and less suitable for salmon, the springs feeding the creek will remain cold in the summer, Moyle said.
The creek has warmed up, though, as cows trampled its banks and stripped streamside vegetation. The resulting erosion widened the channel, and diversions for irrigation lowered water levels.
"It's like a toaster in the summer," Little said.
All 2.2 miles of the stream flows within the ranch, which has been operating for more than a century.
The conservancy is fencing off the creek and plans to lease the land for cattle grazing so long as it's compatible with the fish restoration.
The ranch acquisition comes as Indian tribes, environmentalists and fishing interests negotiate to remove four of the Klamath's six dams.
If they succeed, the ranch also could became a natural nursery for repopulating the river system with coho and other salmon, conservancy officials said. The Klamath once produced the third largest salmon run in the continental United States, behind the Columbia and Sacramento rivers.
Canal supporter will visit meeting...The Record
STOCKTON - Water users pushing for a peripheral canal to divert water around the Delta will send a representative to address San Joaquin County water commissioners in what could be a lively public meeting Wednesday.
Karla Nemeth, a spokeswoman for the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan process, is scheduled to speak at the 1 p.m. meeting at the county Public Health Department, 1601 E. Hazelton Ave.
The conservation plan is a complex mesh of habitat restoration, water supply and environmental goals that would ultimately give water contractors from the Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California legal authority to continue pumping water from the Delta.
A big part of the plan is a canal that likely would wrap around the east side of the Delta, taking Sacramento River water to the pumps near Tracy.
Many San Joaquin County water interests have publicly said they oppose a peripheral canal.
The water users will also host a meeting next Tuesday in Stockton to gather comments on the plan. That meeting is scheduled for 6 to 10 p.m. at the Stockton Memorial Civic Auditorium.
Grazing seminar set for Jamestown...The Record
JAMESTOWN - Author Dan Dagget, an expert on grazing in the western United States, will speak at a free seminar on the environmental benefits of grazing from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 17 at K-Arrow Ranch, 11400 Highway 108, Jamestown.
The seminar is sponsored by the Tuolumne County Resource Conservation District with funding from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. It is one of 10 such events being held throughout the Sierra Nevada region and is intended to foster a discussion on how ranchers, agencies and environmental groups can cooperate in managing the landscape and reducing conflict.
Dagget is the author of "Beyond the Rangeland Conflict: Toward a West That Works" and "Gardeners of Eden."
Discussion topics will include the conservation benefits of grazing and strategies for preserving open space and promoting the sustainability of grazing.
Registrations are required; call the National Resources Conservation Service at (209) 223-6528. Reservations must be made by April 8.
Lodi could lose permit to irrigate
Move could force costly upgrade of wastewater plant...Daniel Thigpen
LODI - State water quality regulators today will consider striking down the permit that allows Lodi to irrigate crops with recycled wastewater near its Interstate 5 sewage plant, a move officials say could leave the city on the hook for millions in plant upgrades.
The State Water Resources Control Board is reviewing the permit after a challenge from environmentalists, who long have worried that Lodi is polluting the groundwater farmers tap for irrigation.
Officials maintain the area hasn't been studied enough to conclude the White Slough wastewater treatment plant, and not other operations such as nearby dairies, is responsible for degrading water quality.
They say the expense of more plant upgrades would be painful during tough budget times and could threaten at least one large cannery that is the city's biggest producer of industrial waste.
Other officials think Lodi's ordeal could have a regional impact.
"The Central Valley has thousands of facilities that operate in this manner," said Ken Landau, assistant executive officer of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, a separate agency that issued Lodi's permit. "So a significant change in how to go about regulating the site has an effect far beyond the city of Lodi."
But environmentalists who contested the permit say the problems are real.
"They polluted groundwater," said Bill Jennings, a Stockton environmentalist whose organization, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, appealed Lodi's wastewater discharge permit. "Discharging wastewater is a privilege, and it is only allowable if you do not degrade the environment."
The complicated dispute involves three public agencies: Lodi, which treats wastewater generated in the city; the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Board, which oversees Lodi's White Slough plant; and the State Water Resources Control Board, the body considering Lodi's permit on appeal.
In September 2007, the regional water board renewed the permit that regulates Lodi's disposal of treated wastewater.
Lodi stores much of its treated wastewater in 49 acres of ponds and uses it to irrigate hundreds of acres of feed crops. Industrial waste from some food processors, wineries and manufacturers is piped separately across town and is not treated before it also is applied to crops.
Environmentalists fought the permit, in part claiming the regulations don't do enough to protect the underlying groundwater.
In a draft order, state regulators argue that the wastewater stored in Lodi's ponds is leaching into the groundwater and that Lodi has not done enough to show it has complied with water quality regulations.
If the order is adopted, Lodi might have to make big changes and build expensive plant upgrades, officials said. The city already is expected to finish about $20million worth of overhauls next month that are designed to increase plant capacity and improve treatment.
Lodi officials say previous groundwater testing is not conclusive.
"We feel strongly that the state board can't make the positive claim that we have impacted groundwater in the area," said Charlie Swimley, Lodi's water services manager.
Swimley also said Pacific Coast Producers, a large food processor in Lodi that accounts for most of the city's industrial waste, could be harmed if treatment costs increase.
A Pacific Coast Producers spokesman did not return a call seeking comment Monday.
San Francisco Chronicle
EPA re-evaluates 'green club' for companies...(03-16) 17:10 PDT WASHINGTON (AP)
The Environmental Protection Agency is closing a program that drew complaints from environmentalists for cutting back on company inspections and regulations as a reward for voluntary controls on pollution.
The National Environmental Performance Track Program, established in 2000 but administered mainly during the Bush presidency, enrolled hundreds of corporations in its "green club" if they agreed to undertake initiatives to save energy and reduce pollution. However, investigations of the program questioned its effectiveness.
The agency said in a statement Monday that it would evaluate and refine the program's concepts "in order to develop a stronger system to protect human health and the environment."
In a report issued in 2007, the EPA's inspector general found that underperforming facilities in Performance Track reduced its integrity and value. The program itself lacked clear plans that connected activities with goals and did not show whether it achieved anticipated results, the report said.
The Philadelphia Inquirer first reported on the EPA's plan to halt the program. An Inquirer investigation published in December found that Performance Track lauded companies with suspect environmental records, spent millions on recruiting and publicity, failed to confirm members' environmental pledges independently, and padded its numbers to build membership.
Performance Track had 548 members ranging from Fortune 500 corporations to trailer parks, the Inquirer reported, and some of those recruited by the EPA had mixed if not poor environmental records.
Appeals court upholds feds' salmon hatchery policy...JEFF BARNARD, AP Environmental Writer
Grants Pass, Ore. (AP) --
A federal appeals court Monday upheld the federal government's discretion to use salmon raised in hatcheries to bolster wild runs, but not as a substitute that would lift Endangered Species Act protections.
The ruling Monday by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco included the last of a series of lawsuits on behalf of a coalition of builders, farmers and property rights advocates to remove restrictions on development and agriculture that protect salmon.
It also covered a challenged by conservation groups to a decision by NOAA Fisheries to downgrade protections for steelhead n the upper Columbia River from endangered to threatened.
"We are satisfied that the Hatchery Listing Policy is consistent with both the plain language of the (Endangered Species Act) and with the statutory goal of preserving natural populations," Judge Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain wrote in the opinion. "We are also convinced the decision was based on the best scientific evidence available."
The high water mark for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a property rights public interest law firm representing the coalition, was a 2001 ruling by U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan in Eugene that tossed out threatened species protection for the Oregon coastal coho because hatchery fish were not listed along with wild fish, when they were considered part of the same population group.
NOAA Fisheries came up with a new policy, which allows for hatchery fish to be used to bolster dwindling populations of wild fish, but does not count them equally with protected wild fish. If there are surplus hatchery fish, they can be harvested, even when wild fish must be put back unharmed.
Studies have concluded that fish raised in hatcheries do not survive in the wild as well as fish spawned in the wild. While the fish may be genetically similar, the wild fish have behavioral differences that make them more successful.
"This was the single most important legal case we were faced with under the Endangered Species Act," NOAA Fisheries spokesman Brian Gorman said from Seattle.
"Unlike, say, the hydropower issues we are wrestling with in the Pacific Northwest, this hatchery issue affected virtually every single listing in the country for salmon," he added. "This means that questions over whether or not we can get on with things that move toward recovery have been answered."
Lawyers for both property rights advocates and conservation groups said the U.S. Supreme Court was unlikely to consider the issue.
Pacific Legal Foundation lawyer Damien Schiff said from Sacramento, Calif., that there remained a possibility they could ask the full appeals court to reconsider the cases, and future lawsuits could be brought attacking the issue from a different angle.
But efforts to expand the Oregon coastal coho ruling to other salmon species by arguing hatchery fish can be counted along with wild salmon, "are probably not going to get anywhere in the future," he added.
Jan Hasselman, a lawyer for Earthjustice, which represented the conservation groups, said the good news was that the appeals court recognized that the objective of the Endangered Species Act was to restore wild salmon, not just replace them with fish raised in hatcheries.
"The building industry and Pacific Legal Foundation have engaged in a 10-year effort to reduce protections for wild salmon based on numbers of hatchery fish," he said from Seattle. "That effort is conclusively a failure. The people that supported it within the government are gone. It has been rejected across the board by numerous courts. And wild salmon remain protected. Let's move on to restoring their habitat and put this chapter behind us."
The ruling stemmed from two cases.
One involved a decision by NOAA Fisheries to downgrade protection for Upper Columbia River steelhead from endangered to threatened because hatchery stocks were helping to restore the wild population. Conservation groups sued, and U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour in Seattle agreed with them.
In the other, Pacific Legal Foundation sued on behalf of the building industry, farm and property rights groups to undo the listings of 16 West Coast salmon and steelhead populations, arguing that abundant hatchery fish made it unnecessary to protect the wild ones, or to impose restrictions on development and agriculture to maintain habitat.
Judge Hogan had rejected that challenge, saying the government was not required to treat hatchery and wild fish the same under the new policy.
Housing starts unexpectedly surge
Government report shows construction of new homes jumped 22% in February...Ben Rooney
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Initial construction of U.S. homes unexpectedly surged in February, after falling for eight months, according to a government report released Tuesday.
Housing starts rose to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 583,000 last month, up 22% from a revised 477,000 in January, according to the Commerce Department. It was the first time housing starts increased since June, when they rose 11%.
Economists were expecting housing starts to decline to 450,000, according to consensus estimates compiled by Briefing.com. Still, starts are down more than 47% from February 2008, when over 1.1 million new homes broke ground.
New construction of single-family homes, considered the core of the housing market, increased 1.1% to an annual rate of 357,000 versus 353,000 in January.
February's increase was driven by a nearly 80% increase in construction of multi-family homes. New construction of buildings with 5 or more units increased surged 80% to 212,000 from 118,000 in January.
Applications for building permits, considered a reliable sign of future construction activity, rose 3% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 547,000 last month. Economists were expecting permits to fall to 500,000.
While the surge in new construction was a welcome sign for the nation's battered housing market, analysts warned that the increase could be short lived.
"With new home sales still falling and the months' supply at a record, there is no reason for homebuilding to rise," wrote Ian Sheperdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics in a research note. "This is a temporary rebound, not a recovery."
New home construction surged in the Northeast, jumping nearly 89% last month. Starts also increased in the Midwest and the South.
In the West, where the housing market was overbuilt in the boom years and where there is a glut of foreclosed homes, starts declined nearly 25% versus the previous month.