Clarifications from the Sun-Star...Badlands Journal editorial board
Mike Tharp, executive editor of the Merced Sun-Star, sent in some clarifications regarding a recent Sun-Star editorial, posted and criticized on Badlands. The article on this site was called "The fish," March 15, 2009, http://www.badlandsjournal.com/taxonomy/term/24?page=1
Thanks for reprinting our editorial calling for big public/private projects that would both restore community spirit and help the local economy. A couple of clarifications, however: I returned from six weeks in Iraq for McClatchy last July (not "recently"); and the only time I spent in the Green Zone was to be taken there in an armored vehicle for interviews. Otherwise, I lived in the McClatchy bureau--well in the Red Zone--or was embedded with the 10th Mountain Division in Kirkuk.
Red Zone and Green Zone are duly noted. But, we can't help also noting that they sound like the Red Team and the Green Team Cardoza, Condit and his children, and Gov. Gray Davis used to command and control environmental law and regulation and state and federal resource agencies for the last great public works project here, UC Merced.
We don't think UC Merced restored community spirit and the building boom it stimulated appears to have ruined our economy. We think the community is going to have to figure out on its own how to restore its spirit and its economy instead of just waiting to be defrauded again. The First Lady is not coming to Merced. She's coming to UC (Merced) to talk, no doubt, about higher educational opportunity, a noble but different topic from 20-percent unemployment, massive foreclosures, disappearing box stores, failed local banks, low milk and almond and pistachio prices, drought, the worst air pollution in the nation, contamination of groundwater, the rising poverty rate, or the state of Main Street. She's a wonderful person who is going to bring us a wonderful dream.
Timing is everything...Badlands Journal editorial board
...except history. Actually, UC has had a campus in the Central Valley for more than a century, at Davis. Nevertheless, when in 1988 UC announced plans for three new campuses, it was expected that the one most likely to be built would be in the San Joaquin Valley, probably in Fresno. But, Brown is right, it is a lovely piece of land. It is a terrible thing to realize that a prolonged economic depression is likely to be a principle obstacle to UC and other developers completely ruining most of it. However, as late as early 1999, the UC Merced campus was not a "done deal." And, as one of the former speaker's oldest political cronies, John Burton, former president pro tem of the state Senate, aptly remarked at the time, the campus is a "boondoggle," of the win/win, public/private variety.
But, that's just history. This is just more politics.
Badlands Journal editorial board
San Francisco Chronicle
How Merced snagged first lady for commencement...Willie Brown
I had a heck of a trip a few days back to Merced, where I learned how the little UC campus there managed to land Michelle Obama as commencement speaker for its first graduating class next month.
The reason for my visit dates to my time as state Assembly speaker. When the University of California started making noises about adding a campus, I quickly figured out that it would be a real political plus to put it somewhere in the Central Valley.
I knew that if I ever pulled it off, it would make me bigger than the head of the National Rifle Association with the people down there.
The question was where. Bakersfield? Fresno? Modesto?
I never saw any of the sites, but I studied all the proposals meticulously and we settled on Merced. I finally visited the campus for the first time Monday, having been invited down there to speak.
If I had any clue of the location, I probably would never have supported it. It's almost three hours from anywhere.
But - when you get there - it is a lovely piece of land. And I think the campus will eventually be one of the premier UC institutions.
Anyway, as to how they got the first lady to be commencement speaker: The students mounted a letter-writing campaign. They must have gotten everybody in the valley to write one, because there were thousands. Then they packaged them all and delivered them to the White House on Valentine's Day.
And these weren't your typical letter-writing campaign letters, where there's a master form and everyone copies it in their own hand.
No, everyone wrote their own. Somebody on the first lady's staff took one look and realized this was really genuine.
So now the first lady gets the campus' first honorary degree, and UC Merced gets on the map.
Plenty of details to resolve before first lady's commencement address at UC Merced
Time of graduation is moved up; now everyone wants to be there...DANIELLE GAINES
Preparations for this year's graduation ceremony at UC Merced are in overdrive, with just over one month before first lady Michelle Obama will deliver the keynote address to the university's inaugural class.
"We're working on programs, we're working on location, finding enough chairs, events before the graduation, after the graduation, all the details," said Jane Lawrence, vice chancellor for student affairs.
Interest in the ceremony has grown so staggeringly that a phone number listed on the UC Merced Web site for student tickets had to be rerouted from the chancellor's office to the main switchboard.
For the first time, UC Merced is printing tickets for the event -- 9,000 of them.
Campus organizers were originally expecting about 2,000 spectators this year.
"Four years ago, we graduated three people," Lawrence said. "This year we are graduating 500. Then, as you probably have heard, we have a keynote speaker that has attracted a little bit of attention."
All that attention has caused a bit of a headache for some of the graduating students.
Nick Nakamura led a letter-writing campaign in his fraternity, Sigma Chi, for the "Dear Michelle" campaign.
Now the 21-year-old senior and his family are waiting to see if they will get any tickets in addition to the eight promised to each graduating student. Nakamura had planned to invite 15 members of his family from San Diego, Los Angeles and Colorado.
Even though his family has already reserved more hotel rooms than they may be able to deal with, "I'm more or less just disappointed that previous UC Merced graduations were open, and this one will have to be ticketed," Nakamura said.
Other families said that the change in time for the ceremony has caused financial strain. (Obama requested an earlier ceremony when she accepted the invitation to be home with her daughters before the president leaves on a trip the next morning, UC officials said.)
"I actually felt that I was waiting sort of dangerously long because I didn't start looking for a flight out there until mid-March," said Murray Miles, the father of a graduating senior.
Miles originally planned to fly into San Francisco from Sarasota, Fla., on the morning of the ceremony.
Now his daughter won't be able to pick him up from the airport at 11 a.m. and make it to the ceremony in time, so Miles must fly in on Friday, the day before the ceremony.
"I am going to have to eat it," Miles said of the cost of the plane ticket.
"It would have been one thing to move it up just an hour. Pretty much everyone can deal with that. But to move it up six hours?" Miles asked.
His daughter, MaryCharlotte, said she finds the sudden change in plans distressing.
"To me, the important people are my family," she said. "I just hope everything goes smoothly and that everybody realizes this is a really big deal for us. We are the inaugural class, and we've been working really hard."
Campus officials and some student leaders acknowledge that luring a speaker with as spectacular a profile as the first lady required some changes in their plans. But they strongly believe the positive publicity stemming from Michelle Obama's visit will benefit the university in untold ways for a long time.
"I am starting to just question a little bit how much of an emphasis is on the graduating class (now)," said graduating senior Matt Siordia. "After a few years, it will reach a balance where we are known as the class that brought this big speaker here."
Outgoing student body president Yaasha Sabba is on the campus graduation steering committee. He's trying to make sure that events and programs unfold as smoothly as they can.
"Students have been coming up to us. All of the student concerns will be addressed," he said. "We want to make sure that the commencement is a great moment for the whole university."
It was unclear Friday afternoon how much the changes to the ceremony will cost the university.
UC Merced will graduate its first full senior class at 1:30 p.m. May 16, which is a Saturday.
UC Merced GOP group heads tea party
UC Merced's College Republicans said they're sponsoring a Tax Day Tea Party on Wednesday on campus from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The events are the modern-day Boston Tea Parties and are nonpartisan rallies for the public to demand government financial responsibility, the group said.
Hundreds of similar tea parties have been held in nearly every state in the union over the past two months.
They focus on taxes and demand that the federal government not spend trillions of borrowed dollars that future generations will have to pay off.
The Young Republicans said they'll join more than 300 cities nationwide, and more than 40 cities throughout California, which are also holding the events.The campus group will be selling food, drinks and will have a raffle featuring UC Merced gear and books. Those who come can bring their own picket signs, the Young Republicans said.
Contact collegerepublicans @ucmerced.edu, or visit the Web site at MercedTeaParty.com.
Latinos march across the Valley to bring back water...E.J. SCHULTZ, Sun-Star Capitol Bureau
SACRAMENTO -- They have rallied and lobbied, pleading for more water to revive the downtrodden west Valley.
That hasn't worked -- so now they will march.
Hoping to bring national attention to their cause, members of a group called the Latino Water Coalition will lead a four-day "California March for Water" that begins today in Mendota and ends Friday near Los Banos.
If all goes as planned, thousands of farmworkers, farmers, college students and others will make the trek, which covers portions of Highway 33 and Interstate 5, ending at the San Luis Reservoir on Friday.
Organizers make no bones about it -- they want to evoke memories of Cesar Chavez and his legendary marches for farmworker rights in the 1960s and '70s.
"Mexicans know what a march means," said Mario Santoyo, a member of the Latino coalition. "It means that they're willing to sacrifice for a cause." But these are different times, for sure.
Chavez led boycotts of growers in his drive to unionize farmworkers. The Latino Water Coalition, which includes Hispanic business and civic leaders, works in concert with growers.
Together they lobby for state money for dams and canals and the lifting of pumping restrictions at the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that were imposed to comply with environmental laws.
The cutbacks and drought have forced growers to fallow land, leaving farmworkers without jobs.
The march "is kind of a union between the farmworkers and the farmers because they're both hit," said Santoyo, an assistant general manager at Friant Water Users Authority, which represents east Valley growers.
The union that Chavez founded -- the United Farm Workers -- is not participating in the march and declined to comment.
Another group that advocates for farmworkers questioned how much of the coalition's message is being driven by farmers, not farmworkers.
"This is not being organized from the ground up, as far as I can tell, and it's hard for us to participate for that reason," said Laurel Firestone, who heads the Community Water Center in Visalia, a watchdog group that pushes for better drinking water for low-income residents, including farmworkers.
Santoyo, who grew up working the fields, said the coalition is speaking out for farmworkers because no one else is.
"Is the message that Latinos ought to shut up because we're not smart enough to say something that should have been said a long time ago?" he said. "Nobody's going to control our agenda. We are going to control our agenda."
The march is the biggest undertaking yet of the coalition, which was formed in 2006 at the urging of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and registered for nonprofit status in December.
The governor has been trying to broker a multibillion-dollar water bond deal since early 2007.
Environmentalists were careful not to criticize the march -- but they said the coalition's goals are misplaced.
The west side should pour its energy into diversifying the economy away from large-scale, irrigated agriculture, said Mindy McIntyre, water program manager at the Planning and Conservation League. "It's unfortunate that so many are so dependent on such an unsustainable and unreliable water supply," she said.
The three-year drought has made things worse.
With the growing season in doubt, jobless rates have soared in small towns such as Firebaugh and Mendota.
The event is the brainchild of actor-comedian Paul Rodriguez, a Valley native and chairman of the coalition.
Organizers are expecting up to 3,000 the first day and a few hundred the following two days.
At the march's end Friday, organizers expect thousands to rally at the San Luis Reservoir.
Commence the crowd speculation…Danielle Gaines, Reporters Notebook…4-13-09
Last Saturday, the Sun-Star ran an article about changes to UC Merced’s commencement ceremony.
I got this response from another unhappy parent:
“I read in the Sun-Star that each graduate would be given 8 tickets for family. Given there are 500 graduates, this accounts for 4,000 seats. I assume the other 5,000 tickets are being given to the public, those interested in seeing Michelle Obama and who have little or no interest in the graduation itself. The allotment of tickets my son will receive is only half of what we needed to invite immediate family members. Graduates should receive the number of tickets necessary to meet their needs, and any remaining tickets released to the public.
This commencement is turning into a free community circus, rather than the family celebration it is intended to be. It is a sad reflection on the university that political considerations have taken front stage during an event that cannot be recaptured for those excluded.”
On a related note, the County Board of Supervisors is expected to approve a request for mutual aid and assistance to UC Merced for sheriff’s services on the day of commencement. “U.C. officials anticipate 25,000 people will attend the event, which has created the need for assistance in several areas,” according to the board report. According to information from more than one source at UC Merced, the campus is printing but 9,000 tickets. I wonder which estimate is the most realistic.
What do you think? Are you planning to attend?
Willie Brown says he fought for, is not impressed with UC Merced… Danielle Gaines, Reporters Notebook…4-13-09
In his weekly column for the San Francisco Chronicle, Willie Brown - who recently spoke at UC Merced - said he championed UC Merced in its planning stages several years ago, but would never have voted for it if he had known it was "three hours from anywhere."
Brown also admits his motivation to support a UC in the Central Valley: "I knew that if I ever pulled it off, it would make me bigger than the head of the National Rifle Association with the people down there," he wrote.
Brown does mention in the short column that he is impressed with the recent "Dear Michelle" campaign.
If I had any clue of the location, I probably would never have supported it. It's almost three hours from anywhere.
Now Read the rest of the article:
But - when you get there - it is a lovely piece of land. And I think the campus will eventually be one of the premier UC institutions.
OUCH? Who the heck really cares what Willie Brown thinks anyway?
Love the incompetence - I'm going to support Merced as the location of the newest UC but I don't know where Merced is? Sad!
Letter: Latest PR stunt...KEITH LAW, Merced
Editor: From their nationally syndicated talking heads to UC Merced's College Republicans, the fiscally conservative wing of the Republican Party is born again. Their latest PR stunt is to evoke the Boston Tea Party as they stumble over each other on the way to the soapbox to lecture us about fiscal responsibility.
One wonders where they were over the last eight years, or 32 of the last 44 years, over which time Republican politicians were driving our national deficit into the stratosphere.
The tax revolt that we refer to by way of the Boston Tea Party was not a protest against taxes; it was a response to being taxed without enjoying political representation.
Other than those folks living in the District of Columbia, the rest of us taxpayers get to vote for our representatives and a large majority recently chose Barack Obama due in part to the fiscal failure that was the past eight years of Republican-led economic policies. The other failures included an endless stream of corruption and an unjustifiable war.
Of course, we want to keep a critical eye on our politicians so they produce responsible fiscal policies, but today's Republicans are the last folks we want to depend on for that.
As billionaire Warren Buffett recently stated: Under Republican rule, the wealthy have enjoyed breaks they do not need, while the rest of us have taken on burdens we cannot afford.
Since only a few folks in Merced County earn more than $250,000 annually, the vast majority of us -- including most Republicans, ironically -- benefit from Obama's tax breaks, and at a time when we need just such a stimulus.
I believe this change in policy would have made our revolutionary ancestors pretty happy.
Letter: Republican gumption...JACKSON GREEN, Merced
Editor: The College Republicans at UC Merced must be for looser gun control, because they seem awfully insistent on shooting themselves in the foot.
What else could explain their decision to host a "Tax Day Tea Party?"
Think about it. These are students who have reaped the benefits of a well-funded public institution like UC Merced suddenly protesting "excessive" taxation. Those are principles right up there with the Republican governors who publicly whined about President Obama's stimulus plan, but still took the dough.
The College Republicans would probably not consider their ability to attend a public university on the taxpayer's dime as a sign of excessive taxation, but by adopting the title "Republicans" these students have all but announced their opposition to myriad badly needed social programs.
Therefore, we are left with a disturbing insight into the mind of a College Republican: Public funding for health care is bad, but public funding that allows them to attend a top-notch school for less is good.
Nothing could be more simple or more selfish.
Still, I suppose credit should be given where credit is due. There is so little political action taking place on campuses today that any sign of awareness should be celebrated.
It's just a shame that these College Republicans didn't have the gumption to protest when George Bush, the king of wasteful government spending, was in office.
But then again, that would have required self-honesty and that is one quality Republicans across-the-board seem to lack.
Dairy industry sees less-gassy future for cows...ROBERT IMRIE, Associated Press Writer
WAUSAU, Wis. -- The U.S. dairy industry wants to engineer the "cow of the future" to pass less gas, a project aimed at cutting the industry's greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020.
The cow project aims to reduce intestinal methane, the single largest component of the dairy industry's carbon footprint, said Thomas P. Gallagher, chief executive officer of the U.S. Dairy and Dairy Management Inc.'s Innovation Center in Rosemont, Ill.
One area to be explored is modifying the dairy cows' feed so they produce less methane, said Rick Naczi, the leader of the initiative.
"Right now there is some work being done on fish-oil additives and some other things," he said. "The cow is responsible for the majority of the greenhouse gas on the farm itself. We know there are ways that we can find to cut or reduce that production."
Another possible solution is targeting the microbes in the cow's gut, Naczi said. "You can change the mix of the bacteria in the cow's rumen and change the methane production that way."
He expects the research to develop some solutions within a year.
The initiative could have a huge effect in Wisconsin. The state has about 1.25 million dairy cows, or about 14 percent of the national total.
Dairy Management Inc. manages the national dairy checkoff program, which collects 15 cents per hundredweight of raw milk produced by farmers to fund research and promotion of dairy products.
Greenhouse gas emissions are blamed for global warming. Cutting the dairy industry's emissions by 25 percent would be equivalent to removing about 1.25 million passenger cars from the nation's roads every year, Gallagher said.
The University of Arkansas' Applied Sustainability Center estimates the dairy industry contributes less than 2 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
But consumers increasingly demand products that are produced, packaged and distributed in a sustainable way, Gallagher said.
The industry said it has dramatically reduced the carbon footprint of its products by 63 percent over the past 60 years through production efficiencies, nutrition management and technological improvements.
Other greenhouse gas emission projects to be explored include turning digester-generated methane into energy that can be sold. A pilot program in California identifies the best energy-efficiency practices in milk processing plants and assesses current and new packaging formats.
Managing agricultural operations in a sustainable way can improve efficiencies and cut costs, said Bryan Weech, livestock agriculture program director with World Wildlife Fund. Those efforts can also protect watersheds and improve soil health and water quality.
As Bugs would say, 'What a maroon!'...Lisa Maria Boyles...Fresno Bee Opinion Talk...The Fresno Bee editorial opinion blog
Thanks to Merced Sun-Star reporter Danielle Gaines for bringing this item to my attention: Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown said in his weekly column for the San Francisco Chronicle, that he championed UC Merced in its planning stages several years ago during his tenure as state Assembly speaker, but would never have voted for it if he had known it was "three hours from anywhere."
Willie Brown -- who recently spoke at UC Merced -- finally visited the campus for the first time earlier this month. In the Chron column, he makes a back-handed stab at redeeming his slight of the region:
"But -- when you get there -- it is a lovely piece of land. And I think the campus will eventually be one of the premier UC institutions."
Too late, Willie. We don't need your faint praise.
Oregon Corporation Sentenced for Clean Water Act Violation...U.S. Department of Justice...Press Release...4-13-09
WASHINGTON, April 13 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ California Shellfish Company Inc., doing business as Point Adams Packing Co. (PAPCO), was sentenced today by U.S. District Court Judge Garr M. King in Portland, Ore., to pay $75,000 for a felony violation of the Clean Water Act for unpermitted discharges of wastewater into the Columbia River, the Justice Department announced.
As part of the criminal fine, $26,250 will be placed in the congressionally-established National Fish and Wildlife Fund in order to fund various environmental projects in the state through the Oregon Governor's Fund for the Environment. Projects funded by these grants serve to reduce pollution and otherwise cleanup Oregon rivers, streams, and coastal areas and restore and preserve fish, wildlife, and plant resources critical to those rivers, streams and coastal areas.
PAPCO pleaded guilty on March 27, 2008 and admitted to violating the Clean Water Act, which makes it a crime to knowingly discharge pollutants in violation of a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit by discharging unpermitted chicken processing wastewater from its Hammond, Ore., facility. The former manager of the facility, Thomas Libby, was previously sentenced for a misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act. Modesto Tallow Co., doing business as California Spray Dry (CSD), which operated PAPCO's plant, has also pleaded guilty and been sentenced for a felony Clean Water Act violation.
According to documents filed with the court, PAPCO had obtained a NPDES permit to discharge fish processing wastewater from its facility and in June 2003 leased a portion of its facility to CSD. CSD intended to process chicken carcasses at the PAPCO facility for the production of various by-products including flavoring for pet foods. Neither CSD nor PAPCO obtained a modification to the NPDES permit to allow the discharge of chicken processing wastewater into the Columbia River. As a result there were unpermitted discharges beginning in December 2003 and lasting until approximately June 2003. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was prompted to investigate the matter as a result of complaints from several neighbors about odors from the discharges.
"PAPCO knowingly discharged pollutants into the Columbia River without regard for the law or the environment," said John C. Cruden, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "This case underscores the Justice Department's commitment to enforce the nation's laws that protect the public and the environment from pollution."
Karin Immergut, U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon, stated, "Corporations that don't play by the rules will be held accountable. We are pleased that the corporation, as part of its criminal penalty, will contribute to protecting the environment here in Oregon."
"The defendants' illegal discharges broke some of the most basic laws put in place to protect the Columbia River," said Acting Special Agent in Charge Tyler Amon with the EPA's Criminal Investigation Division, Seattle, WA. "The Oregon Environmental Crimes Task Force did an excellent job of investigating and prosecuting this case, and it will continue to pursue criminal charges against those companies and individuals that pollute Oregon's waterways."
The case was investigated by the EPA's Criminal Investigation Division and prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Dwight C. Holton and Senior Trial Attorney J. Ronald Sutcliffe of the Justice Department's Environmental Crimes Section.
SOURCE U.S. Department of Justice
Potential dangers seen in Sacramento natural gas storage plan...Loretta Kalb
Advocates say the chance of an accident is slim.
Yet there would be some small level of danger if state and local authorities sanction a plan to store 7.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas thousands of feet below a neighborhood in south Sacramento.
That's one of the conclusions of a new draft environmental impact report on a natural gas company's proposal to use a cavernous rock formation about 3,800 feet below ground as a natural gas holding tank southwest of the former Sacramento Army Depot.
The document prepared for the California Public Utilities Commission notes that leaks, although unlikely, could occur in a populated area.
"There is insufficient information to conclude categorically that stored gas would not migrate to the overlying groundwater aquifer or ground surface," the EIR says. If that were to occur, there could be "groundwater impacts, health effects and potentially flash fires or explosions."
Among other "significant and unavoidable" impacts are that some pipeline segments also have a potential, albeit unlikely, for release of natural gas with resulting fire and explosion.
"The gas does not explode unless it's contained in a room or a building," said Donald Russell, president of Sacramento Natural Gas Storage, which is pursuing the project. "And there are no buildings near or over the pipeline or the wellhead itself."
The nearly 800-page EIR is filled with such technical language, listing impacts that can be avoided along with those that cannot.
It is the document that many in the neighborhood – along with attorneys and local elected officials – will scrutinize before giving their responses.
The state PUC must find there is a public convenience and necessity for the project to go forward.
The applicant also must get a permit from the city of Sacramento.
Most of the environmental impacts can be mitigated, and the report identifies alternative sites for underground storage and for interconnection pipelines.
Even the unavoidable impacts associated with potential leakage could be eased with extensive ongoing monitoring and testing, the report says.
But already there is resistance.
Some residents in the Avondale-Glen Elder neighborhood atop a portion of the 379-acre underground storage site have voiced concerns about the potential for leakage.
And Sacramento City Councilman Kevin McCarty said Monday that because the land is populated with about 700 homes and a number of businesses, assessing public safety will be paramount.
"We want to be very diligent to make sure that it is safe," McCarty said. "From what research I've done, this is unprecedented, to go into an urban area and re-pump gas back into an abandoned (cavern)" that has been abandoned for decades.
The Florin gas field previously held natural gas, but that was extracted by several companies until 1987, when the supply was depleted.
Russell of Sacramento Natural Gas Storage countered that the practice of returning to reuse such storage sites is not uncommon.
"We've got about a half dozen similar underground natural gas storage projects in depleted reservoirs located beneath urban areas," Russell said.
He said the company will present that information when the EIR is discussed.
He also said that a portion of the report shows a greater potential for some problem than company officials believe is possible. Russell cited an example of what he said is the draft's "flawed" data concerning pipeline pressure.
"We will submit our comments pointing out the flaws," he said.
The company also needs signed agreements from the residents and business owners whose land sits atop the proposed gas storage field to, in essence, rent the space beneath their properties.
The company is offering $500 signing bonuses and ongoing annual payments.
The project is aimed at establishing a natural gas storage facility for Northern California that is strategically located, providing a 30-day supply in the event of disruption of service from the main supply pipeline that serves the area.
The Sacramento Municipal Utility District has signed up to store gas at the site, and Russell has said other customers are expected to sign up as well.
Tina Thomas of the land-use law firm of Remy Thomas Moose & Manley, which is providing pro bono legal help on behalf of area homeowners along with Legal Services of Northern California, said the firm will submit its comments to the state PUC.
"We're going to look at it with an eye on compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act," Thomas said.
"We'll be looking at whether they have adequately analyzed the impact, the feasibility, the mitigation measures, and whether they have looked at a reasonable range of alternatives."
Underground Natural Gas Storage...Map data: ESRI, TeleAtlas...Diagram and source: Sacrament Natural Gas Storage
Homes for sale in region shrink to 2005 levels...Jim Wasserman
The number of residential for-sale signs in El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento and Sutter County fell in March for a 19th straight month, to 8,189, according to Sacramento property researcher TrendGraphix.
Nineteen percent – 1,588 listings – were repossessed homes being sold by banks.
That's the lowest number of homes for sale in the region since July 2005, the firm's statistics indicate. Listings peaked at 16,262 in the four-county area in August 2007.
Area home builders have also whittled excess inventory – houses already built or almost built without buyers – to levels last seen in early 2005.
While declining inventory is a sign of increasing balance between supply and demand, some analysts are concerned by what they call a large "shadow inventory" of bank-owned homes that haven't yet been listed for sale.
Rising rice exports reduce recession woes at W. Sac port...Jim Downing
A boom in rice exports is roughly canceling out a bust in the cement business, putting the Port of West Sacramento on pace to lose about $1.2 million in the 2008-2009 fiscal year – in line with earlier projections.
While the port will lose money for the eighth year running, things could be worse.
The West Sacramento facility doesn't handle shipping containers, so it has been shielded from some of the worst effects of the dropoff in global trade.
At the Port of Oakland, for instance, container traffic in February was down 29 percent from the previous year, according to figures from the Journal of Commerce.
The West Sacramento port, meanwhile, should see revenue grow from $3.8 million last year to about $5.2 million for the 12 months ending June 30, according to Mike Luken, port manager. But expenses also have increased.
Derek Peterson, president of the Longshore Division of the International Longshore Workers Union Local 18 in West Sacramento, said his 26 registered members have been working roughly the same hours as a year ago.
The port's 50 so-called "casual," or part-time longshore workers, however, have seen hours cut, Peterson said. That's in part because registered workers from other Northern California ports, where traffic is slow, get first dibs when extra work is available in West Sacramento, Peterson said.
The rice trade through the port has been the heaviest in a decade, Luken said.
Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Farmers' Rice Cooperative, the two largest rice shippers at the local port, won an unusually large share of the tenders to ship the 2008 California rice crop to Japan and South Korea. As a result, rice that would ordinarily have flowed through the Port of Stockton was shipped from West
Sacramento, said Kirk Messick, a senior vice president with Farmers' Rice.
The grain business has combined with shipments of wind-turbine and power-plant components to largely offset a drop in cement imports tied to the construction slowdown, Luken said.
The port now has the capacity to import about 2 million tons of cement annually. It likely will handle less than 150,000 tons in the current fiscal year, Luken said.
Port officials have been counting on a pair of cement terminals completed in the last two years to eventually pull the facility into the black. Shipments in the range of 1 million tons a year could make the port profitable, Luken said.
"We had hoped by this time that they would be operating at a larger throughput and we would be out of negative territory," he said.
Two new projects at the port – a wood-pellet factory and a biodiesel plant – are slated to begin construction in the next year, Luken said. Both should deliver significant revenue in the future.
Air warning...Alex Breitler's Blog
This just in from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District:
Forecast gusty winds in the San Joaquin Valley have prompted air officials to issue a health cautionary statement from Tuesday morning through Wednesday.
Winds may produce local areas of blowing dust, increasing concentrations of particulate matter 10 microns and smaller (PM10).
“Strong winds are expected in various parts of the Valley, so we are urging residents to be aware of their local conditions and take appropriate precautions to protect their health,” said Shawn Ferreria, Senior Air Quality Specialist with the District.
Exposure to particulate pollution can cause serious health problems, aggravate lung disease, cause asthma attacks and acute bronchitis and increase risk of respiratory infections. In people with heart disease, short-term exposure to particle pollution has been linked to heart attacks, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Residents throughout the Valley are advised to evaluate their local conditions and use caution through Wednesday where warranted. People with heart or lung disease should follow their doctors’ advice for dealing with episodes of elevated particulate matter.
The Valley Air District covers eight counties including San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare and the Valley air basin portion of Kern. Call the nearest District office -- in Modesto at 209-557-6400, in Fresno at 559-230-6000 or in Bakersfield at 661-392-5500 -- or visit www.valleyair.org to learn more.
Foreclosures still dominate market
Realtors say sales are strong, but inventory is low...Bruce Spence
Foreclosure properties are still hot sellers and continue to dominate the residential market in the San Joaquin County.
They're selling so well that the number of houses on the market plunged last month as sales jumped, according to new figures from the Grupe Real Estate-Trendgraphix monthly sales report, based on Multiple Listing Service data.
Historically low interest rates have combined with prices driven low by foreclosures to bring out lots of buyers, said Mike Collins of Collins Realty in Stockton.
"We're seeing the inventory draining down," he said.
The number of existing houses for sale last month dropped to 2,668 from 3,187 in February - a 16.3 drop.
That's the lowest number of existing homes for sale in the county since June 2005.
Meanwhile, sales jumped from 888 in February to 1,056 in March - an 18.9 percent increase.
Sales had been on the decline since December mostly because many foreclosures have been delayed by voluntary foreclosure moratoriums by lenders and a state law that beginning last fall requires lenders to at least attempt to contact homeowners to try to modify a loan before proceeding with foreclosure.
Brokers had been saying that they were expecting sales to jump again in April from an expected new wave of backlogged foreclosure properties that had been delayed only by the temporary moratoriums and the state law.
Those new foreclosures haven't materialized, yet, though.
"They're out there," Collins said. "They're just not on the market."
There definitely was a slowdown in foreclosure activity because of the state law, said Sean O'Toole, founder and CEO of ForeclosureRadar, a Discovery Bay firm that tracks the California foreclosure scene.
But lenders may be hesitating to put new foreclosure properties on the market because of federal efforts that might result in buying lenders' toxic loans, he said.
"I think some of the banks are kind of hanging on to see if they can get a better deal from the taxpayer than they can on the open market," O'Toole said. "A lot of foreclosures are still in the pipeline, but they're not coming out on the market yet."
Andrew LePage, an analyst with the real estate research firm DataQuick Information Systems in La Jolla, said it's unclear how many foreclosures are in some sort of
Properties perhaps are being held up either by paperwork logjams or by efforts to modify loans, pursue short sales or negotiate a deed in lieu of foreclosure - the homeowner just hands over the keys back to the lender without foreclosure, he said. And some lenders may be reluctant to just dump a lot of properties into the market at the same time, he said.
In San Joaquin County, there are thousands of foreclosed properties that haven't been sold, based on DataQuick numbers: About 14,500 houses were repossessed by lenders in an 18-month period ending Jan. 31, and 72 percent of those have been resold. That leaves more than 4,000 repossessed houses still unsold.
The foreclosures are still trickling in - and being swooped up fast - said Ben Balsbaugh, residential sales manager for PMZ Real Estate in Stockton.
"We just need more inventory to meet all our buyers' needs," he said. "Everyone has more buyers than inventory."
At any rate, prices continued to fall in this foreclosure-dominated market. The median sales price of existing houses in San Joaquin County dropped to $149,000 last month from $152,000 in February.
As of the end of March, there were 915 foreclosure properties on the market countywide. At the current foreclosure sales rate, those would be gone in a month.
$150M sought to buy ACE track corridor...Dennis Wyatt
It’s a $150 million investment backers say will relieve traffic congestion, take trucks off the crowded Altamont Pass corridor, reduce air pollution, strengthen the San Joaquin County economy, and ease the need for more freeway construction.
That is the price tag to acquire the Union Pacific right-of-way and tracks crossing the Altamont Pass that four ACE trains in each direction take each working day. The San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission is making a pitch to secure $20.5 million from the federal government to jump start the effort to raise $150 million to buy the property. It will be part of the One Voice consortium of private and public sector leaders trekking to Washington, D.C., later this month to do face-to-face presentations with key bureaucrats and congressional leaders on a wide variety of projects that focus primarily around transportation.
Manteca is seeking $2.5 million for preliminary design work on the proposed $140 million Austin Road interchange replacement on Highway 99 plus $5 million for the Manteca central sewer trunk replacement project expected to cost $10 million during the One Voice trip.
The rail commission is also seeking $240,000 in federal money toward a $330,000 study on the feasibility of alternative to power locomotives.
Rail commission ownership of the corridor is vital for future efforts to add more Altamont Commute Express passenger trains, retain and improve on-time efforts, as well as make sure there is a secure corridor for possible future expansion of high speed rail as well as expanded freight service considered critical to developing jobs in San Joaquin County.
On-time performance at one point dropped into the 70 percent range before Union Pacific agreed to build a stronger working relationship with ACE. That was also before the economic slowdown reduced UP fright movements.
On-time percentages are now in the mid-90 percent range. In order to maintain that in the future as well as to have the ability to add additional trains, ACE needs ownership of the tracks. ACE spokesman Thomas Reeves noted that with Union Pacific in control the three morning commute and the mid-day trains that are running have maxed out the passenger train potential. The only way for it to change would be for passenger service to get a higher priority which is through public ownership.
The $150 million may sound like a lot but it isn’t compared to adding freeway lanes the same distance. It is taking $92 million just to add one free lane in each direction just between Tracy and Interstate 5.
ACE control of the tracks would also allow the rail commission to provide better freight movement service for firms doing business based in San Joaquin County which would be a further enticement for job creation. It also would take more trucks off the Altamont corridor in addition to passenger cars.
Average weekly ridership during the morning commute is up 17.4 percent in February to 14,500.
The Tracy station is the heaviest used in the morning with 35.2 percent of the passengers boarding there. Lathrop-Manteca is next at 21 percent followed by Pleasanton at 19.4 percent.
Los Angeles Times
Making L.A. water-wise
The City Council should move ahead with a pricing plan and other rules that will encourage conservation...Editorial
It's getting more expensive to bring water to Los Angeles, and the reasons are many: The Sierra snowpack is below average again this year; the city has given up its claim to much of the Owens Valley snowmelt in order to reverse environmental damage; California Water Project supplies are diminished by both environmental needs and politics; and the Metropolitan Water District's allocations of water are being cut.
It has been two months since Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa responded with a call for drought-year pricing that decreases by 15% the amount of water that ratepayers can buy at the lowest tier of rates each month. It's a good plan. Frugal water users will remain unaffected, and of course will pay less if they use less. Guzzlers will hit the more expensive second tier sooner and, we hope, will take conservation measures more seriously after their first drought-year bill arrives in June.
But it won't arrive in June if the City Council doesn't move the process forward. The matter already has been to the Department of Water and Power's board, is going there a second time today, and will return to the council for a second time later this week. Given the complexity of water rates and the DWP's spotty record of justifying hikes, the council's hesitation is understandable. But there has been plenty of time for scrutiny. The drought-year rates should be adopted as soon as possible.
The council also will consider, and should adopt, the next phase of water restrictions, which, among other things, ban use of landscape sprinklers except on Mondays and Thursdays. Much of the city's waste is a result of over-watered lawns that would remain just as green with less watering.
The need to save water is real, and that message would be easier to deliver if the DWP were more consistent and more straightforward in its presentations to the council and to neighborhood groups. For example, a public notice in advance of today's board meeting states that customers whose use remains within the new, smaller allocation will see their bills decrease. That's not necessarily true; they have to use less if they want to pay less. Even that may not be enough; the whole city must decrease its use, or the DWP will be forced to buy water at much steeper rates from the Metropolitan Water District.
It would be nice if only the overusers picked up that higher tab, but without a further, and very time-consuming, overhaul of the city's rates, those higher prices would be borne by everyone. The council should take up that challenge too, but for now, the drought-year rates and the watering restrictions are the city's best opportunity to make sure that everyone retains the choice to save money by using less water.
The Bay vs. the Bag: Only One Side Can Win...David Lewis
When the tobacco industry tried suing cities to stop restaurant smoking bans, it fueled public anger and resolve, not a resurgence of puffing. So it is striking to see the American Chemistry Council (ACC) using the same heavy handed tactics against cities trying to reduce or eliminate plastic bags, a dominant feature of urban trash and ocean pollution.
From Phoenix to Philadelphia, and Seattle to Washington, D.C., the ACC has unleashed lawyers, lobbyists and PR flacks against local efforts to kick the plastic bag habit. But this attempt to protect industry profits could backfire, because it's based on myths that are flimsier than the bags themselves.
Plastic bag pollution is growing, and its impact on our rivers, bays and oceans is well documented. Plastic never biodegrades in a marine environment, but it does leach poisons into our water and smother wetlands. Wildlife often become entangled in plastic bags and mistake pieces of plastic for food.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a floating island of trash in the North Pacific Ocean twice the size of Texas, where scientists have found plastic particles are more abundant than plankton. That's hard to believe, until you realize that in California alone, we use 19 billion plastic bags annually, and at least 1 million end up in San Francisco Bay each year.
Yes, even in the ultra-green Bay Area, bags blow and flow into San Francisco Bay, then out the Golden Gate to join this toxic brew. My daughters can testify to the waves of bags that they pick up at every shoreline cleanup event -- and they know these come not from sloppy boaters, but from all of us on land. That's why Save the Bay and other groups are supporting policies that promote reusable bags by placing fees on single-use plastic and paper bags, or banning them entirely.
The ACC is apoplectic. This plastics industry giant beat back a dozen municipal efforts to reduce plastic bag use across the country, pressuring New York, Phoenix and Philadelphia to instead adopt weak "recycling encouragement" schemes that haven't made a measurable dent in bag litter. But as more cities take up the cause, the plastics folks are desperately escalating their tactics.
In the nation's capitol, the industry is funding robo-calls to residents of low-income neighborhoods claiming a 5 cent fee on paper and plastic bags will hurt them disproportionately, prompting a backlash from city council members who say poor constituents care deeply about their trashed neighborhoods. In Seattle, after blocking a city council ordinance, the industry is now spending lavishly against a ballot measure to place a 20 cent fee on paper and plastic bags.
Here in California the ACC has thrown everything it can against city fee and ban efforts, knowing that California is a trend-setter on environmental policy. When the industry sued to stop Oakland's bag ordinance, the courts ruled that the city needed a study to prove that banning plastic bags wouldn't negatively impact the environment -- now cash-strapped Oakland is searching for the $100,000 to pay for such a study.
Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach were set to pass ordinances banning single-use plastic bags from all retail establishments, but postponed taking action after receiving a lawsuit threat from the ACC front group named (no joke!) "Save the Plastic Bag."
The next big battle will be in San Jose, the region's largest city and the third-largest in California. Save the Bay is working with San Jose on bold legislation to require a 25 cent fee on all single use bags distributed by all retailers. Paper bags would also be subject to the fee because they require an enormous amount of energy and millions of trees to produce. The answer to "paper or plastic?" is "neither -- here's my reusable bag!"
I have a closet full of reusable cloth shopping bags that I usually remember to take with me -- the fee will help reinforce good habits and help everyone kick the bag habit. In the first year that Ireland instituted such a fee, plastic bag litter dropped by 93 percent and plastic bag use decreased by approximately 90 percent, and these dramatically lower levels of plastic bag use and litter are being sustained.
California is upping the ante with a statewide approach to relieve cities from the cost and effort of taking on the plastics industry one by one. California Assembly Bill 68, which would require a 25 cent fee on plastic and paper bags, is bidding for support from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has made ridding our bays and oceans of trash a signature issue.
Will requiring fees on plastic bags be a hardship during this tough economy? Actually, we all are paying for plastic bags already through local taxes to combat litter and clean up trash-clogged waterways, and through hidden bag costs added to food and retail prices. But it costs nothing to B.Y.O.B. (bring your own bag) and in fact, many stores like Safeway and Whole Foods give credit to customers who do.
The more people learn about this issue, the more allies the industry loses. Local recyclers hate the bags jamming their sorting machines, and even some supermarket chains are remaining neutral rather than alienate the residents and leaders of their communities who are working to improve the local quality of life.
A healthy San Francisco Bay is essential to our quality of life and economy around here, and it's one of the nation's most beloved and iconic natural resources. Reducing plastic bag use would make a huge difference for the Bay, which is home to 500 species of wildlife, millions of migrating birds, and a critical nursery for salmon and other fish.
For nearly 50 years Save the Bay has been fighting pollution and development to protect the Bay. Now we're fighting to overcome the plastic industry's desperate tactics and win the battle of the Bay vs. the Bag.