Marchers stir up support for more water infrastructure...DANIELLE GAINES, Merced Sun-Star and Corey Pride, Los Banos Enterprise. The Fresno Bee contributed to this report.
LOS BANOS -- A 50-mile march for more water resources in California ended Friday with a rally at the San Luis Reservoir, west of Los Banos, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger addressed a crowd of thousands.
The marchers included a coalition of farmworkers, growers, community members and politicians. The event was organized in large part by the California Latino Water
Coalition, led by actor and comedian Paul Rodriguez.
Their goal was to encourage the federal government to lift pumping restrictions at the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta imposed to comply with environmental laws.
Friday's event was the windup of a four-day march that covered portions of Highway 33 and Interstate 5. Several thousand people started the march Tuesday in Mendota. The California Highway Patrol estimated 8,000 people attended the event Friday.
State lawmakers were on hand for Friday's event and addressed the crowd.
Schwarzenegger said farm production issues in California cannot just be blamed on the world economy.
"Farmworkers are losing their jobs because crops are not being planted," Schwarzenegger said. "It is self-inflicted wounds because we can't get our act together and create the water infrastructure that is for 38 million people rather than 18 million people. Let's go tell the world we need water."
On several occasions during his short speech, Schwarzenegger prompted the crowd to chant: "We need water."
Schwarzenegger spoke as several buses waiting to offload passengers were lined up along the road leading to the site. Several dozen buses of all types -- tour, double-decker, school -- were on hand to provide rides to the stage, but many in the crowd instead chose to walk the winding road through the state park.
Assemblywoman Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, also spoke at the event.
"I'm here to say I stand with you 100 percent," she said. "To be able to turn on the tap and provide employment to every single community that is suffering from lack of water."
Merced County supervisors Deidre F. Kelsey, Jerry O'Banion and John Pedrozo also attended.
A biplane flying overhead carried a banner declaring "We need water 4 jobs." The bright-red letters stood starkly against the clear, blue sky.
Cutbacks and drought have forced growers to leave land fallow, leaving farmworkers without jobs.
"We all rely on surface water for our livelihoods and that of those who work for us," said Firebaugh farmer Bill Diedrich. "The economic engine of the San Joaquin Valley is crop production. There's no room here to do more with less. Food production is a national security issue."
Eli Ayala, a supervisor for a west Fresno County farm labor contractor, tried to personalize the issue by telling a friend's story.
"Desperately he began to cry. I could see the fear that he had of not being able to provide for his family, at the verge of (his home) being foreclosed," he said. "There are many today who are crying. There are many today who have that same fear within their lives. That's why we're here."
Ayala said that farmer's livelihoods hung in the balance while environmental studies continued.
"What we have come to ask here today is that the studies stop and the action begins," he said.
Aaron Barcellos, a 44-year-old farm owner from Los Banos, is a fourth-generation farmer and hopes his son Alec will someday take over the family business.
"That opportunity might not be there," the father said.
Of the farm's 6,000 acres, 800 are lying fallow this year. Usually, every last inch of land is fertile, Barcellos said.
His land falls over five different water districts, but he has a zero-percent allotment this year.
He said he hoped the event would draw enough attention that the pumps would be turned on.
"It's just such a huge trickle-down effect when you don't have water," Barcellos said.
The solution, he said, is more storage and better conveyance, including a peripheral canal.
"The peripheral canal is something we are going to see, I don't know, in the next 10 years," Barcellos said. "We have to. The state economy is going to depend on it."
After the event, the crowd took a few hours to disperse. Occasionally, small groups chanted "turn on the pumps," "aqua" and "si se puede" as they waited to board shuttle buses to a large parking lot several miles closer to Highway 152.
As the final buses pulled away and the last marchers trudged down through the rolling hills, spirals of orange peel littered the parking lot. The theme from "Rocky," "Eye of the Tiger," played over the loud speaker.
The rally participants hope to see as many sequels to their own marches for water.
Merced County's jobless rate creeps closer to record
High mark reached just after Castle Air Force Base closed....SCOTT JASON
Merced County's unemployment rate rose to 20.4 percent, the highest it's been in 12 years.
It's also creeping closer to the area's record high.
The number of residents out of work has been on a steady uptick since September, when the rate was 10.9 percent.
March's figures, released Friday, put Merced County as the county with the fourth-highest unemployment rate in the state. It's also significantly higher than the state average of 11.5 percent.
Merced County recorded a 20.9 percent unemployment rate in February 1997.
The latest figures, however, are still slightly lower than the county's record high of 21.7 percent, marked in February 1996. That came after Castle Air Force Base closed.
Local government was the only employer that grew from last month, adding 100 workers to its ranks. The retail industry, meanwhile, shed 100 jobs.
The construction industry has been hammered, employing 800 fewer workers today than in March 2008, when it had a work force of 2,700.
"It really took a hit," said Pedro Vargas, a state labor market consultant based in Merced.
Other major industries that cut positions include manufacturing, trade transportation, and leisure and hospitality.
The manufacturing and trade sectors each had 400 fewer workers, while leisure and hospitality employed 200 fewer people than this time in 2008.
The county's One-Stop Career Center, which helps unemployed residents find new work, had nearly 1,200 more people walk through its doors.
From April 2007 through March 2008, 3,947 people sought help at the center. That number grew to 5,125 from April 2008 to March 2009.The total number of client visits grew from 45,876 to 50,946 in the same period.
California counties with the highest unemployment rate
1. Colusa -- 25.6 %
2. Imperial -- 25.1 %
3. Trinity -- 21.9 %
4. Merced -- 20.4 %
5. Plumas -- 20.1 %
Source: California Employment Development Department
Tom Frazier: Vendetta against county?
In 2006, the Sun-Star was a thorn in the side of Gordon Spencer, Merced County district attorney.
Like a bulldog with an old towel, Chris Collins, the Sun-Star reporter, would not let go. The news investigator convinced the state attorney general he should do its own investigation.
Spencer resigned, paid back nearly $30,000 for private use of a county SUV and was barred from practicing law in the state for 30 days.
Now the Sun-Star seems to have its eye on Dee Tatum, the county's chief executive officer. Stories about his retirement, his retirement retracted, a Planada land "deal," his wife's pay raise, an editorial that claimed Tatum was hiding behind his public information officer and the latest salvo -- an article about his salary increases from 2001 to 2009.
Is the Sun-Star trolling for another investigative reporting award? Or is it possible the paper just has a huge grudge against Merced County?
I decided to ask around.
I called Dee Tatum -- scheduled a sit-down concerning the editorial that he was hiding behind the county spokeswoman. "No one from the Sun-Star called me," he asserted. "I don't know why they called Katie."
He then explained, in great detail, the process of the grand jury during its investigation of the Planada land purchase.
Corinne Reilly, who covers Merced County, now in Iraq for her second McClatchy assignment, agreed with the editorial, saying the county has a well-established history of being close-lipped. She's covered the county since Chris Collins left in late 2006.
Katie Albertson, the governmental affairs director for Merced County, sent me the county's written policy.
What a document! County employees, with few exceptions, are prohibited from talking with the media without prior approval. It's a top-down bureaucracy. Reminds me of the U.S. Air Force.
I compared that to Merced city and Stanislaus County policies.
Merced city does not have a written policy. According to Mike Conway, the city's public information officer and counterpart to Albertson, "We want to be totally transparent -- we have nothing to hide."
"Anyone can walk into City Hall and see any document they want, including documents with salaries or job descriptions," he said. "In our training for all employees we tell them to answer anything they are asked."
Stanislaus County has totally decentralized its media policies. There's no central go-to.
What about the latest story -- the CEO's salary? It is interesting that Merced County is 26th in population of California counties, yet 12th in CEO salary. Even more interesting is that Tatum's salary is higher than any state governor.
Maybe the supervisors should consider these facts as it recruits for a new CEO?
Final verdict? It's a draw.
Perhaps the Sun-Star should back off just a bit, maybe find a better picture of Tatum.
Or maybe the Sun-Star should refocus and pick a new target, perhaps Albertson. After all, she's "too young" and likes the wrong Bulldogs -- the Georgia Bulldogs.
Nunes: Governor has 'disregard' for valley...Michael Doyle, Bee Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — The San Joaquin Valley's water wars are becoming fratricidal, as Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, on Friday demanded Gov. Schwarzenegger's resignation.
Nunes charged his fellow Republican with "ducking the issue" of providing more water to valley farmers, and declared the governor has demonstrated "a total lack of understanding (and) a callous disregard" for valley communities dependent upon irrigation supplies.
"When a government can't provide the people access to a reliable supply of water, it has failed," Nunes said in a statement. "This government has utterly failed and Governor Schwarzenegger should resign from office."
Nunes has feuded with other Republicans on water issues, including an ongoing dispute with Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, over plans to restore the San Joaquin River. Since first being elected to the House in 2002, Nunes also has clashed with his fellow GOP lawmakers over his support for redistricting reform.
Nunes' latest call did not seem to faze the governor's office.
"Congressman Nunes' attempt to grab headlines with finger pointing will not solve this problem and will only lead to the same gridlock that has paralyzed the water debate in this state for the last 50 years," Schwarzenegger spokesman Matt David said, adding that Nunes should be "part of the solution as opposed to part of the problem."
Nunes' blow followed Schwarzenegger's recent actions on the state's water crisis. The governor had joined marchers in western Merced County gathered to call attention to water shortages and their impact.
Schwarzenegger told the marchers, organized by the California Latino Water Coalition, that he would do what he could to boost water supplies, but he did not go as far as Nunes wanted. Specifically, Nunes and some valley farmers have urged that more water be pumped south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
A bill to boost the water deliveries, by temporarily exempting key California pumping plants from Endangered Species Act restrictions, has been introduced in the House. Nunes is one of nine co-sponsors of the bill authored by Radanovich, but there is no sign that the Democratic-controlled Congress will take it seriously.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, likewise, disappointed some valley farmers this week when he allocated $260 million for California water projects but stopped short of promising more water deliveries. Valley Democrats have stopped short of demanding Salazar's resignation.
Nunes and Schwarzenegger have been at odds before, though never quite so blatantly. The governor, for instance, has supported the San Joaquin River restoration effort opposed by Nunes.
"This governor, perhaps more than any other governor in recent memory, has spent tremendous amounts of time and political capital pushing to solve California's vexing water crisis," said Jim Earp, a Schwarzenegger ally who serves as executive director of the California Alliance for Jobs. "Those who claim otherwise are either unaware or ignoring the responsible steps this governor has (taken)."
Governor joins march
He tells protesters water, jobs crisis is 'self-inflicted'...Garance Burke, The Associated Press
SAN LUIS RESERVOIR — Gov. Schwarzenegger urged on thousands of demonstrators Friday on the final leg of a four-day march across California's agricultural basin designed to draw attention to surging unemployment caused by water shortages in the state's rural middle.
Framed by a half-empty reservoir perched above miles of dry cropland, the governor told farmers and farmworkers he was doing all that he could to bring more water to the region this growing season.
"Farmworkers are losing their jobs because crops are not being planted, and in towns across our Central Valley, our unemployment is going skyrocketing," Schwarzenegger told the crowd of about 8,000. "It is not just because of the world economy being down; it is self-inflicted wounds because we can't get our act together and create a water infrastructure that is for 38 million people."
California farmers have had to leave large swaths of land unplanted because of a three-year drought, coupled with reduced pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to safeguard a native fish.
The California Latino Water Coalition joined with farmers and others to promote the march, which began Tuesday and wove through fallow fields and towns struck by record levels of unemployment. Farmers and farm labor contractors hired buses to take hundreds of largely Spanish-speaking participants each day to walk a total of 30 miles.
The numbers swelled to 8,000 Friday when the march arrived at the San Luis Reservoir.
Estela Cruz, a 34-year-old single mother of three, said she walked for two days hoping the march would help speed water to the west side of Fresno County, where unemployment is 17 percent.
She said she sometimes can't pay her rent because she can't stretch the $800 she earns each month in the fields any further.
"It used to be that I would buy a little bit of everything at the store, but now I'm just buying things for the children's lunches. I can't send any money back home to my father in Mexico, either," she said.
In recent years, the delta, which provides water to nearly two-thirds of all Californians, has become a troubled resource. Three years of below-average precipitation have wreaked havoc on its habitat and water supply.
Facing record-low reservoirs, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation last month told hundreds of valley farmers they would get no irrigation water from the federal government, though they could get some later this year.
Schwarzenegger favors building a canal to pipe river water around the delta, a costly strategy that environmentalists reject.
On Friday, he encouraged marchers to follow the example of the late civil rights leader César Chávez.
But Arturo Rodriguez, who heads the 27,000-member United Farm Workers union, which Chávez co-founded, said the march's organizers cared little about farmworkers' real needs. The union didn't participate, he said, to focus on their priorities, which he outlined as immigration reform, workers' rights to union representation and better job conditions.
Rodriguez said some of the protesters were being paid to attend the march as a part of their workday, which several participants confirmed.
"The organizers of this march are growers and farm labor contractors, they're not farmworkers," he said. "We're not opposed to growers getting more water, but they need to ensure that farmworkers simultaneously get access to good, clean drinking water in their communities and a way to raise their voices for good working conditions."
SJ Valley reps fill up their war chests...Michael Doyle, Bee Washington Bureau...4-17-09
WASHINGTON -- Republican Rep. George Radanovich of Mariposa has picked up his fund-raising pace but still lags behind his San Joaquin Valley colleagues, records show.
Radanovich has $112,999 in his re-election treasury, less than half the amount accumulated by the region's other incumbents.
"We have been doing fund raising, but this just hasn't been a time when people have been giving," Radanovich said, citing the post-presidential election lag. "I think you'll see more in the next three months."
Today, for instance, Radanovich is scheduled to hold a fund-raiser in Fresno.
At the other end of the fund-raising spectrum, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, reports having $872,504 in his campaign treasury as of March 31. Democrats Dennis Cardoza of Merced and Jim Costa of Fresno have $263,998 and $316,379 available, respectively.
Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, reports having $309,923.
The early fund raising matters, even though the next House election is more than 19 months away. While loathed by some lawmakers and denounced by reformers, fund raising is counted by political professionals as a proxy for campaign strength and commitment.
"Typically, candidates raise money early in an election cycle to scare off potential challengers," said Marc Sandalow, director of the University of California at Merced's D.C. program. "Some incumbents raise money they don't need so they can become power brokers by distributing it to other members."
Most are in safe districts
All valley incumbents represent districts safely drawn to their own party's specifications, with the exception of McNerney. His district, covering parts of San Joaquin County, has a roughly equal number of Republican and Democratic registered voters, a significant improvement for Democrats over the past several years.
Of valley lawmakers, McNerney's and Radanovich's fund raising may be getting the closest scrutiny.
By raising an eye-opening $274,000 since January, McNerney is showing his ability to defend a seat he took from Tracy Republican Richard Pombo in 2006. Still, Republicans covet this district, where each party claims 39 percent of registered voters.
Radanovich's potential threat, by contrast, may come from within. Fresno-area businessman Bob Smitt-camp, a longtime Republican supporter, declared last month that he is "looking for somebody to run against" Radanovich.
Republican activist Tal Cloud has been distributing anti-Radanovich messages, targeting in part the lawmaker's support for a San Joaquin River restoration plan.
In Radanovich's camp, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, Madera Irrigation District board member Carl Janzen and others have reiterated their support for the incumbent, first elected in 1994.
"He does a good job of representing the district; he is thoughtful and deliberative when I inquire as to matters, and he and his staff do a good job of attending to his constituents," Fresno attorney Riley Walter said in an e-mail Thursday.
Walter contributed $1,000 to Radanovich this year, part of the $62,210 the congressman raised during the first three months of the year. About 40 percent of the total comes from political action committees representing groups such as Sun-Maid Growers.
Desert clash in West over solar potential, water...RITA BEAMISH, Associated Press Writer
OAKLAND, Calif. -- A westward dash to power electricity-hungry cities by cashing in on the desert's most abundant resource - sunshine - is clashing with efforts to protect the tiny pupfish and desert tortoise and stinginess over the region's rarest resource: water.
Water is the cooling agent for what traditionally has been the most cost-efficient type of large-scale solar plants. To some solar companies answering Washington's push for renewable energy on vast government lands, it's also an environmental thorn. The unusual collision pits natural resources protections against President Barack Obama's plans to produce more environmentally friendly energy.
The solar hopefuls are encountering overtaxed aquifers and a legendary legacy of Western water wars and legal and regulatory scuffles. Some are moving to more costly air-cooled technology - which uses 90 percent less water - for solar plants that will employ miles of sun-reflecting mirrors across the Western deserts. Others see market advantages in solar dish or photovoltaic technologies that don't require steam engines and cooling water and that are becoming more economically competitive.
The National Park Service is worried about environmental consequences of solar proposals on government lands that are administered by the Bureau of Land Management. It says it supports the solar push but is warning against water drawdowns, especially in southern Nevada. In the Amargosa Valley, the endangered, electric-blue pupfish lives in a hot water, aquifer-fed limestone cavern called Devil's Hole.
"It is not in the public interest for BLM to approve plans of development for water-cooled solar energy projects in the arid basins of southern Nevada, some of which are already over-appropriated," Jon Jarvis, director of the Park Service's Pacific West Region, wrote to the BLM director in Nevada.
Jarvis' e-mail from February, obtained by The Associated Press, noted that the rare pupfish's dwindling numbers prompted Nevada to ban new groundwater allocations within 25 miles of the pool.
Jarvis urged the BLM to promote technologies that use less water and hold off on permits until it finishes its assessment of the solar program next year. The BLM tried suspending new applications last year but relented under pressure from industry and advocates of renewable energy.
"Water is a big concern and the desert tortoise is a major concern, and the amount of site preparation is a concern," said Linda Resseguie, a BLM project manager. The government in reviewing each project wants to make careful decisions over what it considers "a potentially irreversible commitment of lands," she said.
Water is among the complications in deserts where more than 150 solar applications have been submitted for hot spots in Nevada, California, and Arizona, plus a few in New Mexico.
Companies are wrestling with routes for long-distance transmission lines and habitat for the threatened desert tortoise. They also are worried about a proposal being developed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., for a Mojave national monument, which could put up to 600,000 acres off-limits alongside already protected park and military lands. It could affect at least 14 solar and five wind energy proposals.
The Spanish-owned energy company, Iberdrola, has submitted 12 applications in four states. Its solar managing director, Kim Fiske, said her company is planning to use photovoltaic technology in Amargosa Valley but elsewhere will evaluate each site's feasibility for water. Photovoltaic systems use conducting material to convert sunlight directly to electricity and need only nominal amounts of water to wash their solar panels, compared with the traditional steam-turbine solar that uses much larger volumes of water for cooling towers.
"Water usage is becoming the larger issue. Some companies still want wet cooling and say it's less efficient to do dry cooling, and they need 10 percent more land to get the same output," said Peter Weiner, an attorney representing solar companies. Some are exploring hybrid systems that use water during the hottest part of the day.
The government won't say how much water would be needed by applicants because those proposals are still in flux. But National Park Service hydrologists last fall tallied more than 50,000 acre feet per year - nearly 16.3 billion gallons - proposed by applications in Amargosa Valley alone, or enough to supply more than 50,000 typical American homes. Nevada previously said the basin could support only half that. Since then, some companies have dropped out or switched to photovoltaics, making that estimate of 16.3 billion gallons outdated.
Nevada's policy and legal mandates restrict water in the driest areas. California regulators warn that wet-cooled projects face an uphill climb. The two under review there so far on government land use minimal water. First up is Oakland, Calif.-based BrightSource Energy's five-square mile, air-cooled, mirror complex near the Mojave National Preserve.
In Arizona, most solar proposals are away from populous areas with the most water restrictions.
Water is "a hot button for everybody," said Fiske. "Everyone is concerned about water. It's probably one of the biggest issues."
Dan Walters: Land holdings and California politics were entwined for two...Dan Walters
Once upon a time, before World War II transformed California into an industrial state, Californians' wealth was largely measured by how much and what kind of land they owned.
There were some truly immense landholdings among early Californians, especially those with Spanish land grants that were often measured in hundreds of thousands of acres.
By and by, most large holdings shrank for economic reasons. Nevertheless, some Californians continued to own – and in some cases even expand – very substantial acreages into the 21st century.
Take, for instance, the Tejon Ranch, 270,000 acres of the Tehachapi Mountains and the state's largest contiguous tract of private land, which began as an 1843 Spanish land grant.
California's largest private landowner today (and the third largest in the nation) is Archie "Red" Emmerson, owner of Anderson-based Sierra Pacific Industries, which owns about 1.5 million acres of timberland, much of it acquired from other companies.
By happenstance, two of California's remaining land barons, both of whom played major roles in state politics, died within hours of each other this month.
Richard O'Neill, 85, inherited much of southern Orange County, the remnants of a 19th century "rancho" so vast that the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton training base was carved from it during World War II.
O'Neill founded two new cities on his land and virtually created a Democratic Party in overwhelmingly Republican Orange County during the 1970s, fostering the careers of several prominent politicians and serving as state party chairman.
The laudatory O'Neill obituaries didn't mention a political and business partnership with physician Lou Cella (known locally as "Dick and Doc") that controlled Orange County politics while enriching the political machine's principals, especially with a chain of proprietary hospitals. Cella and several other colleagues – but not including O'Neill – eventually went to prison for various federal crimes.
April's other death was that of J.G. Boswell, erroneously described in one article as "the last of California's great land barons," who ran a 200,000-acre agribusiness empire in the San Joaquin Valley's Tulare Lake Basin. Boswell, 86, inherited the operation from his same-named uncle and expanded it through purchases from other farmers, including the archrival Salyer family.
Politically, Boswell was best known for his involvement in federal and state water policy, including forcing a change in the federal government's 160-acre limitation on federally subsidized water and – with the Salyers – financing a successful 1982 campaign against the peripheral canal after it was approved by the Legislature.
Ironically, the peripheral canal is now back on the political agenda more than a quarter-century later.
Land may no longer be the only measure of wealth in California, but there are still some mighty big private holdings in the nation's most populous state.
2 more banks fail, lifting this year's tally to 25...last updated: April 17, 2009 09:59:46 PM
NEW YORK -- Regulators on Friday shut down two more banks, boosting the number of failures this year to as many as in all of last year.
The tally of 25 bank failures this year all but guarantees the number that fall into the arms of regulators will surpass what was seen in 2008. Two of the nation's largest savings and loans failed in 2008: Washington Mutual Inc. and IndyMac Bank. Last year's total was more than in the previous five years combined and up from only three failures in 2007.
The latest banks seized were American Sterling Bank in Missouri and Great Basin Bank of Nevada. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. will continue to insure deposits. Regular deposit accounts are insured up to $250,000.
Customers of both banks can still write checks and use ATM or debit cards.
The federal Office of Thrift Supervision took over American Sterling, while the Nevada Financial Institutions Division took control of Great Basin Bank of Nevada. The FDIC was appointed receiver of both banks.
The Missouri offices of American Sterling will reopen Saturday. Those in California and Arizona will open Monday. All will open as branches of Metcalf Bank. Depositors of American Sterling will automatically become depositors of Metcalf.
American Sterling is based in Sugar Creek, Mo. It had $181 million in assets and $171.9 million in deposits as of March 20. In addition to assuming the deposits of the failed bank, Metcalf Bank, based in Lee's Summit, Mo., agreed to buy about $173.6 million in assets. The FDIC will retain the rest of the assets to sell later.
The last FDIC-insured institution to fail in Missouri was Hume Bank, in Hume, in March last year.
For Great Basin Bank, based in Elko, Nev., the FDIC tapped Las Vegas-based Nevada State Bank to assume all deposits.
The offices of Great Basin Bank of Nevada will reopen Monday as branches of Nevada State Bank. Depositors of Great Basin Bank of Nevada will automatically become depositors of Nevada State.
As of Dec. 31., Great Basin Bank of Nevada had assets of $270.9 million and deposits of $221.4 million. Nevada State Bank agreed to assume all the deposits of the failed bank and purchase about $252.3 million of assets. The FDIC also will keep the bank's remaining assets for future sale.
The last FDIC-backed institution to be closed in Nevada was Security Savings Bank, in Henderson, on Feb. 27.
The list of bank failures is growing as falling home prices and rising unemployment cause more individuals and businesses to default on their debt.
The failures have sapped billions from the deposit insurance fund. It now stands at its lowest level in nearly a quarter-century, $18.9 billion as of Dec. 31, compared with $52.4 billion at the end of 2007.
The FDIC expects that bank failures will cost the insurance fund around $65 billion through 2013.
The nation's banks and thrifts lost $32.1 billion in the final quarter of last year, the biggest loss in 25 years of FDIC records. It compared with a $575 million profit in the fourth quarter of 2007.
The FDIC had 252 banks and thrifts on its list of troubled institutions at the end of 2008, up from 171 in the third quarter.
Some banks are signaling that conditions are improving. Banking titan Citigroup Inc., which has been the weakest of the large U.S. banks, reported Friday it lost money in the first quarter - but the $966 million loss wasn't as bad as Wall Street had expected.
That report followed surprisingly solid earnings from JPMorgan Chase & Co., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co. But some analysts say the recent earnings announcements are concealing the depth of the financial industry's woes.
American Sterling customers with questions can call the FDIC toll-free at 866-954-9528. Great Basin Bank of Nevada customers can call 866-782-1969.
Salazar reviews 'midnight' endangered species rule...SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says he will make a decision in the coming weeks on whether to overturn a controversial Bush administration regulation that limits the reach of the Endangered Species Act.
The outgoing administration finalized a rule in December that allows federal agencies to issue permits for mining, logging and other activities without consulting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service about endangered wildlife and plants.
President Barack Obama signed a memorandum in March to put the regulation on hold pending a review. Any action on the rule has to be taken by May 9. Salazar expects to make a decision before that.
"We have concerns about it and because of those concerns we're taking a very extensive review of the rule," he told The Associated Press during a visit Friday to Albuquerque.
Salazar stopped at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History to celebrate the recent signing of a massive public lands bill that sets aside millions of acres in several states as wilderness. He told the crowd that energy and climate change will be the most difficult issues facing the nation's leaders in the years to come.
Environmental groups have sent more than 72,000 petitions to Salazar, urging him to overturn the Bush "midnight rules," specifically the rule that makes consultation optional rather than mandatory - as it had been for the last 35 years - and a rule that says greenhouse gases cannot be restricted in an effort to protect polar bears from global warming.
Joe Smyth, a field organizer for Greenpeace, handed Salazar a stuffed polar bear as the secretary left Friday's celebration.
"It's much bigger than the polar bear. The polar bear is just an indicator species of what's happening," Smyth said. "I think what the decision will show, if he makes a strong decision to protect the polar bear from the impacts of global warming, is the Obama administration's commitment to returning science to the decisions made about endangered species protection."
Business and industry groups have argued that the consultation process could result in delays and higher costs for projects, including those that will be funded by federal stimulus money.
Aside from Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians has been urging its members to send letters to Salazar. The group also filed a lawsuit this week over a handful of species in New Mexico and complained that the Obama administration wasn't taking seriously a backlog in the endangered species program.
Salazar disputed those claims, saying the administration has already started taking steps to tackle energy, climate change and the protection of the landscape.
"We're here to solve problems, not to satisfy one interest group or the other," he said. "I feel very comfortable about the decisions we have made not only on endangered species but on a host of other issues."
Nicole Rosmarino, WildEarth Guardians' wildlife program director, said Friday that Salazar needs to use many approaches - including the Endangered Species Act - to address the impacts of climate change on plants and wildlife.
"From the mightiest beasts, such as the polar bear and Louisiana black bear, to the smallest creatures ... the nation's imperiled species deserve every tool in the toolbox for fighting the climate crisis," she said.
Congress weighs far-reaching global warming bill...DINA CAPPIELLO,Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON The last time Congress passed major environmental laws, acid rain was destroying lakes and forests, polluted rivers were on fire and smog was choking people in some cities.
The fallout from global warming, while subtle now, could eventually be even more dire. That prospect has Democrats pushing legislation that rivals in scope the nation's landmark anti-pollution laws.
Lawmakers this coming week begin hearings on an energy and global warming bill that could revolutionize how the country produces and uses energy. It also could reduce, for the first time, the pollution responsible for heating up the planet.
If Congress balks, the Obama administration has signaled a willingness to use decades-old clean air laws to impose tough new regulations for motor vehicles and many industrial plants to limit their release of climate-changing pollution.
The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday said rising sea levels, increased flooding and more intense heat waves and storms that come with climate change are a threat to public health and safety. The agency predicted that warming will worsen other pollution problems such as smog.
"The EPA concluded that our health and our planet are in danger. Now it is time for Congress to create a clean energy cure," said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., one of the sponsors of the American Clean Energy and Security Act.
If passed, it would be the first major environmental protection law in almost two decades. In addition to attempting to solve a complex environmental problem associated with global warming, the bill also seeks to wean the nation off foreign oil imports and to create a new clean-energy economy.
"It's a big undertaking," said the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. Waxman and Markey presented their 648-page bill last month.
From 1969 to 1980, Congress passed more than a dozen environmental bills tackling everything from air and water pollution and garbage, as well as protections for fisheries, marine mammals and endangered species. In 1990, the Clean Air Act was overhauled to address the problem of acid rain created by the sulfur dioxide released from coal-burning power plants.
"We had two decades of extraordinary legislation and almost two decades of nothing," said Richard Lazarus, a Georgetown University law professor and author of "The Making of Environmental Law." "If this one passes, it will certainly be an outburst."
There are many reasons why Congress' chances to succeed in passing global warming legislation are improved this year, but by no means assured.
After President George W. Bush did little about global warming in his two terms, there is "a lot pent up demand" for action on climate, said William Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Both the Democratic-controlled Congress and President Barack Obama agree that legislation is needed to limit emissions of greenhouse gases and radically alter the nation's energy sources. They want to pass a bill by the end of the year.
"For the first time ever, we have got the political actors all aligned," said Lazarus. "That is not enough to get a law passed, but that is a huge start. We haven't been close to that before."
Unlike the 1970s, when the first environmental laws passed nearly unanimously, Republicans are opposed. They question whether industry and taxpayers can afford to take on global warming during an economic recession.
Then there is the question whether the public will have the appetite to accept higher energy prices for a benefit that will not be seen for many years. Climate change ranks low on many voters' priority lists.
Every year since 2001 has been among the 10 warmest years on record. Sea ice in the Arctic and glaciers worldwide are melting.
But the problems are not as apparent as they were in the 1970s, or even the early 1990s, when Congress addressed acid rain and depletion of the ozone layer.
"If carbon dioxide were brown, we wouldn't have the same problem," said Gus Speth, who organized the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970. "But it's a
subtle issue. ... The problems are chronic not acute, and it is largely invisible to people unless they're reading the newspaper or checking the glaciers or going to the South Pole."
In 1969, oil and debris in the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland burst into flames, an incident that led to the passage of the Clean Water Act. That same year, a blowout at an offshore oil platform off Santa Barbara, Calif., spilled millions of gallons of oil onto beaches. And long before that, a smog episode in Donora, Pa., in 1948 killed 20, sparking a crusade against air pollution.
"There was so much evidence - sort of smell, touch and feel kind of evidence - that the environment was really in trouble," said Ruckelshaus. "We had real problems, real pollution problems that people could see on the way to work. And there were rivers catching on fire and terrible smog events."
With climate, "you are asking people to worry about their grandchildren or their children," he said. "That is why it will be so tough to get something like this through."
EPA declares greenhouse gases a health risk, paving way for cuts...Renee Schoof
WASHINGTON – Friday's landmark conclusion by the Environmental Protection Agency that greenhouse gases threaten human health paves the way for the nation's first mandatory cuts of emissions blamed for warming the planet.
President Barack Obama and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson have said they'd prefer using a new law, rather than EPA rules, to make the reductions and spur renewable energy. The EPA's announcement on Friday, however, serves notice that if Congress doesn't take action, the EPA will. Congress is working on such legislation.
The targets of any new law, whether imposed by the EPA or Congress: motor vehicles, power plants, factories and other major sources of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Critics and supporters agreed the finding will have profound effects, but differed on whether that's good or bad. Critics predicted devastating effects on the economy, while backers said a change in energy policy is overdue and will help the country in the long term.
The EPA document reported that climate change's effects could include more droughts; more extreme and more frequent heat waves; more intense storms; rising sea levels; and harm to water resources, agriculture, and plants and animals in the wild. The EPA noted that the very young, the elderly and those in poor health could suffer the most harm.
It also found that climate change could threaten national security if it triggered wars or mass migrations as resources became scarce.
The EPA had no choice but to make a declaration on whether the science is clear that global warming poses risks. The Supreme Court in 2007 ruled that greenhouse gas emissions were pollutants under the Clean Air Act and ordered the EPA to determine whether they harmed health and welfare.
The EPA's response on Friday was that the scientific evidence required action. U.S. and international climate scientists agree that observed changes in the atmosphere, oceans and ice show the world is warming because of human actions, and that the trend carries risks of irreversible climate disruption that could persist for centuries.
Scientists have charted an increase in Earth's average temperature in recent decades, as the amount of these gases in the atmosphere has grown to levels higher than any time in human history.
The EPA's statement, a proposed "endangerment finding," was based on peer-reviewed scientific analysis of the effects of an accumulation of emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels.
"This finding confirms that greenhouse gas pollution is a serious problem now and for future generations. Fortunately, it follows President Obama's call for a low-carbon economy and strong leadership in Congress on clean energy and climate legislation," said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.
The EPA will issue a final version of the finding after a period of public comment.
Environmental groups praised the agency.
" 'Duh' may not be a scientific term, but it applies here," said Emily Figdor, global warming director of Environment America. "Today, common sense prevailed over pressure from big oil and other big polluters," she told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats, lauded the EPA statement.
Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said that EPA scientists had "given us a warning that global warming pollution is a clear, present and future danger to America's families."
Feinstein said, "The EPA is demonstrating that it will act expeditiously to address climate change. This is a major reversal of Bush administration policy."
The Bush administration's EPA prepared an endangerment finding, but decided at the last minute not to release it. That decision meant that the agency was blocked from setting mandatory regulations.
Republican leaders called Friday's decision reckless and declared that any regulations it devised would be unnecessarily expensive.
Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., chairman of the House GOP American Energy Solutions Group, a group of lawmakers whose mission is to lower energy costs, said the EPA regulations would result in "massive new national energy costs" and were "completely irresponsible."
Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a lobbying group for power companies, said that more than 20 industrial sectors depended on fossil fuels, and many others relied on the feedstocks and other products made from coal, oil and natural gas. He warned of "severe trauma" to the economy if eventual regulations reduced coal use by a third.
Segal said that any law must have "reasonable timetables and targets, adequate cost containment, and must be sensitive to technological constraints and international competition."
Democrats who back climate legislation in Congress have a goal of getting a final bill by the fall. They acknowledge, however, that they face strong opposition.
San Francisco Chronicle
Interior won't challenge rule on guns in parks...MATTHEW DALY, Associated Press Writer
The Obama administration said Friday it will not appeal a federal court ruling that prohibits carrying loaded guns in national parks and wildlife refuges.
Instead, the Interior Department said it will conduct a full environmental review of an earlier policy that allowed concealed, loaded guns in parks and refuges.
U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly struck down the gun policy last month. She called the rule, issued in the waning days of the Bush administration, severely flawed and said officials failed to evaluate its possible environmental impacts, as required by law. The judge set an April 20 deadline for the Interior Department to indicate its likely response.
The Bush rule, which took effect in January, allowed visitors to carry a loaded gun into a park or wildlife refuge as long as the person had a permit for a concealed weapon and the state where the park or refuge was located allowed concealed firearms. Previously, guns in parks had been severely restricted.
Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, said Friday that the department is not completely discarding the Bush rule. Instead, she said that officials intend to complete a comprehensive environmental impact statement that analyzes the possible effects of the Bush rule, as well as a range of alternatives.
The review is expected to take several months at least. In the meantime, 26-year-old restrictions that had been in place before the rule change remain in effect.
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which filed a lawsuit to block the Bush rule, said he was pleased at the Obama administration's decision.
"Semiautomatic weapons have no place in the valleys of Yellowstone, on the cliffs of Yosemite or under the torch of the Statue of Liberty," he said.
Helmke said the government should not spend any more resources analyzing the old Bush rule, but added: "We hope and expect that the Obama administration will conclude that the rule can only make our parks more dangerous and should not be implemented."
In her 44-page ruling last month, Kollar-Kotelly called the rule-making process used by the Bush Interior Department "astoundingly flawed." She noted that officials failed to perform an environmental assessment, which calls for the government to take into account such factors as public safety and the "human environment."
Even without an appeal by the Obama administration, the court case is likely to continue. The National Rifle Association has filed a separate appeal of the ruling. A spokesman has said the group will pursue all legal and legislative avenues "to defend the American people's right to self-defense."
Meanwhile, lawmakers who support gun-owners' rights have introduced legislation to reinstate the Bush rule. Bills introduced by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., would allow citizens to carry concealed firearms in national parks and wildlife refuges. Crapo's bill is co-sponsored by Montana Democrats Max Baucus and Jon Tester, Democratic Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln as well as Republican Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah. Two dozen House members — all but one Republican — have co-sponsored the House bill. Rep. Glenn Nye of Virginia is the sole Democrat to back the bill.
Los Angeles Times
Funds appear to sidetrack Obama's vision for rail
The president's goal of high-speed passenger trains is laudable, but where's the money going to come from?...Editorial
High-speed rail networks might very well be the "smart transportation system" of the 21st century, as President Obama declared Thursday. The trouble is, we're using a very 20th century method to pay for them.
Obama envisions a nationwide system of high-speed lines. The $787-billion economic stimulus package included $8 billion to pay for them, and Obama's proposed budget would dole out another $1 billion a year for five years for passenger rail. On Thursday, the White House identified 10 corridors throughout the country that would be eligible for funding, including a line in California that would run from San Diego to San Francisco and Sacramento.
"Now, all of you know this is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future. ... It's been happening for decades. The problem is, it's been happening elsewhere, not here," Obama said, referring to countries such as France, Japan, Spain and China that have impressive bullet-train networks. But there was something he failed to mention: With the exception of China, whose government can spend any way it likes, all of these countries impose steep taxes on gasoline. The taxes have the dual purpose of providing the funding to build public transit and encouraging people to ride it because they make driving prohibitively expensive. Gas taxes in the United States are minuscule in comparison.
Instead of raising the money to pay for his vision, Obama proposes to fund it with debt. So does the state of California, where voters last November approved nearly $10 billion in bonds for the San Diego-to-Sacramento train Obama aims to support. That's all well and good, except that the California train alone is expected to cost in excess of $40 billion. Obama's $13 billion over five years won't go far in building a national network that would cost hundreds of billions. So where's the rest of the money going to come from?
Moreover, making rail travel attractive will take a lot more than building bullet trains. U.S. passenger train lines are notoriously unreliable, in part because so many of them share tracks with freight trains, which cause constant delays and the occasional devastating accident. Solving that problem will require new tracks, improved signaling, GPS technologies and other expensive systems.
Obama is dead right that a 21st century rail network would improve mobility and productivity while reducing emissions and reliance on foreign oil. But the current gas tax can't even maintain our existing infrastructure of highways and bridges, let alone fund the president's vision. As Congress negotiates a transportation bill that will determine federal taxing and spending for the next five years, it must keep that in mind.
EPA paves way for broad emission limits
The agency's proposed 'endangerment finding' may result in regulation of automobiles and other greenhouse gas producers...Jim Tankersley and Margot Roosevelt
Reporting from Los Angeles and Washington — The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday declared that industrial greenhouse gases are a danger to human health and well-being, opening the way to broad new regulations to reduce carbon dioxide and other planet-heating gases.
The finding could lead to far-reaching rules that are likely to heavily affect cars and trucks, which account for nearly a quarter of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions, and utilities, which are responsible for more than a third.
Virtually all major areas of the economy could be affected, including oil, chemicals, cement, steel, forestry and large-scale farming.
The EPA finding marks a sharp change in direction from the Bush administration, which cast doubt on the science behind climate change and sought to delay government intervention. It also sends a strong signal to other nations that the U.S. is prepared to slash its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions as diplomats prepare for a December gathering in Copenhagen to negotiate a new treaty on climate change.
It also exerts pressure on Congress to move forward on comprehensive climate change legislation. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), co-author of a bill to create a national market to cap emissions and allow trading of credits, praised the EPA action but said it would be up to Congress to "break our dependence on foreign sources of energy and help transform our economy."
EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said addressing the climate issue would "create millions of green jobs and end our country's dependence on foreign oil."
But opponents of such regulation warn that it will further hurt an ailing economy. The House's top-ranking Republican, Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, called the EPA's finding "a backdoor attempt to enact a national energy tax."
The proposed "endangerment finding," which would be finalized after a 60-day comment period, was prompted by a Supreme Court decision in 2007 that ordered the EPA to review scientific evidence for regulating climate-altering gases under the Clean Air Act. If Congress failed to pass legislation, the agency could move forward on its own.
"The Obama administration now has the legal equivalent of a .44 magnum" to force congressional action, noted Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. "The bullets aren't loaded yet, but they could be."
President Obama has said he wants to put the country on a course to slash greenhouse gas emissions 80% by mid-century, a level scientists say is necessary to prevent the worst effects of climate change, including heat waves, flooding, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, water shortages and the widespread extinction of wildlife and plant species.
The next test of Obama's resolve, environmentalists noted, will be the EPA's decision on whether to grant California's petition to proceed with its first-in-the-nation rules to cut carbon dioxide pollution from automobile tailpipes. The agency is set to make a decision by June 30.
But with a massive restructuring of the auto industry under negotiation, carmakers argue the decision on California's auto rules should be postponed.
If it is not, 13 other states and the District of Columbia have committed to adopting California standards. That would essentially require a major increase in fuel efficiency across 40% of the U.S. car market.
"While the federal government was asleep at the wheel for years, we in California have known greenhouse gases are a threat to our health and to our environment," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Friday. "That's why we have taken such aggressive action."
As a practical matter, officials said a federal endangerment finding would have little effect on California, which, in 2006, passed a comprehensive law to slash the state's greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.
Besides passing carbon dioxide rules for vehicle tailpipes, California is well along on determining how much carbon each industry is responsible for cutting.
The state has committed to obtain a third of its electricity from solar, wind and other renewable sources by mid-century. And next week it is expected to pass the world's first regulation to ratchet down the carbon intensity of gasoline and other transportation fuels, from production to combustion.
"We welcome the federal government into the field, so the rest of the country can have the same benefits," said Mary D. Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board.
Cutting emissions nationwide will be far more difficult because half of the nation's electricity is generated by coal, the most carbon-intensive fuel. Coal states, including Obama's home state of Illinois, are lobbying heavily against tough rules on their plants.
This week, a group of eight leading conservative and free-market activists, including Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, also warned that "an endangerment finding would lead to destructive regulatory schemes that Congress never authorized. . . .
"The administration will bear responsibility for any increase in consumer energy costs, unemployment and GDP losses."
However, William Kovacs, a vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that even with an endangerment finding, the EPA would be able to delay emission limits until technology improves and compliance costs fall to avoid what he called "disastrous" regulations that would all but put the agency in charge of the entire economy.
The EPA has scheduled public hearings on the finding, in suburban Washington and in Seattle. On Friday, the Sierra Club launched a campaign to generate half a million comments in support of Obama's climate agenda.