Builders urge tax credit extension
Permits around Valley see slight boost since February...Sanford Nax
Homebuilders, encouraged by evidence that a new $10,000 tax credit is helping spur construction, want the incentive extended.
About $100 million was allocated for the tax credits, which were enacted about six weeks ago. Applications for about one-third of that total already have been submitted to state officials, and some builders estimate the rest could be used up by fall.
"The allocated funds for the credit are being rapidly absorbed, which is why we believe a second round of the tax credit to extend it further would be extremely helpful in keeping the momentum going," said Robert Rivinius, president of the California Building Industry Association.
Some builders fear that a gaping state budget will keep officials from extending it, however.
Statewide, 1,790 permits for single-family houses were issued in March, down 43% from a year earlier, but up 37% from February. The story was the same in Fresno County, where the 215 permits last month represented a 54.7% increase from February.
In Kings County, permits jumped from a paltry three in February to 22 in March. Tulare County showed a 16.7% hike, while Merced County was unchanged.
The $10,000 tax credit, which buyers of new houses can spread over three years, expires after the $100 million is allocated. In addition, first-time home buyers can qualify for an $8,000 federal tax credit.
Darius Assemi, vice president of Granville Homes in Fresno, said sales "have picked up substantially over the past four weeks" as low prices, low interest rates and the tax credits combine to fuel activity.
"We have gone through most of our inventory," he said. "Most of the existing homes are gone, and we are pulling permits."
20% of private water wells contaminated, research shows...Alex Breitler
STOCKTON - One out of five private drinking-water wells in the United States contains at least one contaminant that exceeds public health standards, and wells in the San Joaquin Valley are no exception, according to new research from the U.S. Geological Survey.
Private wells that typically provide water for homes in rural areas are not regulated as strictly as public water systems, leaving the responsibility for clean water to the property owner.
The far-reaching study, which included sampling of 2,100 wells over a period of 13 years, shows that "a large number of people may be unknowingly affected" by contamination, said Matt Larsen, USGS associate director for water.
"Certainly, if you have a private well, ... you should be concerned about the quality of the water from your well, and you should have it tested," added Leslie DeSimone, who headed the study. "Contaminants can occur even if your well is in an area that doesn't seem vulnerable" to pollution.
Most of the contaminants in wells come from natural geologic sources, with the exception of nitrate, a nutrient prevalent in agricultural areas.
Of the 57 Central Valley wells tested, 10.5 percent registered nitrate levels higher than health standards. Exposure to nitrate can cause the blood to transport less oxygen, a dangerous or deadly condition for infants.
Fertilizer, livestock and septic systems all can increase the amount of nitrate found in groundwater.
Laurie Kotulla, assistant director of the county's Environmental Health Department, said local officials are "fairly confident" that water quality in private wells is good. The county issues permits for new wells and well replacements; about 3,500 such permits have been issued since 1993, she said.
In areas where nitrate is known to be a problem, the county requires wells be drilled deeper, Kotulla said. However, there may be decades-old wells that are shallow and as a result have higher levels of contamination.
"Our current ordinance doesn't require private well owners to sample," she said. "We certainly do recommend it."
Mel Lytle, water resources coordinator for the county, said officials hope to fund additional studies to remedy the nitrate problem.
Other common contaminants in the area include trace elements arsenic, boron and uranium, which can pose a range of health issues such as increased risk of cancer, problems with the circulatory system or reproductive and developmental effects.
The study also showed that the Central Valley wells were more likely than other areas to see a mixture of multiple contaminants; these mixtures are sometimes more toxic, according to the USGS research.
Of course, how dangerous these contaminants really are depends also on the length of time that one is exposed to them.
The exact locations of the wells checked by USGS were not disclosed. DeSimone said 27 wells were in the Sacramento Valley, and 30 wells were in the San Joaquin Valley.
At a glance
According to the U.S. Geological Survey on private well water:
• The most common contaminants found at levels above public health thresholds in the Central Valley were nitrate (10.5 percent of wells), arsenic (14 percent), boron (8.8 percent) and uranium (16.7 percent).
• Most contaminants come from natural geologic sources, against which wellhead treatment systems may be ineffective.
• Nationwide, 60 percent of wells had low levels of man-made compounds, such as herbicides, insecticides and solvents, but rarely did these exceed health standards.
• 43 million people rely on about 15 million private wells as their sole source of drinking water; these wells receive less monitoring from government health experts than do public water systems.
For information on how to get your well tested for contaminants, call the San Joaquin County Environmental Health Department at (209) 468-3420. In Calaveras County, call (209) 754-6399.
Alex Breitler's Blog...4-24-09
Did you know...
... that it's legal in California to shoot bullfrogs with a bow and arrow?
With some restrictions, you can also test your skill on the following fish species: carp, goldfish, western sucker, Sacramento blackfish, hardhead, Sacramento pike minnow and lamprey.
This interesting insight has been brought to you by the state Department of Fish and Game's weekly Q&A feature. You can submit your own questions, or merely marvel at the nuances of fish and wildlife law in this state.
Fishermen casting light on bill
Delta fishermen are mobilizing for next Tuesday's committee hearing on AB 1253, a bill by a Bakersfield assemblywoman that would delist the striped bass as a game fish and, fishermen contend, eliminate them from the estuary.
The claim is that nonnative stripers eat threatened and endangered Delta smelt and salmon, though it's disputed whether that predation is a significant factor in the decline of the native fish.
The fishermen have produced a nine-minute video on YouTube drawing attention to their opposition to the legislation. You can find it here.
Fish vs. farmers? Not exactly....
It's at best misleading to say that the Endangered Species Act and its protections for Delta smelt are the primary cause for low water deliveries to farms and cities south of the Delta this year.
While rallyers at last Friday's March for Water at San Luis Reservoir repeatedly cried, "Turn on the pumps! Turn on the pumps!", the pumps were in fact already on, sending thousands of cubic feet per second of water to two-thirds of California.
And in this story published by the Capital Press, state Department of Water Resources Director Lestor Snow estimates that without ESA restrictions on Delta water, state water exports would increase from 30 percent to just 35 percent.
Nevertheless, the rhetoric continues from south San Joaquin Valley lawmakers such as George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, who last week declared that "heavy handed environmental regulations are literally ruining families for the benefit of a dying fish."
Los Angeles Times
More crop for the drop
More drought-resistant plants are available through genetic modification, if only government would get out of the way...Henry I. Miller. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
America's politicians and government officials have been slow to grasp the importance of societal resilience -- the ability to recover from or adapt to adversity. Sufficient resilience can minimize the risks of major, debilitating disruptions -- whether they be economic ones, such as the current recession, or unavoidable natural disasters.
Take the ability to cope with droughts, for example. Science, technology and intelligent planning cannot eliminate them, but they can mitigate their effects. Or at least they could, if only federal policymakers and local regulations permitted it.
Gene-splicing, sometimes called genetic modification, offers plant breeders the tools to make old crop plants do spectacular new things. In the United States and two dozen other countries, farmers are using gene-spliced crop varieties to produce higher yields, with lower inputs and reduced environmental impact.
In spite of research being hampered by resistance from activists and discouraged by governmental over-regulation, gene-spliced crop varieties are slowly but surely trickling out of the development pipeline in many parts of the world. Most of these new varieties are designed to be resistant to pests and diseases, or to be resistant to herbicides, so that farmers can more effectively control weeds while adopting more environment-friendly no-till farming practices and more benign herbicides. Other varieties possess improved nutritional quality. But the greatest boon of all, to food security and to the environment in the long term, may be the ability of new crop varieties to tolerate periods of drought and other water-related stresses.
Where water is scarce, the development of crop varieties that grow under conditions of low moisture or temporary drought could boost yields and lengthen the time that farmland is productive. Even where irrigation is feasible, plants that use water more efficiently are needed. Agriculture accounts for about 70% of the world's freshwater consumption -- and more in areas of intensive farming and arid or semi-arid conditions, such as in California. So the introduction of plants that grow with less water would free up much of that essential resource for other uses.
Plant biologists have identified genes that regulate water use and transferred them into important crop plants. These new varieties grow with smaller amounts of water or with lower-quality water, such as recycled water or water high in natural mineral salts. In 2004, for example, Egyptian researchers showed that by transferring a single gene from barley to wheat, the plants can tolerate reduced watering for a longer period of time. This new, drought-resistant variety requires only one-eighth as much irrigation as conventional wheat, and in some deserts can be cultivated with rainfall alone.
Aside from new varieties that have lower water requirements, pest- and disease-resistant gene-spliced crop varieties also make water use more efficient indirectly. Because much of the loss to insects and diseases occurs after the plants are fully grown, the use of gene-spliced varieties that have higher post-harvest yields means that the farming (and irrigation) of fewer plants can produce the same total amount of food. We get more crop for the drop.
However, unscientific and overly burdensome regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in this country -- and by national regulators and the United Nations elsewhere -- has raised the cost of producing new plant varieties and kept potentially important crops off the market. This deeply entrenched, discriminatory and excessive regulation -- which flies in the face of scientific consensus that gene-splicing is basically an extension of earlier crop improvement methods -- adds tens of millions of dollars to the development costs of new gene-spliced crop varieties. Higher costs and the endless controversy translate to fewer products in the pipeline and fewer companies competing to make them. Less competition means higher prices.
California offers a stark lesson in how wrongheaded public policy can impair resilience. Although severe drought afflicts much of California, over the last few years four of the state's counties have banned the cultivation or sale of gene-spliced plants, including those that are drought-resistant.
If individually and collectively we are to meet economic, environmental and public health challenges, we need plenty of options and opportunities for innovation -- and the wealth to pursue them. In society, as in evolutionary biology, survival demands resilience. But in large and small ways, unimaginative, shortsighted politicians and venal activists have conspired to limit our options, constrain economic growth and make real solutions elusive.