Central Valley water projects face many hurdles
System built years ago is strained without wet weather...MICHAEL DOYLE, Sun-Star Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Parched San Joaquin Valley residents likely will find it easier to get federal money than to punch loopholes in the strict environmental laws some believe aggravated the current drought.
The money arrived Wednesday, with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's delivery of $260 million for California water projects. Major legal and regulatory revisions, though, still appear to be long shots on and off Capitol Hill.
"The appetite for making major changes in the (environmental law) has diminished," noted Robert Irwin, the Defender of Wildlife's senior vice president for conservation programs.
At a Sacramento news conference, held after an aerial tour of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Salazar offered the California funding as part of $1 billion provided from an economic stimulus package. The projects will range from $4 million for delta environmental and $22 million for Folsom Dam safety to $40 million for various anti-drought measures.
In addition to the $260 million, California could also compete for additional Bureau of Reclamation funds.
But with double-digit Valley unemployment and federal irrigation deliveries slashed to zero south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, some still insist money won't be enough.
"Today's announcement is very disappointing in that it does little to help our farmers and farm workers in the next six to twenty-four months, should we continue to experience ongoing dry circumstances," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.
Nine California lawmakers back legislation to exempt the region's water projects from the Endangered Species Act. Some have urged Salazar to carve out exemptions on his own. Others have stoked public resentment.
In theory, the pressure could persuade regulators to loosen water restrictions designed to protect species like the delta smelt.
But in practice, environmental laws and regulations have frequently proven impervious.
A federal committee dubbed the "God Squad," which is empowered to override species protections, has done so only once in its 31-year history. Salazar indicated Wednesday he is unlikely to invoke it now. The Endangered Species Act itself has remained intact during the past 16 years of alternating Democratic and Republican rule.
Not least, congressional leaders support key environmental laws as they currently stand.
"There are no silver bullets that will solve all of California's water woes," Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, declared in a recent written statement. "Suspending the federal Endangered Species Act certainly won't do it." Miller is a close adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He is a former chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and still remains an influential West Coast voice on the panel that's now chaired by a West Virginian, Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall.
In September, Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, introduced a bill to exempt two federal pumping plants near Livermore and Tracy from the environmental law during drought emergencies. In February, joined by eight other Valley lawmakers, Radanovich reintroduced the bill.
"The draconian regulations that turn simple fish into the worshiped gods of the environmental community and ignore the inalienable rights of people have led us to conclude that government does not work for us anymore," Radanovich testified.
A subcommittee of Rahall's panel conducted a broader hearing last month into the California drought, but no schedule has been set for moving the pumping plant legislation.
"There is generally strong support for the ESA," Irwin said, citing the "change in Congress and the administration." Rahall's pro-farming and pro-industry predecessor as Resources Committee chairman, former Republican Rep. Richard Pombo of Tracy, failed despite vigorous efforts in the 1990s to revise the law.
In a potential object lesson for other lawmakers, Pombo subsequently lost his seat in 2006 after being targeted by environmentalists in a multimillion-dollar campaign.
The Interior Department has some power to act on its own, as lawmakers including Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, have urged. Here, too, political history offers some cautionary lessons.
In 2002, tens of thousand protected salmon and steelhead trout died in the Lower Klamath River after water levels were drawn down to provide more irrigation deliveries to Klamath Basin farmers.
The shift of water was later revealed to have been a political priority of the Bush administration, prompting multiple investigations and at least one lawsuit.
A less overtly political route is available through the seven-member God Squad, more formally known as the Endangered Species Committee. The panel can decide "whether to allow a federal action to proceed despite jeopardy to a species," the non-partisan Congressional Research Service noted, before adding that "it has been little used."
Merced Tea Party protesters fed up with taxes, waste...DANIELLE GAINES
All that was missing were drums and tricornered hats during a conservative rebellion at UC Merced on Wednesday.
More than 200 community members and a few students gathered on campus for a tea party.
Many of them were Republicans, but there was also a sprinkling of Democrats, Libertarians, Blue Dogs and others.
The tea party wasn't all crumpets and Lipton's, though. Instead, it was the first local version of a national trend: modern-day protests named after the Boston Tea Party, the 1773 event against "taxation without representation" that fueled the American Revolution.
Partiers chose the April 15 income tax filing deadline to denounce government spending and other issues since President Barack Obama took office. Similar events were planned in more than 2,000 U.S. cities on Wednesday.
The UC Merced event was one of many in the state -- from Eureka to El Centro, including a politico-packed event on the Capitol steps. Tea parties took particular hold of the Central Valley, with more than a dozen official events.
Nearby, 700 protesters turned up at a Modesto tea party at its peak and 2,000 crowded the lot of the Save Mart Center in Fresno, making the event one of the largest in the U.S., according to organizers.
UC Merced police hadn't provided an estimate of the size of the crowd late Wednesday. People came and went during the five-hour event.
Mercedian Sean Nickerson, 40, attended the event at UC Merced. A truck driver and registered Democrat, he said he thought government taxation policies should return to the "classic trickle-down," an economic strategy that calls for tax cuts to business owners and the wealthy, which then supposedly create wealth for less affluent earners.
"I believe that Congress is out of control with their spending," Nickerson said. "I think they are trying to spend their way out of the recession. The math on that doesn't add up."
Nickerson said government ownership and meddling in private businesses, especially recent involvement with General Motors, was "not anywhere in the job description of the president."
Nickerson said he didn't care if the sentiments of tea partygoers reached or even influenced the president.
"I'm hoping it will get the attention of Congress -- the people we will be voting up or down in two years," he said.
The first round of government bailouts, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, was issued by President George W. Bush in December 2008. To date, the government has thrown more than $3 trillion dollars at struggling business and public works projects.
Ken Wagner, a farm machinist from Catheys Valley, said it was only a matter of time before politicians had to take notice of the tea parties.
"This is just a start," the 63-year-old said. "There's gonna be hundreds of thousands of these parties and millions of people standing up."
Wagner said he was fed up with government spending on both sides of the aisle. He even encouraged a conservative revolution.
"It's time for people here in this country to stand up. We've been a great country and we are a great country," he said. "I just don't think we are going to be a great country for much longer if these policies keep up."
Neil Stonum from Mariposa said the citizenry should work to "re-establish the founding principles of this country," including hard work, lower taxation, smaller government and federalism.
Stonum, 57, was laid off from a real estate job in October. His chief concern is "the direction that the government is heading away from free enterprise toward the concept that we need to rescue businesses," he said. "My business didn't get rescued. It's not the job of the government."
Early in the day, the event featured all the trappings of a comfortable spring picnic: protestors munched on free pizza while sitting on the edges of oversized planters in front of the UC Merced library building.
The only indication of a protest was the signs dangling near their feet -- they read "Wall Street got a bailout. I got a bill," and "We the people are tea'd off," among other mantras -- and the anti-bailout, anti-spending songs and Glenn Beck show snippets blared over a loudspeaker.
Young Republican leader and party organizer Mike Fincher and political candidate Jack Mobley spoke briefly to the crowd. Others picked up the mic impromptu, and one called for the ouster of Congressman Dennis Cardoza for failing to get bailout money for Merced County.
When a couple students from the UC Merced Democrats club entered the crowd, it created a verbal standoff.
Wagner was one of the crowd members who encircled Nibal Halabi, president of the Democrats at UC Merced club, and Justin Dockham, a junior from San Jose.
"Obama is leading this country to a Marxist system," Wagner yelled.
"No, he is not," Halabi replied, responding to several in the crowd at once.
A UC Merced police officer stood to the side of the growing crowd during the half-hour confrontation.
Halabi said he was not fazed by the event.
"I was just expressing my freedom of speech and they were expressing theirs," he said. "I am happy. I love activism."
The UC Merced Democrat and Republican clubs will be debating at an event on campus today at 6 p.m.
The tea party movement began in early 2009 when Rick Santelli, a business news reporter for CNBC, fumed about government bailouts live on the business network from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and called for a Chicago Tea Party.
"What we are doing in our country now is making (the founding fathers) roll over in their graves," Santelli shouted.
While no minds were probably changed, it gave many Mercedians their first chance to visit the UC campus. Most trudged a half-mile or so uphill from parking lots below.
Fincher wowed the crowd when he suggested another tea party for July 4 -- this time at Bob Hart Square downtown. On flatland.
California's high-speed rail forces seek big slice of stimulus pie...Steve Wiegand
California's long-delayed dream of a high-speed train zipping up and down the state is in line for a hefty – and much needed – slice of a federal stimulus pie.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act approved by Congress in February contains $8 billion to be doled out to states for development of high-speed rail service and passenger rail service among cities.
California wants half.
"As of now, we have close to $4 billion worth of things we can show can be done within the time limit" of the act, said Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the agency charged with building a speedy rail line connecting Northern and Southern California through the Central Valley.
Morshed and other California boosters are trying to make the case with federal transportation officials that when it comes to high-speed rail in the United States, the Golden State is king.
"All factors considered, we are at the top," Morshed said. "We are the only ones with a real high-speed rail project. Everyone else is just improving their current (conventional) rail service."
There is little argument that compared to other states, California's project – which could wind up costing up to $85 billion, depending on whom you ask – is closest to reality.
Project boosters contend it eventually will connect all of California's major population centers with 800 miles of high-speed track and trains that will carry more than 100 million passengers a year and hit speeds of 200 mph-plus.
For most of its 13-year existence, the rail authority has scuffled along on shoestring budgets. Last week, in fact, the authority got a short-term $29 million loan from the state's Pooled Money Investment Board to carry it through the rest of the fiscal year that ends June 30.
Last November, voters approved a $10 billion bond issue that is supposed to serve as seed money for the system. But because of the dreary economic climate and the protracted state budget battle last fall and winter, none of the bonds have been brought to market yet.
The rest of the $35 billion that rail authority officials estimate is needed for the first phase of the project – a line through the Central Valley connecting San Francisco with Anaheim – is supposed to come from the federal government and private investors.
And therein lies the importance for California scoring a significant chunk of the federal dough.
"Private investors are very interested in the project," Morshed said, "but because it takes so long, they want us to do the initial items, the environmental work, acquisition of the rights of way, building some pieces … so they don't have to wait 10 years to get some return on their investment.
"So you have to initially spend the public money, and then they will get excited and come in and do the rest. Anything we can do to expedite construction is important, and for that we need all the public money we can get."
California's chances are augmented by having some heavy political hitters in its corner, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco.
In a recent letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Pelosi and 20 other California congressional members outlined criteria they said should be taken into account when awarding the stimulus funds. Not coincidentally, the only project that meets the criteria is California's.
But other projects also have heavy hitters. A Midwest proposal that would tie Chicago to St. Louis and other major cities in the area is a favorite of President Barack Obama's.
A plan to tie the Los Angeles area to Las Vegas with a bullet train is smiled on by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, although it's unclear whether the project is eligible for the federal funds because it is being promoted by a private group.
There are also serious proposals from Texas and Florida, where previous efforts to get high-speed rail projects out of the barn flopped, in part because of opposition from then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush and then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
And California's recent budget problems and incessant partisan squabbling also might affect its share.
"The only reason you wouldn't spend $2 billion or even $3 billion or more on California is if you had doubts about the state's commitment or ability to do the high-speed rail project," said Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. "California has the lowest bond ratings of any state … and there are some doubts about its political leadership."
Critics also contend that California's proposed system is riddled with greatly inflated ridership estimates and greatly understated cost projections.
"The California authority has ignored the lessons of Florida and Texas, and has repeated all the mistakes," said Joseph Vranich, a former Amtrak official and former president of the High Speed Rail Association. "It hasn't produced a single number or report or prediction that is true."
For example, Vranich argues, California should be disqualified from receiving federal rail aid because its environmental impact statements are outdated and inaccurate.
Morshed, who denied the state's project lacks accurate EIS documents, said a bigger fear is that federal transportation officials will adhere to political expediency and disburse the money in widespread, but tiny, amounts.
"If they decide to spend the money all over the place, that's a big problem," he said, "but we're hoping they will focus on just three or four projects."
Federal transportation officials are scheduled to issue initial guidelines for formally applying for the money next week and final rules in June.
In the meantime, authority officials are acutely aware that the best way to grab a big share of future federal and private investments is to get dirt moving.
"The groundbreaking goal is as soon as we can," Morshed said. "Depending on how much money you can give me and what (political) leverage you provide me, we can break some ground. … It's quite conceivable that it could be next year."
The Humboldt Herald
April 15, 2009 at 9:03 am
Speaking of redwoods, this just in from the Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters:
Fraud lawsuit against Maxxam and Hurwitz
This time in Oakland court: Monday, April 20
It’s never too late to seek justice.
We finally got corporate raider extraordinaire Charles Hurwitz out of our forests in California—after two decades of rape and ruin in the redwoods—when Maxxam’s subsidiary Pacific Lumber went bankrupt in 2007, and Maxxam did not play the winning card. But Maxxam and Charlie Hurwitz himself profited mightily from their disastrous and often illegal corporate reign in California’s north coast, and Hurwitz was never really held accountable. There is a glimmer of hope: a lawsuit coming to trial in Oakland, Calif. will take another whack at that accountability, and Hurwitz himself is a named defendant for this round in court.
Jury selection is scheduled to start at 8:30 am Mon., April 20 in the courtroom of Judge Claudia Wilken, room 2, 4th floor, 1301 Clay St. in downtown Oakland.
We could use note-takers, as we cannot be in court every day of the (expected) 10-day trial. Contact us at 510-548-3113 or reply to this email. You must present i.d. to enter the Federal Courthouse.
Richard Wilson, former head of the state’s Dept. of Forestry (CDF), along with Chris Maranto, a CDF forester, filed the suit in 2006, alleging fraud in the Headwaters Forest Deal–negotiated over several years and signed in 1999. Specifically the suit says the logging company defrauded the State of California out of hundreds of millions of dollars by manipulating the deal with false data. Everyone from Bill Clinton to Sen. Dianne Feinstein to Hurwitz was in on the negotiations, jockeying for the right to claim they had “saved” Headwaters Forest, and Maxxam took home close to half a billion dollars plus additional forestland for a scant 7400 acres transferred to the state. Hurwitz got an $11 million personal bonus. The fraud relates to the Sustained Yield Plan that the corporation was required to submit, which, it turns out, was manipulated to show logging and regeneration projections that were impossible and falsified. This resulted in Hurwitz not only getting the $480 million and property, but cleared the way for continued overlogging of the redwoods.
The case, technically a whistle-blower case, involves heavy-hitters. Seven-term Congressman Pete McCloskey, who co-authored the Endangered Species Act and ran for president against Richard Nixon on an anti-war platform is part of the legal team via his law firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, with Joseph Cotchett serving as lead counsel. The firm has gone up against the likes of AIG, Lehman Brothers, and B of A, counting scores of anti-trust, whistle-blower, corporate fraud and class action lawsuits in their filings. Defending the former Pacific Lumber, Maxxam and Hurwitz is the law firm of Morrison & Foerster; James Brosnahan serving as lead counsel. Brosnahan is legendary is his own right, recognized as one of the top trial lawyers in the U.S., but sitting at a legal table on the other side of the fence from McCloskey’s firm, defending CEOs, breast implant manufacturer facing liability, and was on the team of independent counsel in the Iran Contra cases.
Hurwitz could be ordered to pay damages equal to three times the government’s losses in the Deal, if plaintiffs prevail.
How appropriate in this time of ponzi schemes and public funds rip-offs that one of the greediest corporate raiders could get his due. Think justice and just desserts.
You can get more background info from Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters at http://www.headwaterspreserve.org
San Francisco Chronicle
Lawyers ask judge to split sweeping grazing suit...TODD DVORAK, Associated Press Writer
Boise, Idaho (AP) -- A federal lawyer is asking a judge to break apart a sweeping lawsuit that accuses federal land mangers of putting grazing and energy ahead of preserving sage grouse on millions of acres in six western states.
The lawsuit, filed last year in U.S. District Court in Boise, challenges 16 separate land use plans developed by the Bureau of Land Management in Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and California.
The Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project claims the BLM violated federal environmental laws when the agency failed to properly weigh the impacts grazing and natural gas drilling have on sage grouse and its diminishing habitat.
Thursday's hearing in Boise focused on procedure rather than the merits of the case.
Lawyers for the government, cattlemen and energy developers argue the case should be split and argued separately in the six different states.
UC pension fund lost third of its value in 2008...Jim Doyle
The University of California's huge and once very healthy retirement fund lost a third of its worth in 2008, shedding about $16 billion in value primarily because investments plummeted due to the recession.
That could spell more bad news for many UC employees, who, beginning next year, will have to contribute 2 percent of their salaries to the pension plan. It also spells trouble for the UC system, which in April 2010 will begin contributing 4 percent of its roughly $9 billion payroll to the pension fund and a greater percentage in future years.
According to an Investment Performance Summary prepared for UC's governing Board of Regents, which oversees the pension plan, the retirement fund shrank from $47.85 billion at the end of 2007 to about $31.7 billion at the end of 2008.
The losses come at a time when the university's employee groups are demanding joint governance of the pension fund, insisting on public disclosure of how the fund's assets are being managed and questioning the plan's long-term viability.
The performance of the UC Retirement Plan during the first quarter of this year has not yet been made public, but market conditions suggest it probably wasn't good.
UC spokesman Paul Schwartz said the fund's losses last year will not adversely affect the payment of pensions to UC's current retirees. The pension plan pays out more than $1.5 billion annually in benefits to about 50,000 retirees and beneficiaries. There are about 114,000 active members, who are still employed by UC and participating in the plan, he said.
While the overall fund was down a third, Schwartz said the investment performance loss was about 28 percent after taking into account the amount paid out in benefits.
UC President Mark Yudof has created a task force to examine whether the university's retirement benefits are sustainable over the long term - or if fundamental changes need to be made to the retirement system, Schwartz said.
"Our plan all along has been to introduce contributions from employees at low levels and gradually increase them over time," he added.
In addition, regents have asked the governor and the Legislature for significant contributions to the UC pension plan but have been turned down.
Union officials are highly critical of the management of UC's pension fund.
"The regents operate the pension plan in a great deal of secrecy," said Paul Brooks, a pension negotiator for the Berkeley chapter of the University Professional and Technical Employees Local 9119, whose members include researchers and technicians.
'Behind closed doors'
"What we've been pressing for is to get reports on management performance and their fee schedule," he said. "We don't know what fees we're paying."
Brooks said UC administrators have indicated that contributions to the pension plan may need to be gradually increased to about 16 percent of UC's payroll during the next several years, but a substantial portion of that cost would be borne by the university. Divvying up that obligation has become a sticking point in collective bargaining talks.
Since 2000, the regents have retained private investment managers to assist the UC Office of the Treasurer in safeguarding the pension plan's assets.
"Everything is done behind closed doors," said William Schlitz, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, which represents about 20,000 UC employees including patient-care workers and service workers such as custodians and bus drivers. "That is why this local has been pushing for shared governance of the pension plan. These UC workers are the only state workers who do not have joint governance of their pensions. They should have oversight of their pension. It's their money."
Regent Paul Wachter, who chairs the Board of Regents' investment committee, declined to comment.
Normal for this economy
Given the stock market's steep decline in the past year, the UC retirement plan's losses mirror the dwindling value of other pension funds.
"That loss level is normal, and it happened across public- and private-sector plans," said Dallas Salisbury, president of the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington, D.C. "If the markets recover and everyone is patient, then what was lost will be re-earned. If the markets do not fully recover, additional contributions will be required."
The California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) - the nation's largest public pension fund - lost about $70 billion in 2008, declining from $253 billion to about $183 billion - a reduction of 27 percent of its value. CalPERS includes more than 1.6 million state and local employees, retirees, and their families, including California State University employees and non-teaching employees of California community college districts.
The 100 largest corporate pension funds lost a record $300 billion last year because of the nation's financial crisis and erased five years of gains, according to the 2009 Milliman Pension Funding Study. Those funds lost an additional $30 billion during the first two months of this year.
Los Angeles Times
U.S. court refuses to halt clean-truck program at L.A. and Long Beach ports
The judge says that regulators presented 'weak' arguments that the program to replace polluting big rigs threatens to cause irreparable harm or to unreasonably increase shipping costs...Carol J. Williams
A federal judge in Washington refused Wednesday to halt the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach's clean-truck program, which aims to phase out 17,000 polluting big rigs that shuttle freight to and from rail terminals and other transport hubs.
In denying a preliminary injunction sought by the Federal Maritime Commission, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon said the regulators had presented "weak" arguments that the program threatens to cause irreparable harm or to unreasonably increase shipping costs. The busiest ports in the nation, Los Angeles and Long Beach handle 40% of the United States' import and export container traffic.
The commission filed suit in October, alleging that small trucking firms and independent drivers will be driven out of the market by the new rules, issues that will go to trial later.
"This is a clear victory for our clean-truck program and the idea that you can both green and grow the Port of Los Angeles at the same time," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said of the decision.
Key provisions of the clean-trucks program were declared unconstitutional last month by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in a parallel challenge brought by the American Trucking Assn. A ruling is expected April 27 in that case.
While the shuttling of goods to and from the ports is a vital source of economic activity in Los Angeles and Long Beach, the trucks are blamed for contributing nearly a quarter of the diesel particulate matter in the air. State health authorities warn that could cause hundreds of premature deaths each year.
The clean-truck program charges a $35-per-container fee to generate funds for dealing with the environmental and health consequences, offering a sliding scale of reductions and exemptions for trucks that meet the most exacting clean-air standards.
Group sues feds over endangered species protection...SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN, The Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- An environmental group is suing the federal government, saying the Obama administration has failed to address a backlog of animals and plants that need to be considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
WildEarth Guardians said in a lawsuit filed Wednesday that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has failed to carry out his duties under the act and that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to act on a petition seeking protection for two rare plants, a jackrabbit and a salamander found in the Southwest.
The species are among 13 that WildEarth Guardians sought protection for with a series of petitions filed last fall.
The Obama administration has issued only two findings under the Endangered Species Act despite a backlog of more than 300 species that are candidates for protection, said Nicole Rosmarino, the organization's wildlife program director.
"We would like to see them shift gears," she said. "Maybe they're just late coming out of the gate, but the ones that pay the price for a delay are these species that are on the brink. They don't have the luxury of time."
The Interior Department and the Fish and Wildlife Service cited policy in declining to comment on the pending litigation.
WildEarth Guardians petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service in October to designate the 13 species as endangered or threatened and to set aside critical habitat. The petitions were filed as part of the group's "Western Ark" project, which aims to call attention to the many species that need protection.
The group contends that nearly all the species listed in the petitions, including the four at the center of Wednesday's lawsuit, face a common threat of climate change. The species also are either restricted to small areas or have extremely small populations.
The species at the center the lawsuit are the white-sided jackrabbit, the Jemez Mountains salamander, Wright's marsh thistle and the Chihuahua scurfpea.
One of the two populations of white-sided jackrabbits in New Mexico has disappeared and the other's numbers have declined dramatically since the 1970s.
On the Net:
Department of Interior:http://www.doi.gov/
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:http://www.fws.gov/endangered/
Renewable Energy's Environmental Paradox
Wind and Solar Projects May Carry Costs for Wildlife...Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson
The SunZia transmission line that would link sun and wind power from central New Mexico with cities in Arizona is just the sort of energy project an environmentalist could love -- or hate. And it is just the sort of line the Interior Department has been tasked with promoting -- or guarding against.
If built, the 460-mile line would carry about 3,000 megawatts of power, enough to avoid the need for a handful of coal-fired plants and to help utilities meet mandated targets for use of renewable fuel. "We have to connect the sun of the deserts and the winds of the plains to places where people live," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said recently.
But the line would also cross grasslands, skirt two national wildlife refuges and traverse the Rio Grande, all habitat areas rich in wildlife. The graceful sandhill crane, for example, makes its winter home in the wetlands of New Mexico's Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, right next to the path of the proposed power line. And much of the area falls under the protection of the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Renewable-energy development, which the Obama administration has made a priority, is posing conflicts between economic interests and environmental concerns, not entirely unlike the way offshore oil and gas development pits economics against environment. But because of concerns about climate, many environmentalists and government agencies could find themselves straddling both sides, especially in Western states where the federal government is a major landowner.
"Everybody in New Mexico loves the sandhill cranes," said Ned Farquhar, a former aide to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D). "We also love our renewable energy. So we have to figure this out."
Farquhar made that comment a month ago when he was working for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Since then, he has been appointed head of the BLM -- in charge of figuring it out.
As the push for renewable-energy development intensifies across the United States, scientists and activists have begun to voice concern that policymakers have underestimated the environmental impact of projects that are otherwise "green."
"There is no free lunch when it comes to meeting our energy needs," said Johanna Wald, a senior lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council. She added, however, that the renewables boom "offers a chance to do it right."
"We want to do it differently compared to how we did oil and gas development," she said.
There is no question that permit applications for renewable-energy projects are on the rise, especially on federal land in the West. According to Ray Brady, leader of the BLM's energy policy team, the bureau has received 199 applications for solar projects encompassing 1.7 million acres of land, though only two of them have undergone environmental assessments.
The agency has already authorized 206 wind projects -- 28 of them to generate power, the rest primarily to test a region's wind-generation capacity -- and at least 200 more are awaiting approval.
The fact that eight Western states have established "renewable portfolio standards" has accelerated the push for new projects, Brady said, because those policies are forcing utilities to find additional renewable sources of electricity.
"For all of these reasons, BLM does have a challenge because of the additional work involved," said Brady, who predicted that the agency may hire as many as 100 people just to work on renewable-energy permits. "Clearly there's an interest in expediting and streamlining the process. However, we need to make the right decisions that are based on the best science."
One of the biggest challenges renewable-energy projects pose is that they often take up much more land than conventional sources, such as coal-fired power plants. A team of scientists, several of whom work for the Nature Conservancy, has written a paper that will appear in the journal PLoS One showing that it can take 300 times as much land to produce a given amount of energy from soy biodiesel as from a nuclear power plant. Regardless of the climate policy the nation adopts, the paper predicts that by 2030, energy production will occupy an additional 79,537 square miles of land.
The impact will be "substantial," said Jimmie Powell, the Nature Conservancy's national energy leader and one of the paper's co-authors. "It's important to know where the footprint is going to be."
In some cases, scientists are just beginning to discover the unintended effect of projects such as wind turbines. Grassland birds such as the lesser prairie chicken and the greater sage grouse, both of which are candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act, appear to avoid vertical structures such as wind turbines and transmission-line towers. This is proving to be a problem in states such as Kansas, an ideal site for wind power, because as more turbines are built, lesser prairie chickens will confine themselves to narrow ranges, fragmenting a population that must be connected to survive.
"Nobody knows what's in the bird's head, but presumably there's an inherited behavior that allows the birds to avoid avian predators who could perch overhead," said Michael Bean, wildlife director for the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed requiring that developers keep wind turbines at least five miles away from a prairie grouse lek, or mating area, but the wind industry has resisted this idea.
Ditlev Engel, president and chief executive of the Danish wind-energy company Vestas, said anecdotal evidence about birds being caught in turbine blades and other environmental horror stories do not usually hold up under scrutiny.
"Do people think it's better all those birds are breathing CO2? I'm not a scientist, but I doubt it," said Engel, whose company is expanding its U.S. manufacturing and distribution operations. "Let's get the facts on the table and not the feelings. The fact is, these are not issues."
In many instances, producers of renewable energy are coordinating with environmental groups and federal agencies to try to map out the best locations for energy production, whether in the West or offshore. The Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Audubon Society have created an online mapping project, using Google Earth, of 13 Western states to show where renewable projects would have the most impact. Out of the 860 million acres in those states, for example, there are 10,000 conservation areas, and 128 million acres are off limits to energy development.
In the case of SunZia, the company has been working to minimize the impact of its proposed transmission line. Tom Wray, manager of generation and transmission projects, said that as much as 80 percent of the line's path would parallel existing lines. He said that it would cross the Rio Grande north of the sandhill crane's flyway and that it would zig and zag to skirt environmentally sensitive areas. Every mile added to the length of the line, however, would add about $1 million to the project.
"We're not aware of any threatened or endangered species habitat or impact issues that we can't mitigate or deal with," Wray said.
Lawrence A. Selzer, president of the Conservation Fund, said the new administration is eager to advance these projects without alienating environmentalists. "The answer from President Obama can't be no," he said. "They've got to find a way to say yes."
Foreclosure filings jump 24%
March and first-quarter total filings were the highest monthly and quarterly totals on record. Repossessions fall 3%...Julianne Pepitone
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Foreclosure activity skyrocketed in March and the first quarter of 2009 to their highest levels on record as banks lifted moratoria on filings.
Total foreclosure filings - which include default papers, auction sale notices and repossessions - reached 803,489 in the first quarter, according to a report released Thursday by RealtyTrac, on online marketer of foreclosed properties. That is a 24% jump over a year earlier and a 9% increase compared to the previous quarter.
Of those filings, 341,180 happened in March - a 17% increase from February and a 46% jump from March 2008.
The March and first quarter numbers were the highest monthly and quarterly totals since RealtyTrac began reporting in January 2005.
"In the month of March we saw a record level of foreclosure activity - the number of households that received a foreclosure filing was more than 12% higher than the next highest month on record," said James J. Saccacio, chief executive officer of RealtyTrac, in a statement.
"Since much of this activity was in new foreclosure actions, it suggests that many lenders and servicers were holding off on executing foreclosures due to industry moratoria and legislative delays," he added.
The one bright spot in the report was that fewer homes were lost to bank repossessions in March and the first quarter, falling 3% from February and 13% from the previous quarter, the report said.
Foreclosures have hit the economy hard. Housing prices have plummeted and some homeowners are severely underwater - meaning they owe more than their homes are worth. That can remove the incentive to keep up with mortgage payments.
Amid mass layoffs and pay cuts, soaring unemployment is a bigger reason for missed mortgage payments than high interest rates, according to a study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
Still, the housing market may be picking up. Builder confidence in April made its most dramatic increase in almost seven years.
Five states accounted for nearly 60% of the total foreclosure activity in the first quarter: In California, Florida, Arizona, Nevada and Illinois, 479,516 properties received foreclosure filings.
California alone, with 230,915 filings in the first quarter, accounted for nearly 29% of the total. The number of foreclosure filings in the state increased 35% from the fourth quarter and 36% from the year-ago period.
In March, California had 107,785 total filings - a jump of 33% from February and almost 67% from a year ago.
The state is tied with Rhode Island for the fourth-highest unemployment rate, at 10.5%. Jobs are disappearing as the housing crisis drags down California's economy.
Florida's total filings in the first quarter fell 12% from the fourth quarter, but the state's 119,220 were still the second-highest in the country.
Third was Arizona, with one filing for every 54 households, up almost 80% year-over-year and 6.2% from the fourth quarter.
Nevada was fourth in total filings, and first in completed foreclosures. Its foreclosure rate was more than five times the national average, and one in 27 houses received a filing.
Like California, Nevada employment has suffered as a result of the housing crisis. Nevada had a total of 41,296 filings, almost 111% over last March and 19% over the fourth quarter.
Bank repossessions in Nevada were down 3% from the fourth quarter, but defaults increased 27% and auction sale notices rose 35%.
4-20-09 Merced City Council/Redevelopment Agency agenda..7:00 p.m.
4-22-09 General Plan Review Steering Committee meeting...Canceled
4-22-09 Merced County Planning Commission agenda...9:00 a.m.
4-22-09 Merced City Planning Commission meeting...7:00 p.m.
Agendas are posted the Monday before a Wednesday Planning Commission Meeting.
4-23-09 LAFCo agenda...10:00 a.m.