Our View: A sobering look at state's climate future
Californians will have to change way we farm, protect coast and deal with water supply.
The latest report from California's Climate Action Team contains some sobering conclusions from a broad collection of new research on global warming's likely effect on the state.
Dozens of studies completed in the past two years have projected the effects of climate change on California's snowpack and water supply, sea level, agriculture, forestry, air quality and electricity use.
The results suggest that quite apart from the state's controversial attempt to slow or reverse global warming, Californians and their government almost certainly will have to adapt to changing conditions by changing the way they farm, protect the coast and deal with a more fickle water supply.
If the current temperature trends persist, these changes will be necessary whether the warming is caused by man, as most climate scientists now believe, or simply represents a broad and inevitable turn of the meteorological cycle.
Starting from a foundation of international research on average temperature increases and likely scenarios for the 21st century, the new research reports look in fine detail at how life in California would change under those projections.
Some key points:
Temperature. Summer high temperatures are expected to climb by 2.7 degrees to 10.7 degrees by the end of this century.
The lower end of that range probably would not present huge challenges. But if high temperatures gravitate toward the upper end of that spectrum, California will see longer summers with more frequent and more intense heat waves.
This has implications for emergency response and electricity demand, as air conditions would be cranking around the clock through most of the state.
Precipitation. Interestingly, the projections here are not all in one direction.
While both Northern and Southern California can expect reduced rainfall through the middle of the century, the consensus is that rainfall in the north would increase again by the end of the period, while it would continue to decrease in Southern California.
Snowpack. Even if precipitation increases again in Northern California, the warmer temperatures will affect the snowpack, the research says.
An earlier peak in the water content of the snow and an earlier snowmelt would mean a reduction in the water supply later in the year and would force water managers and consumers to rethink the way they store and use the resource.
Sea level. Measured over several decades, sea level in California has been rising at a rate of about 7 inches per century.
The latest studies suggest the sea level will rise by 11 to 18 inches by 2050 and up to 55 inches by 2100.
This would have implications for coastal property and public beaches and could lead to more damage when winter storms combine with high tides to flood low-lying property.
The research includes a few nuggets of good news: Some crops would grow better in the warmer temperatures, and commercially planted pine forests might boom in the new Northern California climate.
But for the most part, the implications are difficult, if not bleak. They require serious evaluation and, if heeded, difficult policy choices.
See the report for yourself at http://climatechange.ca.gov.
Merced City Council OKs plan to bridge shortfall
An incentive for workers to retire could save city $2.5 million a year, but gap is $10.2 million...SCOTT JASON
Merced will offer golden handshakes to nudge some of its longtime workers into retirement, a measure meant to help bridge a $10.2 million budget gap by reducing the city payroll.
Thirty-three eligible workers have told management that they're interested in the deal. They have from April 22 to July 18 to decide.
If all of them signed up, it'd save the city about $2.5 million yearly, so long as the positions aren't filled.
The City Council, despite some hesitation on the part of member John Carlisle, unanimously approved offering two years of additional service to eligible workers on the brink of retirement during its meeting Monday.
"I'm generally not in favor of the golden handshake idea, based on it not working in other situations," said Carlisle, the only council member who spoke on the topic. "In this case, we're looking at some substantial savings."
A toxic combination of the housing bust and falling tax revenues has left the city with no option but laying off staff, a fate it's avoided since 1993.
The budget gap grew larger this year, with 2008's final quarter showing an 18.96 percent decline in the city's sales tax compared with the 2007 fourth quarter.
"I don't know if I need to tell anyone in this room that the economy is in poor shape," City Manager John Bramble said.
The city managed to avoid deep cuts last year by tapping $4 million in reserve funds and beginning to aggressively freeze vacant positions.
It's trying to minimize the number of people laid off by offering a golden handshake program and also buyouts.
The city projects that about 52 people need to leave the city's work force to balance the 2009-2010 budget.
As proposed, seven would come from the fire department and another 13 from police ranks.
About $1 billion in federal stimulus money will go to help cities keep or hire officers. The council approved applying for the program.
City staff submitted five pages of money-saving ideas, which included limiting travel, selling the zoo, senior center and airport, pay cuts and furloughs.
Forcing some staff to take unpaid time off could help with budget woes, city leaders have said.
However, it's impossible to rely solely on furloughs to make up the $10.2 million shortfall.
The city must have its balanced budget in place by July 1.
Letter: Accountability?...Jules Comeyne, Merced
Editor: Last year, the voters of Merced approved a tax rate hike to provide for more police and firefighters.
Now, in Friday's paper, city spokesman Mike Conway states that Merced may lay off 13 police officers and seven firefighters.
I would like to see the Sun-Star investigate and find out where that tax increase is going. I would like to see actual figures of the income and where it is being spent. Looks like we were given another false promise by the city's politicians.
We need accurate accountability of where our tax money is being spent.
Two valley rivers top endangered list… Michael Doyle, Bee Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- The Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers together are the most endangered rivers in the nation, an environmental group claims in a new report.
Pressed by population growth and irrigation demands, and imperfectly restrained by outdated levees, the two Central Valley rivers are said to be "on the verge of collapse" in the latest assessment by American Rivers. This marks the first time either river has topped the subjective most-endangered rankings.
"We really have to overhaul how we manage this river system," Amy Kober, communications director for American Rivers, said Monday.
Based in Washington, D.C., American Rivers has been producing the "America's Most Endangered Rivers" report since 1986. Like similar assessments produced by groups such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation -- which publishes an annual "America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places" -- the river rankings have neither regulatory nor legislative significance.
No objective criteria explains why the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers are considered more endangered than Georgia's Flint River or Oregon's Lower Snake River, which rank No. 2 and 3, respectively, on the American Rivers' list.
Rather, the 36-year-old environmental group wants the grim report card to rivet public and political attention. Selected rivers generally face an important policy decision -- for instance, proposed dam construction -- in the coming year. "This really sheds a spotlight on the problem, and puts pressure on the policy-makers to do the right thing," Kober said.
State, federal and local officials are preparing a Bay-Delta conservation plan, which could include a still-controversial scheme for conveying water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta's east side. The potential peripheral canal, as it was once known, has the support of leaders, including Gov. Schwarzenegger, even as Kober said environmentalists believe "there are better solutions available."
In previous years, pending dam and hydroelectric project proposals have earned the Clavey River in Tuolumne County and the American River in El Dorado County spots on the most-endangered list. In 1997, the San Joaquin River cracked the Top 10 list.
The Sacramento River flows south for about 440 miles, and the San Joaquin River flows north for about 330 miles. They mingle in the 1,000-square mile delta.
There's no disagreement about the importance of the two rivers. Together, they provide drinking water to 25 million Californians and irrigation water to 5 million acres of California farmland.
There's plenty of disagreement, though, about how to manage the rivers.
"They're not looking at the human populations that are endangered, the communities where unemployment is 30 or 40 percent," said Andrew House, spokesman for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia.
House added that the "environmental concerns should be secondary" to concerns about the "endangered communities" that rely on irrigation water from valley rivers.
Nunes was on the losing end of one big river fight, which concluded March 30 when President Barack Obama signed an enormous public lands bill. The public lands package included San Joaquin River restoration provisions, designed to restore water and ultimately a salmon population in the river channel below Friant Dam.
Pensions deepen county's red ink...Ken Carlson
Stanislaus County's cost of funding pensions and other benefits for retired employees is higher than previously thought, a report shows, and that will make it harder to bridge a county budget deficit next year.
The county may need to contribute an additional $25 million to the retirement system in the 2009-10 fiscal year. The previous estimate was a $15 million to $17 million increase.
If the county has to pay more to fund pension costs, it will leave less money to pay for law enforcement, county parks and other public services. More county employees could face furloughs or layoffs.
About $4.2 million of the $9 million difference in additional costs would come out of the county general fund, which is used for law enforcement and other spending at the discretion of elected officials, said county Chief Executive Officer Rick Robinson.
It would push the budget deficit in 2009-10 to more than $38 million.
"One of the consequences is going to be staffing reductions," Robinson said Monday. "We're certain it can't be made up without reducing staff."
The new estimate came in an actuarial report by EFI Asset/Liability Management Services Inc., which will be presented Wednesday to the Stanislaus County Employees' Retirement Association, the agency that administers benefits for retired county employees, plus retirees from Ceres and five special districts.
The StanCERA board watches over a retirement system fund that has lost more than $500 million from the stock market decline and other investment losses since the end of 2007. But the investment losses are only part of the problem.
The report says that unreasonable assumptions were made when evaluating the assets and liabilities of the retirement system.
For example, more employees are opting for early retirement than projected in a June 2006 valuation by another firm, and that's causing the retirement system to pay more for pensions, health care and other benefits.
Previous studies had assumed that most local government workers would retire at ages 60 to 65, but retiring in the 55 to 60 range has become more common.
The report cited other factors that are driving up the county's costs:
The number of employees covered by the retirement system grew by almost 3 percent from June 2006 to June 2008, as 1,100 people were hired to expand the government work force or replace departing employees. The additional payroll increased the plan costs by $6.7 million.
As a result of faulty assumptions, contributions by the county and other employers were not sufficient in previous years. That created a $38 million shortfall in assets from June 2006 to June 2008.
The report warns that severe investment losses in 2008-09 "will result in a large increase in contribution rates." Those losses won't be accounted for until later this year. The report includes recommendations to avoid making false assumptions.
County officials will attend the StanCERA meeting to discuss their concerns with the cost increases and retirement fund accounting.
They are expected to talk about nonmandated benefits that are paid to retirees, including health care subsidies and supplemental cost-of- living increases not stipulated in labor contracts. The retirement system pays the benefits from a reserve account that grows when the association's investment earnings exceed 8.16 percent in a year.
Robinson suggested that those reserves could be used to lower the county's contribution rate.
StanCERA administrator Tom Watson said Monday he is sure the option will be explored.
Watson said the association can take other measures to soften the blow to the county, such as amortizing the retirement system's unfunded liabilities over 30 years instead of 20 years.
Jim DeMartini, county board chairman and one of four county appointees to the nine-member retirement board, has questioned how StanCERA accounts for the reserves used to pay the nonmandated benefits. He said that despite gyrations in the financial markets, the reserve account never seems to lose value.
During years when the retirement system loses money on investments, however, the county is required to increase its contributions to the system, he said.
Over 35 years the nonmandated benefits have cost the retirement system $91 million.
"The retirement board has no business giving away extra benefits when the retirement fund has been in this kind of shape," DeMartini said.
Wes Hall, a retirement board member chosen by retirees, said the nonmandated benefits help retired employees cope with the rising cost of health insurance. The subsidy has been $12.33 per month for each year of serv-ice or $308 monthly for a person with 25 years of service.
"We have built up some good reserves, and maybe this time we need to use some of that to assist the county," he said. "We all have to work together."
The retirement board meets at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Salida library, 4835 Sisk Road.
Jackman: Public mostly absent from valley planning discussions...Denny Jackman. Jackman is a former Modesto City Council member and longtime advocate of managed growth...4-2-09
The San Jose-ization of the Central Valley is alive and well — and missing the general public. Every week, a council, board of supervisors or Council of Governments meeting takes place in a room full of empty seats.
The elected representatives are there by proxy for the public, but are they really following the will of the public?
Residents believe their past votes reflect their expectations. My expectation as a result of the 2-to-1 passage of the Stamp Out Sprawl Initiative (Measure E) in February 2008 is that local leadership would recognize voter rejection of sprawl as usual and adopt new, smarter policies.
What most of the public doesn't realize is the games going on behind the scenes that circumvent or distort the long-term plans that the public believes are in place — and that officials say are in place.
Case in point: In the early 1990s, local representatives designated an "expressway loop" around Modesto. This expressway was designated Class B to minimize curb cuts and limit construction along the future transportation corridor.
Kiernan Avenue-Claribel Road was the northern part of this loop. Since the signing of the agreement, the county has allowed numerous curb cuts between Highway 99 and McHenry Avenue, and the city of Riverbank pulled a Pelandale- type planning mess at the Crossroads Shopping Center. Riverbank allowed shopping center entrances and exits directly onto Claribel.
Now, too many curb cuts and unrealistic population projections are cited as reasons why Kiernan-Claribel can no longer be considered a good expressway. So much for future orientation!
Now the general public is expected to trust local representatives as they roll out another expressway plan, this one dubbed the North County Corridor.
The estimated cost is $1.4 billion. That's "billion," as in "blatant." The new north corridor is to be partially funded with the former Oakdale Bypass money from the state.
Recall that the old Oakdale Bypass plan was to vent cars going from the Bay Area to the mountains via Manteca on Highway 120. The thought was travelers would turn north of Oakdale to avoid gridlock in downtown.
No one believes that those Bay Area travelers will venture down to Salida to use the new corridor. So who will it serve? Is it designed to serve a Salida population that doesn't exist and a Riverbank-Oakdale population that voted down the recent Measure S transportation tax?
At a recent Modesto Urban Policy Review meeting, the participants were instructed, "Don't worry about the costs," and to consider that maybe the new corridor could be the new north boundary for Modesto's General Plan.
Hello? Is anybody in there? Surely we can make good plans by considering and maybe even respecting the economic conditions we grew into and the votes we have made.
When transportation and land-use planning begin with a thinking process such as "a blank piece of paper," I shudder.
As a native Modestan, I resent the discounting of our heritage. As a taxpayer, I am suspicious of the cost-benefit of the North County Corridor. We're likely looking at a future with considerably more sprawl at the expense of our best soils.
If the desired outcome of local urban development processes is to be in the public interest, then the public needs to be at the table from the inception of the process. Public workshops with vested interests in the majority do not reflect voting public interests.
The new North County Corridor has become a feeding frenzy for forces that ignore public votes and surveys regarding growth. Elected representatives need to reflect real public aspirations for transportation improvements that serve real populations. $1.4 billion can fix a lot of curb cuts and restore expressway potential to Kiernan and Claribel without engaging a cover-the-earth mentality.
California salmon fishing season likely shut down for second straight year...Julia Scott, Bay Area News Group
MILLBRAE — The California Chinook salmon fishery will be shut down for the second year in a row because of near-record salmon population losses in the Sacramento River basin system, fishery regulators decided on Monday.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council tentatively voted to close all waters south of Eureka to salmon fishermen for the second consecutive year to protect the dwindling population of Sacramento River Chinook projected to spawn upriver this fall. The council will take a final vote on Wednesday but is expected to uphold Monday's decision.
Historically low salmon returns prompted fishery officials to shut down all forms of salmon fishing off nearly the entire West Coast for the first time last year. That action led Congress to appropriate $170 million in federal disaster funds to compensate salmon fishermen and fishery-reliant coastal industries for their losses. Roughly $120 million of that was directed to California.
Scientists predict that only 122,000 salmon will return to the Sacramento this autumn to spawn, twice as many as last year's record-low 66,000 but still a fraction of the 800,000 that have returned in healthier years.
Maria Vojkovich, who represents California on the council, acknowledged the pain the restrictions will cause but said they were necessary to preserve the long-term survival of the species in the Sacramento River system, the San Francisco-San Joaquin Delta and the Bay.
"This is less emotional than last year, but it's not better at all. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I have something else to say next year. It's the best we could do," Vojkovich said.
Half Moon Bay fisherman and salmon advisory council member Duncan MacLean said the closure was necessary given the numbers, but he is worried about the survival of the industry and his livelihood.
"I fear for my future in fishing," MacLean said. "I just hope I get to do it again in my lifetime."
MacLean is leading an effort to get another round of federal subsidies for small fishermen hard-hit by the closure. About $48 million may be left over in last year's fund.
Monday's decision allows for very limited commercial and recreational salmon fishing between Eureka and northern Oregon. The season remains normal in Washington state, where adult salmon are more plentiful.
Scientists testified that Sacramento Chinook salmon runs were likely to rebound slightly in 2010 and 2011, at least enough to allow for some fishing. The current Central Valley salmon crisis is blamed on a combination of factors, including natural ocean variations and a host of problems in the Sacramento River Basin, such as dams, loss of natural ecosystems and damaging fish hatchery practices.
Fishermen and biologists advising the council lined up to criticize a report presented at Monday's meeting that mainly attributed the 2008 and 2009 Chinook mortality rate to unexplained ocean conditions that did not provide enough food for juvenile salmon and other species in 2005 and 2006. As a result, few salmon survived to adulthood to spawn upstream three years later.
Critics of the report said it discounted evidence of young salmon smolts dying in the Sacramento River system before they reach the Golden Gate. Ninety-five percent of tidal wetlands, a key salmon habitat, have disappeared from the system over time, according to one salmon biologist at the meeting. Delta levees and dikes also can impede fish rearing. Natural predators like striped bass take their toll, as does water being pumped out of the Delta to Southern California.
Fish hatcheries on the Sacramento, originally conceived as a solution to the problem of dams blocking salmon from spawning upstream, have created a new kind of problem, according to the report submitted by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The juvenile fish are raised in pens and trucked around the dams, but grow up with a depleted natural immunity to changes in temperature and forms of disease.
The real question of the day was how to craft a salmon management policy that takes all these problems into account and highlights the interconnectedness of rivers, the Bay and the ocean for a species that spends parts of its life in each environment. The Pacific Fishery Management Council only has the power to regulate fishing, and only out at sea. Everyone acknowledged that banning salmon fishing in California wasn't going to solve the long-term problem.
"We could do a lot more if we thought in a more holistic fashion," said Churchill Grimes, director of the Fisheries Ecology Division of the National Marine Fisheries Service. "The PFMC doesn't have control over what the Department of Water Resources and others do, and they have authority over the areas in which their other life stages occur."
Recovery hopes begin to blossom
A growing number of economists say they see signs that the battered U.S. economy could start to recover as soon as this summer...Chris Isidore
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Unemployment at a 25-year high. Housing prices continuing to fall. Corporate titans such as General Motors on the brink of bankruptcy. There's no lack of bad economic news.
And yet, amid the gloom, there are a growing number of economists that see a recovery on the horizon -- perhaps even a strong rebound.
They say that a number of indicators appear to have bottomed out in recent months. Job losses may have peaked in January. Home sales are starting to pick up. Stocks are enjoying a strong rally.
And because the economy has experienced such a steep decline in the current downturn, some economists are hopeful the recovery ahead will be much stronger than the anemic gains that came about after the end of the previous two recessions.
Lakshman Achuthan, managing director of Economic Cycle Research Institute, said the economy could be as close to four months away from a recovery.
He says his firms' readings on long-term and short-term economic indicators give him significantly more hope that the economy is closer to a turnaround than he had thought even a month ago. Among the more than dozen different things his firm looks at are home prices, the jobs picture and stock prices.
"These readings don't really turn unless something is happening," he said.
To be sure, many economists still think that the recession won't end until much later this year, if not 2010. But Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Economy.com, also believes that a recovery could be closer than most people think. However, he said an end to the recession will largely depend on improvement in the labor markets.
"We're starting to see some pent up demand for goods. But first things first, we need to see job losses moderate," he said.
Zandi said just a slowing rate of job losses should help make people more confident about their own job outlook, as will a continuation of the recent gains for stocks.
Those two factors, plus a sign that home price declines have ended will help to turn around consumer confidence, Zandi said. That should help spur more spending.
Zandi said the problem with confidence today is that when things aren't going well, many people can't picture things getting better, just as they have trouble imagining declining prices of homes and stocks during a boom period.
"Confidence is a very fickle thing. It can go from abject pessimism that pervades now to a more balanced view of the world rather quickly," he said.
Robert Brusca of FAO Economics, also believes there will be a fairly sharp recovery, mainly because this recession was so much worse than the ones in 1991 and 2001.
A slow, jobless recovery took place after those recessions, which were both fairly mild by historical standards. But the economy has often bounced back sharply following more severe recessions.
Brusca points out that, prior to the 1991 and 2001 downturns, the nation's gross domestic product has gained about 7%, on average, during the first year of a recovery.
For this reason, he is predicting strong growth in at least one of the year's final two quarters as well as a quicker return to health for the labor market.
"You've lost 5 million jobs. It shouldn't be hard to put 2.5 million jobs back on rather quickly after you hit bottom," he said.
Joseph Carson, chief economist at AllianceBernstein, said the economy is already showing early indications of turning around. In addition to improving home sales and positive signs from the stock and bond markets, retail sales in February and March were stronger than expected.
And all of this has happened before the nearly $800 billion stimulus package that was enacted earlier this has had much of an effect. Because of this, Carson said the stimulus plan could create stronger than expected growth -- and much sooner than consensus forecasts.
"Stimulus has a much better chance of working if trends are already turning up than if it needs to halt a decline," he said.