Our View: Public lands bill a boost for the Valley
San Joaquin River restoration, water bank among its many positive elements...Editorial
The mammoth public lands bill passed by the House on Wednesday has plenty to like when it comes to the Valley and the Sierra Nevada.
There's money to begin the restoration of the San Joaquin River, pursue underground water banking in Madera County and protect large new swaths of the mountain wilderness.
In the case of the river restoration, it marks a milestone in a decades-old struggle over water from the San Joaquin.
The bill contains an $88 million down payment in the financing for the project, which was originally estimated to cost $250 million.
The issue is still contentious, and it's not likely we've heard the end of it even with this bill, which President Obama is expected to sign soon.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, voted against the lands bill, in large part because of his opposition to the restoration project. And resistance is growing from many farmers. Some are having second thoughts about a settlement of a 1988 lawsuit brought by environmentalists.
The funding for the Madera water bank project is another major plus in the bill. Underground storage must be part of any comprehensive approach to the water needs of the state and the Valley -- along with new surface storage and much greater conservation efforts -- and the Madera project is well-positioned to meet some of those needs.
Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, also voted against the lands bill, even though he originally wrote and still supports the Madera County groundwater bank and the river restoration legislation.
Radanovich objected to the addition of 2 million acres of wilderness to the federal inventory.
But Democrats -- including Valley Reps. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, and Jim Costa, D-Fresno -- forged the larger part of a 285-140 margin of victory for the omnibus bill.
It was originally stalled over Republican efforts to lift a ban on guns in national parks and wilderness areas. But Democrats in Congress engineered a parliamentary effort that forbade any amendments.
The bill supplies $22.5 million for the Madera Irrigation District project, which is designed to store up to 250,000 acre-feet of water near Highway 99.
Among the land set aside as wilderness in the bill are the 40,000 acres of the John Krebs Wilderness in the Mineral King Valley.
Krebs, the former Fresno-area congressman, helped protect the Mineral King area from inappropriate development in the late 1970s by working to add it to Sequoia National Park.
Like any large bill -- this one has 1,218 pages covering 170 different provisions -- there is much to like and plenty to dislike.
But on balance the bill advances the interests of the Valley, and that's good news.
Fresno County real estate outlook brightens
Times are tough, but there is reason for optimism, speaker says...Sanford Nax
Steve Geil summed up the condition of Fresno County's market when he donned a raincoat and carried an umbrella Thursday into the Economic Development Corp.'s annual real estate forecast.
Geil, president of the corporation, strolled in as the 1971 song "Riders on the Storm" played in the background. The symbolism wasn't lost on the 800 people who attended the event -- many of them developers, business people and real estate professionals struggling through one of the most severe real estate downturns in years.
Speakers talked about falling home prices and soaring foreclosures, high shopping center vacancies, low rents, landlord discounts and retailers going bankrupt or cutting back.
"Two thousand and eight was wild and crazy, and difficult to say the least," said Bobby Fena, an office specialist at Colliers Tingey International who helped organize the sixth annual event.
Geil wasn't stressing the negative market as much as he was describing Fresno County's ability to weather the storm. It's a tough time, for sure, but there is reason to be optimistic, he said.
Joan Eaton, an owner of Guarantee Real Estate, talked of good news and bad news.
The bad news: The median sales price tumbled 40% in one year to 2002-2003 levels, driven down by the abundance of foreclosures. In early 2008, bank-owned sales were 30% of the total number. By year's end, the percentage had risen to 64%.
The good news: Falling prices made houses affordable to more people, which goosed sales. Last year, 6,778 houses sold in Fresno County compared with 4,875 in 2007 and 6,502 in 2006.
As a result, the supply of unsold houses has shrunk dramatically, which is a key step toward stabilizing prices. Today, there is a 3.3-month supply of existing houses (that means it would take three to six months to sell all available houses if no more went on the market for sale) compared with a 20-month supply in fall 2007, Eaton said.
Shopping center owners and retailers also are struggling as people lose jobs and cut spending, and as merchants such as Circuit City and Mervyn's go out of business.
Doug Cords of Commercial Retail Associates in Fresno described a "drastic market shift" from a landlord's market to one favoring tenants.
He talked, too, of a "floating" market, which is one where landlords offer concessions, rent reductions and other incentives to retain tenants.
Nationwide last year there were more store closings than openings. Traditional department stores are hurting, while discounters such as Wal-Mart, WinCo and Dollar Tree benefit.
However, Cords also said that the challenges present stronger retailers with opportunities to expand. His prediction: The contraction ends in 2010, with expansion again in 2011 or 2012.
Speakers also covered trends in office leasing, agriculture, industrial property and in "green" housing development.
San Francisco Chronicle
Perspective needed by UC executives...Tanya Smith,Kathi Young. Tanya Smith is president of University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE-CWA 9119), which represents researchers and technicians. Kathi Young is president of the Coalition of University Employees (CUE), which represents clerical workers the UC Berkeley campus.
UC Regent Chairman Richard C. Blum and UC President Mark G. Yudof suggested (Open Forum, March 26, "A need for perspective") that The Chronicle's news pages have misrepresented recent UC actions on executive salaries. They cite the news story "Even in recession UC raises top salaries; gives perks" as an example of a "misleading and incomplete appraisal of several administrative salaries." We disagree.
Despite stating as fact that they have frozen "senior managers' salaries, cut bonuses and incentive pay," they in fact have made exceptions. As Chronicle staff writer Jim Doyle's article noted, the UC regents continue to make exceptions by awarding huge salary increases or bonuses to UC executives. They make exceptions though stipends. They make exceptions through retention increases. And they make exceptions by re-slotting positions to higher salary ranges. The bottom line is that the number of UC executives earning more than $200,000 nearly tripled in recent years.
Perspective is needed on UC salaries, but from our perspective, the premises on which Blum and Yudof are running this great university will run it into the ground. Yudof sees the university from the perspective of an executive whose annual total compensation is nearly $1 million dollars, and who lives in the Oakland hills, where taxpayers cover more than $100,000 a year of his rent while millions are spent to renovate the UC presidential mansion. Blum sees the university from the perspective of a man of tremendous wealth - an investment banker who chairs several investment management firms.
Here are the facts:
-- Across its 10 campuses and five medical centers, UC is facing a budget gap of $450 million over a 2-year budget period. This $225 million-a-year deficit represents just over 1 percent of the annual UC budget of almost $20 billion. Overall, this is a very small piece of the pie.
-- On the UC Berkeley campus, for example, there is a $60 million to $70 million budget deficit as a result of cuts in state funding and increased spending on programs, salaries and other obligations. On Tuesday, at a campus wide meeting, the administration called for curtailing faculty hires, laying off staff and raising student fees. Meanwhile, the administration has openly promoted UC Berkeley's success in fundraising, now totaling $1.4 billion in private donations. Though this is 20 times more than what is needed to close the budget gap, the administration claims such funding is restricted, and thus not available.
-- At the same meeting, the administration said that of the nearly $1 billion in UC Berkeley cash reserves, about one-third is unrestricted. This amount, $300 million, could cover the budget shortfall there for another four years. Financially, other campuses such as UCLA, and the medical centers, have similar budget reserves.
Despite these reserve funds, the regents decided it was necessary to raise student fees last week by more than 9 percent.
The University of California is a state jewel. We are proud to work for an institution that brings together many of the brightest minds of California and conducts world-class research. But the administrators at the top are running the UC system like a corporation, where student tuition is raised because it is deemed to be below market (UC administrators often repeat that a UC education is still a very good deal) and where research and education continue to take a back seat to executive pay.
From our perspective, UC has extensive sources of funding, large surpluses, and the expectation of receiving research grants from the federal economic stimulus package. UC management's explanations of necessary cuts to education and research don't mesh with the facts. Neither the taxpayers nor the students should be satisfied with these explanations. We aren't.
Furthermore Blum and Yudof do not adequately explain the need for exorbitant salaries of UC executives. They should follow the lead of AIG executives who returned bonuses this week and of Stanford executives who voluntarily took pay cuts last fall.
Contra Costa Times
UC police chief to step down July 31...Matt Krupnick, Bay Area News Group
UC Berkeley police chief Victoria Harrison will step down by July 31, two years after she retired and was immediately rehired.
Harrison, who was named chief in 1990, also will return a $2.1 million retirement payout she received in 2007 and switch to a standard pension. University of California leaders tightened limits on rehiring retirees after the Bay Area News Group reported on Harrison's situation last year.
The university is allowing Harrison to make the pension change because she received bad financial advice from human-resources administrators. Harrison was told she could only return to work if she took the lump sum rather than a monthly payment, said UC Berkeley and systemwide officials.
She petitioned the university last year to change her to the monthly payments, a UC attorney said.
"They acknowledged she had received mistaken information," said Marie Felde, a UC Berkeley spokeswoman. "They're correcting that problem."
The repayment will leave Harrison on the hook for money lost when she invested the retirement payout, which likely has been affected by stock-market losses. Harrison could not immediately be reached for comment.
The new agreement means Harrison will not be paid retirement income based on her UC Berkeley employment after June 2007, said Jeffrey Blair, a UC attorney. She will begin collecting monthly pension payments after she leaves the university.
Such changes are usually not allowed, Blair said.
"It's a very rare occurrence," he said. "The (retirement) plan is very clear that these elections are final."
UC Berkeley has started a national search for a replacement, Felde said. The school had delayed that search over the past two years for several reasons, including budget problems and a group of protesters who perched for months in trees on the campus.
Harrison's 2007 rehiring prompted questions in the Legislature and from the UC regents. Berkeley administrators had bypassed guidelines that allow retirees to work only part-time and in special circumstances.
The chief has continued working under a series of contracts. The current agreement ends July 31.
Los Angeles Times
Water officials investigating discovery of dump...Ari B. Bloomekatz and Louis Sahagun, L.A. Now
Water-quality officials began collecting data today about the recent unearthing of a former city dump near the Los Cerritos Wetlands.
Last week, Long Beach officials issued a stop-work order against a Signal Hill construction company that was working without permits as they dumped asphalt, leveled 10 acres of salt marsh and unearthed the dump.
"At this point we need to collect data to determine if there was even a violation" of clean water statutes, said Stephen Cain, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.
Cain said that if officials determine there was a violation, a full investigation would be launched.
Long Beach officials said the company, 2H Construction, was preparing the land to build a soccer field but did not have the proper permits.
Craig Beck, the city's director of development services, said the area is currently zoned as wetlands and that the company's owner, Sean Hitchcock, would have to apply for a zoning change and go through proper city procedures if he wanted to build the field.
One of the penalties for acting without permits is that their fees are subsequently doubled, Beck said.
Some area residents and environmentalists have complained that the construction company's actions may be emitting harmful substances.
Elizabeth Lambe, executive director of the nonprofit Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust, said she was on site last week as the construction was occurring.
"At the end of the day my lungs hurt from what I was breathing out there," she said. "I was wheezing."
Ship pollution: EPA 'not responsive,' inspector says...Margot Roosevelt, Greenspace
Should the federal government crack down on cancer-causing air emissions from ships? Yes, according to a new report from the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general, who says voluntary measures and international negotiations have failed to protect public health.
The report criticizes the EPA for failing to regulate emissions from foreign-flagged vessel in U.S. ports, although these ships account for about 90% of all U.S. port calls. And the agency has only regulated one of several pollutants from ship engines in U.S. flagged vessels, the 86-page report noted.
The inspector general said that EPA officials "were not responsive" to the report's recommendations that it seek to control air pollution from foreign vessels in U.S. ports under the Clean Air Act, "and report any shortfalls to Congress."
Although the federal government has made progress in controlling dieselemissions from trucks, trains and cargo handling equipment, it has been reluctant to take on marine vessels that have traditionally fallen under international jurisdiction. Bunker fuel, the tar-like sludge used in ships, emits toxic chemicals and smog-forming pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, fine particulate dust, sulfur oxides, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons.
The U.S. has about 360 commercial sea and river ports, but more than 40% of all marine freight imported into the U.S. moves through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. By 2020, many major U.S. ports are expected to double the volume of container traffic they handle, and some will triple the volume.
The health effects in Southern California are particularly acute, with high cancer rates, asthma, other respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and premature deaths in neighborhoods near the ports, which are predominantly low-income Latino and African American.
California has not waited for the federal government to act. Last July, state regulators adopted the world's toughest pollution rules for oceangoing vessels. "California's ports are already using tools such as shore-side power and low-sulfur fuel that EPA could require right now," said David Pettit, an Los Angeles attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, noting that air pollution controls adopted by the International Maritime Organization will not take effect until 2015.
Mineral King's long road to wilderness...Bettina Boxall, Greenspace
When Congress created an additional2 million acres of wilderness Wednesday, it brought to a close one of California's more memorable conservation sagas: the fight over a chiseled High Sierra valley called Mineral King.
In the 1960s, Walt Disney Productions unveiled plans for a $35-million resort development in the valley, then a popular hiking area in the Sequoia National Forest. Disney called the valley and its surrounding alpine bowls one of the most beautiful spots he had ever seen. He just thought it could use a few things -- like a village of shops and hotels, gondolas, ski slopes and underground parking.
The U.S. Forest Service, which would have leased the land to Disney, approved the company's master plan in 1969. But in a move that would help shape strategy for the modern environmental movement, the Sierra Club that same year filed a lawsuit to block the development.
That was the beginning of what remains a favorite and often successful tactic for environmental groups: Go to court.
The lawsuit slowed the project enough so that it lost momentum. Its final death throes came in 1978, when Congress added Mineral King to nearby Sequoia National Park and specifically prohibited downhill ski facilities.
In the '60s, conservationists lobbied to make the scenic valley part of the country's new wilderness system. This week they finally got their wish. The 700,000 acres of California wilderness designated by the big lands bill headed for President Obama's desk includes Mineral King, part of the new John Krebs Wilderness, named for the former congressman who wrote the law transferring the valley to the National Park Service.
Ethanol lobbyists storm Sacramento...Margot Roosevelt, Greenspace
Ethanol investors met with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this week in an effort to derail California’s far-reaching proposal to slash carbon emissions from transportation fuels.
The meeting, the latest volley in a national campaign against the California regulation, was attended by Silicon Valley mogul Vinod Khosla and former Secretary of State Bill Jones, chairman of the board of Sacramento-based Pacific Ethanol Inc. One participant, New Fuels Alliance lobbyist Brooke Coleman, said the proposal was based on “completely speculative” scientific models and would cripple the biofuels industry nationally.
Environmentalists are alarmed by the mounting attack on the state Air Resources Board, which will hold a hearing on the rule in Sacramento today. "There is an all-out war by corn ethanol interests, and they are using scare tactics to get others on board," said Patricia Monahan, a vehicles expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The rule, which Schwarzenegger first proposed in January 2007, would be the first in the nation to restrict planet-heating greenhouse gases from fuel. It is an essential component of the state’s landmark global warming law, which would slash the state’s carbon dioxide emissions by 15% in the next 11 years. President Obama has called for a national low-carbon fuel standard.
The Truman National Security Project, a Washington-based group, sent Schwarzenegger a letter this week from 66 retired military and intelligence officers claiming that the California standard would give oil “an unfair advantage.... It is a matter of national security, which is threatened by our reliance on oil,” wrote the group, which included former National Security Advisor Robert “Bud” McFarlane.
However, at least one signer had second thoughts. Vice Adm. Dennis V. McGinn sent out a news release saying that “upon more careful research,” he found that the letter “missed the mark” and that the California standard should be adopted immediately as a model for a national standard.
Former Gen. Wesley Clark, co-chairman of the biofuels association Growth Energy, has also led a charge against the California proposal, saying it would discourage the use of corn ethanol. The rule’s “indirect land use” provision unfairly counts the global impact of growing corn for fuel — factoring in the displacement of forests that would then be razed to grow replacement crops, for example.
The American Farm Bureau Federation wrote Schwarzenegger this week opposing the rule and calling for “a level playing field” for corn-based ethanol. The letter says the model used to calculate the carbon footprint of corn ethanol fails to acknowledge that some will derive from marginal, now-idle lands.
Air Resources Board Chairman Mary D. Nichols said the California proposal would favor biofuels over oil, “including just about everything but imported corn.” The rule would spur investment in low-carbon fuels made from switchgrass and other non-food plants, according to proponents.
Nichols said that Pacific Ethanol’s Jones, a Republican, “has been unceasing in his efforts to engage the governor,” but the governor’s staff “have been completely hands-off.”
However, Blake Simmons, an official with the Emeryville-based Joint BioEnergy Institute, said the governor “was open-minded” during the meeting. Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear would not comment, adding, "He meets with interested parties all the time on a variety of issues, but we never disclose details of private meetings."
The air board is scheduled to vote on the regulation next month.
Feinstein's desert protection plan
A proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein could pit those who want to preserve desert land against those who want to use it for solar and wind energy projects...Editorial
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has done a lot of admirable work protecting California's wild desert lands from development, but her latest plans for the Mojave threaten to split the state's environmental community and could stall clean- energy projects whose construction should be among the nation's highest priorities.
Feinstein is working on legislation that would designate hundreds of thousands of acres of desert land as a national monument, which would put them off-limits for solar and wind energy projects. That could result in a green- versus-green confrontation, pitting those who want to protect the desert ecosystem against those who believe renewable-energy projects are a vital part of the struggle to avert catastrophic climate change.
But that's a false dichotomy. According to the U.S. Energy Department, enough sunlight hits a 100-square-mile portion of the Nevada desert to power the entire country, if it could be harnessed. The Southwestern desert is vast, and it should be possible to both protect key habitat for threatened species such as the desert tortoise and build huge solar arrays from California to Colorado.
The desert ecosystem is a terribly fragile one. Though it often looks like nothing is growing there, the desert is actually teeming with life -- life that subsists on a very delicate balance. We strongly support Feinstein's goal of protecting the desert, within reasonable bounds. Those include a recognition that global warming, if unchecked, will be far worse for all the world's species than a few solar power plants.
Even more controversial than the siting of renewable-energy projects is the construction of power lines that would be needed to carry the electricity to urban centers. Often, these lines must pass through communities, parks or other wild lands, leading to opposition from residents and conservationists. Builders of these projects must continue to do everything possible to minimize the environmental damage, but state and federal officials should seek to reduce red tape and speed their construction.
We'll withhold judgment on Feinstein's monument proposal until she actually produces it -- the senator is still studying which lands to protect in a swath between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park. The decision-making process presents a welcome opportunity for dialogue about balancing the need for renewable power with the need to conserve sensitive lands.
Yet perhaps it's possible to love the desert too much; if we go too far in protecting it from solar development, those wide arid spaces promise to become a lot wider in the scorching future.
Unemployment jumps in 49 states
Michigan's jobless rate - 12% - is highest in nation. Wyoming is lowest. Nebraska escapes with tiny decline...Aaron Smith
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The unemployment rate jumped last month in 49 states, with Michigan leading the way, the U.S. government reported on Friday. Nebraska was the only state to escape rising joblessness.
The near-collapse of the auto industry pushed Michigan's unemployment rate up to 12% in February, seasonally adjusted, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Sky-high unemployment rates were also reported in South Carolina (11%), Oregon (10.8%), North Carolina (10.7%), California and Rhode Island (10.5% each), and Nevada (10.1%).
The most drastic month-to-month increases in the unemployment rate were reported in North Carolina and Oregon, which each saw an increase of 1%. New Jersey also saw a dramatic surge, climbing 0.9% in February.
John Lonski, chief economist for Moody's Investors Service, said that many of these states - including Michigan, Rhode Island and the Carolinas - are struggling because they are heavily reliant on the sluggish manufacturing industry.
"This reminds us of how manufacturing employment did not grow once during the latest economic recovery, mostly because of the outsourcing of manufacturing activity to countries such as China," he said.
In California and Nevada, he says, jobs are disappearing because the construction industries were hit hard by the housing crisis.
"Their economies became overly dependent on the housing bubble," he said. "Now that the housing bubble has burst, jobs associated with residential real estate have disappeared."
John Cooke, economist for the Oregon Employment Department, said the job market in his state is hit hard by its reliance on the manufacture of durable goods for the housing industry. He said that Oregon is a major producer of construction lumber, such as two-by-fours and window frames, but California, its biggest customer, is staggering from its battered real estate market.
Oregon was one of three states, including North and South Carolina, that saw its unemployment rate soar by more than 5% year-to-year.
Nebraska was one of the few states with good news in this winter of discontent, with its jobless rate notching down to 4.2% in February from 4.3% in January.
"That's because Warren Buffet is from Omaha," joked Lonski of Moody's.
Wyoming, which is rich in resources like oil and gas, has the distinction of possessing the nation's lowest unemployment rate in February: 3.9%. But the rate still rose month-to-month, by 1.1%, as a result of layoffs stemming from the downturn in oil prices.
Regionally, unemployment hit the West the hardest, at 9.2%, the government said. The Northeast was the least affected region, at 7.7%.
Nationwide the unemployment rate rose to the 25-year high of 8.1% in February, from 7.6% the prior month. This is a dramatic change from February 2008, when the unemployment rate was 4.8%.
A dramatic increase in the unemployment rate was seen in New York City, which outpaced the increases seen by any of the states. The city's unemployment rate surged to 8.1% in February from 6.9% in January, according to state figures released Friday. This is the city's highest unemployment rate since October 2003.
On April 1, the U.S. Department of Labor will release the unemployment figures for cities and metropolitan areas.