Merced Sun-Star
Panel approves plans for UC Merced campus growth
Environmental report also gets a green light; board of regents to vote on it today...DANIELLE GAINES
The UC Merced long-range development plan and final environmental impact report received support from a key University of California Regents committee Tuesday.
The committee on grounds and buildings certified the findings of the university's environmental impact report and approved the 2009 long-range development plan.
The committee also adopted a mitigation monitoring program to address environmental concerns at the growing campus.
"I want to commend you for actually revising the campus plan to mitigate the impact on the wetlands," said regent Bonnie Reiss.
UC Merced planners decreased the size of the campus to 815 acres, from 910 acres.
Buildings have also been relocated farther south and east to create the "environmentally least-damaging alternative," according to paperwork filed with the Army Corps of Engineers.
The environmental impact report, also called an environmental impact statement, identifies potential significant environmental impacts associated with the development and operation of the planned 25,000-student campus in Merced County.
The Army Corps must review the final environmental impact report and will issue a record of decision within approximately 60 to 90 days, according to an estimated timeline on its Web site.
After the record of decision, the corps will issue permits that allow the university to build on lands protected by the U.S. Clean Water Act.
The university has worked with the Army Corps since 2002 on environmental impact plans.
In November 2008, the university released a draft of the final report to solicit community comments. Twenty-four comment letters were received by various public agencies and citizens, according to the resolution passed by the regents.
Among the environmental concerns submitted were decreased scenic views of the Sierra Nevada because of construction, increased air toxins, and various other issues related to the increase in population.
UC Merced laid out in detail what actions it would take to lessen each of those impacts.
In the construction phase, builders will use techniques to reduce dust particles in the air by watering down soil before it is removed or driven on.
Community leaders and citizens worried that the increased student population would increase car traffic on area roads and cause deterioration.
UC Merced agreed this was a possibilty and will pitch in for road repairs when needed.
As for the vistas, UC Merced said it will plant tall trees along the western boundary of campus to screen views of the campus facilities from Lake Yosemite. Roads and walkways will be located in areas that will provide views of the mountainside to travelers.
Thomas Lollini, associate vice chancellor for design and construction, said the university is committed to reducing any strain on local utitilies.
The first building to break ground after Army Corps land permits are issued will be a solar photovoltaic facility, Lollini said.
The power generated from the building is expected to produce about 20 percent of the campus' yearly electrical need.
Lollini said photovoltaic cells may also be installed on the rooftops of future buildings and that one planned building may include a photovoltaic skin.
Lollini said the university was also undertaking a water neutrality goal to reduce strain on the regional groundwater aquifer.
The committee's decision will be presented to the full board for final approval on Thursday afternoon. A public comment period will be held at 8:30 a.m. in the commons area at the UC Riverside campus where the board is meeting.
UC Merced Long Range Development Plan Environmental Impact Report...UC Merced
UC Merced/University Community Final EIS/EIR
This Final Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact Report (EIS/EIR) evaluates the potential for significant environmental impacts associated with the development and operation of a major research university campus in Merced County that will support up to 25,000 full‐time equivalent (FTE) students with a contiguous associated community needed to support the university.
Information regarding this  Final Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact Report (EIS/EIR) can be found in the documents listed below. The documents are in PDF format. You will need Acrobat Reader to view these files. Some files are large and may take time to open.
This page was last updated on March 06, 2009:
1.0 Introduction
2.0 Revisions to the Draft EIS/EIR
3.0 Comments on the Draft EIS/EIR and Responses to Comments
4.0 List of Preparers
UC Merced Long Range Development Plan...UC Merced
UC Merced Long Range Development Plan
The University of California, Merced, Long-Range Development Plan is a comprehensive physical development document and land-use plan that will serve as a guide for future growth of the new Merced campus. The LRDP identifies the physical development needed to achieve the mission, academic goals and objectives of the campus -- and provides a map to direct the siting of future campus facilities. The 2002 LRDP has served as the guiding document for the successful development of the first phase of the campus. However, recent changes in permitting subsequent phases of development will require an update of the LRDP. This Web site serves as a portal in providing public information on the process of updating the LRDP.
The LRDP Update
In fall 2005, campus planners began the process of revising the Long-Range Development Plan in response to federal permitting requirements that would allow the continued development of the campus. Over the past several months, The Office of Physical Planning Design and Construction has been working with various stakeholder groups through workshops, presentations and forums designed to disseminate and gather information needed to inform the plan. Scheduled to be completed in the early part of 2009, the LRDP update process is well under way. The guiding document will be used for shaping the physical development of California’s 10th University of California campus.
Merced on verge of breaking developer agreement for first time
Bellevue Ranch builder behind on promised projects in area...SCOTT JASON
Fallout from Merced's housing market crash continues as the city is poised to scrap an agreement with a major developer.
It plans to sue the developer's insurance company for not paving a bike path.
A proposal is headed to the City Council next month to end a development agreement with Woodside Homes for failing to live up to its promises.
Woodside is one of the major developers of Bellevue Ranch, Merced's largest planned community.
If the council agrees to scrap the agreement, building in that part of Bellevue Ranch wouldn't be able to begin until a new deal is reached.
If Bellevue Ranch is completed years from now, the community could hold as many as 6,000 houses and apartments.
Six Woodside subdivisions, off M Street and Cardella Road, are in various phases of construction. The neighborhood features a mix of more than 700 vacant lots and finished homes.
The development agreement spells out what amenities, such as bike paths and stoplights, the developer would build along with the subdivision.
In exchange, it gives the developer some assurances that it would be able to move along with its construction plans.
"It's basically a two-way street," Planning Manager Kim Espinosa said.
One clause in the agreement prevents any growth control measures -- should the city ever institute them -- from affecting Bellevue Ranch, Espinosa said.
The city approved the agreement in 1995. This would be the first time it has moved to cancel such an agreement, Espinosa recalled, though the city has only been using them since the '90s.
"Given the way things are going, I wouldn't be surprised to see another one," Espinosa suggested.
Woodside has failed to build a bike path and is also delinquent in the maintenance fees for its neighborhood, totaling $143,780 at the end of February.
Developers buy bonds to ensure that work they promise is completed. Since Woodside failed to build the bike path, it is now the responsibility of Traveler's Insurance.
Monday night City Attorney Greg Diaz announced the City Council cleared him to file a lawsuit against the firm.
Attorney Rebecca Glos, representing Traveler's, declined to comment.
The bike path, estimated to cost $2.5 million, would begin at G Street, wind through Bellevue Ranch and cross R Street.
The city also is planning second lawsuit against Traveler's for a stoplight that's supposed to be installed at El Redondo Drive and West Yosemite Avenue. The developer in that case is Dunmore Homes.
The City Council called in the bond for that project Oct. 8 and notified Traveler's of its obligation.
"They've been deathly silent," Diaz noted. "Nothing's moved forward and that's not acceptable to the community."
Now the city's ready to make some noise.
Valley bankruptcies up 83% in 2008
Two California districts lead nation in filing increase...MICHAEL DOYLE, Sun-Star Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Central Valley bankruptcy filings soared 83 percent last year, according to a new report that sheds yet more light on the nation's unraveling economy.
The increase in bankruptcy filings in Merced, Sacramento, Modesto and Fresno was the second highest in the nation, exceeding that in 93 of the nation's 94 judicial districts. Only the federal judicial district centered in Los Angeles County ranked higher.
"The increase really started a year ago," noted Janice Kyle, who works with Modesto-based bankruptcy attorney John C. Kyle. "That's when we really started noticing a difference ... because everyone was losing their job."
The Central Valley's bankruptcy filing increase far outpaced the national average. Overall, the 1.1 million bankruptcies filed in 2008 marked a 31 percent jump over 2007. The grim pace shows no sign of slowing, bankruptcy experts warn.
"It's increasing even more," Kyle said Tuesday, adding that "a great number of cases are mortgage-related."
In the three courts that make up the Eastern District of California, 15,594 bankruptcy filings were made in fiscal 2007. This increased to 28,613 in fiscal 2008, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
In the Central District of California, which runs from San Luis Obispo County through Los Angeles and east to Riverside and San Bernardino counties, bankruptcy filings leapt 96 percent last year.
Both of the California judicial districts include communities at or near the national top for home foreclosures.
In another sign of the financial times, the number of defaulted student loan cases increased by 10 percent nationwide.
Behind every search for bankruptcy protection there's a traumatic story, some more unique than others.
Last April, for instance, Jesse Adrian Wagner initiated Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings. As part of the application, he indicated he had been unable to obtain the credit counseling or complete the personal financial management course that is normally required.
But Wagner had a good excuse, a bankruptcy judge concluded. "The debtor in this case is incarcerated at the Sierra Conservation Center, and is unable to use the Internet or to make telephone calls longer than 15 minutes," U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert S. Bardwil noted last year. "In an effort to comply with the credit counseling requirement, the debtor obtained a list of approved providers, and attempted to contact the 15 credit counseling agencies on the list, but none would accept his collect call."
Even with the increase, there are still fewer bankruptcies than before Congress passed a creditor-backed 2005 law intended to curtail allegedly abusive bankruptcy filings. The 2005 law added "a lot more work" to the previous requirements, Kyle noted. That year, there were over 2 million bankruptcy filings.
Fresno Bee
County Supervisor Destroys Endangered Species Preserve; Environmental Groups Demand Prosecution With Jail...Spirit of the Sage Council...Press Release
PASADENA, Calif., March 18 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ Two nonprofit organizations started the legal process to protect a globally imperiled habitat and 247 plant and wildlife species that are dependent upon the protection of North Etiwanda Habitat Preserve, San Bernardino County.
The Spirit of the Sage Council, a nonprofit environmental group based in Pasadena, CA, and a staunch public lands defender, Native Forest Council of Eugene, OR, have joined forces to stop the County from destroying protected habitats and wildlife that use the 763-acre Preserve.
Since 1994, the U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish & Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish and Game have been requesting that the County of San Bernardino protect the globally imperiled Riversidean and Alluvial Fan Sage Scrub habitat area.
When the rare habitat lands were purchased in 1996, to create the North Etiwanda Preserve, it was to be conserved in its entirety to mitigate for damages caused by a highway expansion project in San Bernardino County. The Route 30/210 highway project was going to destroy rare sage habitats and 21 listed and rare species of plants and wildlife. In return, federal and state tax payer funds were used to purchase the land at a Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC) auction and create the North Etiwanda Preserve, with an endowment of $700,000., for its permanent protection and management.
Now, after more than a decade under the management of San Bernardino County, the Preserve is being turned into a park, with a 20 car parking lot, restroom, 10 buildings and kiosks along with hiking and equestrian trails. According to Supervisor Paul Biane, "North Etiwanda will become a destination" for residents throughout San Bernardino and Los Angeles cities.
Environmental groups, state and federal wildlife biologists all agree that the County Supervisor's park and trails plan is not the way to protect and conserve the habitat and endangered species.
"It was a big mistake of the highway and wildlife agencies to let the County manage the Preserve. It was like giving a known child molester a baby," said Leeona Klippstein, Executive Director of the Spirit of the Sage Council.
This week the Sage Council and Native Forest Council began the legal process to hold the local, state and federal government agencies accountable. A 60 Day Notice of Intent to Sue, under the Endangered Species Act, has been received by the County, San Bernardino Association of Governments, U.S. Federal Highways Administration, Caltrans, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game.
"There was no doubt in my mind that what the County is doing to the Preserve was unlawful and a betrayal of public trust. The San Bernardino National Forest is immediately adjacent to the North Etiwanda Preserve to the north. It's just not the biological integrity of 763-acre Preserve that's affected by the habitat destruction. Many of the 247 known species we have identified depend on the Preserve and adjacent lands," said Tim Hermach, President of Native Forest Council.
Some of the wildlife species, including Golden Eagle, Bobcat, Mountain lion, Mule Deer and Black bear come out of the two San Gabriel Mountain range canyons, bordering the east and west of the Preserve, to hunt, forage and find sustenance on the large alluvial fan. Other species of plants and wildlife have been listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, including the California gnatcatcher, Southwestern willow flycatcher, least Bell's vireo, San Bernardino kangaroo rat, Red legged frog and Mountain yellow legged frog to name a few.
Under the federal Endangered Species Act the unpermitted and malicious "take" of listed species and critical habitat is punishable with fines and imprisonment. Supervisor Paul Biane and the County do not have permits to "take" species protected under the Act and did not consult with the permitting agencies.
"Send Supervisor Paul Biane to jail? Absolutely! I can't wait," said Leeona Klippstein of the Sage Council.
SOURCE Spirit of the Sage Council
Sacramento Bee
University fined for violating state wastewater standards...Laurel Rosenhall
University of California, Davis, violated effluent limits at its wastewater treatment plant between April and December 2008 and will pay a penalty of $27,000 to the California Water Quality Control Board.
The violations are considered "non-serious." They occurred when effluent samples slightly exceeded the monthly limits for electrical conductivity set by a wastewater permit.
Campus officials said in a press release that salt from naturally occurring minerals caused the problem.
Infrastructure improvements and a new wastewater discharge permit should keep the violations from happening again, officials said.
Funding given for Yolo Bypass wetlands restoration...Niesha Lofing
The Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area has received $425,000 to restore 700 acres of wetlands habitat, Department of Fish and Game officials announced Tuesday.
The restoration project is scheduled to begin this summer and be completed by fall, transforming hundreds of acres of agricultural land in the Yolo Bypass to seasonal and tidal wetlands habitat, a department news release states.
The project involves re-contouring agricultural fields to create tidal channels, islands and shallow flooded areas, planting tules and installing new water control structures.
Part of the funding for the project comes from a $79,000 settlement from a civil litigation and a $246,000 federal grant to the California Waterfowl Association from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, the release states.
The settlement money is from a 1.3 million-gallon dairy wastewater spill caused by pump failure at a sewage holding pond that contaminated an irrigation canal system in the Dixon area in 2003. The Department of Fish and Game and Solano County District Attorney's Office settled the case with Heritage Dairy over damages to the wildlife and habitat.
Scientists conducted a damage assessment and discovered elevated levels of ammonia and decreased amounts of oxygen in the waterway following the spill, conditions known to be harmful to fish and other aquatic life that lives in canals and sloughs in the area, the release states.
The Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area is a nearly 16,000 acre swath of land between Sacramento and Davis.
For more information about the wildlife area, go to www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region3/yolo/
That uptick in housing starts is not likely happening here...Jim Wasserman...Home Front
There's been a slew of broadcast and print reports out today about an unexpected rise in housing starts in the U.S. in February - and if it signals a ray of hope that things are getting better.
It's not happening here, apparently. The Construction Industry Research Board, the authority on building permits in California, doesn't have February numbers compiled yet. And frankly, I don't know where the Commerce Department gets its numbers.
I called John Orr, president and CEO of the Roseville-based North State Building Industry, and he certainly doubted there's been any February uptick here.
"We don't have the numbers, but my guess would be we're not likely to see that kind of improvement here in the month of February," said Orr. He cited the continuing excess of new homes for sale and "a large inventory of homes running into foreclosure."
"Right now there's not a great deal of motivation to be putting sticks into the ground," he said.
Taking a look back at January: home builders in El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento and Yolo counties received permits to build 179 homes, a 27 percent dip from the same month in 2008. Builders in Yuba and Sutter counties got just one new-home permit, a 95 percent drop from Jan. 2008. Statewide, January home building permits were down 57 percent from the same time in 2008.
Truce in the redwoods...PAUL ROGERS, San Jose Mercury News
EUREKA, Calif. -- Chris Heppe climbed the trail at Headwaters Forest as sunlight streamed through the towering redwood trees.
Moisture glistened off a carpet of ferns. The only sound was the bubbling of a nearby stream.
"See that?" he said, pointing to blue paint on an immense redwood 20 feet around and 1,000 years old. "That means it was going to be harvested. Cut down. But they never got to it."
Ten years ago this month, the state and federal government spent $480 million to buy 7,472 acres from Pacific Lumber and other landowners to create the Headwaters Forest Reserve six miles south of Eureka. The deal ended one of the most bitter environmental conflicts in California history, pitting blue-collar loggers against tree-sitters in dreadlocks, and establishing Pacific Lumber owner Charles Hurwitz as the greatest eco-villain for U.S. environmental groups since the Exxon Valdez's Capt. Joseph Hazelwood.
Today, the misty forest is a national preserve. Some of its trees are more than 320 feet tall - higher than the Statue of Liberty - and were growing during the Roman empire. But because of concerns over endangered species, the federal government has sharply limited public access, with only one year-round public trail into the forest. There is no visitor center and last year just 10,300 pilgrims came to this wooden cathedral, a fraction of the amount who visit Bay Area beaches on a single sunny weekend.
Still, many believe all the battles and the costs went to a worthy cause.
"It was an intense fight; such a divisive era," said Heppe, manager of Headwaters Forest Reserve for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. "The deal was a key point. It allowed us to move on."
Now the immense forest, 250 miles north of the Bay Area, is beginning a rebirth of sorts. The BLM has been dutifully restoring Headwaters, roughly half of which is composed of untouched virgin timber. The other half was logged at one point or another as far back as the 1880s. BLM crews have eliminated 10 miles of old logging roads. They've conducted regular wildlife surveys for endangered spotted owls, salmon and other species (although it's too soon to see much change in animal numbers, they report). And they have thinned more than 1,000 acres of small Douglas fir trees to speed the return of massive redwoods.
"The people of the United States and the people have California have 7,500 acres of the most glorious, pristine, ancient redwoods protected for all time," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who brokered the deal with Hurwitz. "I would dare anybody to go up the trail and say it wasn't worth it."
Pacific Lumber, shouldered with more than $700 million in debt, declared bankruptcy in 2007. Parent company Maxxam's stock, $57 a decade ago, is now $5 a share.
During the bankruptcy trial last year, a new company formed by Donald and Doris Fisher, the billionaire San Francisco founders of The Gap, acquired all 211,000 acres of Pacific Lumber's land and its historic sawmill in the town of Scotia.
Their new Humboldt Redwood Company won't cut redwoods larger than 48 inches in diameter, said chairman Sandy Dean. They have banned clear cuts. And their logging level will be about one-fifth of Hurwitz's. It's an operation with about 220 employees, compared with the 1,600 Pacific Lumber had at its peak. Maxxam did not return calls for this story.
"Our mission is to be good stewards of the land and to run a successful business. We think we have found a good balance," said Dean, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker.
The battle for the last giant redwoods in the 1990s deeply divided Humboldt County, California's leading timber county. Contentious images made national headlines for years. Angry protest marches started not long after 1986, when Houston-based Maxxam, chaired by Hurwitz, took over the family-owned Pacific Lumber with junk bonds from Michael Milken and tripled logging rates to pay off the debt.
Two leaders of the radical environmental group Earth First!, Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney, were the targets of numerous death threats. Then, in 1990, while the pair drove from Oakland to Santa Cruz looking for recruits to their cause, a pipe bomb explosion ripped apart the car, badly injuring Bari.
Humboldt County sheriff's deputies pepper sprayed the eyes of screaming young activists who chained themselves together in 1997. And most famous of all was Julia Butterfly Hill, who climbed a 180-foot redwood, named it "Luna" and sat there for two years in driving rain and windstorms to stop it from being cut down.
"I dealt with her," said Dan Collings, a former Pacific Lumber logger whose job was to climb up and haul environmental protesters out.
"Julia believed the trees had souls, and maybe personalities. I said, 'Get real. It's a beautiful tree, but you probably have an interesting conversation with your broccoli at dinner too.' "
Such was the cultural chasm of the time.
"I said to this one Earth First! girl in the woods: 'You know, you're an attractive girl. Why don't you take a bath?' " Collings, now 51, recently recalled with a chuckle.
"And she said 'you'll get used to it. People wash off too much of their natural body oils.' And I was like, that's why God gave us soap!"
Longtime residents remember the redwood battles well.
"We had all these cars with New York license plates, that looked like they were about to break down, with dreadlocks and hippies," said Katherine Harvey, a retired school cafeteria supervisor who has lived in Humboldt County since 1950.
"They would camp here and there. It was a little terrifying for some of the older people. They wanted the mill to stop cutting trees. But my husband built our three-bedroom house with lumber from that mill."
While Birkenstock vegans and cork-booted loggers aren't exactly car pooling together yet, a decade later, a truce has settled over redwood country.
"I think people are glad that the protests are over and everything is more peaceful," Harvey said. "It split the community. But now people are more concerned with the economy and keeping their jobs."
Motorists driving along Highway 101 here now could easily miss the small brown sign that notes the exit for Headwaters Forest Reserve. There hasn't been much built at Headwaters. The BLM has opened only two public trails. None go to the back country where the biggest trees are. One, from the south, is available only by guided tour from May to September. The other entrance, in the north, has a parking lot, a bathroom and a few signs. Visitors must walk five miles to see a small grove of old-growth redwoods.
BLM officials and environmental groups say endangered wildlife, such as coho salmon, the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet, a diminutive seabird that nests in old-growth redwoods, would be disturbed if new trails were cut and hikers, horse riders or mountain bikers poured in.
"If you were looking for a place that's a reference point for what a stream in an undisturbed redwood forest should be, that's it," said Paul Mason, deputy director of the California Sierra Club.
"If you start mucking around, carving trails into unstable hillsides that get lots of rain, it is going to have an impact. You have to ask how high a priority is it? I haven't heard people arguing for more access."
A few have. During the process to draw up a management plan in 2003, numerous groups advocated for more access, including the International Mountain Bicycling Association, Back Country Horsemen of California, and the California Equestrian Trail & Lands Coalition.
Don Amador, a spokesman for the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a group that advocates for increased motorized access to public lands, said the restrictions were unfair and "a misuse of over half a billion dollars of taxpayer funds." Those debates linger today, but pale in comparison to the massive shift in the community now under way. Without much left to fight over, the loggers and environmentalists are starting a new era.
In addition to preserving Headwaters Forest, the 1999 deal also gave 50-year protections to 11 "lesser cathedrals" of old-growth redwood nearby and set limits on how Pacific Lumber's remaining lands could be logged.
Last fall, a few months after Humboldt Redwoods took the keys to the mill, Dean, the company's chairman and its president, Mike Jani, went into the woods and told the last few tree-sitters they wouldn't cut old-growth trees or order clear cuts.
In September, the last two, both 22, came down.
"All the environmentalists I know really want to see this company succeed," Mason said. "This is tree-growing country. Humboldt Redwood Company is making a good-faith effort to do it well. We all use wood products. Let's figure out how we can produce them in a sustainable manner."
San Francisco Chronicle
Use gray water, rain gardens to save water...Sophia Markoulakis, Special to The Chronicle
Despite the recent rain, Californians are facing water conservation. It's time to look around and alter how we use the water we do have.
Any bad-habit fix requires a bit of introspection and analysis. Consider how many times you turn on the faucet to get a drink, wash up or flush the pipes out before making the morning pot of coffee.
Avoid wasting faucet water by collecting what would normally go down the drain: Gather it in a pitcher for other uses or purchase a countertop water filtration pitcher.
For a few dollars you can purchase new 10-gallon paint buckets with lids and store them near sinks. Make sure those buckets have handles because they'll get full and heavy in no time. Keep one in the bathroom to collect water while it heats. If your shower's large enough to accommodate a bucket, keep one there as well to collect any clean wayward water.
When prepping and cooking in the kitchen, clean fruits and vegetables in a water bath, saving dirty water in a bucket, and repeat until clean. Even cooking water from vegetables and pasta can be saved for use outside. And water left in disposable water bottles? Pet bowls or patio plants are the perfect spot. For smaller dwellings, collect water in a watering can to water houseplants and container plants.
Long-term water-storage solutions can be coupled with rain harvesting. Rain barrels can accommodate collected water from inside the house just as it collects water from the roof with this centuries-old technique.
There are numerous retail resources for rain barrels, but be prepared to spend as much as $200 for a complete kit. Several DIY Web sites, and even sites such as Craigslist, offer less expensive options using reclaimed wood or food-safe plastic barrels. The jury's still out on which is more sustainable or inexpensive when you consider the shorter life span of the DIY barrel. Factory-made rain barrels also come in a variety of sizes, shapes and materials.
Not too long ago the talk was how to divert water away from property via French drains, sump pumps and sloping landscaping, but today the talk seems to be about water collecting around homes and yards. Rain gardens combine the best of water harvesting and sustainable landscaping practices.
Some key elements of a rain garden include the collection, distribution and absorption of water, while creating and encouraging a natural habitat for wildlife and native plants. Creating shallow depressions or swales in the soil, placed near planting areas, are designed to collect rain and irrigation water and distribute it via absorption through the soil.
Sustainable Fairfax ( www.sustainablefairfax.org), a nonprofit educational organization in Marin County, has a volunteer-run Sustainability Center and Sustainability Backyard. It recently hosted a rain garden tour.
"We had 50 people in the rain, touring three examples of rain gardens, from our own sustainable center's rain garden in the center of town, to a private residence and a local school yard which has a 30,000-gallon cistern system feeding their edible garden," said Pam Hartwell-Herrero, executive director. "There is so much demand for this kind of information. Water is really big now."
Hartwell-Herrero welcomes people to stop by noon to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
About gray water
Gray water is untreated reused household water from laundry, dishes and the bath and is legal to use in California in conjunction with the California Graywater Standards. Confirm gray water use with your local public works department.
Gray water can harbor harmful bacteria and spread disease, so use caution when collecting and distributing water around the yard. Gray water should be used only on established plants such as hardy ornamental perennials.
Roofing materials such as asphalt or treated wood and lead gutters can contaminate harvested roof water and should not be used for potable water purposes. Rainwater harvested from rooftops of large cities like San Francisco can also carry atmospheric pollutants and should wisely be used on tender edible plants. Check Scorecard's Web site ( www.scorecard.org) for possible air pollutants in your area.
-- www.harvesth2o.com for rainwater harvesting information
-- www.sfwater.org for San Francisco Public Utilities Commission
-- www.ebmud.com for East Bay Municipal Utility District
-- www.epa.gov/ow for the EPA's Office of Water
-- www.water.ca.gov to download California's gray water handbook
Los Angeles Times
Gray water debate in Sacramento steams up...Susan Carpenter, Greenspace 
The graywater debate is reaching the boiling point in Sacramento, with lawmakers and gray water advocates both getting steamed in their attempts to draft a new residential gray water standard for the state of California. Under current law, homeowners who want to install systems that recycle the wastewater generated from their sinks, showers, bathtubs and laundry machines into their landscaping must conform to Appendix G of the California plumbing code, which requires that gray water systems not only be permitted by the appropriate administrative authority but installed underground with extensive filtering apparatus.
Appendix G went into effect in 1992 at the tail end of a five-year drought. Its update was required by Senate Bill 1258, which passed last summer, requiring the state's Department of Housing and Community Developmentto revise the code in an effort "to conserve water by facilitating greater reuse of graywater in California." While the code's revision is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2011, its specific provisions are currently under intense debate.
Gray water advocates say California's current residential gray water standard is too restrictive, impractical and expensive and are lobbying for a standard similar to Arizona's. In Arizona, homeowners are allowed to install gray water systems without a permit as long as they are recycling no more than 400 gallons of gray water a day and follow a set of 13 guidelines. Representatives from California's Department of Housing and Community Development, however, say they have to come up with a workable standard that "won't create any type of a long-term hazard for the whole state," said Jim Rowland, the HCD representative who is working on the new code. "We're not going to make everybody happy, but there's a bull's-eye in there somewhere."
According to Rowland, the main issues in the code's revision are the permitting and design processes. Under the current code, homeowners must obtain a permit to install a gray water system, and that system must be designed to meet all the technical requirements set forth in Appendix G. Rowland said his department is considering a permit exemption for a certain type of gray water system, i.e. a laundry machine diversion. His department is also determining if licensed contractors and governmental inspections should be required with those systems that would still require permits.
On the design side, Rowland said "there's a desire to have this be performance regulated rather than a prescriptive design. Instead of requiring X number of feet of pipe with X amount of holes for drainage at X depth, you are required to design the system so it will use all of the water intended from the fixtures that drain into it on a daily basis so you don't have standing water."
Standing water is an issue with gray water irrigation, which runs the risk of becoming "black water," or sewage, if it isn't absorbed into the landscape within 24 hours. Its black water potential is among the possible negative health effects the HCD is investigating -- ones that are difficult to fully understand since very little long-term research exists on the subject, Rowland said.
Though gray water proponents say there have been no documented cases of gray water-involved illness in the United States, Rowland says there's also no long-term study that's been completed on the subject. Absent that, he said, "We really don't have anything to point to if we're challenged" by the state's Building Standards Commission, which ultimately has to sign off on any code the HCD comes up with.
Meanwhile, as the state's water crisis deepens, the use of unpermitted gray water systems continues throughout California. Art Ludwig, an ecological designer in Santa Barbara who has written three books about gray water and has been giving input to Rowland and the HCD, says only 10 permits for gray water systems have been issued in Santa Barbara in the last 21 years. He estimates there are 1.7 million non-permit gray water systems in the entire state, citing a Graywater Awareness and Usage Study conducted by the Soap and Detergent Assn., which found that 13.9% of Californians were using gray water.
In Los Angeles, fewer than 10 residential systems are permitted and legally installed each year through the Building and Safety Department. Dick Bennett, of the East Bay Municipal Utility District in Northern California, says fewer than 10 permits have been issued in his 1.4-million-residence area in the past 15 years.
"I get calls daily from people who want to know about gray water. They’re collecting it in a bucket, and they want to know about putting in a more formal system, and I give them the information and I never hear back," said Bennett, whose agency offers rebates of $250-$500 for legally installed systems that cost upward of $5,000. "That tells me if they did go ahead with gray water, they went with an unpermitted system.
"In a water shortage, that’s just where people go," added Bennett. "They went there in 1976 during the severe water shortage. They went there from 1988 to 1992, when we had the last serious water shortage. And they’re going to it again this year."
Who owns Colorado's rainwater?
Environmentalists and others like to gather it in containers for use in drier times. But state law says it belongs to those who bought the rights to waterways...Nicholas Riccardi
Reporting from Denver — Every time it rains here, Kris Holstrom knowingly breaks the law.
Holstrom's violation is the fancifully painted 55-gallon buckets underneath the gutters of her farmhouse on a mesa 15 miles from the resort town of Telluride. The barrels catch rain and snowmelt, which Holstrom uses to irrigate the small vegetable garden she and her husband maintain.
But according to the state of Colorado, the rain that falls on Holstrom's property is not hers to keep. It should be allowed to fall to the ground and flow unimpeded into surrounding creeks and streams, the law states, to become the property of farmers, ranchers, developers and water agencies that have bought the rights to those waterways.
What Holstrom does is called rainwater harvesting. It's a practice that dates back to the dawn of civilization, and is increasingly in vogue among environmentalists and others who pursue sustainable lifestyles. They collect varying amounts of water, depending on the rainfall and the vessels they collect it in. The only risk involved is losing it to evaporation. Or running afoul of Western states' water laws.
Those laws, some of them more than a century old, have governed the development of the region since pioneer days.
"If you try to collect rainwater, well, that water really belongs to someone else," said Doug Kemper, executive director of the Colorado Water Congress. "We get into a very detailed accounting on every little drop."
Frank Jaeger of the Parker Water and Sanitation District, on the arid foothills south of Denver, sees water harvesting as an insidious attempt to take water from entities that have paid dearly for the resource.
"Every drop of water that comes down keeps the ground wet and helps the flow of the river," Jaeger said. He scoffs at arguments that harvesters like Holstrom only take a few drops from rivers. "Everything always starts with one little bite at a time."
Increasingly, however, states are trying to make the practice more welcome. Bills in Colorado and Utah, two states that have limited harvesting over the years, would adjust their laws to allow it in certain scenarios, over the protest of people like Jaeger.
Organic farmers and urban dreamers aren't the only people pushing to legalize water harvesting. Developer Harold Smethills wants to build more than 10,000 homes southwest of Denver that would be supplied by giant cisterns that capture the rain that falls on the 3,200-acre subdivision. He supports the change in Colorado law.
"We believe there is something to rainwater harvesting," Smethills said. "We believe it makes economic sense."
Collected rainwater is generally considered "gray water," or water that is not reliably pure enough to drink but can be used to water yards, flush toilets and power heaters. In some states, developers try to include a network of cisterns and catchment pools in every subdivision, but in others, those who catch the rain tend to do so covertly.
In Colorado, rights to bodies of water are held by entities who get preference based on the dates of their claims. Like many other Western states, Colorado has more claims than available water, and even those who hold rights dating back to the late 19th century sometimes find they do not get all of the water they should.
"If I decide to [take rainwater] in 2009, somewhere, maybe 100 miles downstream, there's a water right that outdates me by 100 years" that's losing water, said Kevin Rein, assistant state engineer.
State Sen. Chris Romer found out about this facet of state water policy when he built his ecological dream house in Denver, entirely powered by solar energy. He wanted to install a system to catch rainwater, but the state said it couldn't be permitted.
"It was stunning to me that this common-sense thing couldn't be done," said Romer, a Democrat. He sponsored a bill last year to allow water harvesting, but it did not pass.
"Welcome to water politics in Colorado," Romer said. "You don't touch my gun, you don't touch my whiskey, and you don't touch my water."
Romer and Republican state Rep. Marsha Looper introduced bills this year to allow harvesting in certain circumstances. Armed with a study that shows that 97% of rainwater that falls on the soil never makes it to streams, they propose to allow harvesting in 11 pilot projects in urban areas, and for rural users like Kris Holstrom whose wells are depleted by drought.
In contrast to the high-stakes maneuvering in the capital, Holstrom looks upon the state's regulation of rainwater with exasperated amusement.
Holstrom, director of sustainability for Telluride, and her husband, John, have lived on their farm since 1988. During the severe drought at the start of this decade, their well began drying up. Placing rain barrels under the gutters was the natural thing to do, said Holstrom, 51.
"Rain out here comes occasionally, and can come really hard," she said. "To be able to store it for when you need it is really great."
Holstrom had a vague awareness of state regulations. She decided to test it last summer when she was teaching a class on water harvesting. She called the state water department, which told her it was technically illegal, though it was unlikely that she would be cited.
Holstrom is known in southwestern Colorado for a lifestyle and causes that many deem quixotic. The land she and her husband own holds a yurt and tepees to house "interns" who help on their organic farm in the summers. It boasts a greenhouse, which even on a recent snowy day held an oasis of rosemary, artichokes, salad greens and a fig tree.
She plucked a bit of greens from one plant and munched on it as goldfish swam in a small, algae-filled pond that helps heat the enclosure. "This has been my passion for a long time -- trying to live the best way I know how," she said.