Merced's water bottled by Safeway, resold at a profit...JONAH OWEN LAMB
Wells are drying up across the county from an overtaxed and sinking water table.
Drought and climate change threaten the future of local water supplies.
And Merced has been selling its tap water since 2002 to a water bottling plant, which then sells that water at rates far above what it costs the plant to buy it from the city.
The Safeway Inc.'s water bottling plant in Merced -- one of the top five commercial/industrial water users in the city, which bottles Safeway's in-house purified and spring water brand Refreshe -- uses roughly 50,000 gallons a day, five days a week, for its bottling operation.
The plant, which provides most Refreshe drinking and spring water to Safeway stores in the state, filters city water, puts it in bottles and sells it as purified water. The bottles note that the water was bottled in Merced, but not that it was pumped out of the ground by the city. (Refreshe spring water is shipped in from a spring and then bottled in Merced.)
Some say the operation is just like any other business that buys water from the city.
But others claim it represents a troubling trend. Environmentalists and water rights activists contend that the increasing commercialization of public water and the selling of tap water not labeled as such isn't how water pumped out of the ground by cities is meant to be used. They claim that bottled water sells itself as safer and healthier than tap water, but in many cases is not.
The Sierra Club's Water Privatization Task Force noted that the growth of the bottled water industry -- spearheaded by companies like Nestle, Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola -- is not only depleting aquifers and springs across the country, but also represents a step toward increasing water privatization.
The task force also noted that the industry advertises bottled water as better than tap water -- even though much of the water in bottles comes from the tap. "The bottled water industry promotes bottled water as a healthy, trendy drink, without mentioning that it can cost 500 to 4,000 times more than tap water," commented the task force.
In Safeway's case they pay more than $1,000 a month for more than a million gallons of water. The retail cost for that much purified bottled water at Safeway is just under $3 million. Safeway would not say how much it costs them to produce their water.
Despite these concerns, the public's taste for the stuff is growing.
According to a 2009 report on the industry by Bottled Water Reporter, bottled water sales in the U.S. accounted for more than $11 billion in 2008. Over the last decade bottled water consumption jumped from more than $4 billion in 2000 to double that by 2008. According to Food & Water Watch, over 112 bottling plants exist in the state and over 1 billion gallons of bottled water are sold in California every year.
In the report, tap water was distinguished from bottled water. "Clearly," noted the report, "consumer perceptions matter, and consumers regard bottled water very differently from tap water. Even where tap water may be safely potable, many people prefer bottled water, which they regard as superior in taste."
Safeway spokeswoman Teena Massingill said that criticisms about commercializing municipal water and replacing it with expensive bottled water are baseless and unfounded. "There will always be critics of products," she said. "We are providing a product that did not exist previously. So I think that the argument that they are making is unfounded," she said.
As for the Safeway's operation in Merced, Merced spokesman Mike Conway said the city treats Safeway as it would any other industrial water consumer.
"There's no difference between any kind of water user who uses our water to process a product -- whether it's bottled water or anything else," said Conway.
"As for some additional perspective," wrote Conway in an e-mail, "if the city pumps about 21 million gallons of water a day, and Safeway uses 50,000, that works out to be 0.238 percent of our total gallons pumped."
But the plant doesn't only use water. It also produces waste. The plant's purification process discharges roughly 52,000 pounds of salts a year into the city's wastewater system, according to their permit.
Safeway's in-house brand Refreshe, bottled in Merced with well water, doesn't say on its label that it was originally municipal tap water.
Massingill's reply is simply that the product that Safeway provides -- fresh water -- isn't tap water.
But a new law could force water bottlers to at least let consumers know the source of their bottled water -- not just where it was bottled.
Assembly Bill 301 would require bottling facilities to register with the state and disclose the source of their water.
Currently, the state's Department of Public Health only requires that bottled water labels list where the water was bottled, not the actual source of that water.
Another area of concern with bottled water, says Ruth Caplan, the national coordinator for the Defending Water for Life campaign, is that while bottled water sells itself as better than tap water, it contributes to pollution and has been found to be less healthy than tap water -- at least in some cases.
Many of the bottles end up in landfills, Caplan added, and in some cases contain industrial chemicals and bacteria above state and industry standards.
According to the Sierra Club, nine out of 10 plastic water bottles end up as garbage or litter.
The National Resources Defense Council tested a wide array of bottled waters in the late '90s and found the majority contained either industrial chemicals and other contaminants, such as chloroform, that were above levels set by the state and the industry. The study included Safeway-brand bottled waters whose labels indicated they had gone through reverse osmosis filtration like the purified water in Safeway's Merced plant.
Safeway's Massingill declined to comment on NRDC's study, but said that Safeway is fully conscious of its environmental footprint and the healthfulness of its products. The company uses as little packaging as possible in its products. For instance, its plastic bottles are among the thinnest in the industry.
In addition, Safeway uses wind and solar energy on a wide scale. "We operate in the most environmentally conscious manor possible," she said. Safeway is one of the largest retail users of renewable energy in the United States as well, she said.
On top of the company's efforts to be green, Massingill said it provides jobs for roughly 70 people at its Merced plant. It's also actively involved in the community through the sponsorship of events, among other contributions.
The Wild West was founded partly over water wars. It's clear some are still being fought, even inside the bottle.
California professional schools face shrinking state subsidies...Laurel Rosenhall
For more than a century, the University of California turned out doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs from some of the most prestigious – and affordable – professional schools in the country.
Affordability began to erode in the early part of this decade, when the state cut back its support for the professional schools and student fees jumped 30 percent. They're rising even more in the next three years, with Berkeley's law and business schools set to charge annual student fees of more than $47,000 in 2011-12.
Even that eye-popping price assumes the state will pay some of the cost of educating California's future leaders. Now, as the state's fiscal crisis deepens, that subsidy could also be at risk.
The question emerging from the public debate: Should money be spent educating students who ostensibly can afford massive loans because they may go on to make millions in their careers?
One fear is that larger debt loads will drive students away from careers in public service. And that could have long-term ramifications for society: More corporate lawyers and fewer public interest and government attorneys; more medical specialists and fewer pediatricians and family doctors.
Nonetheless, last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed virtually eliminating state funding for Hastings, a UC law school in San Francisco. Earlier this month, the nonpartisan legislative analyst suggested the state phase out its support of all UC professional schools – including law, business, dentistry, medicine and veterinary medicine – as well as the California State University business schools.
Annual savings to California's general fund: $10.3 million for not funding Hastings starting this fall and, in future years, $25 million for not funding other UC professional schools and $10 million for not funding CSU business schools.
Those proposals would amount to privatizing California's most elite educational programs, forcing them to ask students and donors for even more support after a decade of skyrocketing fees.
It all comes amid a recession that is crippling state government and roiling the lives of millions of Americans. Many who look to graduate school to refresh skills or avoid a challenging job market will find themselves staring at higher bills.
But that same recession means drastic cuts must be made to close California's $24.3 billion deficit.
The budget the governor signed in February reduced funding to UC and CSU by about 10 percent. With the failure of the May 19 ballot measures, Schwarzenegger has proposed cutting the universities' funding by another 10 percent.
The legislative analyst suggests across-the-board cuts to the universities is the wrong way to go.
"We would place support for professional schools as one of the earlier cuts we would make rather than cutting core programs, which we consider undergraduate instruction," said Steve Boilard of the Legislative Analyst's Office.
Society benefits greatly from people getting a college education, Boilard said, with lower crime rates, higher employment rates and better health statistics.
"There are so many things that the public enjoys because of a bachelor's degree," he said. "But when you move higher than that – to a professional degree or a master's degree – then it's the individual who sees the benefit," by earning a higher salary.
That's an unfair generalization, according to some professional school deans. Doctors and lawyers make important contributions to society and aren't always highly compensated.
Few lawyers, for instance, get rich prosecuting criminals, defending the poor or advocating for children, the disabled and elderly. Doctors make a good living caring for the sick, but not the big bucks they could make in plastic surgery, anesthesiology or other specialties.
"It's troubling if the thought is, 'These are going to be high-paid professionals, why should we care?' " said Jim Nuovo, an associate dean at UC Davis School of Medicine.
"Already there's a problem with access to primary care services. It will get worse."
The more debt students have at graduation, the more pressure they feel to go into high-paying jobs, law and medical school deans say. UC Davis law student Emilio Camacho is an example. He figures he'll graduate about $100,000 in debt.
"And I'm considered one of the lucky ones because I received a big scholarship," Camacho said. "Some students get nothing."
In-state tuition at UC Davis law school was $28,515 in 2008-09. The school gave Camacho $21,000 in scholarships, he said. But he still needed to borrow about $20,000 to cover books and living expenses during his first year of law school.
Camacho, 28, has three children. While he was growing up in Mexico, no one in his family had gone to high school. He said he was inspired to become a lawyer at age 6, when he saw the Mexican president giving a speech on TV.
"As I grew up, I started to develop ideas about how bad things were in Mexico," he said. "The legal system seemed to not work so well for the disadvantaged and the poor."
At 16, Camacho moved to Sonoma County with his mother, a housekeeper. He attended community college, learned English and transferred to UC Davis.
This summer, Camacho is splitting his time between work in the Yolo County Counsel's office and the Stoel Rives law firm in Sacramento. He's not sure what kind of legal career he'll pursue when he graduates in two years.
"I think some of the skills I have could be very useful in public service," Camacho said. "But because of the debt I'm going to incur for my education, I'm forced to … seek the highest-paying job I can get so I can take care of my personal responsibilities which are paying my student debt, buying a home and being able to afford college for my children."
To encourage students like Camacho to choose public service, many UC law schools use some money from the higher student fees to fund loan forgiveness programs for graduates who work in government and nonprofits. The UC Davis program pays back all loans for law school graduates who earn less than $40,000 a year and some loans for those who make up to $60,000.
But Dean Kevin R. Johnson said that growing debt loads still compel many graduates to go into the private sector. He figures the trend will only increase, so he's busy seeking donations from foundations, alumni and private law firms to support students interested in public service work.
"The fees are going up, and the state support is going down," Johnson said. "It's unfortunate, but it's a reality we're dealing with."
Sanjay Varshney, dean of the business school at California State University, Sacramento, sees it differently. A loss of state support would be good news for him if it were combined with the freedom to charge students more.
"I would love that," he said. "I would welcome that."
In order to make higher education affordable, CSU trustees have capped the amount their schools can charge students for business programs that receive state funding. The price for full-time CSU business students is going up this fall from about $5,000 a year to $10,000 a year.
But the schools can charge whatever they want for so-called "executive" programs that depend solely on funding from students. Sac State's executive MBA costs about $33,000 a year.
Varshney said he'd be happy to build on that model.
"If the state allowed us to charge what the market could bear and then eliminated support, then I think we would be fine," he said. "A private model would still survive."
Becoming essentially a private school is less appealing to the leaders of Hastings College of the Law, which opened its doors in 1878 as California's first law school and a department of UC. Funding for most UC law schools is channeled through each campus, but Hastings receives money directly from the state.
That makes it more susceptible than most professional schools to budget stress. The $10.3 million a year the state pays to Hastings was crossed off the proposed budget as the Schwarzenegger administration looked for more cuts after recent ballot measures failed.
"We are in an unprecedented situation in this state that has required us to put proposals forward that (previously) would have been considered unthinkable," said H.D. Palmer, Schwarzenegger's Department of Finance spokesman.
If the proposal is approved by the Legislature, virtually all state funding for Hastings – about $8,000 per student – would cease on July 1. That has shocked Hastings officials, who are still figuring out how to absorb the hit.
"Here we are, it's almost the first of June," said David Seward, the school's CFO. "We have enrolled an entering class, they are going to begin instruction in the middle of August."
Annual fees have been set at $32,468, and students' financial aid packages have been finalized.
"We cannot raise our tuition $8,000 in a period of six weeks," Seward said.
World's strongest laser unveiled at Calif. lab...last updated: May 31, 2009 01:32:23 PM
LIVERMORE, Calif. -- The world's most powerful laser is prepped and ready to begin keeping tabs on the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile while also studying the heavens and attempting to develop new sources of energy.
The super laser, officially known as the National Ignition Facility, was unveiled Friday before thousands of people at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Among those in attendance were Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; and other national and local officials.
The NIF, the size of a football field, consists of 192 separate laser beams, each traveling 1,000 feet in one-thousandth of a second to converge simultaneously on a target the size of a pencil eraser.
Federal officials say they plan to put it to use on a multifaceted assignment that will include ensuring that aging nuclear weapons are still functioning properly without resorting to underground testing.
Other uses will be the study of astrophysics and experiments in developing green energy programs.
Beginning next year scientists will use the laser for experiments aimed at creating controlled fusion reactions similar to those found in the sun.
"More energy will be produced by this ignition process than the amount of laser energy required to start it. This is the long-sought goal of energy gain that has been the goal of fusion researchers for more than half a century," said NIF director Edward Moses.
The laser will also be used in astrophysics, allowing scientists to mimic conditions inside planets and new solar systems, something NIF officials say will allow for conducting experiments that could never be undertaken on Earth before.
Most of those experiments will be unclassified and are expected to provide a wealth of data to the worldwide research community.
Delta panel report card to give state an 'incomplete'...Bee News Services
SACRAMENTO -- A panel of officials appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to solve the Delta's water and environmental problems plans to give the state an "incomplete" grade for its progress.
The rating, to be presented in a "report card," will be finalized after testimony from environmentalists, water groups and state officials at a public meeting today in Sacramento.
The seven-member Delta Vision Task Force, led by former Sacramento Mayor Phil Isenberg, officially doesn't exist anymore. But after releasing its December recommendations, it decided to stay alive as a nonprofit group to press for action. Results in the draft report card don't look good: The foundation finds that the state has made little to no progress on most of its recommendations.
And it notes that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan being pursued by the governor and many of the state's big water agencies "would not satisfy a single one of the seven goals recommended in the Delta Vision Strategic Plan."
The Delta Vision plan called for comprehensive changes that would increase water storage, improve the environment and preserve the economy and lifestyle of Delta residents.
The group proposed aggressive actions to improve water delivery and ecosystem health in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a source of drinking water for more than 23 million Californians. Many of its proposals are expensive and controversial, such as building a water diversion canal around the Delta. Others came with aggressive timetables, including new legislation this year to reform Delta government.
Today's meeting is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the California State Association of Counties Conference Center, 1020 11th St., Second Floor, Sacramento.
Contra Costa Times
Utility fined for spilling chemicals into Polhemus Creek, killing steelhead trout...Julia Scott, San Mateo County Times
SAN MATEO — A private utility that provides drinking water to the city of San Mateo has been fined for spilling chemicals into Polhemus Creek, killing more than 30 protected steelhead trout.
Although the incident occurred nearly two years ago, the California Water Service Co. was slapped with a $199,350 fine last week from the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board for the fish kill and for failing to report the problem until local biologists noticed dead fish in the creek, according to the complaint.
The water board said at least 32 steelhead trout, a federally threatened species, died in September 2007 after two incidents in which the water purveyor accidentally spilled about 93,000 gallons of chloraminated drinking water into Polhemus Creek after a machine malfunctioned. Polhemus Creek flows through a watershed east of Crystal Springs Reservoir and is a main tributary of San Mateo Creek.
Chloramines have come to replace chlorine as the principal disinfectant in drinking water. It is harmless to humans but not to aquatic life, and it was discharged into the creek at concentrations well above the amount known to be lethal to fish in a scientific study, according to the water board.
"That's the funny thing: People think of drinking water as not being a problem, but when you see the reaction with the species in the creek you realize it can be toxic," said Dyan Whtye, assistant executive officer at the Regional Water Quality Control Board.
Whyte said such spills can be fairly common where water pipes leak or systems break down, as was the case with Cal Water.
The spills occurred Sept. 25 and Sept. 27, 2007. The first lasted 45 minutes, but the second spill was undetected for seven hours.
To add insult to injury, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, or SFPUC, was in the midst of a major creek restoration project to improve habitat for steelhead and other species when the spills occurred, overwhelming the creek bypass they had created and eroding the riverbank they had been working to restore, according to Whyte.
It was only after SFPUC biologists began noticing the dead fish and alerted Cal Water about the magnitude of the chemical spill that the water company took action, according to the complaint. The creek restoration project was not irreversibly damaged.
Cal Water spokeswoman Shannon Dean said the computer problem that triggered the chemical spill has long since been resolved as part of a $500,000 upgrade to the water tank in question, near Polhemus Creek.
Dean predicted that the water board would likely reduce the penalty because of the money the company had spent on the upgrades. If it does not, the company plans to appeal the fine.
"We do understand the impact that treated water can have on aquatic life, which is why we made this rather large investment. We responded proactively and took it very seriously," she said.
Dean also cast doubt on the chloramines as the cause of the fish kill, despite the complaint's allegations.
"It's really unclear whether the fish were killed by the tank overflows or the high turbidity (cloudy water) in the creek," she said. "By all indications there was a rainstorm at the time, and the SFPUC creek restoration project was going on."
Less than a half an inch of rain fell Sept. 22, five days before biologists noticed the dead fish. Both the water board and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have ruled out the rainstorm as a likely cause of the fish kill, according to the complaint.
Santa Cruz Sentinel
UCSC, Cabrillo brace for possibility of Cal Grant cuts...J.M. BROWN. MediaNews Group contributed to this report.
SANTA CRUZ -- Growing up in California's foster care system, UC Santa Cruz freshman Callin Curry thought he didn't have a chance of getting into college.
Now, he's worried about staying in college.
The 19-year-old from Oakland, who is studying literature, creative writing and politics, relies almost entirely on Cal Grant funding to pay for his education. He said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to phase out the state's financial aid program for lower-income students would force him to drop out of school.
"I know you can take out loans, but I don't have a family that can help me," he said last week, after the governor announced the proposal. "Cal Grant is a better option. It is the one thing that is keeping me in college."
About 4,000 students at UCSC would face a similar decision about the affordability of college if lawmakers pass the plan to eliminate all new Cal Grant funding and curtail existing awards starting this fall. The plan, which is estimated to save the state $650 million during the next two years, would also adversely affect about 200 students at Cabrillo College.
More than 118,000 students statewide could lose new grant money -- amounting up to $7,700 annually for UC students -- according to the Institute for College Access and Success in Berkeley. The amount of funding a student receives is determined by financial need, but some students receive enough to fully cover their fees.
"It's more devastating news for community college students as UC and CSU reduce enrollment," Cabrillo President Brian King said. "They are the students we should be focusing on because of their income level and challenges they are overcoming to go to college."
Michelle Whittingham, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management at UCSC, cautioned that the proposal is only a plan at this point and that families should not consider pulling students out. In the worst-case scenario, however, she warned that the cuts could actually affect 7,000 UCSC students -- about half of the undergraduate population.
Gutting the $26 million in Cal Grant funding distributed to UCSC annually would choke the university's ability to give other grants. Such dramatic losses would put a higher education out of reach for a number of low-to-middle income families and students of color, Whittingham said.
"Look at how that would be exacerbated for the entire state, because your talking about hundreds of thousands of students at community colleges, CSUs, UCs and private institutions," Whittingham said. "It would absolutely and completely change higher education as we know it."
Colleges and universities are already brainstorming ways, including fee hikes, to meet student needs if the Cal Grant program is cut. However, UC just increased student fees 10 percent for next year, already making a four-year education increasingly unaffordable.
"Education is becoming more and more a privilege instead of a right," said Victor Sanchez, an officer in UCSC's Student Union Assembly.
The governor and Legislature are also mulling deep cuts in K-12 funding and health care spending as part of an urgent effort to reduce a mounting $23 billion state budget deficit made worse by last week's failure of revenue measures at the ballot box.
Cutting the Cal Grant program "shouldn't even be an option to them," said UCSC freshman Amanda Buchanan, 18, of Rancho Cucamonga. "If anything, we need it now more than ever."
Cal Grant funding provides a quarter of Buchanan's education costs, which she said total $26,000 annually with housing.
"It's not like my parents could just absorb it -- they would have to find it from somewhere," said the politics and sociology major, whose father is a truck driver and mother is a baker. "This is not something they should have to worry about."
Los Angeles Times
Renewable energy sparks a probe of a modern-day land rush
Interior Department investigates an acquisition that involves use of public land for renewable energy. A larger issue: establishing standards for private companies using federal stimulus money...Louis Sahagun
A rush to stake claims for renewable energy projects in the California desert has triggered a federal investigation and prompted calls for reforms to prevent public lands from being exposed to private profiteering and environmental degradation.
Officials said last week that the inspector general's office of the Department of the Interior was investigating Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar Inc.'s recent acquisition of Hayward, Calif.-based OptiSolar, and its unfinished renewable energy projects, for $400 million. The deal gave First Solar control of what the company described as OptiSolar's "strategic land rights" to 136,000 acres of public land in San Bernardino, Riverside and Kern counties.
Bureau of Land Management officials, however, said First Solar acquired OptiSolar's applications to develop that land.
"There is no value associated with a mere application, which could be rejected by us for a variety of reasons," said Greg Miller, renewable energy program manager for the BLM office in Moreno Valley.
"A company can buy another company along with its applications, as long as those applications are not listed as assets. That would be wrong," Miller said. "We're trying to weed out speculators who are filing applications, then waiting for someone to buy them at the highest price.
First Solar spokeswoman Lisa Morse said the transaction was above board. "We now have OptiSolar, and the applications were an important part of it for us," she said. "OptiSolar, which we acquired as a whole, is now a subsidiary of First Solar."
David Brown, special agent in charge of investigations for the inspector general's Western region, declined to discuss any ongoing investigation. But he said that any company that might receive federal stimulus money is a concern and that his office is trying to get ahead of any potential problems by reviewing all such projects.
The investigation comes amid debate over how best to control burgeoning renewable energy industries as they overwhelm the chronically understaffed and underfunded BLM with an avalanche of applications. Environmentalists say the situation is a preeminent conservation issue and a crucial test of the Obama administration's commitment to the environment.
Three years ago, the bureau had six applications for solar energy projects on file. Over the last year, it has received 130 additional applications from 50 companies, covering about 600,000 acres -- much of it in one of the sunniest regions on Earth, the Mojave Desert.
Some applicants are asking for parcels as small as 250 acres. Then there is Cogentrix Solar Investments, which is seeking more than 300,000 acres.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's executive order that a third of the state's electricity come from renewable resources by 2020 -- coupled with billions of dollars in federal stimulus funds expected to become available next year for wind, solar and biofuel projects -- has the BLM whipsawed by opposing forces.
Companies queuing up to develop solar farms say they want to replace imported oil and facilitate a national clean-energy economy. The environmental community also wants to ensure that scenic landscapes and ecosystems are not trampled in the process.
"My concern is that highly speculative and perhaps fraudulent investment games are being played with hundreds of thousands of acres of public land," said Bruce Pavlik, a professor of biology at Mills College.
San Francisco attorney Peter Weiner, whose clients include renewable energy companies and trade organizations, would not go that far.
"The fears of paving over the desert are not well-taken; there will ultimately be many fewer projects than there are applications," he said. "But it would be a mistake to think we can free ourselves from foreign oil and fossil fuels without impacting other environmental values."
In the meantime, applications for proposed renewable energy projects continue to stack up in BLM desert offices.
Hot spots of contention include 600,000 acres of former railroad lands between Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park.
The land was purchased with $40 million in private donations collected by the Wildlands Conservancy and $18 million in federal funds, then donated to the Department of Interior for conservation.
Earlier this year, however, environmentalists were outraged to learn that the BLM was entertaining 19 applications for renewable energy projects on the donated lands, which Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wants to transform into a national monument.
Feinstein urged Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to suspend the applications.
Salazar, in a seeming compromise, responded by saying that "both national priorities -- developing renewable energy and preserving our treasured landscapes -- can be accommodated with careful siting and mutual consideration."
James Wesley Abbott, acting state director of the BLM, sided with Feinstein on Wednesday and instructed all deputy state directors, district managers and field offices to avoid authorizing more applications, or development, on lands acquired under donor agreements.
A coalition of a dozen environmental groups led by the Wildlands Conservancy has identified 137,000 acres of public and private agricultural and degraded desert lands -- all near existing transmission lines -- that could be used for solar energy farms.
"On these alternative lands we can unite what otherwise would be conflicting environmental interests," said David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy.
"It would be a real shame if the public policy for our new green economy was driven haphazardly by speculators," he said.
Panama Canal expansion is chugging along
The expansion is on target, an official says, addressing rumors of recession-caused delays. A high-profile construction contract may be awarded soon...Chris Kraul
Reporting from Panama City — The economic downturn has stalled big construction projects across the globe, but here in Panama, smoke-belching steam shovels and dredges work around the clock on what people here call simply la ampliación, or the expansion.
This month, officials will award the principal contract for the $5.25-billion expansion of the landmark Panama Canal, a project that will probably alter global shipping patterns and cement this Central American nation's place as a center of global logistics.
"This is a financial crisis, and there has been a decline in ship traffic. But we are very much on time and on target," said Panama Canal Authority head Alberto Aleman, addressing rumors that the global recession could cause the project to miss its 2014 scheduled completion date.
The authority is on the verge of choosing among three international consortia, including one led by San Francisco-based Bechtel Corp., to build two sets of locks to accommodate massive container cargo ships. Dubbed post-Panamax, the super-sized vessels are capable of carrying three times more cargo than ships now transiting the canal.
The construction of the two locks -- one at the waterway's Caribbean entrance, the other on the Pacific -- will cost $3 billion or more, take five years to complete and require an army of 5,000 construction workers.
The winning consortium is expected to use the contract's marquee value as one of the world's highest profile construction endeavors as a calling card to bid on other major infrastructure projects around the globe.
The canal authority maintains that the expanded canal will make Panama an even more important transit hub by attracting a bigger share of Asian container freight destined for the eastern United States. Currently, 70% of that cargo is offloaded at Los Angeles, Long Beach and other North American ports and moved by rail or truck across the country. Nearly half a million jobs in Southern California depend on international trade.
"There will be a migration of freight to the canal, the implication being that Los Angeles and Long Beach ports will take the hit," said Mark Page of Drewry Shipping Consultants Ltd. in London. "The U.S. rail lines will also suffer."
Despite the recession gripping the United States and other destination countries, the 9% drop in global container traffic forecast for 2009 and a financing scheme that assumes rising traffic and tolls, Panama's Aleman said the expansion project was moving forward and would not be deterred.
"We factored in a margin of error, and we are ahead of the projections," he said.
A new four-mile access channel on the Pacific side is 85% excavated, and dredging is underway. The new segment will be much deeper than the existing canal, enabling passage of quarter-mile-long ships carrying 14,000 cargo containers, compared with maximum 4,500-container ships that now transit the 50-mile waterway.
The winning contractor will be awarded a $50-million bonus if the expansion is done by 2014, the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal's completion by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The canal expansion project is already having a ripple effect in Southern California. The Los Angeles and Long Beach ports each have launched expansion and streamlining projects valued at hundreds of millions of dollars to improve their competitiveness with an expanded Panama Canal.
"We're using the down time to improve our infrastructure," said Los Angeles port marketing director Mike DiBernardo, referring to his facility's 16% decline in container traffic over the first three months of 2009. The port's plans include the expansion of three terminals and improved wharf access for Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail lines.
Long Beach port spokesman Art Wong said his facility had put in motion a 10-year plan to invest $1.6 billion in upgrades of piers and rail access, a response he attributes partly to the tougher competition the port expects from the Panama Canal, as well as from port projects in Mexico and Canada.
But global shipping companies are wary of the rising tolls the canal is charging to fund the expansion. The average toll will be doubled over a 20-year period that began in 2006. Michael Kristiansen, Latin America operations chief for Danish shipping giant Maersk, said the expanded canal would divert some U.S. freight away from U.S. West Coast ports, but how much will depend on transit times and the effect of the canal's toll hikes.
Another factor is whether U.S. ports on the Eastern Seaboard make changes to accommodate the biggest ships. Ports including ones in Savannah, Ga.; Charleston, S.C.; and Miami are too shallow, and access to the Newark, N.J., port -- the most important in the New York area -- is blocked by the Bayonne Bridge.
As a defensive measure, Maersk and other shipping lines serving the Asia-to-eastern-U.S. routes are taking a close look at westward routes through the Suez Canal in Egypt. Although Maersk is not yet diverting traffic from Panama, it plans to open a Suez route for post-Panamax ships in the near future, Kristiansen said.
In addition to the Bechtel-led consortium that includes Japanese partners Taisei Corp. and Mitsubishi Corp., two other groups placed bids in March for the contract. They include teams led by Grupo ACS of Spain and another led by Sacyr Vallehermoso of Spain and Impregilo of Italy.
The locks will employ a "water-saving basin," letting 60% of the water used to fill them to be recycled. Canals in Germany use the system, said Jorge de la Guardia, the canal authority's locks project manager.
He said the project so far had not experienced serious setbacks such as those faced by original canal builders. In the early 1900s, malaria and yellow fever killed thousands, and there were difficulties digging through highly unstable "cockroach shale," which kept sliding into the excavations.
Still, rumors that the canal project might face delays gained momentum when the authority extended the deadline for proposals to March from December and when a fourth bidder, a French-Brazilian consortium, dropped out of the bidding.
"You have to look at the long term," said Aleman of the canal authority. "Yes, we're in a financial crisis, but there have been others in the past. And Panama still has the best route for Asian traffic."
The Voice of San Diego
Struggling to Find Mitigation as Roads Replace Wetlands...ROB DAVIS
Along the banks of the San Luis Rey River north of Escondido, on a plot of land once mined for sand, weeds are taking over.
There, behind a dilapidated chain link fence and graffitied boulders, woodpeckers flitter and endangered least Bell's vireos warble in the cottonwoods and willows. Endangered arroyo toads come out at night. But tamarisk -- an invasive, water-thirsty bush with purple flowers -- has moved in. So have other weeds: Arundo, a thick reed. Mustard, a thin-stemmed plant with yellow flowers. Brown, desiccated annual grasses, perfect for spreading wildfire, blanket the sandy terrain.
The river's banks are a perfect site for preserving and restoring wetlands, the reason why the San Diego Association of Governments spent $4.7 million for the site's 130 acres. Sandag plans to use the land to mitigate impacts of widening the nearby Highway 76 from two lanes to four, a project that will destroy wetlands to build a bridge over the San Luis Rey River. To offset the damage, Sandag and CalTrans will remove weeds on the mitigation site and plant native species that provide better habitat and serve as a more robust food source. In all, 83 acres will be restored.
While the property is ideal -- it's unused, rundown and situated along a river -- there aren't many more sites like it. Not with willing sellers.
Sandag and CalTrans officials say that finding freshwater wetlands in San Diego County is growing increasingly difficult, particularly in a region where the rich soils along rivers have attracted golf courses and agriculture. "The problem," said Keith Greer, senior regional planner at Sandag, "is that we live in a desert. The opportunities that exist now are very scarce."
Standing near the river bank on a recent afternoon, Bruce April traced his finger along a satellite map of the San Luis Rey watershed, past horse tracks, farms, a golf course. He pointed to the lush fairways sitting on the river's edge. "That'd be great to restore," said April, a senior environmental planner with CalTrans. "But it's not for sale. I don't think the community'd like it too much."
Upriver, April said, has more of the same -- development, the proposed Gregory Canyon landfill and the Pala reservation. Plenty of opportunity for freshwater wetlands restoration, but no landowners who want to sell.
"It's not about cost," April said. "It's about what people want to do with their land."
With $14 billion in transportation projects funded over the next 40 years, Sandag and CalTrans estimate they'll have to find another 412 acres in freshwater wetlands for mitigation -- that's about a quarter the size of downtown San Diego. They'll be destroyed from widening Interstate 5 to add carpool lanes; widening Highway 76; extending Interstate 905 from the Otay Mesa border crossing; and from other projects.
Wetlands mitigation is a serious business. Federal and state regulations require that construction projects ensure "no net loss" of wetlands, a vital part of the ecosystem that filter pollutants and provide habitat for endangered species. Destroy an acre of wetlands one place, and you have to create another acre somewhere else -- preferably in the same watershed. You can't just preserve an acre, you have to make one.
Because of the no net loss rule, road-building agencies have to create 165 acres of freshwater wetlands from scratch. The work will have to be done along the county's creeks and rivers -- not the tidally influenced saltwater lagoons. The agencies aren't yet sure where most of the work will be done.
Letters have been sent to possible sellers and a consultant has been hired to map potential mitigation sites. The road-building agencies are in touch with landowners throughout the area. April said he was hopeful that the economic crash might present opportunities for sales. One nearby mitigation site, being used to offset Highway 76's impact to dry land, had an approved housing subdivision planned before being purchased for conservation.
Therese O'Rourke, chief of the Army Corps of Engineers' San Diego section, the federal agency that oversees local wetlands mitigation, said she believes opportunities for wetlands creation do exist. "There's still land out there, and it's getting cheaper every day," she said. "If you're looking for something quick and cheap, it'll be difficult to find. We just need to be looking throughout the county."
O'Rourke said mitigating the road projects' impacts would likely require pulling some development back from rivers. Those steps could include moving roads or buying parking lots, farms and parks, she said, and converting them into wetlands. She emphasized that using eminent domain wouldn't be acceptable nor would moving homes.
"I don't have anything in mind," she said. "Don't freak everybody out."
Michael Beck, San Diego director of the Endangered Habitats League, said he'd like to see regulatory agencies consider whether money spent on wetlands mitigation could be better routed to other habitat types that could help complete the region's habitat preserves.
The lack of wetlands "is going to force us -- I hope -- to reexamine our objectives to ensure these species have a reserve system that meet their needs," he said. "It's not just counting acres of mitigation."
Such changes couldn't happen without changes in regulatory requirements designed to protect wetlands. While impacts to differing types of habitat on dry land have flexibility -- impact an acre of chaparral, and you can mitigate by preserving the rarer coastal sage scrub -- wetlands don't have that flexibility. There's a reason for that, said David Lawhead, an environmental scientist with the state Department of Fish and Game.
"Part of the ecosystem is maintaining diversity of habitat types," Lawhead said. "If you're sacrificing one for the sake of another, you're losing habitat diversity. It's important to have that diversity. That's the crude regulatory way of doing it -- wetlands for wetlands."
Along the San Luis Rey, design work is underway and permits are coming in. April, the CalTrans planner, spread out maps showing the locations of the tamarisk, arundo and other weeds. They'll all be removed. So will litter. Cottonwoods and ambrosia, an endangered plant, will be put in their place. And the search for more sites like it will continue.
"That," April said, "is going to be my career."