From balance to rebalance, the Shrimp Slayer and his new dance partner lurch on...Badlands Journal editorial board
The letter cited below, from valley congressmen Dennis Cardoza and Jim Costa is a testament to the dissolution of local journalism. If newspapers were doing their jobs, the boys from Congress would not have dared to write such drivel.
San Joaquin Valley representatives Jim Costa and Dennis Cardoza stumble to the stately rhythms of the latest Valley two-step, the Costoza -- half tango, half cock fight. They do the Valley Whine that a water project so large it is only one of two human structures visible from outerspace is too small for California.
1. Small San Joaquin Valley towns are not "now home to world-class universities and good jobs, and are wonderful places to raise families." They are home to three state colleges (mislabeled "state universities") and one UC campus that is not anywhere close to being a university yet, let alone world-class. It is however, a member campus in a huge educational consortium called University of California, whose greatest claim to university status is the creation atomic and nuclear weapons.
Official Valley unemployment is around 20 percent. The Valley is an increasingly environmentally unhealthy and socially violent place in which to raise children. Cardoza moved his wife and children to Annapolis MD last year.
2. Our state's water system was not built "more than 50 years ago." Parts of it are much older, some younger. Bakersfield seems to be the only city in the Valley that gets water from the State Water Project. Most cities rely primarily on groundwater, some, like Fresno and Visalia also rely on federal water developed in the New Deal era, some like Modesto and Stockton in addition to groundwater rely on local streams and reservoirs.
3. "Fifty years ago, President Kennedy and Gov. Pat Brown had a vision to irrigate California's farmland and meet the needs of the growing population."
Actually, the State Water Project and the Delta Pumps were on a ballot initiative in 1960, voted on the same day Kennedy was voted president and Vice President Richard Nixon began running for governor of California against Pat Brown two years later, and Brown began collecing campaign contributions from LA and Valley growers soon after. It was a huge boondoggle that promised a great deal more water to a great deal more people than it ever delivered to anyone. Jack Kennedy had nothing to do with it at all.
4. "Our state's economic backbone, agriculture, is being threatened by the drought and if not alleviated, will impact the food security of our nation."
Our state's "economic backbone" may have once been agriculture, but it is now finance, insurance and real estate, which have joined to create a global recession and a local depression due to fraudulent lending practices. In fact, California's economic backbone is broken and we now have the worst bond rating in the nation. In fact, what "security" Valley farmers have is in the value of their real estate, not in their agricultural production.
You can't blame the boys for not doing a rain dance. How is the "food security of our nation" aleviated by reduction in cotton acreage, almond acreage, pistachio acreage, pomegranite acreage or acreage for ethanol corn? Will the nation starve without wine grapes, asparagus and iceberg lettuce? Wasn't the Shrimp Slayer recently howling in Congress about subsidies for California's specialty crops, which Midwesterners call "luxury crops."
As for the large, fat tears falling from cold eyes for unemployed farmworkers, that ain't pity, it's fear. One way or another, unemployed farmworkers are going to cost the Valley a lot of money this year. But, if you just say "Jack Kennedy" often enough, maybe it won't be too bad. Very few farmworkers know what Pat Brown did for them or what it cost him.
There are two theories about this "drought." To listen to the Costoza's financial contributors, many of them being members of what the Valley's best water journalist, Lloyd Carter, calls the "hydraulic brotherhood," its cause is the Endangered Species Act, which prevents unlimited pumping of water from the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta, where endangered species are going extinct because of over-pumping. The alternative version is that the state Department of Water Resources bet on a wet spring in 2008, and filled Southern California reservoirs by pumping Northern California reservoirs very low.
Both sides claim this is a "man-made" drought.
The alternative to the version that the drought has been caused by the Endangered Species Act is written in two articles:
"Drought or Water Heist, Tom Steinstra, Oct. 26, 2008, SF Chronicle,
"State Uses Announcement of Proposed Water Cuts to Push Canal and Dams," Dan Bacher,
California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, October 31, 2008,
The Steinstra/Bacher version is part "Chinatown," part bureaucratic Keystone Cops in the state Department of Water Resources. The prize sought by the hydraulic brotherhood since 1919 is a peripheral canal, now known by the term "water conveyance system." The project requires a statewide bond initiative. It has been tried and it failed in 1982. Curiously, none of the five water-bond proposals currently floating around the state Capitol specify a peripheral canal. Perhaps the politicians and their paymasters have decided the people are not thirsty and scared enough yet. The Keystone Cops side of the situation is that apparently the best minds in state hydraulogy bet on a wet spring in 2008 -- the federal Bureau of Reclamation started off its estimate at 40 percent delivery -- and lost the bet. This year the BOR has started at zero and remained there so far, though in part due to a federal court decision on the ESA last summer.
The Valley Congressional Delegation's position, bipartisan on this issue, is that the ESA should be suspended, the pumps opened, the crops watered and leave California salmon fishermen with another suspended season and Oregon with its first, and probable extinction for several species of Delta fish from six years of overpumping.
Meanwhile, Congress passed and the president signed the San Joaquin River Settlement, which will mean the river will flow again with something other than ag drainage upstream from Friant Dam, another environmental law rather than agribusiness special interest-based decision. No wonder the Costoza harks back to imaginary visions of Kennedy and Brown, when the water system was built with half the present population but for the benefit of the next half.
5. "Over time, it has become evident that the Endangered Species Act and the Central Valley Improvement Act, both passed by Democratic Congresses and signed by Republican presidents, are inflexible and created dysfunctional water policies in the West."
Cardoza tried to weaken the ESA three times through legislation. Finally, most of what he and Pombo wanted to do to the ESA was incorporated into a lame duck administrative order by President Bush. As far as we know, Obama has not yet signed the order rescinding this version of the gutting of the ESA.
Cardoza's district contains three cities where residential development sprawled enormously onto sensitive wildlife habitat. Today, in his nominal hometown of Merced, the average price of a home is less than half of that price three years ago. Finance, insurance and real estate special interests achieved an almost total feeding frenzy in Merced, Modesto and Stockton. Cardoza was behind it 100 percent.
How did that happen if the ESA is so inflexible? It happened because the ESA and other environmental law and regulation must be enforced by human agencies, very sensitive to political pressure by members of Congress. The only place Old Flexibility Cardoza can't corrupt environmental law and regulation is in courtrooms, not that he didn't try as hard as he could to gut the public right to sue under ESA.
Dysfunctional water policies in the West were created by members of Congress and of state legislatures in the pay of developers of the "Sun Belt."
6. "The inflexibility of these laws ..." This sounds like a line out of the Federal Judge Songbook:
"Please change the law
Please change the law
So we can be popular
Oh, change the law,
So you will like
Our wise decisions
Please change the law
So we can golf and dine
And sip wine in public
With all our friends again.
Oh, please change the law!"
7. "California has constantly been at war with itself over water; ranting and finger pointing to say "you're wrong" does nothing to help this situation.
This debate should not pit Democrats against Republicans. On the contrary, it should bring ideas from all parties on improving water management and use."
First, water has never been a partisan issue in California. It has always been, at greater or lesser degrees of tension, a matter of water rights, a cause which has never respected political parties. Both parties have always been for "More Water!" because more water means more development, mainly residental but also agricultural. At present, California agriculture still consumes about 80 percent of the total supply of delivered water. And neither one of those parties has had a new idea about water since the Civil War. The people who have had new ideas about water have been environmentalists. But it doesn't look like the Costoza is inviting the environmentalists to the dance.
8. "...we need more dams, improvements in the Delta, and modifications to the Endangered Species Act."
This is new thinking at its finest. And the best thing about it is its "flexibility."
9. "We need to face a clear fact: California's water system is broken and incapable of sustaining our state's projected population growth, let alone providing water for our farms and sustaining the environment.
In the short term, federal regulators must use existing discretion within the law to bring as much water to the Valley as we can during the next six months."
In other words, we are still talking about finance, insurance and real estate, not agriculture. "Projected population growth" is still firmly in control despite the total wreck of the state's economy based on it.
"...existing discretion" means regulatory "flexibility" achieved by relentless political pressure on state and federal resource agencies charged with defending environmental law and regulation, including species going extinct. And there are other economies to consider, like the west coast salmon fishery, for example, a great deal more sustainable than west side cotton growing.
10. "In the long term, we need to fix the Delta and build more storage capacity. The state must take the lead in these efforts, and not hinder these projects. On the federal level, we need to make modifications to the Endangered Species Act and continue to provide additional federal funding. Clearly, if the act were successfully working, we would not have the decline in the species that we are experiencing today."
It's late in this tango/cock fight. "Fix the Delta" -- now there's a phrase. The CalFed process, a consortium of state and federal resource agencies, was supposed to be doing that for the last 15 years. Put the state in charge? Speak memory: Wasn't state Department of Water Resources Director Lester "Less" Snow the first director of CalFed. Hasn't "Less" made his whole public career out of watching the Delta disintegrate? But, hey, we're talking new ideas here.
Build more storage capacity! Now, there's another new idea from the Gold Rush.
"On the federal level" ... weaken the ESA and give us more money. Yet another brilliant new idea, two in fact. One can almost hear the faint scratching sounds of the brilliant minds of these congressmen from within the sealed envelope addressed to finance, insurance and real estate.
But it is the last point, that decline of the species is caused by the unsuccessful working of the ESA, where the Costoza becomes completely airborn. It is a brilliantly composed piece of propaganda. One goes from lie to greater lies to, finally, the Big Lie. It makes you wonder who the composer of this tango/cock fight really was. The boys from Congress are only the dancers. But, you can be sure that they are leaning on the resource agencies every day to be more "flexible" on the ESA, which will accelerate the decline of endangered species.
11. "World history has shown us that when people practice poor management of natural resources, the resources die out. It is vital that our farmers have water for their crops to continue to grow a healthy and safe food supply for our nation.
Our cities need water for its residences. And yes, the environment needs water for lakes, streams and rivers. Ignoring one of these factors for any reason is not smart water policy and will hurt our state for generations to come."
The Grand Summation.
We would suggest that the residential over-development of Southern California is the essence of poor management. We would suggest that the agricultural development of the alkali/selenium flats of the west side is another example of poor management. Both have had a huge impact on water supply.
Our farmers do not grow a healthy and safe food supply for our nation. They grow specialty crops for export, largely to other nations.
Wetlands and the endangered species that inhabit them, most importantly in Cardoza's district, also need water. Without it, they aren't wet anymore. There is far less than 5 percent of the original wetlands left in California. This is not only a wildlife habitat issue; it is also an important water-quality issue. But, as long as you limit debate to Republicans and Democrats that sort of concern is very unlikely to make it to the table.
4-17-09 Fresno Bee
REPS. JIM COSTA AND DENNIS CARDOZA: Rebalancing our state's water system...Reps. Jim
Costa and Dennis Cardoza
Economy warrants slower implementation of AB 32...Editorial
California has been a leader in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the adoption of the state's s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. We have supported this plan, but we are concerned about the aggressive implementation schedule of what is referred to as AB 32.
Business leaders have resisted this measure and other state mandates, especially in this terrible economy. The concern over cost is a legitimate one, and we urge a balanced approach to rolling out this sweeping act.
We agree with AB 32's goals, and there's persuasive evidence of the long-term risks associated with greenhouse gases. That was underscored Friday with the Environmental Protection Agency's announcement that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will be listed as pollutants.
However, California's new regulations are coming too fast and at too high a price tag. Some want to stop implementation in its tracks, but that's not a wise course either.
There's a bill in the state Senate, SB 295, that would delay AB 32 regulations until more thorough cost analyses are done and until the statewide unemployment rate is closer to the normal 5 to 6%. Currently it's twice that for the state and even higher for Valley counties.
SB 295 is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Committee on Environmental Quality Monday. It has little chance of passing. But this might be a good vehicle to start a discussion on how best to enact AB 32. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a big proponent of AB 32, should be leading this inquiry.
It's more important to implement AB 32 effectively, rather than rushing regulations onto the books that may not accomplish what they're supposed to or may impose crushing burdens on businesses and farms.
Even some AB 32 supporters are asking reasonable questions about the scoping plan adopted in December by the Air Resources Board.
The independent Legislative Analyst's Office found serious weaknesses in the economic analyses done by the air board, and air board leaders agreed to more thorough estimates by the end of 2009. Meanwhile, the board has started adopting rules that will go into effect as soon as 2010.
There are strong arguments for the state to move deliberately rather than hastily. The goals of the Global Warming Solutions Act must be achievable to be effective.
CalPERS, CalSTRS award big bonuses despite losses...Jon Ortiz
California's two biggest public employee pension funds handed out millions of dollars in bonuses last year to their top executives and investment managers, despite losing billions of dollars.
The biggest bonus check, $322,953, went to Christopher Ailman, chief investment officer of the California State Teachers' Retirement System. It nearly doubled his base pay of $330,000 for fiscal 2007-08.
Ailman's counterpart at the California Public Employees' Retirement System, Russell Read, received a $208,677 bonus to his $555,360 base pay in August, more than a month after he had resigned from the fund's top investment job.
Despite continued losses in the market, both funds expect to cut more bonus checks, which they call "incentive awards," this summer.
Retirement fund officials say bonuses like those paid to Ailman and Read help attract and retain top talent. It's also cheaper than hiring outside help to manage investments, they say.
Still, the practice has its critics.
"Paying bonuses – especially right now – it just doesn't look good," said James McRitchie, a retired state worker and publisher of the Elk Grove-based PERSwatch.net. "It just doesn't go over well with the public."
Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-Pasadena, is pushing legislation to freeze pay for state workers who make more than $150,000 annually until 2012.
The bill, AB 53, initially included a freeze on bonuses, but those provisions were removed "over concerns of breaking existing contracts," said Portantino spokesman Michael Tamariz.
CalPERS has opposed the bill, saying that the mere whiff of limiting state employee pay has already hobbled its ability to compete for the best talent.
"(We've) lost two potential investment candidates in recruitments lately due to the uncertainty of pending legislation that would affect incentives," said CalPERS spokeswoman Pat Macht.
Nationwide, funds losing
The CalPERS and CalSTRS boards approve their respective funds' bonus plans, which reward employees depending on how investments fare compared to other portfolios or market benchmarks.
So when the losses pile up – and both funds have lost billions of dollars since late 2007 – employees can still win bonuses if they lose less money than their benchmarks.
Over the past 18 months, public pension plans nationwide have lost a combined $1.3 trillion, according to the Center for Retirement Research. A recent study of state pension funds found that obligations outpace assets by $237 billion.
CalPERS has estimated its assets as of June 2008 would cover 92 percent of its obligations. CalSTRS was 88 percent funded as of June 2007, the last date for which the figure is available. Experts generally agree that healthy funds are at least 80 percent funded.
Those figures don't take into account the beating both funds have taken in the last year from bets that have gone sour.
CalPERS, the nation's biggest public pension fund, lost 2.4 percent on its investments for the fiscal year that ended June 30, ending a four-year run of double-digit returns. CalPERS paid about $4 million in incentive bonuses to 58 employees involved with investments. The checks went out in August.
The biggest award, $224,171, went to Senior Investment Officer Leon Shahinian. The second-biggest went to Read, who resigned as chief investment officer in June. Anne Stausboll became the fund's chief executive after receiving a $106,633 bonus for her interim work as Read's replacement.
Meanwhile, CalSTRS, the nation's second-largest public pension fund, lost 3.7 percent on its investments in 2007-08, then awarded $2.9 million in bonuses to 35 employees including Ailman, CEO Jack Ehnes ($205,000) and Real Estate Investment Director Mike DiRe ($164,731).
Since closing their books last year, both funds have lost dramatically more money with the stock markets' meltdown. CalPERS' holdings have fallen from $239 billion to $175 billion, a loss of more than 25 percent. CalSTRS' assets have dropped nearly 30 percent, from $162 billion to about $114 billion.
Despite that, both will pay out bonuses again this year.
"Today's tough economic climate demands the best and brightest making investment decisions to salvage the best returns in a bad environment," said CalSTRS spokeswoman Sherry Reser. "Incentive pay is a valuable tool in attracting and keeping the best and the brightest."
Cheaper than consultants
Both funds are run by boards comprising political appointees, elected state officials, state department representatives and members elected to the panel by pension stakeholders.
The boards set a broad agenda for where the funds' money goes. Within those guidelines, investment officials have latitude to put the money where they see fit.
While some of that work goes to outside firms, both CalPERS and CalSTRS say it's less expensive to keep the work in-house, even with the bonuses.
In 2007-08, CalPERS paid $8.5 million in costs to manage $152 billion in assets in-house and $104 million to outside firms that managed $57 billion in assets.
Put another way, the fund spent $56,000 per billion of assets managed by its own people and $1.8 million per billion in assets under outside management.
CalSTRS said managing investments in-house costs about one-tenth what it spends on external management. Last year it spent $15 million for its people to shepherd investments vs. $164 million paid to outside firms.
"Bottom line, CalSTRS investment staff are far more cost-effective than outside managers," Reser said.
Both CalPERS and CalSTRS employ consultants to compare what they pay to industry trends. Public pension funds historically have paid a fraction of the seven-figure salaries that private investment firms paid.
Watson Wyatt, an employee-benefit-plan consulting firm, noted recently that CalPERS' incentive plan now lags behind those offered by some other public pension funds.
But Wall Street's historic collapse has put many investment highfliers on the street. McLagan Partners Inc., a compensation consulting firm, this month reported to the CalSTRS compensation committee that "the financial market meltdown will have a significant impact on (investment industry) pay."
Many shell-shocked investment managers may now be willing to trade less money for better quality of life, said Susan Mangerio, a pension fund consultant based in Trumbull, Conn.
"If working for a public pension plan comes with greater benefits and a less stressful work schedule, some people may be willing to take less money."
However, Mangerio said, many recruiters say that getting top-flight talent is becoming more expensive.
"Good people with jobs don't want to leave the security of what they have unless there are guaranteed payments," she said.
Lockyer: More transparency
Still, not all public pension systems pay bonuses. Missouri's Public School Retirement System, with a relatively tiny $4 billion in assets last year, doesn't. Neither does the $6.1 billion Wyoming Retirement System.
The $81 billion Teacher Retirement System of Texas recently decided to defer $2.5 million in staff bonuses. The fund lost 27 percent of its value last year.
California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who sits on both the CalPERS and CalSTRS boards, said bonuses have benefited the funds' investments and their members and are "a heck of a lot cheaper" than paying for outside investors.
He's not in favor of changing the award policy, but given the extraordinarily difficult economic times, Lockyer wants "the top-paid executives at both PERS and STRS to forgo increases in their base salaries."
The funds should also be more transparent and more clear about how they pay their people, Lockyer said, and the pay should be enough to pull in and keep top-notch staff, "keeping in mind this is a public-service job."
CalSTRS is in the midst of its biennial staff compensation review. CalPERS, which reset its policy last year, will look at its pay and bonus policies in 2010.
Mark their words
Lawmakers use a lot of them, but what does that tell you?...Editorial
You want to know what Dennis Cardoza is talking about on the floor of the House of Representatives? Or Jerry McNerney?
CapitolWords.com has compiled a list of the words used most frequently by our senators and representatives as they appear in the Congressional Record.
Last year, Cardoza, a Merced Democrat, was most fond of the word "children." He used it 46 times in floor speeches. And McNerney, a Pleasanton Democrat, liked the word "day." He uttered it 21 times.
In the upper chamber, Sen. Barbara Boxer hammered away with the word "jobs" 315 times, while Sen. Dianne Feinstein used the word "percent" 218 times.
Congressional word watchers, outfits such as CapitolWords.com, claim you can learn a lot by tracking the frequency of word use. For instance, the word most often used by members of the California congressional delegation was "California." It was said 2,826 times in the year that ended April 2. That doesn't really give you much insight into their thinking. It would have been more interesting if their collective favorite word had been, say, "Utah" or "pigeon."
Hard as this may be to believe, politicians are said to conduct studies and polls to find out what words soothe and grate voters. Republican candidates try to stay away from the word "recession." Democratic candidates avoid "entitlements." In both cases, you can probably figure out why.
That's also why the bills they pass end up with such silly names as the Defense of Marriage Act, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act or the American Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
It's not clear such word tracking really tells you much, except about one thing: They talk more in the Senate, the deliberative body, than they do in the House, the people's house. Of course, there are 435 representatives trying to grab the microphone and only 100 senators jockeying for the soapbox. And maybe House members are actually about the people's work and don't have as much time for floor speeches.
How else do you explain why Cardoza used his favorite word 46 times, while Boxer used her favorite word 315 times? Or why McNerney said "day" only 21 times, but Feinstein said "percent" 218 times?
Investors shun stocks in favor of property...Bruce Spence
They're back - people pulling their money out of a sagging stock market because they see far better potential for their cash in real estate.
Real estate brokers and agents in San Joaquin County report that since last fall, more and more people have been investing cash into houses as foreclosures have driven sales prices to levels not seen since the 1990s.
They're either sinking their cash into down payments or paying full price in cash.
"I thought, 'I'm not making any money in the stock market in my retirement,' and you can pick up foreclosures pretty reasonably now and fix them up reasonably," said Suzy Peluso, a retired nurse who lives in Stockton. "Now is the best market I've ever seen."
She sold stocks to pay cash for two houses recently, one in Lincoln Village for $166,000 and a second near St. Joseph's Medical Center for $40,000.
She's also second in line - top prospective buyers often pop out of contention in a foreclosure buy - for another house in the St. Joe's area and hopes to get that for $50,000.
"You can pay more for a luxury car, really," she said.
Rent money will provide good income, Peluso said, and then in a few years, the houses will be worth a lot more than she bought them for.
"It's a very good investment compared with the stock market," she said.
Real estate brokers reported that cash purchases of foreclosures or short-sale properties have become commonplace since fall as plunging foreclosure prices bring out investors looking to buy very low and sell high when the market rebounds after all the foreclosures clear out.
Shelly Maffei, Peluso's real estate agent with PMZ Real Estate, said she been involved with as many as 15 cash-paying foreclosure home buyers since the stock market went south last fall.
They have all been locals looking for the best housing deals available anywhere, good cash flow from renters and rising equity later.
"The values are going to start going up," she said.
Ben Balsbaugh, residential sales manager for PMZ Real Estate in Stockton, said three out of 10 home buyers these days are buying foreclosures with cash, and cash is helping them win out in bidding for properties.
"In this market, cash is king for the most part," he said. "We have seen banks accept much lower offers that are all cash. When I say lower, I don't mean below the asking price, just below the other offers currently on the table."
After verifying funds, the seller can be fairly confident that the buyer has the funds necessary to close, reducing the opportunity for the property to fall out of escrow due to financing.
"You wouldn't believe all the people coming through with cash," said PMZ agent Cathy Jackson, who has one client who recently bought 11 foreclosures with cash. "Banks like cash, because you can close in 10 to 15 days."
That buyer, Valley Springs resident Jim Platner, formerly made his living trading and selling California municipal bonds.
He bought all 11 foreclosures since February, paying as low as $35,000 and no more than $65,000, at an average purchase price of $50,000 to $55,000. Plus, he's putting in about $10,000 rehabbing each of the houses before renting them out.
"I'm buying at the low end of the market and rehabbing these houses," Platner said. "I believe I will be able to triple my price in five years."
Another Maffei client, Deanna Avakian of Stockton, in recent months bought two foreclosures as investments for her college-bound kids. She didn't pay cash but didn't blink an eye at tapping their college savings funds for 25 percent down payments.
"We all know where it's sitting - in limbo or going backward," she said.
The most recent house was a $76,000 buy, with about $4,000 invested to fix up the place, which was rented at $1,500 per month.
That's what she calls "letting the rent pay for it."
In this case, rent will pay off the 15-year loan, with $600-a-month mortgage payments, in about seven years, putting her in position to sell and cash out at double the purchase price or more.
Avakian, manager of a Prospect Mortgage branch office in Stockton, said she plans to cash out some 401(k) investments for more 20 percent to 25 percent down payments on at least four more Stockton foreclosures.
"It's just ridiculous not to buy or take it out of your 401(k) or investments when they aren't going anywhere anyway," she said.
She said she's handling about 15 prequalifications a day at her mortgage office, primarily for people looking to take advantage of the residential market.
"Where have you ever seen that you can do something like this?" she asked.
Mike Collins of Collins Realty in Stockton said he started seeing a jump in cash offers toward the end of last year.
"I've seen more all-cash offers than I can ever recall seeing," he said. "I don't see how you can miss. How can prices go down any lower?"
According to the most recent Grupe Real Estate-Trendgraphix monthly sales report, based on Multiple Listing Service data, most home sales in San Joaquin County continue to be foreclosure properties, and the median sales price of an existing single-family house in Stockton stood at $115,000 last month.
That compares with a monthly sales price high of $385,000 in January 2006.
Tom Guiliano, vice president of sales and marketing at Cornerstone Real Estate Group in Stockton, not only has been seeing a lot of cash buyers, he was one of them last fall after selling some stocks.
"Looking back, I wish I had liquidated more," he said. "If I had taken out more, I would have at least stemmed the loss of capital at that point."
San Francisco Chronicle
Water considered a sacred resource...High Country News
Development: Hopi conference explores Paatuuwaqatsi
What it means: Lake Mead is below half its capacity. Water cops monitor the sprinklers of Las Vegas. Residents of Anaheim drink recycled sewer water. Yet Peabody Coal continues to pump 1.3 billion gallons of freshwater annually from the aquifer beneath northern Arizona's Black Mesa, mixing it with crushed coal to create slurry. That's just one of the reasons the Black Mesa Trust - founded by Hopi farmers and elders to save the aquifer - held a conference this month in Flagstaff, Ariz., called "Braiding Through Water: Weaving Traditional and Western Sciences and Knowledge." Two hundred participants - including Native American high school and college students - communed with 18 panelists to explore water as a sacred resource (Paatuuwaqatsi), rather than a commodity. Presenters ranged from American Indian elders and scholars to artists and a water-crystal photographer. Hopi prophecy foretells a crucial choice: We will either learn how to live sustainably, or destroy ourselves. "We are mismanaging water to such a high degree that the Earth is drying up," said presenter Jennifer Greene, director of the Water Research Institute in Maine.
- Marty Durlin, for High Country News
Natural gas glut
Development: From shortage to glut, and boom to bust
What it means: A record number of natural gas wells were drilled in the West last year. But in a stunning reversal, hundreds of rigs have been idled and thousands of roughnecks laid off.
There's a backstory: Sixty years ago, gas was discovered in Wyoming's Pinedale Anticline, but early efforts to tap it failed because the rocks trapping the gas were too dense. In the early 1970s, the Atomic Energy Commission even proposed detonating 100 underground bombs near Pinedale to fracture the rocks. "Nuclear stimulation," they called it. (When local ranchers learned about the scheme, it was scrapped.)
A new method of hydraulic fracturing eventually opened the reserves near Pinedale, as well as those in other Rocky Mountain states. Now, this and other drilling technologies have unlocked enormous and unexpected reserves of gas from black shale deposits in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and New York. America's troubling gas shortage has morphed into a glut just in time for the recession. Shale gas wells in the South and East are much more profitable than wells in the Rockies. Their initial production rates can be 10 times higher, and they are closer to major markets.
The largest drilling boom in Western history is over. In the space of six months, the oil patch has gone from drill, baby, drill to chill, baby, chill.
- Randy Udall
Development: Burying carbon will create fizzy groundwater
What it means: There's a good chance that, within two decades, we'll be injecting large quantities of carbon dioxide underground in several Western states in an attempt to keep cheap coal electricity viable in a warming world.
Ideally, the carbon would react with surrounding minerals and solidify into rock, leaving little chance for leaks or groundwater contamination. But new research suggests that probably won't happen. After studying natural carbon dioxide deposits deep underground, scientists have learned that less than a fifth of sequestered carbon will harden into stone. The rest will likely mix with available groundwater, carbonating it like a bottle of Perrier. The good news? Such bubbly water deposits have naturally stored carbon dioxide for millions of years. The bad? Water moves around underground and might mix with something we don't want it to, or the carbon dioxide in it might make a break for the atmosphere. Think of the picture on a bottle of Crystal Geyser. Burp.
- Terray Sylvester
Los Angeles Times
A solution to California's water shortage goes down the drain
Widespread recycling of gray water could cut residential water use by 16%, according to one estimate...Marc B. Haefele. Marc B. Haefele is a commentator for KPCC-FM (89.3) and writes for Nomada magazine of Buenos Aires.
During a prolonged drought in the early 1990s, L.A.'s Department of Water and Power and Department of Public Works conducted an ambitious experiment. In eight homes, including those of several elected officials, they installed "gray water" equipment that diverted the outflows from washing machines, showers, bathtubs and bathroom sinks to irrigate lawns and gardens outside the homes.
Participants in the program were happy with the results, and the test was officially proclaimed successful in a 21-page research report that found the installations reduced water consumption by about 50% per household on average. No human disease pathogens were found in the outside drainage areas.
Now, the drought is back, the report forgotten, and here we are again, facing another statewide water shortage with river flows at record lows and L.A. residents facing mandatory 15% usage cuts. So what happened to the simple plumbing trick that could save so much water?
What happened was that state health and housing officials, asked in 1992 by the Legislature to draw up a permit code to regulate and legalize gray water use, instead presented a statute so laden with oppressive regulations that few Californians have installed systems. Appendix G of the state plumbing code requires that gray water systems not only get costly permits and have extensive filtering systems but that they also be installed 9 inches underground -- too deep to irrigate most plantings.
In the entire state, only an estimated 200 legal gray water systems have been built. The draconian permitting process has driven gray water, literally as well as figuratively, underground. As many as 1.7 million gray water outlets are running illegally in California, according to Santa Barbara gray water guru Art Ludwig, whose Oasis Design website is a leading resource for gray water research, lore and history.
In official state language, these unofficial gray water systems are "unapproved auxiliary water supplies." But none of the owners has been prosecuted. Northern California even has its "gray water guerrillas," who help homeowners all over the state to construct their own unpermitted systems. "It's a benign conspiracy," says San Diego County gray water expert Steve Bilson.
At the heart of the official obstructiveness is the Sacramento bureaucracies' unproven suspicion that gray waste water carries disease. "They became obsessed with irrelevant risks," Ludwig says. "They miss the big thing -- pollution by industry -- and focus on this."
He says the Centers for Disease Control has found no human disease transmissions from gray water irrigation.
Bilson suggests that state officials were originally overly cautious because of major ground-water pollution issues of the early 1990s -- such as factory-site perchlorates and MBTE from gas station storage tanks.
Water expert Larry Farwell, who participated in the 1990s state safety discussion, said, "Nothing is cuter than two kids bathing in a tub together, but once you pull the plug, they say you have toxic waste."
He estimates that extensive gray water recycling could save more than 16% of the state's residential water use.
That suspicion may be why state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) calls his new bill to revive gray water irrigation the "Shower to Flower" law. The January legislation is now going through a state health and safety agency review process similar to that which gutted its predecessor. "This time we hope we can convince the Building Standards Commission," he said.
State officials recently quoted by The Times say that there's little research to prove gray water is safe.
They seem to have missed Los Angeles' 1992 $500,000 study by San Francisco consultant Bahman Sheikh, which did exactly that. There's a pending $450,000 "Long Term Effects of Landscape Irrigation Using Household Graywater" study by the Virginia-based Water Environment Research Foundation whose full results come in 2011. Its preliminary results may be out in June. The state could report its new guidelines in May, however.
The basic appeal of gray water is its utter simplicity. Just pipe your washing machine, bath and bathroom sink outflow onto your lawns and garden. They flourish, as detergents and organic dirt particles become plant nutrients.
Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and Montana have much more generous laws on gray water irrigation. "The state's challenge is this time to do gray water right," says Peter Gleick, of the prestigious Pacific Institute. "We have to match the quality of water available to our needs. We can't go on using scarce potable water for everything."
Andy Lipkis, of L.A.'s Tree People, suggests that retrofitting hundreds of thousands of Los Angeles low-rise apartments and single-family homes with gray water plumbing, besides saving a lot of water, could provide thousands of new, well-paying jobs.
Dry is becoming California's future. We've long assumed that our drought years would, after seasons of parched lawns and scrimping, be followed by plenteous rains and even flooding; that reservoirs and leftover snowpack would always return to save us again.
Now, in the grip of a global climate shift, we are learning better than to count on this. Dryness could become permanent in places where it's long been cyclical, whether it's in Argentina's Pampas, Australia's southeast or, in years to come, the great state of California -- where our river outflows can no long support several fish populations and where Colorado River allowances are shrinking like the flow of the river itself.
Former City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who, along with former City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, promoted the original pilot project and had one of the original DWP gray water installations, believes the city, county and state should go out of their way to encourage, not discourage, as much gray water recycling as possible. "We should be giving tax credits for gray water use. We do that for energy efficiency, and compared to the amount of energy available, there's only a finite amount of water."
New York Times
AP IMPACT: Tons of released drugs taint US water...JEFF DONN, MARTHA MENDOZA and JUSTIN PRITCHARD, The Associated Press. Associated Press Writer Don Mitchell in Denver contributed to this report. The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate (at) ap.org
-- U.S. manufacturers, including major drugmakers, have legally released at least 271 million pounds of pharmaceuticals into waterways that often provide drinking water _ contamination the federal government has consistently overlooked, according to an Associated Press investigation.
Hundreds of active pharmaceutical ingredients are used in a variety of manufacturing, including drugmaking: For example, lithium is used to make ceramics and treat bipolar disorder; nitroglycerin is a heart drug and also used in explosives; copper shows up in everything from pipes to contraceptives.
Federal and industry officials say they don't know the extent to which pharmaceuticals are released by U.S. manufacturers because no one tracks them _ as drugs. But a close analysis of 20 years of federal records found that, in fact, the government unintentionally keeps data on a few, allowing a glimpse of the pharmaceuticals coming from factories.
As part of its ongoing PharmaWater investigation about trace concentrations of pharmaceuticals in drinking water, AP identified 22 compounds that show up on two lists: the EPA monitors them as industrial chemicals that are released into rivers, lakes and other bodies of water under federal pollution laws, while the Food and Drug Administration classifies them as active pharmaceutical ingredients.
The data don't show precisely how much of the 271 million pounds comes from drugmakers versus other manufacturers; also, the figure is a massive undercount because of the limited federal government tracking.
To date, drugmakers have dismissed the suggestion that their manufacturing contributes significantly to what's being found in water. Federal drug and water regulators agree.
But some researchers say the lack of required testing amounts to a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy about whether drugmakers are contributing to water pollution.
"It doesn't pass the straight-face test to say pharmaceutical manufacturers are not emitting any of the compounds they're creating," said Kyla Bennett, who spent 10 years as an EPA enforcement officer before becoming an ecologist and environmental attorney.
Pilot studies in the U.S. and abroad are now confirming those doubts.
Last year, the AP reported that trace amounts of a wide range of pharmaceuticals _ including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones _ have been found in American drinking water supplies. Including recent findings in Dallas, Cleveland and Maryland's Prince George's and Montgomery counties, pharmaceuticals have been detected in the drinking water of at least 51 million Americans.
Most cities and water providers still do not test. Some scientists say that wherever researchers look, they will find pharma-tainted water.
Consumers are considered the biggest contributors to the contamination. We consume drugs, then excrete what our bodies don't absorb. Other times, we flush unused drugs down toilets. The AP also found that an estimated 250 million pounds of pharmaceuticals and contaminated packaging are thrown away each year by hospitals and long-term care facilities.
Researchers have found that even extremely diluted concentrations of drugs harm fish, frogs and other aquatic species. Also, researchers report that human cells fail to grow normally in the laboratory when exposed to trace concentrations of certain drugs. Some scientists say they are increasingly concerned that the consumption of combinations of many drugs, even in small amounts, could harm humans over decades.
Utilities say the water is safe. Scientists, doctors and the EPA say there are no confirmed human risks associated with consuming minute concentrations of drugs. But those experts also agree that dangers cannot be ruled out, especially given the emerging research.
Two common industrial chemicals that are also pharmaceuticals _ the antiseptics phenol and hydrogen peroxide _ account for 92 percent of the 271 million pounds identified as coming from drugmakers and other manufacturers. Both can be toxic and both are considered to be ubiquitous in the environment.
However, the list of 22 includes other troubling releases of chemicals that can be used to make drugs and other products: 8 million pounds of the skin bleaching cream hydroquinone, 3 million pounds of nicotine compounds that can be used in quit-smoking patches, 10,000 pounds of the antibiotic tetracycline hydrochloride. Others include treatments for head lice and worms.
Residues are often released into the environment when manufacturing equipment is cleaned.
A small fraction of pharmaceuticals also leach out of landfills where they are dumped. Pharmaceuticals released onto land include the chemo agent fluorouracil, the epilepsy medicine phenytoin and the sedative pentobarbital sodium. The overall amount may be considerable, given the volume of what has been buried _ 572 million pounds of the 22 monitored drugs since 1988.
In one case, government data shows that in Columbus, Ohio, pharmaceutical maker Boehringer Ingelheim Roxane Inc. discharged an estimated 2,285 pounds of lithium carbonate _ which is considered slightly toxic to aquatic invertebrates and freshwater fish _ to a local wastewater treatment plant between 1995 and 2006. Company spokeswoman Marybeth C. McGuire said the pharmaceutical plant, which uses lithium to make drugs for bipolar disorder, has violated no laws or regulations. McGuire said all the lithium discharged, an annual average of 190 pounds, was lost when residues stuck to mixing equipment were washed down the drain.
Pharmaceutical company officials point out that active ingredients represent profits, so there's a huge incentive not to let any escape. They also say extremely strict manufacturing regulations _ albeit aimed at other chemicals _ help prevent leakage, and that whatever traces may get away are handled by onsite wastewater treatment.
"Manufacturers have to be in compliance with all relevant environmental laws," said Alan Goldhammer, a scientist and vice president at the industry trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
Goldhammer conceded some drug residues could be released in wastewater, but stressed "it would not cause any environmental issues because it was not a toxic substance at the level that it was being released at."
Several big drugmakers were asked this simple question: Have you tested wastewater from your plants to find out whether any active pharmaceuticals are escaping, and if so what have you found?
No drugmaker answered directly.
"Based on research that we have reviewed from the past 20 years, pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities are not a significant source of pharmaceuticals that contribute to environmental risk," GlaxoSmithKline said in a statement.
AstraZeneca spokeswoman Kate Klemas said the company's manufacturing processes "are designed to avoid, or otherwise minimize the loss of product to the environment" and thus "ensure that any residual losses of pharmaceuticals to the environment that do occur are at levels that would be unlikely to pose a threat to human health or the environment."
One major manufacturer, Pfizer Inc., acknowledged that it tested some of its wastewater _ but outside the United States.
The company's director of hazard communication and environmental toxicology, Frank Mastrocco, said Pfizer has sampled effluent from some of its foreign drug factories. Without disclosing details, he said the results left Pfizer "confident that the current controls and processes in place at these facilities are adequately protective of human health and the environment."
It's not just the industry that isn't testing.
FDA spokesman Christopher Kelly noted that his agency is not responsible for what comes out on the waste end of drug factories. At the EPA, acting assistant administrator for water Mike Shapiro _ whose agency's Web site says pharmaceutical releases from manufacturing are "well defined and controlled" _ did not mention factories as a source of pharmaceutical pollution when asked by the AP how drugs get into drinking water.
"Pharmaceuticals get into water in many ways," he said in a written statement. "It's commonly believed the majority come from human and animal excretion. A portion also comes from flushing unused drugs down the toilet or drain; a practice EPA generally discourages."
His position echoes that of a line of federal drug and water regulators as well as drugmakers, who concluded in the 1990s _ before highly sensitive tests now used had been developed _ that manufacturing is not a meaningful source of pharmaceuticals in the environment.
Pharmaceutical makers typically are excused from having to submit an environmental review for new products, and the FDA has never rejected a drug application based on potential environmental impact. Also at play are pressures not to delay potentially lifesaving drugs. What's more, because the EPA hasn't concluded at what level, if any, pharmaceuticals are bad for the environment or harmful to people, drugmakers almost never have to report the release of pharmaceuticals they produce.
"The government could get a national snapshot of the water if they chose to," said Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, "and it seems logical that we would want to find out what's coming out of these plants."
Ajit Ghorpade, an environmental engineer who worked for several major pharmaceutical companies before his current job helping run a wastewater treatment plant, said drugmakers have no impetus to take measurements that the government doesn't require.
"Obviously nobody wants to spend the time or their dime to prove this," he said. "It's like asking me why I don't drive a hybrid car? Why should I? It's not required."
After contacting the nation's leading drugmakers and filing public records requests, the AP found two federal agencies that have tested.
Both the EPA and the U.S. Geological Survey have studies under way comparing sewage at treatment plants that receive wastewater from drugmaking factories against sewage at treatment plants that do not.
Preliminary USGS results, slated for publication later this year, show that treated wastewater from sewage plants serving drug factories had significantly more medicine residues. Data from the EPA study show a disproportionate concentration in wastewater of an antibiotic that a major Michigan factory was producing at the time the samples were taken.
Meanwhile, other researchers recorded concentrations of codeine in the southern reaches of the Delaware River that were at least 10 times higher than the rest of the river.
The scientists from the Delaware River Basin Commission won't have to look far when they try to track down potential sources later this year. One mile from the sampling site, just off shore of Pennsville, N.J., there's a pipe that spits out treated wastewater from a municipal plant. The plant accepts sewage from a pharmaceutical factory owned by Siegfried Ltd. The factory makes codeine.
"We have implemented programs to not only reduce the volume of waste materials generated but to minimize the amount of pharmaceutical ingredients in the water," said Siegfried spokeswoman Rita van Eck.
Another codeine plant, run by Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Noramco Inc., is about seven miles away. A Noramco spokesman acknowledged that the Wilmington, Del., factory had voluntarily tested its wastewater and found codeine in trace concentrations thousands of times greater than what was found in the Delaware River. "The amounts of codeine we measured in the wastewater, prior to releasing it to the City of Wilmington, are not considered to be hazardous to the environment," said a company spokesman.
In another instance, equipment-cleaning water sent down the drain of an Upsher-Smith Laboratories, Inc. factory in Denver consistently contains traces of warfarin, a blood thinner, according to results obtained under a public records act request. Officials at the company and the Denver Metro Wastewater Reclamation District said they believe the concentrations are safe.
Warfarin, which also is a common rat poison and pesticide, is so effective at inhibiting growth of aquatic plants and animals it's actually deliberately introduced to clean plants and tiny aquatic animals from ballast water of ships.
"With regard to wastewater management we are subject to a variety of federal, state and local regulation and oversight," said Joel Green, Upsher-Smith's vice president and general counsel. "And we work hard to maintain systems to promote compliance."
Baylor University professor Bryan Brooks, who has published more than a dozen studies related to pharmaceuticals in the environment, said assurances that drugmakers run clean shops are not enough.
"I have no reason to believe them or not believe them," he said. "We don't have peer-reviewed studies to support or not support their claims."