High-speed rail planners roll through Merced with details of project...DANIELLE GAINES
Whistle wailing, a Union Pacific train sped past the Merced Senior Center on Wednesday afternoon.
Inside the building, dozens of community members walked along neat rows of colorful posters portraying a whole new breed of train: the high-speed wonder that will whiz through town 10 years from now.
Representatives from the California High-Speed Rail Authority were in Merced to unveil proposed routes through town and answer residents' questions.
Gary Kennerley, a project manager for the authority, said nothing is definite. He indicated, though, that the rail authority was leaning toward building the high-speed rail line along the BNSF existing railway south of 23rd Street.
He also said the authority considered Castle Air Force Base its first choice for a major maintenance hub.
Still, "There is nothing in stone," he said. "(Castle) will be looked at, as will the other locations."
Other maintenance sites are being considered near Chowchilla and Madera.
"We have the lines already going into Castle," Atwater Councilman Joe Rivero said. "It is centrally located. It would be a good choice for us and a good choice for the system."
The first priority for the rail authority is to create a line that starts in San Francisco, heads south through the Central Valley after a brief jog north to Merced and ends in Los Angeles. Travel time for the entire route is 2 hours, 45 minutes. Later sections would be added to connect Sacramento in the north to San Diego in the south.
In the Valley, the train would stop in Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield. A stop between Fresno and Bakersfield would be included in Visalia, Tulare or Hanford.
In general, the high-speed route would follow existing transportation corridors to decrease environmental damage.
Community members at the session were interested in seeing the project get under way. On one comment board, the suggestion scrawled in red marker was simple: "Start digging now." Another person added: "Go for it -- and hire local consultants."
Jim Sutherland, a 63-year-old retired Merced resident said he was "100 percent behind the project."
He even said he would consider working part-time if the Castle maintenance hub goes from blueprint to bricks and mortar.
As a longtime observer of rail transportation, Sutherland said high-speed service was long overdue.
"There are a lot of things I would like to do on the rail," he said. "I could go to Southern California and sightsee. Now that I can."
Sutherland wasn't alone. Even people from 4,000 miles away were on board with the plan.
Tom Watson, 38, attended the meeting with his extended family. Watson, his wife and two daughters live in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His wife is from Merced, and they decided to attend the meeting while visiting her parents.
"I think it is a great idea, a very interesting idea," Watson said.
He said his family would most likely use the rail when traveling from the San Francisco airport to Merced on family vacations.
Larry Salinas, an assistant vice chancellor at UC Merced, said the rail service would help the university attract more students and also provide students an easy way to connect with their family and friends on weekends.
Kennerley said all the excitement at the meeting was a good sign for what is the very start of the final planning process.
The meeting Wednesday was to solicit suggestions from the community about preferred routes and potential environmental concerns.
The authority will host several similar meetings throughout California before identifying alternative plans.
Those plans will undergo a public review process before an environmental impact report is prepared.
Kennerley said planners were hoping for all the environmental documents to be certified by 2012.
If ground breaks in 2011, train service is expected to begin as early as 2018.
Californians approved a $40 billion state bond to fund the project in November 2008.
County supervisor Jerry O'Banion said he supported the project, but hoped a stop in Los Banos might be added before the plans become final.
O'Banion noted that much of the information at the meeting was still speculation.
"It is the future. It is not going to happen overnight," he said. "But if you don't start planning sometime, it will never occur."
If the project is completed, transportation in the Central Valley would be transformed.
"It will be more like flying on the ground rather than taking the train," Kennerley said.
Now that's high speed.
How to comment
Written comments: California High-Speed Rail Authority
Mr. Dan Leavitt, deputy director
Attn: San Jose to Merced HST Project EIR/EIS
925 L Street, Suite 1425; Sacramento, CA 95814
Fax: (916) 322-0827
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Include "San Jose to Merced HST" in the subject line.
Schwarzenegger visits Merced to highlight highway project getting federal dollars...SCOTT JASON
With big rigs blaring approval from Highway 99 on Wednesday morning, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger touted dozens of construction projects set to be built with federal economic stimulus money.
One project includes replacing bridges that cross Bear Creek and 16th Street.
"In the end it's not just about rebuilding California," Schwarzenegger said. "It's about creating jobs."
Tieless, tan and wearing a beige suit, he asserted that the $46.7 million replacement bridges project will create more than 800 jobs.
Caltrans is spending $625 million on 57 separate highway projects as part of the first wave of the economic stimulus money.
The U.S. Department of Transportation just approved California's slate of projects, clearing the way for contracts to be signed.
Schwarzenegger, along with other state and local leaders, gathered along orange traffic cones in front of the highway to praise the economic stimulus package. Caltrans workers in hard hats formed a backdrop for the speakers.
The press conference fell on the same day President Barack Obama made his first visit to California since taking office.
The construction work will create more than 11,000 jobs in the state, Schwarzenegger maintained.
With California's unemployment rate at 10.1 percent, he said it's crucial to put people to work.
Schwarzenegger said he chose to highlight the upcoming projects in Merced because Sacramento politicians often forget there's a Central Valley between Northern and Southern California.
"This is a big and important part of the state," he noted.
Merced is among the top recipients, surpassed only by Los Angeles and San Francisco counties, which will see $125 million and $50 million.
Caltrans crews in August are set to begin work on widening the two two-lane bridges into two three-lane bridges, adding a lane in each direction.
Mayor Ellie Wooten said that big projects such as this are what Merced's economy, faced with near-record unemployment, needs.
"It will bring us contractors -- jobs -- who will hire subcontractors -- jobs -- who will bring in suppliers of iron, asphalt, concrete," Wooten said. "These people will trickle down into our city."
Clark Hulbert, Teichert Construction's district manager in Turlock, said his firm will be busier as it hopes to land some of the work, including the Merced project. It's been forced to shed workers as projects have decreased.
"By and large, our craft employees have not had good years," he said. "I certainly think this will be a boost. We all could be busier."
Jim Earp, executive director of the California Alliance for Jobs, said the added labor for construction workers couldn't have come at a better time because commercial and residential projects are at a standstill.
"The only game in town and the only thing keeping them alive is public works," he said.
The projects fall under the State Highway Operations and Protection Program and were first to receive federal money because they improve public safety.
Schwarzenegger is set to introduce the president at a Southern California event today and will meet with him at the White House to discuss the state's high-speed rail project and other infrastructure goals.
Caltrans Director Will Kempton said the state's Treasury Department has already received the money.
"We are going forward with the activity in the next couple of months -- the first part of August," Kempton said. "And we're going to try to accelerate that date."
The state estimates it will receive about $2.57 billion for infrastructure projects through the federal stimulus package.
California Conference of Carpenters Director Danny Curtin, also on hand for the press conference, praised the governor, saying that he's able to see opportunity in crises.
"California will be well-positioned to lead in the 21st century. This will just be a hiccup in a couple years," Curtin said. "I know that's hard to swallow."
But not as hard to swallow as being out of work.
Merced County Times
Council votes to keep 60-day period for public comment on proposed Wal-Mart Center...Beverly Barela
Whether to extend the 60-day period for written public comment on the Wal-Mart Distribution Center proposed to be located in Southeast Merced was an issue hotly debated at Monday night’s Merced City Council meeting.
After hearing pleas from residents on both sides of the issue, including a spokesperson from the Hmong community, the Council voted 5 to 1 that the 60-day period for public comment on the draft Environmental Impact Report would remain in effect.
The majority of speakers and Council members agreed that the 441-page draft EIR and 675-page appendices documents were technical, but the Council’s solution was to direct staff to work with the Lao Family Community and Hispanic Chamber to provide translation services at public hearings relating to the project. No public information meetings to explain or translate the draft EIR were authorized during the 60-day review period.
By way of background, the draft EIR, which analyzes the impact of the proposed 1.1 million square foot warehouse on Merced’s environment, was made available to the public on Feb. 25 by Merced city staff, starting a 60-day time period for members of the public to make written comments. At the previous Council meeting on March 2, several local residents expressed their concerns that the draft EIR is too technical for the average person to be able to understand and make an informed written comment by April 28. They requested an extension of time past 60 days, and for informational meetings where the public could have at least the main parts of the document explained or translated.
During the March 16 Council meeting, Kim Espinosa, the city’s Planning Manager, came to the podium to reveal the Planning Department’s recommendation about the requested extension.
She said, “The city is in receipt of a number of requests to extend the public review period of the draft EIR. Staff feels 60 days is an adequate time to review the document. The recommendation is not to extend the period further.”
In support of this recommendation, Espinosa quoted the portion of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) Guidelines which states, “The public review period for a draft EIR should not be less than 30 days nor longer than 60 days except in unusual circumstances.”
According to Espinosa, CEQA doesn’t provide guidelines defining “unusual circumstances.”
She was not in favor of providing translations of the document because there is no statutory requirement for doing so, and she was concerned about the cost, and about verifying a translation’s accuracy.
She said, “The Lao Family is willing to provide translators.”
During the ensuing debate, Merced Mayor Pro Tem John Carlisle asked, pointedly, “How long did the draft EIR take to prepare?”
Espinosa replied, “There were a lot of contract amendments so it wasn’t a continuous process. It took almost three years to have the document completed and ready for public review.”
Carlisle then shared his opinion, saying, “We would be doing a disservice if we rush through what has been a three-year process.”
He added, “I support a reasonable extension to address residents’ concerns and digest the report which is not easily read by the average person.”
Resident Lisa Kayser-Grant was also adamant that since it took so long to prepare the document, it was only fair that the public have a longer time than 60 days to understand it.
She said, “It’s up to us average people to understand the impacts and decide if the mitigations are good enough. Who’s getting pinched here? The average citizen, and that’s clearly unfair.”
Resident John Grant agreed with the request for more time, saying, “I undertook to read CEQA documents with the RMP documents. The documents were difficult. You have to read CEQA. It’s far more than complex — it’s compound. You have to know what things mean in terms of CEQA law.”
Resident Jeff Freitas, who introduced himself as a former engineer, also said that he would appreciate additional time. He opined, “We need to be able to voice our own opinions, and look at other examples of environmental concerns. It would be nice to have jobs and know we’re going to have a safe and secure environment, as well.”
Resident Richard Harriman, who is an environmental attorney, requested the review period be extended to 90 days. He said, “I’ve been involved with CEQA litigation for 30 years.” Harriman explained his point of view that the community has a high percentage of Latinos and Asian immigrant from Laos, and there should be “interpretations and translations with help from the Lao Family”.
Voicing an opinion against extending the review period, Espinoa said, “Once the public comment closes, the applicant has to prepare a response to each comment. If there is a longer time, there will be more comments.”
Bruce Logue, Chairman of the Board of the Greater Merced Chamber, agreed, saying, “We believe 60 days is generous. We think that’s a reasonable amount of time.”
Also in support of retaining the 60-day period, resident Desmond Johnston introduced himself as a “planner for 22 years, mostly implementing CEQA”. He said, “The Executive Summary is not going to say a different thing than the rest of the document. All the impacts and mitigation measures are there. I haven’t seen a review period for an EIR go more than 45 days. The problem is the process becomes more complex by creating opportunity and exposing the project to risk.”
A spokesman for the Hmong community, Ge Thao, said, “I work for the Merced Lao Family. We are also in support, not to extend past 60 days. So far, we have not had any complaint from the Hmong community. We’re also willing to work with the city to provide interpretation to make sure our members understand.”
Councilman William Spriggs also spoke against extending the time period, noting, “It’s a pretty basic document. You can get the significant stuff out of the Executive Summary.”
Councilman Spriggs explained that he read the entire draft EIR of over 400 pages during a plane ride, and that although he usually cannot sleep on a plane, he was able to sleep. He said, “It’s pretty boring stuff.”
He concluded, “60 days is reasonable. I received three or four to one e-mails in favor of moving ahead with the project, not delaying.”
Council members Joe Cortez and Michele Gabriault-Acosta said also that the e mails they had received from the public were 4 to 1 in favor of moving ahead with the project.
Councilman Cortez said, “People are looking for jobs. People are getting laid off. We need to start thinking about jobs. For that reason, I support the staff report.”
Doug Fluetsch, Chairman of the Merced County Jobs Coalition, said, “Our city is being beaten down by the highest unemployment and highest foreclosures. We’re talking tonight about delay of one of the few cures in sight - - more jobs. Any further extension is only a delay. Citizens need jobs as quickly as possible.”
The Council then voted to retain the 60-day time period for public comment, with Mayor Pro Tem John Carlisle casting the only dissenting vote.
In other Merced City Council news,...
From the river to the tap?
Lodi opts to move ahead on plans for conversion plant...Daniel Thigpen
LODI - Lodi will spend nearly $1 million to study and design a plant that, if built, will convert river water into drinking water.
One sticking point: The city is not yet sure how it will pay to actually build that plant.
And the money to pay for those designs might come from the sale of river water Lodi for years has purchased - but cannot use - because it doesn't have the plant to treat it.
The City Council on Wednesday voted 3-2 to start initial plans for the water plant, proposed for vacant land just west of Lodi Lake, and for city officials to try to sell unused water the city already has claimed from the Mokelumne River to the north.
But council critics said the city should not design a plant it hasn't yet figured out how it will build.
"It's quite frankly the reason why the community has lost trust in the council," said Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce, who voted against the proposals. "We've gone out and spent money we don't have."
Anticipating an increase in demand for water as the city grows, the city in 2003 struck a deal with the Woodbridge Irrigation District to tap the Mokelumne River at a rate of 6,000 acre-feet of water annually at a cost of $1.2 million each year.
One acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons, enough to serve two single-family households each year.
Since 2003, the city has paid for the water, but it has not used any. The city can "bank" the water until 2010.
After then, the city starts losing water because it can no longer stockpile it - but the city must still pay for it.
Having a water treatment plant would solve that problem. But plans to build it have stalled along with the depressed housing market, because funding originally was supposed to come from new-housing fees.
Public Works Director Wally Sandelin told council members Wednesday the city is looking into alternative funding sources, including applying for federal stimulus money. Plant cost estimates have exceeded $40 million.
To pay for initial plant designs, Sandelin has proposed selling at least one year's worth of banked water. The city must first get permission from the irrigation district, however, before putting that water on the market.
The idea, he said, is to have plant designs and studies in place by the time money is found to construct the plant so there are no further delays.
"This is a smart thing to do," Councilman Larry Hansen said. "This is a way of protecting and ensuring we have water for the citizens of Lodi."
Cost of new, spartan Delta campus likely to increase...Alex Breitler
MOUNTAIN HOUSE -About two dozen portable buildings sit in rows on a blacktop, flanked on all sides by vacant fields.
It's not the fancy south-county campus once envisioned by San Joaquin Delta College.
Nevertheless, new college trustees who criticized the Mountain House plan on the campaign trail seem to be warming up to - or at least accepting - the campus, as construction crews prepare for the start of classes in August.
"It is what it is," Trustee Teresa Brown said after touring the campus Wednesday. "I know that it's what goes on inside the classroom that makes the difference. You can have a beautiful building, with nothing happening inside."
Trustees voted in January to postpone constructing a $54 million building at Mountain House; instead, the college is relying on portables. That decision saves millions of Measure L bond money for other possible projects, such as facilities in Lodi or the Mother Lode.
Changing course did have its downside: The Mountain House campus, although far cheaper without the permanent building, could go up in cost by nearly $4 million if officials, among other needs, expand parking and add landscaping to fields that in a few short months will be brown and barren.
The portables, for example, were installed in an area that was originally supposed to be parking. With anywhere from 2,000 to 2,400 students expected to attend classes, and a lack of bus service at the moment, the 275 parking spots may be at a premium come fall.
Board President Steve Castellanos said he was not surprised cost estimates went up.
"There are always unforeseen changes," he said. "It makes sense to me that these things are necessary."
In total, the cost of the campus would climb from $25.6 million to $29.5 million. Had trustees gone with the original plan of a permanent building, the overall cost would have approached $80 million.
Officials say they hope a structure can eventually be built at the site, perhaps with state assistance, although President Raul Rodriguez acknowledged that any state money could be a decade away.
For years, Mountain House has been the "third rail" in the debate over Delta's $250 million voter-approved Measure L bond. Project delays and consideration of other sites led to cost overruns; ultimately the San Joaquin County Grand Jury said the former Board of Trustees wasted millions of dollars by picking Mountain House.
Some current trustees are still not crazy about the location, far west of the south-county's urban centers.
"But it's done," Trustee Mary Ann Cox said. "It's there, and we're going to try to make it usable for the students that will come there."
San Francisco Chronicle
Sacramento River's chinook face double whammy...Jane Kay, Chronicle Environment Writer
Sacramento River's prized chinook salmon suffered a one-two punch from poor conditions in the ocean and the river, leading to the sudden collapse of the fall run, according to a study released Wednesday.
Years of losing habitat to water diversions and storage in the Central Valley so weakened the fall run that it couldn't withstand two recent years of scanty food supply in the warming Pacific Ocean, said the study by federal, state and academic scientists.
"Poor ocean conditions triggered the collapse. But what primed it is the degradation of the estuary and river habitats and the heavy reliance on hatcheries over the years," said Steve Lindley, lead author and a research ecologist at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Over decades, construction of dams and other barriers, reliance on hatcheries and diversion of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta have changed California's chinook salmon from genetically diverse, naturally spawning wild populations to one dominated by fall chinook salmon from four large hatcheries, the study said.
When the Central Valley had many salmon runs, the fish would migrate to the ocean at different times, increasing their odds of surviving unpredictable conditions. But the biggest remaining run, the fall run, is heavy on hatchery fish that all migrate at once and can be wiped out by poor climate and sparse food.
Last year, for the first time in California history, commercial and sport fishing was banned. Two consecutive years of low returning spawners - 87,881 in 2007 and 66,286 in 2008 - indicate that the federal regulatory body, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, will set similar curbs for this year's fishing season, which begins in May.
In a surprise finding, the study concluded that the council had a hand in the fish's sharp decline by failing to curtail fishing in 2007. Assessments show the fall-run numbers were low that year but the council didn't act.
Chuck Tracy, the council's staff management officer, agreed with the statement on Wednesday, saying the council was relying on an index used by state Department of Fish and Game and National Marine Fisheries Service. The council has since adopted a new forecast method.
Here's what happened to the fish, according to the study:
Salmon hatched in the Sacramento River and its tributaries in 2004 and 2005 entered ocean feeding grounds months later in 2005 and 2006 during periods of warm sea-surface temperature.
In 2005, ocean studies found malnourished salmon, seabirds and marine mammals. Weak winds from the north and weak mixing of ocean layers quelled the upwelling of nutrients from the depths that feed the food chain, the study said.
Representatives of environmental and commercial fishing groups said the study ignored the need for freshwater flows for the fish to get through the delta to the bay and the ocean.
"We know in past years that higher levels of pumping, under below-normal or dry conditions, took a real toll on Central Valley salmon stocks, and that is exactly what we had going on in 2004 and 2005," said Zeke Grader, executive director of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
Tina Swanson, executive director of the Bay Institute, a Novato science center, said the scientists should call for reforms in the way water is released in the Central Valley, including requiring Shasta Dam to release cold water for salmon and the Red Bluff dam to leave its gates open for fish.
"These agencies know what needs to be done but there has been a real lack of will on their part to require and enforce these actions," she said.
Report: Salmon booms and busts tough to change...JEFF BARNARD, AP Environmental Writer
Grants Pass, Ore. (AP) -- Federal fisheries biologists say the 2008 collapse of salmon returning to California's Sacramento River was triggered primarily by climatic conditions that produced little food in the ocean, compounded by too much reliance on fish produced in hatcheries instead of the wild.
NOAA Fisheries Service warned in the Wednesday report that there is little federal fisheries managers can do directly to prevent the boom and bust cycle from repeating, given the lack of genetic diversity brought about by as many as 90 percent of the young fish each year coming from hatcheries, and the increasing frequency of swings in ocean conditions.
They suggested the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which sets ocean salmon fishing quotas, support the difficult long-term steps of rebuilding habitat in rivers, and reforming practices in hatcheries, to restore the genetic diversity that has allowed salmon to survive a changing environment for thousands of years.
"We have been wedded to this idea that the solution is just hatchery production," said Steve Lindley, a research ecologist for NOAA Fisheries in Santa Cruz, Calif. "I think that is the wrong response in the long run."
Hatcheries have operated for more than 100 years on the West Coast to make up for habitat lost to cities, farms, logging and mining.
Studies in recent years indicate that the system creates fish that are less able to survive in the wild, especially in hard times.
On Tuesday, a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling upheld NOAA Fisheries' discretion to use hatcheries to bolster endangered runs, but not rely on them to replace wild fish.
In the Sacramento, wild strains of chinook did not collapse so precipitously as the fall run, which is dominated by hatchery fish, the report found.
"I would predict that given ocean conditions improving and a record level of hatchery production, we will see record levels of the fishery again in a few years," Lindley said. "But it's not going to last. We are going to have this problem again. And it may be more severe next time."
Sport and commercial fishing seasons off California and Oregon were practically shut down in 2008 after a sudden drop in the Sacramento fall chinook run, and fishermen qualified for $170 million in federal disaster assistance.
Forecasts call for about twice as many salmon overall on the West Coast this year, but the numbers are still low, and fishing is expected to remain sparse off California and Oregon until next year, when numbers are forecast to rebound thanks to a flip in the climatic cycle that governs food abundance in the ocean.
The report discounted arguments that record irrigation withdrawals from the Sacramento Delta in 2006, the year that the 2008 adults migrated to the ocean, were a factor in the collapse.
Hatchery fish are generally trucked around the delta and released in San Francisco Bay, and those swimming through the delta had gone through by the time heavy pumping occurred in the summer, Lindley said.
Glen Spain of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which represents California salmon fishermen, said it was still important to fix the obstacles of fish swimming through the delta, because very few survive the journey.
"We have an obligation to fix the delta and fix the river system first, because that's the stuff we screwed up as humans," he said.
Selina Heppell, an associate professor of fisheries and wildlife at Oregon State University, said the researchers "did a good job" assessing the problems.
"The report is an indication of something a lot of people are starting to say: we can't be managing these stocks so they are at the lowest level possible," she said. "We need to be thinking of ways to get them in a more diverse condition and healthier condition, so when the bad years happen it doesn't take them out."
Lindley said a faulty forecast model allowed too much fishing in 2007, but that did not cause the collapse. The forecast model has been corrected.
On the Net: Salmon collapse report: swr.nmfs.noaa.gov/media/SalmonDeclineReport.pdf
Contra Costa Times
Confluence of factors caused salmon collapse, report says...Mike Taugher
The roots of last year's unprecedented decision to close the California coast to salmon fishing took hold three years earlier, in the spring of 2005 when juvenile fish swam through the Golden Gate to an ocean lacking ample food for them, a new report says.
On the Farallon Islands bird sanctuary, nearly all the Cassin's auklets, which eat the same kind of food as juvenile salmon, abandoned their nests that year. Gray whales that migrate along the coast were reported emaciated and sea lions were found searching for food far from shore.
The salmon that would have returned to spawn in 2007 starved, or were weakened and eaten by other fish or birds. The same thing happened in 2006, causing low numbers to return again last year.
Naturally varying ocean conditions were the immediate cause of a fishing season closure for which $170 million in federal disaster funds were made available last year, according to a report released Wednesday by a team of scientists assigned last year to investigate the collapse.
But if ocean conditions have always varied, why did the salmon numbers fall so precipitously?
The scientists who wrote the report contend that while ocean conditions were bad, California's salmon have been so weakened by loss of habitat, water diversions and reliance on hatcheries that they were especially vulnerable.
"All of the evidence that we could find points to ocean conditions as being the proximate cause of the poor performance (of salmon that should have returned to spawn in 2007 and 2008). We recognize, however, that the rapid and likely temporary deterioration in ocean conditions is acting on top of a long-term, steady degradation of the freshwater and estuarine environment," the report found.
The report focused on the cause of the commercially valuable workhorse of California's salmon fishery — the Sacramento River fall run of chinook salmon. Those fish may have produced as many as 900,000 spawners in years past, but in 2007 just 88,000 fish returned. Last year was even lower, and regulators expect just 122,000 spawners this fall.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, meanwhile, has concluded that state water operations are threatening other salmon runs, steelhead, green sturgeon and the Puget Sound population of salmon-eating orcas — even to the point of extinction. That agency is expected to develop new restrictions on water managers by June.
But for the fall run, the biggest problems have been ocean conditions and a heavy reliance on hatcheries to produce fish — hatcheries that are meant to make up for the loss of spawning habitat that is blocked by dams.
In particular, California's rivers and streams produced so few wild salmon that as much as 90 percent of the state's salmon, according to one recent study, have evolved in hatcheries.
The lack of genetic diversity leaves salmon as vulnerable to ups and downs as an investor without a diversified portfolio.
"The system we have of having everything the same, we can expect less variation, and we can expect more booms and busts," said Churchill Grimes, director of a federal fisheries science laboratory in Santa Cruz and co-leader of the study. "You don't have any hedging."
In the past, if food was scarce in the spring there might still be a lot of juvenile salmon swimming under the Golden Gate later in the spring when the food might be available.
But not so in recent years. The lack of food off the coast in the spring of 2005 and 2006 was caused by the weak upwelling — where nutrient-rich waters off the coast rise toward the surface and, in a good year, cause an explosion of marine life that is especially apparent in places like the Farallon Islands.
The head of a major commercial fishing association said the report was on the right track but too heavily focused on ocean problems, for which little can be done.
"They got it about half-right," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "We've got to be able to get these fish down the rivers, through the Delta to the ocean. These are things they have avoided in the past because they're controversial."
Grader contends that dams, pumps and water management policies are to blame for the collapse.
Ocean conditions have improved in recent years and that, combined with new restrictions on water pumping out of the Delta, could help fuel a recovery next year, Grader said.
It's virtually assured that regulators will close the California coastal salmon fishing season to commercial anglers again this year. A final recommendation is expected to be made at a meeting in early April in Millbrae.
Santa Clara's burrowing owls may lose home under campus expansion...Lisa M. Krieger
The last two burrowing owls at Santa Clara's Mission College could lose their short-term lease.
The community college requires more room to meet the needs of a growing student body — and under its plans for long-term expansion, presented at a public hearing tonight — the owls need to move.
During previous construction, the owls were offered temporary protection. But that protection expires by 2013.
"Our mission is to serve the students in our community and the state of California," said Harriet Robles, president of Mission College. "We have to prepare to produce a state-of-the-art facility to provide quality education, and that requires building out our campus."
The two owls — survivors of a population that numbered 60 two decades ago — currently have front-row seats by the campus tennis courts, near an asphalt parking lot.
Under the plan, part of a 25-year vision of the future, this spot will instead be home to a soccer field and parking lot. The campus currently instructs 10,405 students but wants to enroll 16,590 by 2030. The Mission College board of directors are now reviewing the draft plan, and accepting comments until Wednesday.
Environmentalists are distressed by the plans, saying that the owl, whose numbers have dwindled dramatically in the Bay Area, is considered a "species of special concern" under the Endangered Species Act and cannot simply be plowed under. However, state law only requires that developers "minimize" the effect on such creatures, they are not required to save the owl's habitat.
If the school decides to expand less ambitiously, the habitat can be left undisturbed.
"We'd like the college to proactively protect, nurture and sustain this population of burrowing owls" said Bob Power, executive director of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. "We'd like to see the land that the owls are living on be maintained as a burrowing owl preserve."
If the college insists on building, Power said, the society wants Mission to hire professionals to move the creatures to a "nearby burrowing owl colony."
Burrowing owls are small creatures that live in vacated underground squirrel dens. However, they can make do with more urban amenities. For instance, their Mission College burrow is synthetic — a length of pipe buried in a dirt mound. Its doorstop is often decorated with man-made trophies such as aluminum foil, cigarette butts and shredded fast-food napkins.
Despite such modest architecture, the birds need land to live. The state Department of Fish and Game estimates the birds need 6.5 acres of foraging habitat per breeding pair. They're also difficult to move; during previous relocation efforts, owls kept returning to their old home.
Their Mission College home is all that remains of a former habitat that now holds a multiplex cinema, the Santa Clara Convention Center and Paramount's Great America amusement park.
The long-legged dusty brown creatures are diurnal, meaning unlike other owls they're active in daylight. About 100 pairs remain in the Bay Area, down from 160 in 1990, according to Rodney Siegel of The Institute for Bird Populations in Point Reyes.
"What we've seen is that habitat has been developed bit by bit, piece by piece, just like this," Siegel said. "These small actions have a large cumulative impact on the species."
Mission College"s hearing about the school"s expansion plans at 7 p.m. in the Hospitality Management Building Dining Room, 3000 Mission College Boulevard, Santa Clara.
Animal rights protesters plead not guilty to charges stemming from threats to researchers...Howard Mintz
Four animal rights protesters pleaded not guilty in San Jose federal court this morning to federal charges related to a series of violent protests against University of California medical researchers around the Bay Area in 2007 and last year. The pleas set up a challenge to a relatively new federal law aimed at terrorism against scientists and others involved in using animals in their research.
Joseph Buddenberg, Maryam Khajavi, Nathan Pope and Adriana Stumpo, whose ages range between 20 and 26, entered their pleas during a brief hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Howard Lloyd. Federal prosecutors have charged the four defendants with conspiracy and under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, a 2006 law approved by Congress to "prosecute animal rights extremists.''
Federal prosecutors maintain that the four activists were responsible for a series of threatening protests at the homes of researchers at UC-Santa Cruz and UC-Berkeley, Authorities say the activists are linked to the alleged crimes through video surveillance footage and fliers seized by federal agents in which they pledged violence against the researchers for using animals in experiments.
Animal rights groups plan a demonstration outside the federal building this morning, arguing that the terrorism law is unconstitutional and infringes on free speech rights to protest the abuse of animals in medical research.
Report: Alternative energy quest endangering birds...DINA CAPPIELLO Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON—As the Obama administration pursues more homegrown energy sources, a new government report faults energy production of all types—wind, ethanol and mountaintop coal mining—for contributing to steep drops in bird populations.
The first-of-its-kind government report chronicles a four-decade decline in many of the country's bird populations and provides many reasons for it, from suburban sprawl to the spread of exotic species to global warming.
In almost every case, energy production is also playing a role.
"Energy development has significant negative effects on birds in North America," the report concludes.
Birds can collide with wind turbines and oil and gas wells, and studies have shown that some species, such as Prairie-chickens and sage grouse, will avoid nesting near the structures.
Ponds created during the extraction of coalbed methane gas breed mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus, leading to more bird deaths. Transmission lines, roads to access energy fields and mountaintop removal to harvest coal can destroy and fragment birds' living spaces.
Environmentalists and scientists say the report should signal to the Obama administration to act cautiously as it seeks to expand renewable energy production and the electricity grid on public lands and tries to harness wind energy along the nation's coastlines.
The report also shows that conservation efforts can work. Birds that reside in wetlands and the nation's waterfowl have rebounded over the past 40 years, a period marked by increased protections for wetlands.
"We need to go into these energies with our environmental eyes open," said John Fitzpatrick, the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which helped draft the report along with non-profit advocacy groups. "We need to attend to any form of energy development, not just oil and gas."
Many of the bird groups with the most rapid declines in the last 40 years inhabit areas with the greatest potential for energy development.
Among the energy-bird conflicts cited by the report:
— More than half of the monitored bird species that live on prairies have experienced population losses. These birds, such as the Lesser Prairie Chicken, are threatened by farmers converting grasslands into corn fields to meet demand for biofuels.
— In the Arctic, where two-thirds of all shorebirds are species of concern, melting ice brought about by climate change could open up more areas to oil and gas production. Studies show that trash near drilling rigs attracts gulls that prey on other species.
— Mountaintop coal mining in Appalachia clears patches of forest contributing to the decline of birds like the Cerulean warbler that breeds and forests in treetops.
The U.S. State of Birds report, released by the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Tuesday, was requested in October 2007 by President George W. Bush.
While its findings are similar to earlier studies, it is the first to be issued by the government and the agency in charge of managing energy production on public lands and protecting the nation's wildlife. The report did not indicate whether one form of energy production is more detrimental than the other.
On the Net: State of The Birds report: http://www.stateofthebirds.org
Department of Interior: http://www.doi.gov
Los Angeles Times
Long Beach and Los Angeles port traffic slows in February
The global economic downturn deals the twin-harbor complex another blow in February as container imports and exports drop. But a bottom may be near...Ronald D. White
Imports into the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports plunged even deeper into a recessionary hole in February, hitting lows not seen since 1997.
With exports also sharply lower, the sluggish traffic at the nation's biggest cargo container complex is yet another symptom of the broad malaise that continues to grip world economies. In Southern California, the trade gateway supports more than 280,000 workers, and its slowdown is being felt across the region.
But early signals suggest that the declines might be bottoming out. Day-shift employment levels at West Coast seaports in March are running only slightly below the year-earlier pace.
Still, experts warn that the picture is far from good and contains no hint of a serious recovery.
"Most of the trade numbers coming out of Asia are still pretty extreme in terms of the speed of decline," said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist for business research firm IHS Global Insight. "It's been rather unprecedented."
"We will see some bottoming out," Gault said. "We can't go down much longer or there will be no trade left."
At the Port of Los Angeles, the number of containers carrying imported goods fell in February by 35.3% to 206,035 containers. That was down from 318,445 containers during the same month in 2008, and it marked the lowest monthly total for imports since May 2001. Exports declined 27.6% to 111,595 containers from 154,127 in February 2008.
The Port of Long Beach saw an even steeper decline, in part because the low volumes meant that shipping lines were reverting to small vessels and no longer had as much need for Long Beach's naturally deep harbor. February imports dropped by 43.3% to 92,781 containers from 147,275 a year earlier. That is the lowest monthly total for imports at the port since November 1997. Exports were down 37% to 92,781 containers from 147,275.
In January, imports fell 7.3% at the Los Angeles port and 23.3% at Long Beach. Exports declined 29.4% at Los Angeles and 27.3% at Long Beach.
"Hopefully, we will see some kind of upswing in the month of March, but there's just not enough confidence out there for people to start buying again," said Dick Steinke, the Long Beach port's executive director.
Los Angeles port Marketing Director Mike DiBernardo said the declining traffic wasn't the result of increased fees for such things as extended terminal hours and an ambitious clean-trucks program.
"If you move cargo at our port at night and with a 2007 emissions complaint, there is no extra fee," DiBernardo said.
"We are optimistic that it will turn around at some point. We just don't know when," he said.
The Los Angeles and Long Beach ports are working separately on programs to reduce fees for new business.One positive sign might be their workforce numbers.
The ports needed an average of 672 dockworkers on the day shift to load and unload ships for the first 18 days in March, according to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents West Coast shipping lines and terminal operators. That was about 5% below the average 709 workers needed each day during the same period in 2008.
The decline in the average number of dockworkers has lessened compared with recent months. In February, for instance, the average number of dockworkers needed on the day shift fell about 10% from February 2008.
The pattern is similar at other West Coast ports, including Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma.
That could be a sign that U.S. consumers are a little less leery of reaching into their wallets and an indication that retailers may have finally slashed factory orders deep enough to have begun to reduce their inventories.
Gault of IHS Global Insight wasn't ready to celebrate, however, predicting that trade would remain depressed for most of 2009.
Yucca Mountain on hold
The Obama administration is prudent to put the brakes on the nuclear waste repository in Nevada...Editorial
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been called many things during his 22-year Senate career, but the name that sticks when the issue of nuclear power comes up is "NIMBY." That's because Reid has fought tirelessly to block construction of a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in his home state. There's a funny thing about his critics, though: Not one of them has ever suggested shipping the country's hazardous radioactive waste to his or her own state or district instead of Nevada.
The usual bleating about Reid's obstructionism and Nevadans' paranoia arose after the release of President Obama's proposed budget, which trims funding for the Yucca Mountain project to the minimum needed to keep the regulatory process involved in its construction alive -- a strong signal that there will be no further work done on the repository during Obama's term in office. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the administration is working on an alternative program that involves multiple interim and long-term waste storage facilities around the country.
When it comes to highly radioactive nuclear waste, pretty much everybody is a NIMBY. Setting aside the factthat scientists have yet to develop the technology to safely store this waste for the thousands of years it takes to decay, there's the fact that it has to be transported to the disposal site -- mostly by train -- creating the opportunity for spills. Even if the nuclear dump isn't in your backyard, the train tracks might be, and the closer you live to the center of it all, the greater the danger. Little wonder that Nevadans aren't excited by the prospect of a glow-in-the-dark desert.
The depressing thing about Yucca Mountain is that for all its flaws, including the discovery that water flows through the mountain faster than previously thought and thus could contaminate nearby areas, it probably still represents the safest place in the country for a nuclear repository. Not only is seismic activity in the rangeminimal, but the mountain is in a remote and desolate region at the edge of a site used in the 1950s for atomic testing. If we can't dump the waste in a nuclear test zone, where can we? That, in a nutshell, is the problem with nuclear power.
Pro-nuclear activists, whose ranks are growing as the nation looks for non-carbon-emitting sources of energy, needn't fret too much about Obama's proposal, which tables but doesn't end the debate about Yucca Mountain. Yet the move probably would delay some pending applications for construction of nuclear plants, and may even stop some. That's all for the good. Nuclear power is much too risky and expensive to be seen as a reasonable solution to climate change.
Several U.S. Bird Populations Plummet Due to Habitat Loss
Sweeping Report Shows Some Species Have Made Gains...Juliet Eilperin
Several major bird populations have plummeted over the past four decades across the United States as development transformed the nation's landscape, according to a comprehensive survey released today by the Interior Department and outside experts, but conservation efforts have managed to stave off potential extinctions of others.
"The State of the Birds" report, a sweeping analysis of data compiled through scientific and citizen surveys over the past 40 years, shows that some species have made significant gains even as others have suffered. Hunted waterfowl and iconic species such as the bald eagle have expanded in number, the report found, as birds along the nation's coasts and in its arid areas and grasslands have declined sharply.
"Just as they were when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring nearly 50 years ago, birds today are a bellwether of the health of land, water and ecosystems," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement. "From shorebirds in New England to warblers in Michigan to songbirds in Hawaii, we are seeing disturbing downward population trends that should set off environmental alarm bells."
The fact that concerted conservation efforts have saved birds such as the peregrine falcon and allowed various wetland birds to flourish, scientists said, shows that other species can reverse their declines with sufficient support from federal agencies and private groups.
"When we try, we can do it," said John Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. "There are now populations and habitats across the country begging for us to do it."
The species in decline are being affected by climate change, habitat destruction, invasive species and disease, among other factors, the report found. More pedestrian threats, such as collisions with buildings and attacks by feral cats, have diminished birds' numbers in some urban and suburban areas.
Hawaii, more than any other place in the country, highlights the challenge native American birds face. Seventy-one bird species have disappeared since humans populated the Hawaiian islands in 300 A.D., and another 10 have not been spotted in years. At the moment, more than a third of the bird species listed under the Endangered Species Act are in Hawaii, but state and federal agencies spent only $30.6 million on endangered birds there between 1996 and 2004, compared with more than $722 million on the mainland.
"In Hawaii we've got lots of imminent extinctions, but not enough resources being spent on them," said George Wallace, vice president of the American Bird Conservancy.
With sufficient funds, Wallace argued, federal managers could restore Hawaiian birds' habitat and protect them against introduced species such as pigs, sheep and deer that threaten their survival. He estimated it would cost roughly $15 million to erect extensive fencing for the Palila, a Hawaiian honeycreeper whose numbers declined from 6,600 birds in 2003 to 2,200 in 2008.
Bird advocates have enjoyed more success in raising money to protect North American waterfowl, which have a powerful political constituency among sport hunters. The U.S. government has raised $700 million for wetlands conservation through the sale of Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps, better known as "duck stamps," and a coalition of private groups and agencies in Canada, the United States andMexico have raised more than $3 billion over the past 20 years to protect more than 13 million acres of waterfowl habitat. Taken as a whole, the 39 species of hunted waterfowl that federal managers track have increased 100 percent over the past 40 years.
In some cases, however, public and private protections for key bird species are in jeopardy. The Conservation Reserve Program provides federal dollars to farmers in order to preserve vital habitat on which species such as the lesser prairie chicken depend, but contracts encompassing 3.9 million acres are set to expire by the end of September. Michael J. Bean, who directs the wildlife program for the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group, said losing these grasslands "could be the tipping point that makes an endangered species designation for the lesser prairie chicken unavoidable."
Placing the bird on the endangered species list, Bean added, could make it more difficult for entrepreneurs to build wind projects in the southern Plains. As a whole, birds that breed only in grasslands have declined by 40 percent over the past four decades.
Elsewhere in the country, conservationists are trying to protect rare bird species before disease can strike. On Santa Cruz Island, off California's southern coast, part of the Channel Island chain, Nature Conservancy officials are conducting a vaccination campaign aimed at protecting the Island Scrub-Jay from the West Nile virus, which has already hurt some related bird species on the mainland.
Scott Morrison, the conservancy's director of conservation science in California, said his group has determined the virus has yet to infect the island's unique, bright blue birds even as incidence of West Nile among birds in nearby Ventura County nearly doubled between 2007 and 2008. While the scrub-jay's remote location offers
them some protection, vaccination offers even more.
"There's evidence, anecdotal, this [vaccination] could actually be a useful strategy to guard against this disease," Morrison said, noting that scientists had already vaccinated California condors against the virus. "If it comes over tomorrow, maybe we would avoid some of these scary drops in numbers, for at least a subset in population."
Wal-Mart Hourly Workers to Get $2 Billion in Bonuses (Update3)...Chris Burritt
March 19 (Bloomberg) -- Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, plans to award $2 billion in extra compensation to about 1 million U.S. hourly workers this year after sales jumped in the recession.
The amount of the bonuses, profit sharing, discounts and 401(k) and stock-plan contributions being given to employees is 67 percent more than the $1.2 billion Wal-Mart distributed last year. Payments to employees include $933.6 million in bonuses today, spokeswoman Daphne Davis Moore said by phone.
The payments follow class-action lawsuits from employees and Wal-Mart’s opposition to efforts to unionize its stores. The Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer is benefiting from record sales in the fourth quarter that boosted annual revenue by 7.2 percent to $401.2 billion.
Spending more on benefits “signals that Wal-Mart is trying to improve its relationship with workers and re-enforces its belief in a non-union workforce,” Walter Todd, who helps manage Wal-Mart shares at Greenwood Capital, said today in a telephone interview.
“In light of all the dividend and 401k cuts by companies, it also shows the strength of Wal-Mart,” said Todd. The Greenwood, South Carolina-based firm manages $600 million.
Wal-Mart fell 73 cents, or 1.5 percent, to $49.71 at 3:12 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. Before today, the shares dropped 10 percent this year.
As part of the payout, Wal-Mart’s workers will get $788.8 million in profit sharing and 401(k) contributions this year, Chief Executive Officer Mike Duke told workers in a memo today.
The bonuses reflect Wal-Mart’s “sensitivity to the growing public pressure to share some of its billions in profit with the workers who earned it,” David Nassar, executive vice president of Wal-Mart Watch, a consumer advocacy group, said today in an e-mailed statement.
In December, Wal-Mart agreed to pay as much as $640 million to settle 63 federal and state class actions claiming the company cheated hourly workers and forced them to work through breaks.
The settlement ended actions pending in most state courts and in federal court in Nevada, and occurred two weeks after a similar agreement in Minnesota.
At the time, Nassar said settling these cases showed Wal- Mart was “scared and throwing dead weight overboard” ahead of a possible U.S. congressional vote on legislation making it easier to unionize companies.
The Washington-based group has pressed the retailer to improve wages and benefits and supports the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow unions to side-step secret ballots.
Today’s bonus payout exceeds last year’s $636.4 million. Last year’s profit sharing and 401(k) contributions were $64.4 million less than Wal-Mart plans to spend this year.
Last year’s total included $420.2 million in merchandise discounts to employees and their families and $50.1 million to the stock purchase plans of 764,098 employees, the Wal-Mart statement said. Duke’s memo was less specific, saying the retailer plans to spend “hundreds of millions of dollars” on merchandise discounts and contributions to its employee stock purchase plans this year.
Separately, Wal-Mart has faced gender- and racial-bias lawsuits from workers. On Feb. 13, Wal-Mart won review of a court ruling that allowed as many as 2 million current and former female workers to proceed with the biggest sex-bias case in the nation’s history. The workers accuse Wal-Mart of paying women less than men and giving them fewer promotions.
A week later, the retailer agreed to pay $17.5 million to settle a lawsuit claiming it discriminated against African- Americans in recruiting and hiring truck drivers.
The company said March 9 it had more than 1.4 million U.S. employees through February. As of Jan. 31, 2008, it had 1.42 million, according to the company’s latest annual securities filing.
3-23-09 Merced County Hearing Officer meeting...8:30 a.m....Canceled
3-25-09 Merced County Planning Commission agenda...9:00 a.m.
3-25-09 Merced County General Plan Review Steering Committee agenda...1:30 p.m.
3-26-09 LAFCo agenda...10:00 a.m.