Snowpack low, but not record drought…MARK GROSSI, The Fresno Bee…4-3-09
Snow surveys this week confirm California's drought is three years old, but it is not among the state's five worst dry spells on record.
At 85 percent of average on April 1, the snowpack is bigger today than in any season during the 1987-1992 drought -- when west San Joaquin Valley farmers each year got at least some irrigation water.
Yet many Westsiders this summer are not supposed to get any federal water, and a few key reservoirs are expected to remain half-empty. Why? Laws require more water to flow from rivers to the ocean these days in an attempt to save dying fish species.
"You're in an entirely different water management world now," said state climatologist Mike Anderson in Sacramento. "You have a drought, but you also have regulatory decisions."
The California Department of Water Resources says 2007-2009 is the eighth-driest three-year period on record.
This week, early April snowpack measurements all over the Sierra indicated water supply from snow runoff will be below average, but not at record-low levels. Though more snow may fall in the next eight weeks, April 1 is considered the end of the precipitation season.
The National Weather Service predicts a chance of snow showers Monday and Tuesday from Yosemite National Park to Kings County National Park.
At this time of year, snowpack measurements are watched closely by cities, industries, farmers and hydroelectric-project operators -- all of whom depend on snowmelt in summer. More than 60 percent of the state's summertime water is frozen in the snowpack each year.
The snowpack in mountains above the Kings River is about 85 percent of average, according to Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which has hydroelectric power plants in that region. A PG&E crew flew in a helicopter Thursday to high-country meadows where snowpack measurement has been done for decades.
A similar measurement ritual took place this week in the mountains above the San Joaquin River. The snowpack in the San Joaquin watershed is also about 85 percent of average.
High-priority federal customers who get San Joaquin water from Millerton Lake -- including 15,000 farmers and the city of Fresno -- will get 85 percent of their allotments, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
But Westsiders, such as Westlands Water District, still are told not to expect any deliveries. The Westside water comes from Northern California, where wildlife agencies are trying to protect the delta smelt, a three-inch minnow.
Giant water pumps at the southern end of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta have been slowed and sometimes stopped so the fish won't be sucked in and killed.
In 1991 and 1992, the state faced a drier time. But Westlands still got 25 percent of its allotment both years, mainly because many of the wildlife restrictions were not yet in place.
This year, when rivers were running high during a series of February storms, pumping restrictions prevented officials from storing as much water as they would have in the early 1990s.
"If we had this exact same year in the early 1990s before we had the regulatory restrictions, we could have moved 300,000 more acre-feet (into reservoirs)," said Tom Boardman, water resources engineer with the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority. An acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons, which is a 12- to 18-month supply for an average family.
Things could get worse, said Maurice Roos, chief hydrologist for the state Department of Water Resources. He said California had two six-year droughts in the last century -- the late 1920s to the early 1930s as well as the late 1980s to the early 1990s. It could happen again.
"Are we going to get another three years of drought?" Roos asked. "I think we have to bear that as a possibility."
Density compromise is good -- if used…Editorial…4-3-09
There are several ways to look at the compromise approach adopted this week by elected leaders selecting a long- term growth vision for the San Joaquin Valley.
One is that the valley too often settles for average rather than aspiring to do things differently, such as reducing sprawl across farmland by insisting that 10 homes be built per acre
Another is that the adopted goal of 6.8 homes per acre is far more realistic and therefore achievable.
And another is that this is just an exercise anyway, so why think about moving past the status quo, which is an average of 4.3 homes per acre?
There's some truth in all three views, which is why we're OK with the compromise — so long as elected leaders do not lose sight of the bigger picture, which is having a vision that protects farmland, discourages sprawl and provides people with multiple housing choices.
Cities and counties aren't mandated to meet the density goal set by the San Joaquin Valley Policy Council, although that could change as a new state law is implemented. Furthermore, the state is providing incentives toward higher densities, such as earmarking certain transportation funds for jurisdictions that promote apartments, condominiums and other high-density housing close to public transit facilities.
The vision adopted Wednesday now goes back to county boards of supervisors and city councils to incorporate into their thinking.
We're doubtful it will have much impact in Stanislaus County, where the elected leaders were unenthusiastic participants in this whole blueprint process.
Last fall, they refused to set a common goal for density, opting to let each of the nine cities and the county use their current general plan goals as their density targets. The driving sentiment appeared to be, "We don't want anyone, but especially the state, telling us what to do."
The fact is, the density goal of 6.3 homes per acre falls at the low end of the general plan ranges of most cities.
Modesto, like many large cities, has a higher density rate and is likely to be increasingly dense, compared with smaller cities, such as Newman.
In the "Eager to Grow" package in Sunday's Bee, reporter Garth Stapley provided some useful comparisons of how cities in Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties have grown since 1990.
Patterson not only has grown quickly, but its leaders appear to favor much more growth, in spite of its high foreclosure rate and water supply problems. We urge Patterson residents to start asking hard questions about whether they really want to continue down this path.
Around the valley, residents aren't paying much attention to long-term growth planning, in large part because building has slowed so much because of the economy.
Arguably, this is the best time to establish a long-term vision. Housing density is only one piece of the plan, but an important one. Housing sprawling out across the valley not only destroys valuable farmland but also contributes to air pollution, traffic and other problems.
The Blueprint Plan is only as useful as the actions that follow. The regional council adopted a realistic goal. We hope that council members, supervisors and the public will recognize the value in incorporating it into their decisions.
Water officials fine Stockton...The Record
SACRAMENTO - State water officials have fined the city of Stockton $60,000 for violating wastewater quality standards at the city's treatment plant, which discharges into the San Joaquin River.
The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board fine is for 20 alleged violations from 2000 through 2008, according to board documents.
For perspective, Mark Madison, director of Stockton's Municipal Utilities Department, said Thursday that the city's wastewater was tested about 40,000 times over those eight years. He said he believes the treatment plant is effective.
Also, Madison said, eight of the violations in question took place under the watch of OMI-Thames, the private company that operated Stockton's water works for several years until 2007. Madison said the city would seek compensation from the company for those violations.
Oil and grease, coliform bacteria and ammonia were among the contaminants that exceeded standards, board documents show. Treated wastewater has been pinpointed as one cause for the decline of the Delta ecosystem.
Stockton is not alone in facing wastewater fines. In March, the board fined Tracy $78,000 and the Mountain House Community Services District $30,000 for violations.
Researchers work to revive brush rabbit
Once nearly extinct, population has been sustained...Alex Breitler
RIPON - It is arguably San Joaquin County's cuddliest endangered species.
A secretive bunny that lives in remnants of the great riparian forests may be thumping down the path to recovery with the help of a team of university researchers and students.
The leader of this group, Patrick Kelly of California State University, Stanislaus, last month was named one of 18 "recovery champions" across the country - a select group of experts saving species that cannot save themselves.
"It's a challenge to restore and hold onto some of these species that are so unique," Kelly said. "They're part of our national heritage. Sometimes we tend to forget that."
In the day when dense jungles lined Central Valley rivers, the riparian brush rabbit may have numbered up to 110,000, according to one estimate. But most of those forests were destroyed for farmland or urban development, and the bunnies by the early 1990s had dwindled to 200 or 300.
They were one disaster away from extinction.
That disaster came with the floods of 1997. With their last remaining habitat at Caswell Memorial State Park swamped, many bunnies drowned and the species was feared extinct.
It was not, although Kelly said the survivors likely numbered "in the tens." The bunnies faced further challenges after a 2004 fire and another flood in 2006.
They were sustained, however, through a captive breeding program operated by Kelly and his team. Bunnies are born and raised at a pen in an undisclosed San Joaquin County location, then are released into the wild at several locations, both public and private lands. The ultimate goal is for three self-sustaining populations.
Anywhere from 100 to 150 bunnies are released each year, Kelly said. Some are equipped with radio tags and collars so officials can check their progress.
Kelly said it's impossible to estimate how many rabbits are living today; his team, however, surveys habitat and has found baby bunnies, proof that the rabbits are successfully breeding.
Most recently, crews have also built "bunny mounds" at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. These artificial hills will offer sanctuary for the rabbits and other species the next time the area floods.
The university's Endangered Species Recovery Program, which focuses on a range of critters, including the bunnies and the San Joaquin kit fox, has garnered more than $24 million in grants and government contracts in its 15 years, Stanislaus officials say.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which named Kelly as a recovery champion, said he has "saved the riparian brush rabbit from the brink of extinction and transported it to the road to recovery."
San Francisco Chronicle
Producers look to next generation of biofuels...David R. Baker
For America's biofuel industry, these are times of incredible promise - and serious pain.
The Bay Area teems with entrepreneurs trying to replace oil with new, renewable fuels. Their experiments are attracting investment despite the global recession, with venture capitalists pouring $96 million into the industry in this year's first quarter.
The federal government wants to expand biofuel production by nearly two-thirds in the next five years, with specific quotas for advanced biofuels made from such ingredients as grass, algae, enzymes or yeast.
But older biofuel companies are facing financial ruin, hammered by low fuel prices.
California's largest ethanol producer, Pacific Ethanol of Sacramento, closed its plants in Madera and Stockton earlier this year, laying off nearly 80 people in the process. The Stockton plant had been open less than five months.
The firm warned investors last week that it could run out of cash by the end of April. The nation's second-largest ethanol producer, VeraSun Energy Corp. of South Dakota, went bankrupt last fall.
"These plants are great assets for California," said Pacific Ethanol spokesman Tom Koehler. "It's not fun laying off people. We want to get them back to work."
As research barrels ahead, three powerful trends have lashed America's biggest biofuel companies, all of which make ethanol from corn.
Ethanol companies went on a plant-building binge while oil and gasoline prices were still rising. Because ethanol is blended into gasoline, the prices of the two fuels are linked, and ethanol companies wanted to cash in. But too many biorefineries opened, swamping the market.
Then the industry was hit by a double-whammy. Corn prices rose, cutting company profit margins. Then gas prices collapsed, wiping out what little margins were left.
"When oil prices were high and gasoline prices were high, they were flying," said Roland Hwang, a vehicles specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "At the height of the bubble, these guys were making money hand over fist. And they flat-out overbuilt."
Now the biofuels industry faces an uncertain future.
The federal government has ordered the nation's gasoline suppliers to use more renewable fuel in the coming years. But federal rules also limit the amount of ethanol that can be blended into regular gasoline, capping it at 10 percent. The ethanol companies are trying to lift that cap to give themselves a bigger market.
They're fighting another battle in California, where state officials may approve a new regulation promoting fuels that generate relatively few greenhouse gases.
Instead of helping ethanol companies, the proposed "low-carbon fuel standard" penalizes them for their indirect effects on land use, such as clearing forests for cropland in the developing world.
And then there's the marketplace. Prices for all kinds of fuels - gasoline, diesel, natural gas - remain far below the heights they reached last year. They aren't likely to rise much higher until the global economy shows signs of recovery.
"The margins have been squeezed, there's the debt issues to deal with, and there's the falling price of oil," said Koehler at Pacific Ethanol. "Then it's compounded by the fact that this low-carbon fuel standard is going to do nothing to help these plants."
Bay Area at forefront
The biofuels industry isn't a monolith. It has traditionally been dominated by corn-ethanol companies, often referred to as ethanol's first generation. But in recent years, many startups have tried to make ethanol out of cheaper materials like grass or wood chips that would also have a lighter impact on the environment.
There are biodiesel companies whose fuel can run trucks and diesel cars. Still other businesses develop renewable versions of jet fuel.
Second-generation companies - many of them in the Bay Area - have been magnets for venture capital. They brought in $953 million in 2008, according to the Cleantech Group consulting firm.
Genencor of Palo Alto takes a decidedly second-generation approach. In its clean but cluttered laboratory, scientists in safety glasses labor over vials of enzymes, searching for a better way to make ethanol.
Genencor is part of a joint venture building an ethanol plant that will turn corn cobs and switch grass into fuel, using specially designed enzymes. Genencor's parent company, Danisco, and its partner, DuPont, each kicked in $70 million for the project, with another $40 million coming from the University of Tennessee. The biorefinery, under construction near Knoxville, Tenn., should open next year.
"We're not talking about something that's going to happen in five years, in 10 years - it's going to happen next year," said Joe Skurla, the joint venture's chief executive officer.
The joint venture, called DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol, will need more financing to build the next plant after that. But with the backing of such large companies, Skurla said finding the money shouldn't be a problem.
"There are plenty of folks interested in investing," he said. "The DuPont Danisco name brings a real comfort factor with it."
Other young biofuel companies don't have that asset. Those who have done all their lab work and need to start building test plants have been snared by the credit crisis.
While venture capital can fund research and development, building even small-scale biorefineries takes extra financing. And right now, banks aren't in the mood to give it.
Pacific Ethanol has plants built and ready to run. But the profit margins were so poor that the company closed them down. The Madera and Stockton plants can be reopened if the company secures more financing and ethanol profit margins start to rise again.
California's low-carbon fuel standard could be, and should be, a boost to the business, Koehler said. The standard is designed to lower greenhouse gas emissions from California's fuel 10 percent by 2020. The California Air Resources Board plans to vote on the standard April 23.
Rising food prices
The board's staff calculated the emissions given off by the production and use of various fuels. But as part of their calculation, they also looked at changes in land use attributed to biofuel production. Many environmentalists blame biofuels for the worldwide rise in food prices in 2007 and 2008.
That approach infuriates corn ethanol companies, who argue that the indirect effects of other fuels weren't included. For example, if California uses less ethanol, the state will import more oil, producing more emissions, ethanol executives say.
And because most newly discovered oil fields are in difficult-to-reach places, the amount of energy and emissions needed to produce each barrel will slowly grow.
Supporters of the low-carbon fuel standard support next-generation biofuels because ethanol made from grass or crop waste should yield fewer greenhouse gases during production.
"How do we transition from corn ethanol to second- and third-generation biofuels that have much less impact on the environment?" asked Hwang. "That's the big question right now."
Biofuel research expands possibilities...Jim Doyle
Scientists at a research and development laboratory in Menlo Park are refining the process of using microbes found in termite guts to turn forests of fast-growing poplar trees into an environmentally friendly form of ethanol to power cars.
A South San Francisco firm is using algae to produce oil in large fermentation tanks, while researchers at the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville are designing a synthetic catalyst to break down energy crops into sugars to make new, cleaner liquid fuels for today's cars and jet aircraft engines.
The search for biologically derived transportation fuels has exploded into a technological drag race among Bay Area researchers - one that could morph into business profits for corporations, entrepreneurs and investors as the next generation of biofuels begins to replace or augment crude oil and gasoline.
Federal energy officials have set a goal of replacing 30 percent of today's transportation fuel with biofuels by 2030. The Obama administration plans to support biofuel research with seed money and to help firms test the new technologies in small-scale pilot plants, build large production facilities and bring new products to market.
3 areas of investigation
Groundbreaking chemistry, genetic engineering and synthetic biology are at the core of attempts to understand how nature breaks down plant matter such as wood and grasses to unlock the solar energy stored in plants.
Researchers are also exploring how special genes, enzymes or synthetic compounds can speed the process of converting plant matter into clean, liquid energy.
"The opportunity is here, the time is now," said materials scientist Dean Dibble, who works at the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville. "This is very new chemistry, so there's a lot of low-hanging fruit."
Researchers are focusing on three key areas - the natural world of insects and bacteria, marine algae and nonfood energy crops - to create a new generation of biofuels.
The Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek has worked with leading scientists to explore the genes of microbes that live in a termite found in the jungles of Costa Rica.
Termites turn plant matter into fermentable sugars, digesting vast amounts of wood in a short amount of time. Specialized microbes in termite bellies are used to break down plant cell walls and speed the digestive process.
"We're looking into nature to see what's already there," said microbiologist Falk Warnecke of the Joint Genome Institute. "Most of these microbes growing in the termite guts cannot be grown in the laboratories, but we're trying to use their enzymes ... The next step is that biotechnology companies and researchers take these enzymes and try to develop them for biofuels."
These enzymes may be useful in breaking down cellulose, the rigid material in plant cell walls. But adapting enzymes or bacteria for an industrial-scale system isn't easy.
At the ZeaChem laboratory in Menlo Park, microbiologists use bacteria from termite guts to ferment plant matter such as poplar trees into ethanol - a process that has a low carbon footprint, company officials say.
"We don't do any genetic engineering or biological manipulation," said Dan Verser, a co-founder of ZeaChem and its executive vice president of research and development.
Algae oil may beat ethanol
ZeaChem, which is based in Denver, plans to begin construction later this year on a demonstration project in Boardman, Ore., next to a forest of poplar trees.
Oil found in the microscopic cells of algae has been called a miracle fuel by algae's promoters, who held the first Algae Biofuels World Summit conference in San Francisco last month. Algae oil will be cleaner and cheaper than oil and ethanol, they say.
Critics say the slimy, oil-rich algae - microscopic, plantlike organisms that normally feed on sunlight and carbon dioxide - are vastly overrated.
Solazyme Inc., of South San Francisco, is among the dozens of firms hoping to capitalize on algae's potential. The firm is genetically engineering strains of algae to grow on sugar cane, wood chips and agricultural residues - without sunlight - in steel tanks.
"We've made tens of thousands of gallons of oil with this process," said Harrison Dillon, president of Solazyme. "We've been road testing our fuels, trying them on unmodified engines."
Solazyme has worked with San Ramon's Chevron Corp. to develop biodiesel made from algae. Last year, Solazyme introduced the first algal-based renewable diesel fuel. It has also developed a jet fuel made from algae.
At the Department of Energy's Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville, researchers are developing specialty bio-energy crops that can be easily broken down into sugars, such as synthetic variations of wild grass and poplar trees.
They are discovering new enzymes by exploring relatively unknown microbial communities such as rain forest floors and compost, and studying how these enzymes break down cellulose. They also are studying the genes and proteins found in cells of natural and engineered plants.
And they are creating synthetic enzymes that are more effective than nature in breaking down cellulose found in plants and turning them into sugars.
"For the first time, we have the genetic tools to develop a bio-energy crop. In the past, it was whatever nature provided," said Harvey Blanch, the institute's chief science and technology officer. "Because of synthetic biology, we are able to produce new organisms that can do things that they don't do in nature."
Typically, ethanol is made with the aid of yeast to ferment sugars from corn. The Emeryville scientists are engineering new microbes as an alternative to yeast to quickly ferment complex sugars into gasoline substitutes for today's car engines.
Oil companies on board
Oil companies have also begun to invest in biofuels research and development. The Energy Biosciences Institute at UC Berkeley, founded last year, was financed by a $500 million grant from BP, the British oil giant.
The institute's researchers are using satellite imagery, geologic surveys and market databases to locate places where non-food energy crops such as prairie grass can be planted on non-agricultural lands so that food crops will not be displaced.
They are analyzing hundreds of thousands of plant species to see which ones are best suited as energy crops, especially species that have a high tolerance for salty soils and plants that do not need fertilizer and will not cause agricultural runoff, such as miscanthus, a tall perennial grass.
Sean O'Hanlon, executive director of the American Biofuels Council in Miami, said several sources of biofuels have market potential.
"I can't quite call this a Manhattan project or compare it to the '60s space program, but it's rapidly approaching those points," he said. "We have to start applying this science. This is no longer a research project."
Volunteers help salamanders avoid roadway massacre...LISA RATHKE, Associated Press Writer
(04-05) 09:58 PDT New Haven, Vt. (AP) --
The black salamander with yellow spots sat on the roadside in the dark, ready to make a go of it.
But it was not on its own. It got help from an escort — one of 45 people who volunteered on a recent night to carry salamanders, frogs and newts across the road during their annual migration to mate.
On rainy nights in early spring, roads between forests and vernal pools are hopping and crawling with activity. On some nights, hundreds of amphibians cross small stretches of asphalt to mate. But many don't make it.
From rural Vermont to urban centers like Philadelphia, human escorts, called bucket brigades in some places, help amphibians make it to their mating areas without getting squashed by cars. It's part education, part conservation, and part science.
"It's an extraordinary thing and people deserve to know about it," said Warren King, a member of the Otter Creek Audubon Society, who organizes a crossing in Salisbury. "And it needs to be protected. There are sites where many of the critters that are crossing never make it."
On a recent night, University of Vermont student Kaitlin Friedman walked with other volunteers along the asphalt with flashlights and clipboards, moving wood frogs, peepers, blue-spotted, red-backed and four-toed salamanders across the road, while jotting down how many they saw. They also kept count of vehicles, and the amphibians that didn't make it, trying to identify the flattened carcasses.
"It's pretty much the one time of year where you get to see a lot of salamanders in abundance and it's just really cool," said Friedman, 20, of Long Island, New York. "Plus, you know you help them across the road, you feel like maybe you're making a small reduction in their mortality rates, maybe, just for that hour or so."
John Kart, of Richmond, and his family have been helping salamanders cross the road for five years. On a recent evening, he said his 5-year-old daughter and two friends were as excited as the salamanders as they peered into a watery ditch.
"We're a little early this year but often you come and it is just loud as all get out from all the peepers and wood frogs screaming down in the pond below," he said.
The half dozen cars that passed in an hour slowed down through the stretch of road dotted with flashlights, some stopping to ask what was going on. After two hours, the group had spotted 589 amphibians, and 97 dead ones.
But a few miles ahead, on a busier road in Monkton, the scene wasn't pretty. It was more of a slaughter. The escorts were finding more dead amphibians than live ones.
Within the first half hour they counted 20 dead spotted salamanders and 18 live ones, eight dead and four live wood frogs, seven dead peepers and one live one, four dead and one live eft or immature newt and 23 cars, said Steve Parren, a member of the Monkton Planning Commissioner, who works for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.
Two and half hours later, the tide turned — they had counted 205 live and 98 dead amphibians — but the numbers still troubled Parren.
"I don't think the area can persist with the level of mortality that we're seeing," Parren said.
The state is considering installing tunnels under the road for amphibians and other animals to use. The town has received a $25,000 grant to pay for the engineering. The full project could cost up to $350,000, said Parren.
Similar tunnels were installed in Amherst, Mass., in 1987, and have proved 70 to 80 percent effective, said Scott Jackson, a wildlife biologist at the University of Massachusetts.
But some wonder why anyone would go to such lengths to help salamanders.
The red-backed salamanders are the most abundant backboned animal in the forest, said Jackson.
"Even if don't know what would happen if they all died out at once, we could imagine some kind of ripple effect on the rest of the ecosystem because they serve as both predator and prey and are probably very important in terms of nutrient cycling in the forest floor," he said.
For Parren it's about preserving what is there.
"For me it's more we're losing the national heritage that belongs there," he said.
New York Times
Freeing Towns to Tackle Blight...ELSA BRENNER
FORECLOSURES can be costly, not just to borrowers and lenders, but to neighbors as well.
“If I were buying my condo again and saw what’s across the street now, I’d never move in,” said Flora Caivano, who has lived in Fleetwood, one of Mount Vernon’s most sought-after neighborhoods, for 15 years. “It’s starting to look like the city dump around here.”
For about a year, the view from Mrs. Caivano’s living-room window has been dominated by a house with boarded-up windows and a litter-strewn yard.
Like other homeowners who live near abandoned foreclosed properties, Mrs. Caivano is concerned that her two-bedroom condominium may have decreased in value. And ever since vandals defaced the property with graffiti, she worries about her personal safety.
Her fears are well founded on both counts. According to a study last summer by the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit group in Durham, N.C., living near a foreclosed home knocks $8,667 off the value of a property, and abandoned homes contribute to an increase in violent crime.
Working its way through the State Legislature in Albany is one of the first bills in the country to protect property values and neighborhood safety when a foreclosed property is left untended.
The proposed law, sponsored by Senator Jeff Klein, a Democrat who represents the Bronx and sections of Westchester County, would allow municipalities to clean up unsightly foreclosures, issue violations and recoup the costs from the lending institution. The bill has cleared the State Senate and is now before an Assembly committee.
In a statement describing the proposal, Mr. Klein pointed out that although there are laws to protect borrowers from lenders, there aren’t any to address the plight of “the neighbors who had nothing at all to do with the foreclosures in the first place but are nevertheless affected by them.”
In Westchester, 405 properties were bank-owned as of March 30, according to an online site that collects foreclosure data, RealtyTrac.com.
The proposed Neighborhood Preservation Act is being welcomed by brokers and officials, and by the president of at least one homeowners’ association.
It may also be welcome elsewhere in the region: there were 566 bank-owned properties in Nassau County as of March 30, as well as 316 in Suffolk County and 195 in the Bronx.
Specifically, the law would empower municipalities to clean up a property during “that tricky in-between period” after an owner defaults on the mortgage and abandons the property, but before the bank owns it, said Joe Hasselt, the owner of Hasselt Real Estate in the Bronx, which lists houses throughout the New York area.
“We’ve seen terrible situations where homes have been burned or vandals have gone in and stripped it,” Mr. Hasselt said. “Or there’s so much drug paraphernalia all over that we’ve had to put on thick-soled shoes before we went in there. A property can deteriorate very quickly if no one steps in and takes over.”
The law would also ease the way for a property to be maintained after the bank takes it over but before it is sold to a new owner, said Charles B. Strome III, the city manager of New Rochelle.
In this way, it would act as a complement to a “standard of habitability” law already on the books in New York. That law holds homeowners responsible if, for instance, there are no locks or other security devices on a property, garbage is accumulating, insects and rodents have infested the premises, or there are sewage leaks.
In such cases, Mr. Strome said, if notifying the delinquent property owner fails to produce results, the building department is then empowered to send in a contractor to remediate the problem and bill the owner for the work. If he or she does not pay the bill, the city can put a lien on the property.
The proposed law would empower cities and towns to take similar actions on foreclosed properties. As Mr. Strome said, “This will give us an important new tool.”
In Mount Vernon, the 200-member Fleetwood Neighborhood Association — which first alerted city officials to the rapidly deteriorating condition of the property opposite Mrs. Caivano’s home — is also awaiting passage of the new bill, said Susan Granata, the group’s president.
“Especially with warm weather coming,” Ms. Granata said, “the city needs to act quickly or the site will start to attract vermin and become a health hazard.”
In many parts of the state and the country as a whole — especially where the incidence of foreclosures is high — banks often hire private companies to do the cleanup work.
And in Westchester, lenders paying for repairs frequently turn over the hiring of contractors to the listing agents for the foreclosed properties, said Gary Leogrande, an associate broker at Keller Williams NY Realty in White Plains.
Mr. Leogrande has been engaged by almost a dozen banks to manage foreclosed properties in Westchester, where he said fewer than 10 percent of houses on the market are short sales or bank-owned.
But Mr. Klein said during an interview that some management companies and real estate agents “are just another form of absentee landlord, and even though they say they’re taking care of the property, that’s not always what we see.”
“One foreclosure can devastate an entire community,” he said, “and we’re seeing too much of that these days. We need a more effective way to combat that.”