Badlands Journal
Bush ESA rollback rolled back...Badlands Journal editorial board
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Secretaries Salazar and Locke Restore Scientific Consultations Under Endangered Species Act to Protect Species and Their Habitats    
Hugh Vickery, Department of the Interior: 202-208-6416
Scott Smullen, Department of Commerce-NOAA: 202-482-1097
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today announced that the two departments are revoking an eleventh-hour Bush administration rule that undermined Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections. Their decision requires federal agencies to once again consult with federal wildlife experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – the two agencies that administer the ESA – before taking any action that may affect threatened or endangered species. 
“By rolling back this 11th hour regulation, we are ensuring that threatened and endangered species continue to receive the full protection of the law,” Salazar said. “Because science must serve as the foundation for decisions we make, federal agencies proposing to take actions that might affect threatened and endangered species will once again have to consult with biologists at the two departments.”
“For decades, the Endangered Species Act has protected threatened species and their habitats,” said Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. “Our decision affirms the Administration’s commitment to using sound science to promote conservation and protect the environment.” 
In March, President Obama directed the Secretaries to review the previous Administration’s Section 7 regulation of the ESA – which governs interagency consultation – and Congress, in the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act, specifically authorized the Secretaries to revoke the regulation. 
Locke and Salazar said the two departments will conduct a joint review of the 1986 consultation regulations to determine if any improvements should be proposed.
The Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973 to protect imperiled species from extinction, as well as conserve the ecosystems and habitats necessary for their survival. 
NOAA understands and predicts changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and conserves and manages our coastal and marine resources. Visit http://www.noaa.gov
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. It is a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. Visit http://www.fws.gov
Merced Sun-Star
Residents giddy about first lady's visit to UC Merced...SCOTT JASON
Reporter Danielle Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dgaines@mercedsun-star.com.
Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.
Shanitha Scoggins, owner of Tuluz' Beauty Salon downtown, is on the list of people looking to snag tickets to UC Merced's graduation ceremony, when first lady Michelle Obama will deliver the commencement address.
If it doesn't happen, she'll stand in the sun on the side of Lake Road just to listen and catch a glimpse of the excitement.
Josephine Long, an 89-year-old Fresno resident, said UC Merced leaders would hear from her "big mouth" if she isn't absorbing first-hand every word of Obama's oratory. (Long was promised two tickets over the phone just after the speaker was announced.)
But if you want to go and don't have a ticket yet, you'd better hurry.
Information about applying for tickets was posted to UC Merced's Web site last week, though no big announcement inviting the public was made.
The deadline to apply online is midnight.
UC Merced officials are saddled with turning a small graduation ceremony that marks an historic moment in the school's young existance -- the first four-year graduation class -- into a White House affair covered by international media.
They're also trying to manage the interest the event has created throughout the Valley community that has part ownership of the state's 10th and youngest University of California campus.
Officials are trying to fulfill all the community ticket requests for what may be the year's top commencement address on May 16. Depending on the number of requests, it's possible that some people may be turned away.
"As the first research university in the San Joaquin Valley, we understand this is a big point of pride for the community. That is why we are working so hard to make the event as accessible as possible" university spokeswoman Tonya Luiz said. "The first lady is here to inspire the class of 2009. That is her priority."
People will have the option of watching the event on televisions set up across the city.
Officials are unsure how many community members have applied for tickets. They don't know how many they'll set aside for residents.
Some of it's because the university is still confirming the number of students who will walk across the stage. Each graduating student is entitled to eight tickets for their friends and family.
Details for the event are still being sorted out, including what direction the stage will face.
"Ultimately, it comes down to the first lady's advance team," Luiz said Tuesday. "They have not been on campus yet to confirm."
Including media, security, honorary guests and commencement volunteers, the university expects to host up to 11,000 people, she said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein confirmed that she'd attend. The school hasn't yet heard back from Sen. Barbara Boxer or Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The city estimates up to 25,000 people will visit Merced for the ceremony.
Scoggins was styling a customer's hair Tuesday and watched through her salon window as city workers tested out the 20-foot-by-20-foot projection screen that will broadcast Obama's speech downtown in Bob Hart Square.
One of Scoggins' regular customers at her salon signed her up for a ticket. "She was thinking about me," she said. "I love her."
Long, who's spent her life working for the Fresno Police Department and later Fresno County's Department of Social Services, is counting on receiving two tickets. The extra one will go to whichever friend is willing to drive.
"I won't have this opportunity again," the self-described 89-and-three-quarter-year-old said.
She called the chancellor's office soon after she heard that Obama accepted the offer made by the students, who sent nearly a thousand Valentine's Day cards. "Little Merced? And she said yes she would come," Long said. "That impressed me."
Residents, whether in the audience, downtown or home, will soon watch a foreclosure capital in one of the nation's most overlooked regions showcased to a worldwide audience.
Politicians paying attention to the Valley? Maybe that's called change.
Modesto Bee
Dead fish floating in MID canal...last updated: April 28, 2009 11:09:33 PM
Residents along a street in Modesto's college neighborhood reported dead fish floating in a Modesto Irrigation District canal Tuesday evening, fire officials said.
Residents along the 1000 block of Wright Street also reported a burning smell from the canal and that a dog had become sick after drinking canal water, said Modesto Fire Department Battalion Chief Dan Hinshaw. "I observed hundreds and hundreds of dead fish," Hinshaw said, adding that the Fire Department was dispatched to the scene about 7:10 p.m.
Hinshaw said the Department of Fish and Game and the county's Department of Environmental Resources were notified and will follow up with the MID today. Hinshaw said MID officials said they had applied the herbicide Magnacide H to kill algae in the canal. "They kept assuring us they do this twice a year," he said, "that they are allowed to do this and (they) use less than allowable limits."
MID spokeswoman Melissa Williams said this was the first application of the herbicide in Modesto this year and that MID officials are investigating. She said MID workers applied the herbicide at three locations in the city Tuesday. "It's typically not a fish killer ... ," she said. "We will look into the incident, but we've been using Magnacide for more than 25 years and have never had any environmental, public health or worker safety incidents involving Magnacide."
Fresno Bee
Yosemite Falls still spectacular despite state water shortage...Mark Grossi
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK - California's drought seems like fiction up here with thundering Yosemite Falls leaving lines of gawkers soaked and shivering.
The 2,425-foot trio of waterfalls - the tallest in North America - can easily be seen a mile away, but visitors can't resist getting up close to that blast of icy water.
"This is my favorite place in the world," said Christy Rosa of Los Angeles, who was celebrating her 60th birthday in Yosemite National Park. "I wouldn't miss this."
There might be quite a waterfall show this year, despite the statewide drought. The snowpack above the park's two major rivers - the Tuolumne and the Merced - was near 90% of average on April 1.
The near-average snowpack in this part of Yosemite provides much-needed water for California, but it isn't enough to make a big difference, state officials say. The water content in the 400-mile-long Sierra Nevada snowpack is less than 70% of average for this time of year.
Legal protections for fish and dry conditions have left many west San Joaquin Valley farmers with 10% of their irrigation water for summer. The city of Fresno last week tweaked rules to forbid people from watering lawns during the day when more water is needed because of evaporation.
Officials for the state Department of Water Resources say part of the snow runoff this year will be absorbed into the mountain landscape, which has been drier than usual over the last three years.
But in Yosemite, pristine water will continue tumbling from every direction and filling lush meadows through May and perhaps well into June, officials say.
The falls are the center of nature's springtime awakening in Yosemite Valley. By late April, the valley becomes a symphony of moving water, chilly breezes and emerging dogwood trees.
Snow fields in the park's high country are beginning to melt and flow into creeks, many of which spill over the glacially sculpted walls of Yosemite Valley.
Now is the time when visitors stream into the park to stare at the plunging streams, many well-known to Yosemite aficionados - Bridalveil, Horsetail, Ribbon, Sentinel, the Cascades, Illilouette, Vernal and Nevada.
Yosemite Falls, spewing down the north wall of the valley, is the fifth tallest in the world.
Ranger and naturalist Margaret Eissler said people sometimes don't understand that the breathtaking drop is divided into three sections. That's why it is called "falls" instead of a "fall."
Eissler said the falls are a spectacular part of a much bigger picture. After the snowmelt crashes to the granite floor, it drains to the Merced River, which runs through the heart of the 7-square-mile valley.
The cycle starts with storms dumping winter snow, sometimes 20 feet deep in the Sierra. Months later and hundreds of miles away, some of the melted snow passes into the Pacific Ocean through San Francisco Bay.
The spring thaw takes place all through the 400-mile Sierra Nevada, but it is most striking in Yosemite Valley, admirers say. The valley views combine the waterfalls with widely acclaimed landmarks, such as Half Dome and El Capitan.
The landmarks and waterfalls can be seen without hours of hiking. People from all over the globe can ride a shuttle bus around the valley to enjoy that view.
Matthew Potter, 29, of Sidney, Australia, last week stood at Cook's Meadow, quietly watching Yosemite Falls and listening to the roar at a distance. His reaction seemed to fit Ranger Eissler's description of many first-time visitors - transfixed.
"Back in Australia," he said, "there's nothing like this. Amazing."
California home sales leap 64% in March...The Fresno Bee
Home sales in California increased almost 64% last month from a year ago, thanks in large part to falling prices. Statewide, the median price tumbled 39% from March 2008, although values rose slightly from February.
All regions in the state experienced increases in month-to-month sales, with the smallest gain being 9.7% in Sacramento and the greatest at 32.2% in Riverside/San Bernardino, the California Association of Realtors reported.
Fresno County reported a 23.3% boost in sales from February to March.
Statewide, prices edged up 2.2% in March from February. In Fresno County, the increase was 9.6%.
That was the first price gain in California since August 2007, but association economist Leslie Appleton-Young said it’s too early to declare price stabilization. MDA DataQuick released March median prices for central California cities (percentage decrease from March 2008 in parentheses):
-- Fresno, $138,000, 40.3%
-- Clovis, $240,000, 25%
-- Selma, $148,500, 25%
-- Visalia, $168,000, 21.9%
-- San Luis Obispo, $522,500, 3.6%
Sacramento Bee
Sacramento to get stimulus funds for flood-control...Matt Weiser
Sacramento is getting another $21 million in federal economic stimulus funds for flood-control projects.
The largest share of the new funding, $14 million, will help pay for flood-safety improvements at 96 locations in the area, including slurry wall sections on the American River, a closure structure at Mayhew Drain, and modification of the Natomas Cross Canal flood warning system.
Another $4 million will go toward 3,000 feet of levee improvements on the South Sacramento streams project, while $3 million funds restoration of 55 acres of oak and riparian habitat along the American River, required as part of Folsom Dam improvements.
The funding comes via the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It is in addition to about $180 million previously announced for the Sacramento area under the act for water and community projects.
"These federal funds are addressing vital needs within our community, from rebuilding schools, to helping the homeless, to addressing public safety issues," Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, said in a statement.
Sacramento contractor wins bid for Folsom Dam flood-control work...Matt Weiser
Sacramento contractor Martin Brothers Construction has been awarded a $62.6 million contract by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to continue flood-control improvements at Folsom Dam.
The project is a joint effort between Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It involves building a new 3,000-foot-long concrete spillway adjacent to the existing main dam so that American River flood waters can be evacuated faster from the reservoir.
Expected to be completed by 2015 at a cost of $1.5 billion, it is Sacramento's largest and most important flood-control project.
The contract with Martin Brothers Construction is the second in a series of major construction phases for the project. It includes additional spillway excavation, construction of a stilling basin coffer dam, relocation of a 42-inch water supply pipeline, and access roads. The work will be completed in fall 2010, to be followed by additional building phases.
For more information, visit http://www.usbr.gov/mp/jfp/index.html.
Jobless rates rise in all US metro areas in March...JEANNINE AVERSA, AP Economics Writer
WASHINGTON -- Unemployment rates rose in all of the nation's largest metropolitan areas for the third straight month in March, with Indiana's Elkhart-Goshen once again logging the biggest gain.
The Labor Department reported Wednesday all 372 metropolitan areas tracked saw jobless rates move higher last month from a year earlier. Elkhart-Goshen's rate soared to 18.8 percent, a 13 percentage-point increase. That was the fourth-highest jobless rate in the country.
The Indiana region has been hammered by layoffs in the recreational vehicle industry. RV makers Monaco Coach Corp. Keystone RV Co. and Pilgrim International have sliced hundreds of jobs.
The jobless rate jumped to 17 percent in Bend, Ore., a 9.2 percentage-point rise and the second-biggest monthly gainer. Rounding out the top three was North Carolina's Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton, which saw its unemployment rate rise to 15.4 percent last month, an increase of 9.1 percentage points.
The regions highlight damage inflicted by the recession. Fallout has been especially pronounced in the manufacturing, construction and retail industries, which have suffered heavy layoffs.
El-Centro, Calif., continued to lay claim to the highest unemployment rate - 25.1 percent. The jobless rate there is notoriously high because there are so many unemployed seasonal agriculture workers.
Following close behind were Merced, Calif., with a jobless rate of 20.4 percent, and Yuba, Calif., at 19.5 percent.
The national unemployment rate soared to 8.5 percent, a quarter-century high, in March.
Companies have seen their sales and profits hurt by the recession. They have been laying off workers and taking other cost-cutting steps to survive the downturn, which began in December 2007.
Many economists believe employers will stay in cost-cutting mode even if the recession ends this year, as some hope. The nationwide unemployment rate could top 10 percent early next year before it starts to slowly drift downward. Companies won't feel inclined to boost hiring until they are confident any economic recovery has staying power.
More layoffs were announced this week. Textron Inc. said it will expand layoffs, eliminating 8,300 jobs, or 20 percent, of its global work force as the recession weakens demand for corporate planes. The maker of Cessna planes, Bell helicopters and turf-maintenance equipment earlier this year said it would reduce its work force by 6,200 jobs, or 15 percent, mostly at Wichita, Kansas-based Cessna.
Elsewhere, General Motors Corp. laid out a massive restructuring plan that includes cutting 21,000 U.S. factory jobs by next year. Clear Channel Communications Inc., the largest owner of U.S. radio stations, said it's cutting 590 jobs in its second round of mass layoffs this year. And bearings and specialty steels maker Timken Co. indicated it will cut about 4,000 more jobs by the end of this year after earlier suggesting about 3,000 jobs already had been targeted
In Wednesday's metro unemployment report, the government said 18 regions registered jobless rates of at least 15 percent. Meanwhile, 15 regions had rates below 5 percent. They include: Ames, Iowa; Houma-Bayou-Cane-Thibodaux, La.; Iowa, City, Iowa; Manhattan, Kansas; and Lubbock, Texas.
Both Ames, home of Iowa State University, and Houma-Bayou-Cane-Thibodaux had the lowest unemployment rates at 3.6 percent each. The Louisiana region, with about 200,000 residents, is located on the coast and serves as a vital support area for the offshore petroleum industry in the Gulf of Mexico. Because of deepwater drilling in the Gulf, where projects take years to complete and bring to production, there has been little short-term effect from low energy prices.
Stockton Record
Report publicizes county's dirty air
San Joaquin earns F for ozone, pollution days...Joe Goldeen
STOCKTON - No one in San Joaquin County should be breathing a sigh of relief over air quality.
But the failing grade the county gets from the American Lung Association in today's annual report card has been taken to task by regional air pollution regulators. They call it a simplistic snapshot that does not reflect the progress that's been made over many years.
The Lung Association's 10th annual State of the Air 2009 report ranks Bakersfield and surrounding Kern County as having the nation's worst annual particulate pollution.
San Bernardino County, east of Los Angeles, was rated as having the nation's worst ozone pollution, or smog.
Both types of pollution damage people's lungs and can have immediate and negative long-range effects on individual health, including leading to early death.
San Joaquin County earned an F for high ozone days - 29 over a three-year period from 2005 through 2007 - and an F for particulate pollution days - 23 over the same three years. It received a passing grade for particulate pollution on an annual basis.
Of California's 58 counties, the Lung Association gave 38 failing grades, while 16 - almost all of them coastal counties - earned A's.
This year, 12 more California counties received failing grades than last year, reflecting the tighter national ozone standard implemented in 2008.
"Achieving and maintaining healthy air must be a public health priority, and we cannot relent on our work as a state and as individuals to keep our air clean," said Dr. Tony Gerber, a volunteer with the American Lung Association in San Francisco and a pulmonary specialist.
"Although there are some improvements, the significant number of failing grades for ozone and particle pollution means that the health and lives of millions of Californians are at risk because of our dirty air," Gerber said.
Jaime Holt, chief communications officer for the Fresno-based San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, the government agency that regulates air quality in eight counties from Lodi to Bakersfield, openly objected to the Lung Association's report card.
"We feel it actually may be hindering the air quality efforts in the Valley by not recognizing the air quality improvements that have been made," Holt said.
"It's not a true snapshot of what's really been done. And it fails to recognize that air quality in the Valley is actually the cleanest it has ever been in recorded history." The district has been tracking air quality for about 30 years.
Billions of dollars have been invested by Valley industry and agribusiness, and measurable improvements have been made in reducing industry pollutants, mobile sources and "individual understanding of the issues and a willingness to make changes" in daily behavior, Holt said.
She said the grading system - consistently giving Valley counties an F - is discouraging and counterproductive, because it doesn't show the public that the effort going into cleaning up the air is making a difference.
"The report doesn't reflect that," she said, recommending that the public go to the air district's Web site, valleyair.org, for more information.
To learn more
To see the American Lung Association's California report card, go to www.californialung.org.
To see the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District's 2008 annual report, go to valleyair.org.
State guts bass bill...Alex Breitler
SACRAMENTO - More than 100 Delta anglers cast aside their poles for a few hours Tuesday and watched with relief as legislators gutted a proposed law that would have targeted the striped bass fishery in California.
The crowd was large enough to fill the hearing room at the Capitol and spill into the hallway, observers said.
"This was the first time we've had such a diverse group of fishermen and fishing interests represented," fisherman Robert Johnson said. "We take this as a total win, but we don't think this is the end" of wrangling over the future of the estuary.
The bill by Assemblywoman Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, would have ended funding to support striped bass, tossed out limits on how many fish can be caught and prevented any more stripers from coming into the state.
Some water exporters say striped bass, introduced to California waters in the late 19th century, chow down on sensitive species such as the Delta smelt and salmon. This, the exporters say, contributes to the decline those species, reducing the amount of water that can be sent to two-thirds of California.
It is disputed whether stripers actually eat enough smelt or salmon to make much difference.
The Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee approved Fuller's bill only after it had been gutted and amended; the new version of the bill does not remove protections for stripers but mandates further study of any fish species that might eat smelt or salmon.
Fuller said in a statement that resolving the state's water problems "obviously requires compromise, and having the state take a fresh look at the impact of predatory fish species is a step forward."
John Beuttler, a representative with the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, said that while the changes in Assembly Bill 1253 are good news for the valued striped bass fishery, he doubts further studies are necessary.
"The science is already peer-reviewed, already looked at," he said. "This would be simply a duplication of what's been done before."
Supervisors reject Trinitas plans
Owners lose bid in hotly contested proposal for Calaveras golf resort...Dana M. Nichols
SAN ANDREAS - A solemn Calaveras County Board of Supervisors narrowly rejected plans Tuesday for the Trinitas golf resort and luxury homes on 280 acres of agricultural preserve land.
The debate over the proposed development has been one of the most bitter and long-fought in county history, Calaveras officials said. In part, that is because the 18-hole golf course already exists. It wasn't until years after construction started in 2001 that owners Mike and Michelle Nemee asked for the necessary permissions.
Concerns over that history - and over the lack of adequate roads, water and other infrastructure - weighed heavily with the board majority that voted to reject the final environmental impact report for the project as well as rejecting permits to operate various golf-related businesses and declining to rezone the land from agricultural preserve to recreation.
The vote also killed a conditional use permit sought by the Nemees to operate Trinitas as a legal business, leaving in question whether the family will try to maintain the golf course for private use.
"Are we a county of laws? Do we apply them equally to all? Do we have a General Plan and zoning code that we adhere to?" Supervisor Steve Wilensky asked before voting along with Supervisors Tom Tryon and Merita Callaway to reject the project.
Supervisor Gary Tofanelli, whose district includes the Trinitas site, south of Wallace, and Board of Supervisors Chairman Russ Thomas were opposed.
Tuesday's vote was technically a motion of intent. That will allow Planning Department staff to prepare the necessary documents to formalize the decision with a follow-up vote May 5.
The Nemees declined to comment after the vote. "We don't want to talk to the press right now," Michelle Nemee said.
Nobody appeared to be celebrating the decision, which was made before a standing-room-only crowd in the supervisors' chambers at the Calaveras County Government Center. But neighbors who opposed the project as an unwanted intrusion in a rural area said they were relieved.
"We are very happy that the Board of Supervisors did the right thing," said Kathy Mayhew, a leader with her husband, Lew, of Keep It Rural Calaveras, a group that formed to oppose the golf course and resort.
In the end, it was concerns such as those raised by Keep It Rural - that the golf course conflicted with the area's agricultural zoning and threatened to urbanize an area without adequate infrastructure - that swayed the board majority.
"There basically is no infrastructure," Tryon said, noting the resort was proposed to operate using wells and septic systems. "The roads are not up to county standards."
Tryon said he tried but failed to find some way of "splitting the baby" by approving at least part of the project. Tryon, who majored in economics at University of California, Berkeley, said anything less than the full project, with its banquet hall, 14 luxury homes, spa and clubhouse, seemed unlikely to succeed financially.
Thomas rejected the concerns of project opponents as overblown. He said he lives across from the entrance to the Saddle Creek Golf and Country Club in Copperopolis, which is much larger than the proposed Trinitas operation. Saddle Creek has 350 houses, and more than 37,000 rounds of golf are played there each year.
"It's a very enjoyable place to live," Thomas said of his home.
As for Trinitas, "I could easily approve it," Thomas said.
Tofanelli, also in favor of the project, agreed with Wilensky on one issue: how bitterly divisive the long debate had been.
"This project has divided communities. It has divided friends," Tofanelli said.
Tofanelli, like Wilensky, said he believes Trinitas proponents and critics missed many opportunities for compromise that might have yielded a better result for all involved.
"This particular project just seems to be a Mason-Dixon line," Tofanelli said.
Tofanelli said he favored approving the project in part because it seems to him impossible that the greens, fairways, concrete paths, bridges and cobblestone-lined stream beds that the Nemees installed would ever be ripped out, as some opponents and even some federal agencies have suggested.
"I am in favor of this project. I don't think it can be put back," Tofanelli said.
Senate Committee Passes Bill to Put Moratorium on Suction Dredging...The Sierra Fund
SACRAMENTO, 28 April 2009 - California's Senate Natural Resources Committee today passed SB 670 (Wiggins) with bi-partisan support, placing a temporary moratorium on the issuance of recreational suction dredge mining permits by the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) until a thorough scientific review of the impacts is completed and regulations are revised. The bill will next go to Senate Appropriations for consideration and approval before going before the full Senate. The bill includes an urgency clause, requiring 2/3 vote to pass in each house, which would result in the law going into effect immediately upon signing by the Governor.
Elizabeth "Izzy" Martin, CEO of The Sierra Fund, testified at the request of Senator Wiggins on the importance of the bill. "In light of the state's budget crisis, we are concerned that funding for the review and rule-making will be slowed down, and the review could take years. We are also concerned that the well-documented impacts of suction dredging on water quality and endangered species will continue while this environmental review is underway, despite evidence of the harm of suction dredging."
Suction dredging disturbs fish habitat, putting endangered species such as Coho salmon and green sturgeon at risk. In addition, repeated government studies have shown that suction dredge activities disturb and mobilize the mercury left behind from gold mine operations.
Gold miners in the 19th century used an estimated 26 million pounds of mercury to extract gold from ore in California, with an estimated 13 million pounds lost to the waters and soils of the Sierra Nevada and Trinity Mountains. Suction dredgers often encounter mercury and gold-mercury amalgam, which tend to fall into the cracks of the riverbed like gold. Dredgers collect the mercury and amalgam, and treat it to release any gold that may have amalgamated with the mercury. They then recover the mercury and usually store it, though some miners dispose of it in an unauthorized manner, such as pouring it back into the river, onto the ground, or in to municipal sewer systems.
Suction dredges re-suspend and "flour" mercury, increasing the surface area and making it more readily available for bacteria to methylate. Methylmercury has been a regulatory concern of the State for years due its known serious effect on human health.
"The rules that govern this practice are woefully outdated," noted Martin. California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) was ordered by the California courts to undergo a CEQA review and rule change as a result of a lawsuit filed in 2005. The courts ordered DFG to complete the review and make appropriate rule changes by July 2008, but DFG has not met this deadline.
The Sierra Fund has worked with the state's leading scientists as part of our Initiative to assess and address the impact of gold mining on our state. Our report, Mining's Toxic Legacy includes research developed by the US Geological Survey as well as SWRCB on the impacts of suction dredging.
The full text of Mining's Toxic Legacy with photos of suction dredging activities can be downloaded from The Sierra Fund's website: www.sierrafund.org/campaigns/mining
San Francisco Chronicle
Restored rule requires species act consultation...H. Josef Hebert, Associated Press. Chronicle staff writer Jane Kay contributed to this report.
Federal agencies again will have to consult with government wildlife experts before taking actions that could have an impact on threatened or endangered species.
The Obama administration said Tuesday it was overturning a rule change made in the final weeks of the Bush presidency.
Officials at the Interior and Commerce departments said they have reimposed the consultation requirement that assured the government's top biologists involved in species protection will have a say in federal action that could harm plants, animals and fish that are at risk of extinction.
Such consultation had been required for more than two decades until the Bush administration made it optional in rules issued in December, just before the change in administrations. Environmentalists argued that the change severely reduced the protection afforded under the federal Endangered Species Act.
"By rolling back this eleventh-hour regulation, we are ensuring that threatened and endangered species continue to receive the full protection of the law" and that top science will be the foundation of the decision making, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke added: "Our decision affirms the administration's commitment to using sound science to promote conservation and protect the environment."
Agencies in the two department's share responsibility for managing and enforcing the Endangered Species Act and employ the government's top scientists in species protection.
In March, President Obama issued an executive order putting the Bush rule change on hold. Congress followed by giving specific authorization for the Interior and Commerce departments to revoke the action, avoiding a long and complicated regulatory process.
The end of the requirement - dating to 1986 - of interagency consultation with the Interior and Commerce agencies on endangered species protection produced a firestorm in Congress and within the environmental and conservation communities.
For years, agencies involved in thousands of federal activities - from issuing clean air rules to approving highway or dam construction- have had to consult not only their own experts but also biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to ensure the activities did not harm plants, animals or fish that are protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Developers and business groups argued that the consultation caused unneeded delays and increased the cost of projects. The Bush administration made the independent consultation optional, arguing that it was a minor shift in policy.
In California, as a result of the rule's reinstatement, federal agencies will have to get approval from government scientists for logging, cross-country motorcycle trips, grazing and other activities that could impinge on imperiled species.
"Any time federal agencies are going to permit development around Palm Springs in desert tortoise territory or livestock grazing in the Sierra Nevada near the big horn sheep, they would need Fish and Wildlife Service approval," said Noah Greenwald, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, a national wildlife advocacy group.
One impetus for the rule change was the Bush administration's concern that the species act might be used as a back door to regulate greenhouse gases to combat climate change. The Interior Department earlier had declared the polar bear a threatened species because of the loss of Arctic sea ice, a change attributed to global warming.
Under the reinstated rule, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation must consult with federal scientists over the effects of climate change on the habitat of chinook salmon and delta smelt when allocating water to California cities and farms, Greenwald said.
Big grant in Berkeley to study how to bury CO{-2}...Jim Doyle
Two Berkeley scientists will get $30 million in federal funding over the next five years to discover cheap, efficient ways to extract and bury the carbon emissions from power plants and natural gas wells, the White House has announced.
Donald DePaolo, the head of the Earth Sciences division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Berend Smit, a professor of chemical engineering at UC Berkeley, will use the money to set up Energy Frontiers Research Centers to study the new technology of carbon capture and sequestration.
The two centers are among 46 new centers the Department of Energy is bankrolling to find breakthroughs that will reduce global warming. Department of Energy officials plan to spend $777 million on these centers.
The grants were announced Monday in conjunction with a speech by President Obama to the National Academy of Sciences at its annual meeting in Washington, D.C. In that speech, Obama promised increases in funding for scientific research, innovation and education.
"As global energy demand grows over this century, there is an urgent need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and imported oil and curtail greenhouse gas emissions," Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said in a statement. "Meeting this challenge will require significant scientific advances."
Chu previously headed the Lawrence Berkeley lab where he was a leading advocate for alternative energy research.
DePaolo's Center for Nanoscale Control of Geologic CO{-2} will receive $20 million. He will be aided by researchers at UC Davis, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
His team will study how carbon dioxide interacts with the pores inside underground rocks and minerals. The goal: to develop methods to inject rocks deep underground with high-pressure CO{-2} and make certain that none of the gas leaks into the atmosphere.
"It's very exciting," said Lawrence Berkeley lab business manager Lisa Kelly, who helped developed DePaolo's grant proposal. "Now we have to do the work. ... We are hoping to get other agencies interested in helping to support a larger carbon storage center."
Smit's Center for Gas Separations Relevant to Clean Energy Technologies will receive $10 million for computer modeling to develop improved methods for extracting CO{-2} from flue gases in power plant emissions, and from the methane in natural gas wells.
Today's methods to capture power plant emissions are inefficient - using up to 25 percent of the energy produced by the power plant.
Smit will be aided by UC Berkeley chemistry Professor Jeffrey Long and other researchers from such places as Texas A&M University, UCLA, the University of Amsterdam and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
In a statement, Smit described his research as a safety net to reduce the pollution of fossil fuels if alternative energy cannot meet demand.
"If the worst possible scenario happens, that we decide to burn all tar sands and all coal that generate an enormous amount of CO{-2}," Smit wrote, "then we want to have the technology available to put the CO{-2} into the ground in an efficient, cheap way that may buy us the essential time we need to develop alternative energy technologies."
Suit over Headwaters fraud settled - $4 million...Bob Egelko
Lawsuits by a former state forestry official accusing financier Charles Hurwitz of defrauding the federal and state governments into paying $380 million for the pristine Headwaters forest were settled Tuesday for a modest $4 million in the second week of trial.
The settlement was announced in U.S. District Court in Oakland, where jurors had heard five days of testimony by plaintiffs' witnesses seeking to show that Pacific Lumber Co., under Hurwitz's ownership, had falsified a logging plan that was crucial to the sale.
The federal government, which paid $250 million for Headwaters, will receive $2.5 million from the settlement, while the state of California, which paid $130 million, will get $500,000. An additional $1 million will go to the plaintiffs' lawyers for fees and court costs. Attorney Phil Gregory said the plaintiffs will seek 30 percent of both the state and federal payments, a typical share in whistle-blower cases.
Hurwitz and his investment company, Maxxam Inc., bought control of Pacific Lumber in 1986 and substantially increased logging in Northern California to help finance the purchase, touching off widespread protests. They denied misleading either government in the Headwaters sale and were not required to acknowledge any fault in the settlement.
The agreement won praise from U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken, who presided over the trial, and from both sides in the case.
"The plaintiffs ... sought to gain hundreds of millions of dollars over an alleged fraud that never occurred," Maxxam said in a statement. The company said the settlement figure is about as much as it would have spent on additional legal fees if the case had continued.
Gregory called it "a very fair settlement" and said the plaintiffs had shed light on the company's activities through expert testimony about the alleged flaws in the logging plan. He said they decided on the settlement after considering the prospect of persuading jurors to agree unanimously that the company had profited from deceiving the government.
Headwaters, a 3,000-acre forest in Humboldt County that contains the nation's largest privately owned old-growth redwood grove, was sold in 1999 in a deal brokered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Pacific Lumber promised to follow stringent logging practices and preserve the habitat of endangered creatures on its remaining 210,000 acres of timberland in Northern California.
The suit was filed by Richard Wilson, the state forestry director who approved the plan in 1999, and Chris Maranto, a state forester who detected the alleged fraud several years later.
They claimed that Hurwitz, in order to increase logging and pay off his company's debts, presented a study, known as a sustained-yield plan, that overstated the amount of timber that could be cut each year without causing lasting damage.
The state agreed to allow more logging on Pacific Lumber property after the company submitted the plan and after Hurwitz threatened to back out of the deal unless the state increased its previously proposed limits.
The suit sought damages for the government of three times the amount of the alleged fraud, with 15 percent or more going to the plaintiffs. Neither the federal government nor the state joined in the suit.
Pacific Lumber denied the allegations and also argued that they were irrelevant to the Headwaters sale. The company said the federal and state governments knew the value of Headwaters, independent of the sustained-yield plan, and got what they paid for.
Plaintiffs' witnesses during the trial included Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, who said the company's plans for logging and conservation on its remaining lands were critical to congressional approval of the deal. Hurwitz had not yet been called to testify when the case settled.
Pacific Lumber filed for bankruptcy in January 2007. Its new owners, founders of San Francisco's Gap Inc., have won support from environmental groups for their plans for sustainable forestry and reduced logging.
Contra Costa Times
Brentwood firm may face fine in Marsh Creek water pumping...Jonathan Lockett, EAST COUNTY TIMES
A local drilling company may be fined more than $4,000 for pumping water from Marsh Creek without a Contra Costa County permit.
Brentwood-based Sunset Explorations drilled for natural gas near the Brentwood-Oakley border for eight days earlier this month, according to the company and the county planning department. The drilling continued for an additional two days after a cease-and-desist order was issued by the county, county planner Will Nelson said.
Pumping water from the creek was not mentioned in the company's permit application to the county to drill, Nelson said, adding that to do so would require the approval of other county agencies.
"We're considering the options," Nelson said. "We know that they did it; we're just finalizing the details, and then determining a course of action to take."
Sunset Explorations was approved for a land use permit March 23 but couldn't drill until April 2 to allow for potential appeals. Dianne Burgis of the Friends of Marsh Creek Watershed said she saw creek water being pumped April 1, and filed an appeal the next day. Burgis was concerned the pumping would hinder salmon spawning, she said.
Burgis said she contacted the county along with the state Department of Fish and Game about the pumping because salmon have had trouble spawning in the creek.
"When you have any kind of pump," Burgis said, "if it doesn't have screens and things that keep the wildlife away from the vacuum, then
whatever is swimming nearby is destroyed."
Game warden Clint Garrett said he visited the site and told the company to stop pumping the water, which company owner Bob Nunn said he did immediately. Garrett added that water levels weren't affected by the pumping, and there seemed to be no effect on spawning.
Pumping large amounts of water from a state waterway can lead to fines by Fish and Game, but Garrett said little water was removed.
Nunn said a hose from the creek only pumped water when the rig needed it — otherwise, the water was returned to the creek. He could not say how much water was removed.
"As soon as they made us aware, it was easy to comply and be neighborly," Nunn said. "You have to make sure you listen to the neighbors, and that's what we did."
Taking water from the creek was cheaper than having a water truck, and a "common procedure," Nunn said.
Drilling has stopped, but Burgis found the idea of pumping water from the creek frustrating because of potential environmental effects. The removal of large amounts of water could harm the natural balance in and around the creek, she said.
The Friends of Marsh Creek applies for permits with the county to add plants and clean up the creek, Burgis said, adding it was "disappointing" to see companies put their work in jeopardy.
"We don't have a problem with people drilling for gas," Burgis said. "We just want them to do it right."
New wells may put Midcoast water supply at risk...Julia Scott, San Mateo County Times
MONTARA — Groundwater is so scarce in parts of San Mateo County's unincorporated Midcoast region that in a dry year, water levels can fall far enough to endanger local homes and the environment.
That was one conclusion of a report submitted to the county last week by a consultant that measured the long-term sustainability of water supplies alongside projected development in the scenic hamlets of Montara, Moss Beach, El Granada and Miramar, all north of Half Moon Bay. The county is asking for public comments on the report until June 22, after which the county's Environmental Quality Subcommittee will meet to discuss policy implications.
The report focuses on the private wells that supply water to about 25 percent of the region's 3,700 homes and compete for groundwater with one another and with the public wells that serve the rest of the area and are maintained by the Montara Water and Sanitary District.
The district imposed a moratorium on any new public water connections years ago, forcing anyone who wants to build a home on the Midcoast to dig a new well in their own backyard.
Families across the Midcoast will be at risk if those new wells are joined by too many more, according to the report — especially in parts of Montara where the aquifer is made of shallow granite rock deposits and doesn't hold water very well.
The results could hold major implications for the county's long-term vision for development on the Midcoast, which envisions a doubling of the population over the next 30 years.
They also raise the question of whether the county ought to go even further and ban future private wells in certain areas, or even across the entire region, as recommended by the staff of the California Coastal Commission in a report to the county last month.
"I think a safe and sustainable water supply is crucial to a community's public health," said Steve Monowitz, long range planning services manager for the county. "And if an individual homeowner drills a well that impacts the community, that's something the county needs to review when it considers new development proposals."
"What I took away from the report is that all the basins are at risk of problems in dry or very dry years, not just the granite areas. I wouldn't limit the possibility of banning wells to the granite rock areas," Monowitz added.
The county report has been in the works for at least six years and in some cases, is more notable for the information it doesn't provide than what it does.
The purpose of the study was to gauge how much groundwater could safely be extracted over the long term without exceeding the amount replenished by rainfall each year, as well as to determine environmental impacts.
But this could not be achieved because of lack of well data and accurate stream-flow measurements. Of the 1,097 wells in the county's database, only half gave crucial details like their location and how much water they can produce.
Two or more consecutive dry years can cause the water table to drop all the way down to sea level and even below sea level, raising the risk of saltwater intrusion in the groundwater aquifer. The Midcoast is in its second consecutive dry year right now, but officials can't say what the effects have been. The county is not monitoring any wells on a long-term basis.
The report also does not address the possible effects of climate change on the water supply in the future: longer droughts and a rise in sea level, which increases the risk of saltwater intrusion.
The study results did not surprise Kathyn Slater-Carter, a member of the Montara Water and Sanitary District board of directors. She said the county missed out on an opportunity to include groundwater monitoring data gathered by the district, which could have presented a more complete picture.
Slater-Carter also noted that the study's authors proposed just one solution — trucking in extra water supplies — without mentioning other options for increasing water supply such as desalination and wastewater recycling.
Nevertheless, said Slater-Carter, "I think this is good starting point, and I would very much like to see the county and the district sit down and work out some solutions, because this is not going to go away."
Meanwhile, the county continues to approve new wells for homes on the Midcoast, although the rate has slowed down — a total of 24 wells since 2004, according to Dean Peterson, director of the county's Environmental Health Services Division.
The county tests a new well for four hours to make sure it has sufficient flow before approving it, according to Peterson. It does not consider the well's location, such as whether it is in a water-rich or water-poor area, nor its potential effect on a neighbor's well. It does not require subsequent testing in later years to show the well is still reliable.
"Once a well is approved, a well is approved. We're simply looking at wells to determine whether they can be used for potable purposes," he said.
The study issues several recommendations for long-term groundwater monitoring and a comprehensive plan to manage the water basin as an interconnected whole. The problem with managing groundwater in general, however, is a legal one, because homeowners have the right to drill a well and take as much of it as they like.
"California is a water rights state. People have the right to use the water under their property. And as long as they meet the minimum standards, they can do that," said Peterson.
Los Angeles Times
Bakersfield No. 1 in fine-particle pollution
The Kern County city replaced Los Angeles in a lung association report. But L.A.-Long Beach retained the title as worst ozone-polluted metropolitan area...Margot Roosevelt
Bakersfield had the worst level of fine-particle pollution in the nation last year -- a toxic mix of soot, diesel exhaust, chemicals, metals and aerosols that contribute to heart attack, stroke and lung disease, according to the American Lung Assn.'s annual State of the Air report.
The San Joaquin Valley city displaced Los Angeles, which fell to the third spot in the category of year-round particle pollution, behind second-place Pittsburgh-New Castle, Pa.
Kern County, which includes Bakersfield, was ranked the worst county in the nation for average annual particulate pollution.
The lung association report is based on data from local governments' air monitoring stations and statistics gathered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Los Angeles-Long Beach retained its spot as the worst ozone-polluted metropolitan area, despite a slight improvement in its air in the last year. San Bernardino ranked as the nation's worst county for ozone pollution.
Ozone, a powerful gas formed when sunlight reacts with vapors from vehicles, factories and power plants, irritates the lungs when inhaled. It causes wheezing and asthma attacks and can shorten lives.
In Bakersfield and Kern County, heavy-duty trucks and farm equipment are the biggest sources of particulate pollution. But wood burning is also a large contributor to wintertime levels.
"The problem in the San Joaquin Valley is generated both from the emissions themselves and the meteorology of the Valley," said Bonnie Holmes-Gen, a lung association official. "Inversion layers and stagnant weather holds pollutants close to communities, sometimes for days at a time."
New details emerge in fatal UCLA lab fire
Researcher complained that coverage 'read like an indictment, without having the facts' and challenged investigator's report on lab safety, records show...Kim Christensen
A month after a fatal fire in his organic chemistry laboratory at UCLA, Professor Patrick Harran e-mailed a state investigator with his chilling recollection of rushing in to see Sheri Sangji, his critically burned research assistant.
She sat upright on the floor, her arms outstretched.
"I kneeled down and asked what happened," he wrote Jan. 28. "She was panicky and said only there was a fire. I asked [a colleague] if he called 911 and he said yes. Sheri then began saying, 'Where are they? Where are they?' "
Sangji, 23, suffered second- and third-degree burns over 43% of her body in the Dec. 29 fire. Her death 18 days later has raised questions about UCLA lab safety practices, as well as her training and supervision by Harran, a prominent researcher who joined the faculty in July.
His account is among a series of e-mails, investigation reports and other documents obtained by The Times through a California Public Records Act request. The records provide new details on the accident and on UCLA's efforts to address its repercussions, including media inquiries.
In electronic missives to university colleagues, Harran complained that UCLA had all but hung him out to dry in the press. In one e-mail, he said that reports in two chemical industry publications "read like an indictment, without having the facts."
In another, he took issue with a UCLA investigator's report, which was detailed in a March 1 story in The Times. The report, citing previous lab deficiencies that had gone unfixed, made it "sound like I deliberately did not adhere to policy" and was part of a "culture of neglect," he wrote.
In fact, Harran said, he had made as many of the corrections as he could, given that the lab was in the process of moving to another floor and was to be reinspected afterward.
In an e-mail criticizing the investigator's findings, which included improper storage of flammable liquids, Harran cited the "pitiful state of the safety office," adding that "they offered NO training for Sheri, but you don't see that anywhere" in news accounts.
"I could go on and on, but I won't," he wrote. "Sheri was injured and died and I take responsibility. It hurts me deeply. But it just infuriates me the way the administration and staff are scrambling to protect their own [hides]. I will remember this."
Kevin Reed, UCLA's vice chancellor for legal affairs, said Tuesday that he thought Harran's comment was made in a moment of candor and frustration. Reed added that the staff and administration aren't protecting anyone, but rather are focused on improving safety on campus.
In response to Sangji's death, UCLA launched a comprehensive review of lab safety protocols, stepped up inspections and shortened the time allowed to correct serious violations. Chancellor Gene Block also set up a campuswide lab safety committee and ordered new measures to enhance accountability.
"I believe we have to deal with this incident honestly and aggressively, making certain that we institute changes that will help prevent these types of accidents in the future," Block wrote to UC President Mark Yudof in a Feb. 27 e-mail to give him a "heads up" on The Times' March 1 story. "As a laboratory scientist, this accident is particularly painful for me."
Harran was at a conference Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. In an earlier statement to The Times, he said he was heartbroken by Sangji's death.
Sangji was transferring up to two ounces of t-butyl lithium from one sealed container to another when a plastic syringe came apart in her hands, spewing the chemical compound, which ignites instantly when exposed to air.
The resulting flash fire quickly consumed her clothing, including her highly flammable synthetic sweater, which was not covered by a protective lab coat as required. The Times reported in March that the earlier safety deficiencies in Harran's lab included employees not wearing lab coats.
The lack of proper protective equipment is one of the issues at the heart of an investigation by Cal/OSHA, which could issue its findings as early as this week. Reed said Tuesday that he expects the agency to cite serious violations and impose substantial fines.
Inspectors from the university had previously faulted other labs in the Molecular Sciences Building where Sangji was burned for missing or inadequate safety gear. A week before Sangji's injury, a graduate student in another lab suffered cuts and burns to his face and neck when an experiment went awry, another accident report stated.
The unidentified student, who was treated at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center's emergency room, told a university investigator that the explosion caused "glass, hot oil and chemical to fly toward my face, torso" and the surrounding area.
"When the incident occurred, I had my prescription glasses on, but not lab coat, gloves or safety glasses/goggles," he said, adding that he had been trained in safety measures.
"I had safety training from my previous university," he said, "but not from UCLA after I transferred here in 2007."
Washington Post
Interior Dept. Reinstitutes Independent Reviews on Endangered Species...Juliet Eilperin
The Obama administration announced today that federal agencies will once again be required to undergo an independent scientific review if they embark on projects that might affect threatened or endangered species, marking yet another reversal of a last-minute Bush administration environmental regulation.
In mid-December, former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne issued a rule allowing government agencies to decide on their own whether a project would harm an imperiled plant or animal without consulting with either the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, depending on the species. At the time, Kempthorne said the move would streamline the bureaucratic process without harming protected species.
President Obama called for a review of the rule last month. Today, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Kempthorne's successor, and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said in a joint statement that scientific evidence justified restoring the independent reviews that Fish and Wildlife and NOAA had conducted for decades.
"By rolling back this 11th hour regulation, we are ensuring that threatened and endangered species continue to receive the full protection of the law," Salazar said. "Because science must serve as the foundation for decisions we make, federal agencies proposing to take actions that might affect threatened and endangered species will once again have to consult with biologists at the two departments."
Business leaders -- especially those most affected by the Endangered Species Act, such as those in home construction -- questioned why Salazar and Locke bypassed a more extended rulemaking process in reinstating a heavy regulatory burden on industry.
Joe Robson, a builder and developer in Tulsa, Okla., who chairs the National Association of Home Builders, said the Bush administration went through a lengthy public comment process and now the parties involved are "back to square one."
"On a 'good government' level, today's action is regrettable in that this administration is rushing to revoke a legally issued federal rule without public notice and comment, using a little-known and unpopular provision of the recent omnibus appropriations bill to change a federal regulation. The appropriate way to make significant changes to a federal regulation is to allow for notice and comment," he said. "Instead, the secretaries of Commerce and Interior were given the authority to unilaterally change the law. That's hardly an argument for consensus or transparency."
Environmentalists welcomed the administration's move, but suggested it still needs to roll back a last-minute rule Kempthorne issued that instructs Interior not to take into account impacts on the polar bear, federally listed as threatened, that occur outside its range, such as greenhouse gas emissions.
"Secretary Salazar took an important step today toward restoring needed protections for endangered species," said Noah Greenwald, biodiversity program director for the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity. Still, he called for the administration "to rescind the special rule for the polar bear, which amounts to a death sentence for the majestic bear by exempting greenhouse gas emissions from regulation."
New York Times
Phoenix Leads the Way Down in Home Prices ...DAVID STREITFELD and JACK HEALY
Phoenix has achieved the unwelcome distinction of becoming the first major American city where home prices have fallen in half since the market peaked in the middle of the decade, according to data released Tuesday.
Though historical statistics are scant, experts said the precipitous decline probably had few if any equals in modern times.
“Even during the Depression, I’m not sure prices fell this quickly,” said Karl Guntermann, a professor of real estate at Arizona State University.
Greg Swann, a Phoenix real estate agent, took a moment to marvel at the news. “What happened here will some day be a new chapter in ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,’ ” the classic survey of investing mania, he said. “We were living during the boom like there was no tomorrow. And guess what? Now it’s tomorrow.”
Home prices in the Sun Belt city, the 12th-largest metropolitan area in the United States, dropped 4.5 percent in February, according to the Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller Home Price Index. Prices in Phoenix are now down 50.8 percent since the market peaked in June 2006.
For the country as a whole, the Case-Shiller numbers offered the thinnest of silver linings: things are still getting worse, but more slowly.
In February, the price of single-family homes in 20 major metropolitan areas fell 18.6 percent from the year earlier, compared with a record drop of 19 percent in January.
“Finally, we’re seeing a touch of moderation,” said David Blitzer, chairman of S.& P.’s index committee. “This is the kind of thing one might see if we’re beginning to see a bottom. I would not run out and celebrate, but I would not dig the bunker any deeper.”
Mr. Blitzer said the decline in Phoenix outpaced any during the recession of the early 1990s, for which reliable figures are available. The only precedents he could cite were the Midwestern cities hit by the Great Depression and a contemporaneous drought, and Miami after a 1920s craze for beachfront property reversed itself.
The boom in Phoenix was founded on a basic truth: it was a place where many people wanted to live. But the market turned irrational. Investors bought homes they did not even bother to rent out. They merely waited a few months until prices rose again so they could flip them.
Ordinary homeowners got caught up, too. “People saw themselves as cashing in on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Mr. Guntermann said.
Except for the few who managed to get out at the peak, it was a mistake. By now, anyone who bought in Phoenix a decade ago would have lost money after inflation. Many did not get off so easily. Foreclosure notices were filed against one in 40 houses in the metropolitan area in the first quarter, according to RealtyTrac Inc. That was the ninth-highest rate in the country.
The Case-Shiller data show that housing markets across the United States are still suffering. Half of the 20 metropolitan areas in the index posted record year-over-year declines. In all, the 20-city index was down 2.2 percent from January.
From Atlanta to San Francisco to Chicago, not one of the 20 cities posted a gain in home prices from January to February, and values in all but five cities dropped by double digits from a year earlier.
The nearly 51 percent drop in Phoenix is not an isolated plunge. Prices in Las Vegas are down some 48 percent from their peaks. They are down 45 percent in Miami from their highest levels, and down 40 percent in Los Angeles and San Diego.
Economists said housing prices would probably continue to fall as Americans, worried about rising unemployment and the recession, put off big financial decisions like buying a home.
Some economists expect housing prices to fall another 5 to 10 percent before they hit a bottom; others say that prices could decline by as much as a third. According to the National Association of Realtors, the median price of a home in the United States, which peaked above $230,000 in 2006, has fallen to $175,200.
As prices have dropped, frozen housing markets in hard-hit areas like Southern California, Phoenix, Las Vegas and South Florida have begun to thaw. Record-low mortgage rates and huge inventories of foreclosed homes and other fire-sale properties have enticed first-time buyers to the market and lured others who had been sitting on the sidelines.
Home sales in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay area, where foreclosures dominate many markets, have snapped back this spring as prices dropped. But sales have slowed to a crawl in other markets like New York City, where prices declined 10 percent from a year ago.
“We’re seeing very strong sales in a few states and weak sales across 40 states,” said Patrick Newport, United States economist at IHS Global Insight. “The key factor driving them right now is just the excess inventory. Even though prices are undervalued, they’re still going to drop because of the excess. Even if we were at full employment we’d still see prices dropping.”
Inventories of unsold homes are edging down slightly, but there was still a glut of 3.7 million unsold homes in March, the Realtors’ group reported, representing a supply of nearly 10 months.
Mr. Swan, the realty agent, said inventories of lower-priced homes were already dwindling in Phoenix as investors snapped up bank-owned properties at bargain prices.
“I’ve got Canadians coming here who are putting together investment pools of millions of dollars to buy houses by the hundreds,” he said. “They’re going to rent them out to all the people who were foreclosed and need a place to live. This is going to be a good year for us.”
CNN Money
America's most polluted cities
Where the air is the most dangerous to breathe...Les Christie
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The nation's air has gotten marginally better over the past 10 years, according to an annual report released Wednesday, but many cities still suffer from severe pollution problems.
The American Lung Association released its latest findings on the state of the air in America - and the news is not great. Despite progress in cutting air pollutants and a burgeoning "green" movement, nearly every major metropolitan area is burdened with significant air pollution problems.
The organization rates communities on three criteria: ozone, short-term particle spikes and long-term particle averages. The ratings are based on statistics compiled for the years 2005 through 2007 at monitoring stations maintained by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Los Angeles, Fresno and Bakersfield, all in California, had the dubious distinction of being in the top 10 list of all three categories.
The ALA found that the worst places to breathe are: Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Visalia, all in California, for ozone pollution; and Bakersfield, Pittsburgh and Visalia in terms of average particulates.
Pittsburgh recorded the highest number of particle pollution spikes, which are jumps in the number of particles in the air that can last for many hours or even days.
Of the 25 cities with the worst ozone pollution problems, 16 recorded higher ozone levels in this year's report compared with last year. A dozen of the 25 cities with the worst average particle problem (microscopic soot, diesel exhaust, chemicals, metals and aerosols) experienced an uptick in those pollutants. Another four showed no change and nine improved. Thirteen cities recorded more days of severe spikes in particle pollution
Six of every 10 Americans - 186 million people - live in places where their lives are endangered by the air they breathe, according to Stephen Nolan, the American Lung Association National Board Chairman.
"Air pollution is a major threat to human health," he said in a prepared statement. "When 60% of Americans are left breathing air dirty enough to send people to the emergency room, to shape how kids' lungs develop and to kill, air pollution remains a serious problem."
The healthiest cities list mostly consisted of cities in the wide-open spaces of America's heartland, far from heavy industry. Cheyenne, Wyo., had the lowest long-term particle average, followed by Santa Fe, Honolulu and Great Falls, Mont.
The lowest, nearly non-existent, ozone levels, were found in cities like Billings, Mont., Carson City, Nev., and Fargo, ND. Only two eastern cities were on any of the three least-polluted lists. Portland, in heavily forested Maine, had among the lowest spikes in particle emissions, and Port St. Lucie, on Florida's Atlantic coast, had among the lowest ozone levels.
Health effects
The study also reported that ozone is more destructive than originally perceived. In March 2008, the EPA lowered its standard for ozone levels needed to trigger an unhealthy rating.
The pollutant is created by tailpipe emissions that get cooked by the sun and heat and form triple molecules of oxygen, which is much less stable than conventional oxygen and much more damaging to respiratory systems.
Los Angeles, which has a lethal combination of heavy traffic, sunshine and heat, had 195 days last year in which the ozone levels were high enough to be unhealthy for sensitive groups. On another 55 days, it was unhealthy for anyone and on 11 days, the ozone in the air was judged as very unhealthy.
Particle emissions are generated mostly by diesel engines, coal-fired power plants and burning of wood and other combustibles. For coastal cities, much of their pollutants are generated by ships coming into port, according to Janice Nolen, the association's vice president for policy and national advocacy.
"Ships contribute significantly to both particle and ozone emissions," she said.
Whatever the source, some states are taking aggressive action to try to combat the problem. New York, Charlotte and Washington have succeeded in reducing pollution dramatically over the past 10 years. California is introducing cleaner diesel fuel for everything from trucks to boats.
There's some criticism of the findings based on where the EPA monitoring stations are located. In Pittsburgh, for example, one station sits near the largest coke plant in the nation. Coke, an ingredient in steel manufacturing, is made by baking coal and produces lots of ash and other particles.
But Nolen pointed out that the findings try to capture the worst cases of air pollution for each metro area because that's what will have the most negative impact on health. So it's appropriate to locate monitors where the problems are most acute.

Baked In

The nation's 10 most polluted cities in terms of ozone.



Average ozone level (2005-2006)

Los Angeles



























El Centro



Source: American Lung Association

Dirt Devils

The nation's 10 most polluted cities by amount of particulates.

Metro area


Average particles level (2005-2007)

























Los Angeles






Source: American Lung Assoication
Unemployment: 109 cities at 10% or higher
Government survey shows jobless rate grows in all 372 metro areas, with 15% joblessness in 18 of them...Julianne Pepitone
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Unemployment rates in 109 metropolitan areas reached 10% or higher in March, almost eight times more than a year earlier, according to a government report released Wednesday.
Just 14 cities reported jobless rates of at least 10% last year, the Labor Department said.
The March 2009 report said unemployment rates in all of the nation's 372 metropolitan areas rose in March compared with the same month in the prior year.
Jobless rates of at least 15% were reported in March in 18 areas, compared with only one - El Centro, Calif. - the previous year.
The number of metropolitan regions thathad unemployment rates under 7% dropped significantly to 95 from 329 in March 2008.
A total of 33 metro areas registered unemployment rates that were at least 6 percentage points higher than a year ago, and another 42 areas' increases were 5 to 5.9 percentage points.
The Labor Department does not adjust the rates in its metropolitan unemployment report for seasonal changes in employment.
El Centro continued to have the highest metropolitan unemployment rate at 25.1%. The town is near the Mexican border and relies on agricultural employment, according to economists. The area's unemployment rate tends to rise and fall depending on the farming season.
Houma-Bayou Cane-Thibodaux, La., and Iowa City, Iowa, reported the lowest rates in the country at 3.6%. Elkhart-Goshen, Ind., reported the largest unemployment rate increase year-over-year, at 13 percentage points.
Mortgage applications fall
Despite historically low interest rates, applications for home loans and refinancing activity drop 18%...Last Updated: April 29, 2009: 11:39 AM ET
NEW YORK (Reuters) -- U.S. home loan applications fell last week to the lowest level since mid-March, driven by a big drop in refinancing demand even as mortgage rates clung to record lows, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association on Wednesday.
A two-month low in requests for loans to purchase homes was especially disappointing, coming in the midst of the important spring sales season when potential buyers usually emerge from winter hiatus, economists said.
Homeowners already in the game have a "great defensive move" in refinancing to shave expenses, "but the problem is that we don't have any offense," said Chuck Dannis, president of Crosson Dannis Inc., a real estate appraisal and consulting firm in Dallas, Texas.
The drop in total mortgage applications brought that index to 960.6, its lowest since 876.9 in the March 13 week. The purchase index declined to 251.6, a two-month low.
"Home sales are dismal," he noted. "We've got to figure out how to get the offense back on the field. It doesn't appear at this time that just simply low interest rates are going to do that."
Average 30-year mortgage rates dropped 0.11 percentage point to 4.62% last week. The rate nearly matched the all-time low of 4.61% set in the week ended March 27 and was well below 6.01% a year ago.
Despite the slump in refinancing demand last week, those loan requests represented about 75% of all mortgage applications last week.
Employment and job security are the crucial missing pieces for bolstering home buying.
"If you're thinking you're going to lose your job, are you going to go out and buy a new big house? You might have four years ago if you thought that was a way to make money," but that is no longer the case, Dannis said.
Unemployment is at its highest in more than 25 years and mounting with the economy mired in a 16-month recession.
Refinance applications fell 21.9% last week, overwhelming the 0.6% dip in home purchase loan requests to drag the trade group's total loan index down 18.1%.
This was only the second week since the start of March that refinancing demand fell, however.
Borrowers have shown consistently more demand to cut existing costs by refinancing than for new loans to buy homes.
A borrower with an average $150,000 mortgage could save $3,000 a year if they cut their loan rate by two points, Dannis said. A refinancing also generates income for companies involved in the process such as lenders, home inspectors, appraisers and attorneys.
The refinance index at a seasonally adjusted 5,108.2 last week was down from 6,813.5 in early April. Still, it remained well above 2,722.7 in early February, when the average 30-year mortgage rate was more than 1/2 percentage point higher.
A renewed push to refinance is likely in coming weeks as new programs from the administration and government-controlled home funding companies Fannie Mae (FNM, Fortune 500) and Freddie Mac (FRE, Fortune 500) kick into full swing, according to Stone & McCarthy Research Associates analyst Nancy Vanden Houten.
Despite scattered signs of stability in sales and prices, the deepest housing downturn since the Great Depression is not likely to turn around swiftly, most economists agree.
Still, affordability is at a record high.
In addition to low mortgage rates, thanks largely to government actions like a pledge to buy up to $1.45 trillion of mortgage-related securities, house prices have fallen steeply since their summer 2006 peak.
The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller home price indexes have toppled more than 30% from their peaks, with price erosion greater or smaller depending on the region.
Potential buyers who are confident in their job status, particularly first-time buyers, are entering the market, realtors and analysts have said.
A federal first-time home buyer's credit and $275 billion stimulus that eases refinancing and loan modifications should soon start putting a floor under the housing market.
"A combination of the lowest rates in generations and a pretty healthy decline in property values in most parts of the country strikes me as something that certainly is positive for the housing market, although it's hard to predict certainly where the bottom in pricing will be," said Scott Happ, chief executive at Mortgagebot, a mortgage origination software company in Mequon, Wisconsin.