Merced Sun-Star
Tom Frazier: Party's over -- who paid the bill?...Tom Frazier
The Sun-Star's coverage of the first four-year UC Merced class' graduation was impressive -- until the lights went out.
First lady Michelle Obama came to town. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event, thanks to the imagination and tenacity of the class of 2009.
The Sun-Star, in my opinion, did an astounding job. There were strong editorials congratulating the graduates, superb articles highlighting a few graduates by Danielle Gaines (complete with superior photography), a few investigative articles about security and runaway costs and even an extremely rare Sunday edition of the Sun-Star.
Then the coverage stopped.
I have one question:
The story isn't over. It may be just beginning. It's time to send out the Feral Dog pack.
Let's start with a few basics, which were well-covered (over-covered?) leading up to the event.
How much did UC Merced actually spend on the event? How was it paid? Is there a detailed breakdown? Is it true that the communications (uplink and JumboTron) were way overpriced, according to some blog posts?
What was the official count of attendees on campus? How many visitors did downtown Merced attract for the Cap&Town festival?
What was the total attendance in town, and how did it compare with the now infamous "Pazin estimate" of 25,000?
Why did regular attendees have to be in their seats over two hours prior to the start of the ceremony? Why did photographers and others have to be on campus at 6 a.m.?
What did security cost?
What did it cost to fly the first lady's limo into Castle? How about the first lady and the folks on her airplane?
Did UC Merced have to reimburse Washington for those flights, the Secret Service or other costs?
Speaking of Castle, on the Thursday before graduation day, I noticed a major landscaping project in progress at the ex-base. I didn't count them, but there was a large number of workers and more than one landscaping company involved.
New flowering plants, shrubs, grass, trees and other decorative items lined the route out of the base.
I called the county spokeswoman, Katie Albertson, to hear her mantra, "No, it has nothing to do with Michelle Obama's visit. We have been planning for some time to make the facility more attractive to potential tenants."
Yeah, right.
I think a Feral Dog could find out how much overtime or additional charges were spent beautifying the exit from Castle. Perhaps there were similar expenditures in Merced?
Let's not forget the weather. It was pretty hot, but could have been much worse. Even so, with no shade and the requirement to be in place so early, there were a number of heat-related problems. How many?
How serious? Who paid the bills?
On the other side of the coin, the Sun-Star alluded to a boon for motels and restaurants. Did that happen? Did Merced businesses actually see a bump of more than $1 million in revenue?
Some post-graduation articles suggested some restaurants exceeded their estimates, while others came up short. What's the bottom line?
Why wasn't there an editorial or a story about the protesters who tried to rain on the parade?
There is one man, Bob Carpenter, who didn't attend the graduation. Why?
Bob was a major player -- if not the major player -- to get the campus located here. Has anyone talked with him about why he didn't attend?
And finally, why wasn't there an editorial chastising the folks who left the campus immediately after Michelle Obama's speech?
I've heard estimates that 30 to 50 percent departed the scene.
To be sure, it was a moving speech, but the day should have been about the class of 2009.
It's time to send out the dog pack.
Our View: Don't change high-speed rail deal now
Legislative maneuvers would have killed maintenance hub chances for Valley.
Hey, Southern California. Hands off the high-speed rail maintenance hub.
State Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, had proposed to pay out just half of the High Speed Rail Authority's $139.2 million project funding.
Only he was expected to use language in the 2009-10 state budget that would bar any funds from being used for the high-speed rail hub in the Central Valley.
Talk about a game-changer.
Valley voters were sold on high-speed rail with promises of local jobs and economic development. Altering the plans so dramatically, after the initiative was approved by voters, would be unfair and unethical.
Yes, the argument can be made that the Valley doesn't yet have the population to support the high speed rail project. But despite the recent building slow-down, we're still in one of the fastest-growing regions of the state, and that's exactly what high-speed rail is all about: Planning for smart growth.
Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, first got wind of the plot after Lowenthal proposed the anti-Valley language to a Senate budget subcommittee. She wrote letters to stop it.
Galgiani had sponsored the compromise language in the high-speed rail initiation that got it placed on the ballot in November.
State Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Merced, drafted a letter earlier this week to Quentin Kopp, chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority. Galgiani and seven other politicians from Madera, Merced, Monterey, San Benito and Stanislaus counties endorsed the letter with their signatures.
The state's Budget Conference Committee put off a vote on the funding Thursday.
Central Valley lawmakers worried that their counterparts in Southern California are set to derail plans for a high-speed rail maintenance hub in the Valley will have to wait another day.
In the letter to Kopp, Denham wrote: "We find this attempt at legislative interference unacceptable and ask that your board formally and immediately oppose such budget language," the letter stated. "The location of the (hub) should be decided by your board based on factors such as what is the best use of tax dollars, what logistically makes sense for the system and where it is most practical to build a facility."
Legislators, like Galgiani and Denham, risked some political capital in drafting the letter and they should be applauded for their strong defense of the Valley in this case. But it's sad that politics are still being played this late in the process.
The main trunk of high-speed rail -- the part where trains will actually reach their fastest speeds -- is planned between Merced and Bakersfield. California is competing for stimulus money from the federal government to help fund the project. Any negative comments or infighting could derail that.
The planned rail route touches every major city from Modesto to Bakersfield, and would be an economic boon to the entire Valley.
Cities with rail access will become more attractive to industry, bringing the jobs that are so desperately needed in this area. And let's not forget about the retail, restaurant and hotel developments that will likely occur.
What's more, the maintenance hub -- where the statewide system will be built and maintained -- will bring with it job opportunities and pump an influx of money into the local economy.
No promises have been made about the maintenance hub's location, but we can't think of a better location than the former Castle Air Force Base. It has the size to support such a large project, and more importantly, it's available.
Luckily, the high-speed rail authority seems to agree. Castle has been identified as the authority's first choice for the maintenance hub. Locations in Chowchilla and Madera are also under consideration.
High-speed rail has been a dream for many years in the Valley. Funding has been proposed several times but never was put to the state's voters.
It almost didn't make it last year as the state and national economies headed south.
The decision on where the maintenance hub goes, and whether it makes economic sense, should be made in the open. It shouldn't be decided behind the scenes in subcommittees in Sacramento.
Michael Marsh: Dairies not looking for bailout. Michael Marsh is CEO of Western United Dairymen in Modesto.
On June 5, the Sun-Star ran an editorial suggest-ing that dairy farmers should not expect a government bailout.
Good news! California dairy families don't expect one and haven't asked.
California dairy families, just like other families, are struggling through the worst economic crisis in generations.
Soaring jobless claims, corporate bankruptcies, massive numbers of home foreclosures, a global credit crisis, cities, counties and states furloughing workers and cutting back on services, unstable currency exchange rates, consumers hunkering down and not spending money in fear over the next round of bad news, are all a part of the background that our family farms face today.
California's dairy families toil long hours in tough conditions working with animals they respect and sustain.
They harvest a highly perishable crop two or three times a day, 365 days a year.
Unfortunately perhaps, these living creatures have no easily accessible off switch to pull when the vagaries of a global economy turn things topsy turvy.
Dairy families are in the economic battle of their lives.
They've worked all of their lives to save up enough money to invest in their cattle and their barns.
California dairy families have seen their lifelong investment disappear in a matter of months.
Their dreams of perhaps being able to afford to send their kids to college, or to retire from a lifetime of 18-hour workdays or simply to provide their children with a better life than they had, are evaporating.
Markets for dairy products, similar to markets for other products, seem cyclical at times.
Prices go up and prices go down. The heat storm in 2006 coupled with low prices forced many farmers out of business.
Strong global markets for dairy in 2007, due in part to a prolonged drought in Oceania, allowed the California dairy families that were left to recoup much of the money they lost in the prior year even as operating margins were squeezed due to much higher costs for feed and tractor fuel.
And, although the farmer's milk price (which, by the way, lacks correlation with the price consumers pay at the store) for the first seven months of 2008 was good, it cost him more to produce a gallon of milk than he was paid for the rest of the year.
If 2009 prices continue the pattern seen through June, California farmers will have had their paychecks cut in half from last year while their costs have continued to soar.
For every 84 cents the farmer receives for a gallon of milk he produces, that gallon is costing him about $1.68 to make.
Dairy families are in a crisis.
That's why you hear rumblings here and there of plans to align milk supply with the remaining demand.
These family operations are struggling, hoping, praying that this generation of dairy farmers on the family farm is not the last.
With all of the pummeling California farmers are taking, it's disappointing that the Sun-Star would take such a cheap shot.
The help we need has to come from the market.
We realize that and we hope that California consumers realize that as well.
When folks go to the store or if they can afford to go out to eat, we would hope that they would protect their locally sourced milk supply and ask for dairy products made with Real California Milk.
San Francisco Chronicle
Museum experts ID birds that bring down planes...MICHAEL TARM, Associated Press Writer
CHICAGO, (AP) -- When animals are the prime suspects in a whodunit, who gets on the case? In capers where feathers or fur are the smoking guns, the role of CSI is often played by top natural history museums.
They can even tell when the perp was from out of town.
The cockpit crew of US Airways Flight 1549 knew their plane had struck birds after taking off from New York's LaGuardia Airport. Both engines shut down and Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger had to ditch in the Hudson River — saving all 155 people aboard.
It was clear soon enough after the Jan. 15 accident that the guilty fowl were Canada geese. What wasn't known was whether they were migratory or homebody geese — a critical distinction as airports devise strategies to shoo them out of aircraft flight paths.
That's where the museums came in.
The Feather Identification Lab at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington served as lead detective, with assistance from Chicago's Field Museum.
"We try to tell people we're here for a reason — and this case helps demonstrate that," said ornithologist John Bates, who works with the Field Museum's 480,000-bird collection. It includes inch-long hummingbirds, 5-foot ostriches and everything in between.
Rows of cabinets on the 116-year-old museum's sprawling second floor hold specimens of 90 percent of the world's 10,000 known bird species. But it was the Field's collection of 2,700 samples of Canada geese — including some that migrated from the eastern Canada region of Labrador — that was the key to cracking the case.
Field ornithologists sent Labrador goose feathers and tissue to the Smithsonian, where tests showed the birds to blame for the US Airways accident were the Labrador type — not New York varieties that largely stay put year-round on the city's waterways.
The clincher was a test in which Smithsonian scientists tested stable hydrogen isotope values in feathers — telltale markers that indicate where vegetation eaten by the birds grew. Migrating Labrador geese have eaten grass from different areas than the stay-at-home New Yorkers, and that showed up in the tests.
The findings, published in the June 8 editions of the journal "Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment," mean New York airports may have to develop one method to keep migratory geese away from planes and another for the birds that nest in the city.
"A lot of people say 'who cares about knowing the bird type,'" said Carla Dove, the aptly named program director at the Feather Identification Laboratory. "But that's critical. The strategies differ according to species. If you have starlings or turkey vultures, you deal with it differently."
Authorities may manage resident birds by harassing and culling them or modifying their habitat. Dealing with transient birds may require more elaborate methods, including recording their flight patterns or employing sensitive radar that detects their movement over runways.
New York City officials said this past week the city will trap and gas as many as 2,000 Canada geese over the next few weeks.
The Field Museum scientists have been called into a variety of investigations over the years.
Authorities have sought their assistance in identifying animals smuggled into the U.S. and the feathers on headdresses brought in by tourists who may not have known they were fashioned from endangered birds, explained museum ornithologist, Dave Willard.
His detective work included once trying to decipher how many pieces of chicken were in a meal that may have been eaten by a suspect in one of the Chicago area's most notorious murders — the slaying of seven people inside a restaurant.
His comparison of the leftovers found in the garbage with chicken bones in Field's collection was inconclusive — though Willard still testified at the 2007 trial of suspect Juan Luna, who was later convicted.
Requests for Field detective services have tapered off over the past decade, in part because federal wildlife and other labs have taken up much of the slack.
The Smithsonian's four-employee feather lab is busier than ever, though, as the number of bird-plane collisions has soared. Pilots have reported hitting more than 59,700 birds since 2000, most often mourning doves, gulls, European starlings and American kestrels.
Every week, dozens of bird carcasses, parts or merely gooey remnants arrive by mail after they've been scrapped off damaged airplane engines. The US Airways strike involved birds that weighed an average of 8 pounds, and it took Dove and her team months to sift through 69 bags of remains.
Bird-strike cases processed by the unit jumped to more than 4,500 in 2008 from around 300 in 1989, Dove said. The lab has a success rate of more than 90 percent in identifying birds, solving many cases in just hours using a database of bird DNA.
But without the Field's goose collection, pinpointing the precise type of Canada geese could have taken longer, Dove said.
She said the US Airways case shows that bird collections, many compiled over more than a century, aren't just academic indulgences.
"Sometimes people on the street don't see how this work can be applied to their lives," she said. "Here, we can see these collections can be used for an immediate improvement in public safety. That's incredible."
On the Net:
Field Museum: www.fieldmuseum.org
Smithsonian: www.mnh.si.edu/
Communities at risk, but coal ash sites secret...DINA CAPPIELLO, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON, (AP) -- Dozens of communities nationwide are at risk from a coal ash spill like the one that blanketed a Tennessee neighborhood last year, but the Obama administration has decided not to tell the public about it because of the danger of a terrorist attack.
The Environmental Protection Agency, as part of an investigation opened after the Tennessee spill, classified 44 coal ash storage ponds in 26 communities as potential hazards.
The agency, which earlier this year pledged to be transparent and carry out its work in the public view, wanted to disclose the information until the Army Corps of Engineers said it shouldn't because of national security concerns.
The information is now caught in a bureaucratic tussle, with one agency wanting to alert the public to the hazard and another agency fearing that widespread release of the information might, if terrorists got involved, put the public in danger.
"We intended to release the information, but then we received this letter," said an EPA official, who was not authorized to speak about the matter.
In a letter dated June 4, the Corps told the EPA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency that the federal government should not alert the public to the whereabouts of the sites.
"Uncontrolled or unrestricted release (of the information) may pose a security risk to projects or communities by increasing its attractiveness as a potential target," Steven L. Stockton, the Army Corps' director of civil works, wrote in a letter obtained by The Associated Press.
At the same time, the Corps letter says the information should be passed on to state officials or coal plant operators and they should tell nearby communities of the risks.
The sites have existed for years with little or no federal regulation. And oversight at the state level varies, with some treating coal ash ponds like dams used for power generation and flood control and others not regulating their construction or siting at all.
The 44 sites were ranked as high hazards, meaning they could cause death and significant property damage if a storm, a terrorist attack or a structural failure caused them to spill into surrounding neighborhoods.
Eric Halpin, special assistant for dam and levee safety for the Corps of Engineers, said that "we did not direct anyone to withhold or not release information," but he said federal policy says "you shouldn't make it easy for the bad guys to do their jobs" by posting lists on the Internet or giving them to the media.
A Homeland Security Department spokeswoman said late Friday that the Corps position was not the final word on the matter and could be reversed. A final recommendation will be made by the FEMA administrator after a review by the National Dam Safety Review Board.
On Dec. 22, more than 5 million cubic yards of ash and sludge poured out of a storage pond after an earthen dike failed at a power plant near Kingston, Tenn. The grayish, toxic muck covered 300 acres and destroyed or damaged 40 homes.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., in a news conference Friday, questioned why coal ash storage ponds are not being treated like other hazardous waste sites. For instance, the EPA readily discloses the location of Superfund hazardous waste sites and also annually reports pollution released by chemical facilities and other factories in neighborhoods.
The Energy Department also posts on its Web site the power plants with waste ponds and landfills and how much ash is deposited in them each year.
"If these sites are so hazardous, and neighborhoods nearby could be harmed irreparably, I think it is essential to let people know," said Boxer, adding that she was told the location of the sites with the understanding that she could tell only Senate colleagues whose states have one or more of the storage facilities.
The EPA estimates that about 300 dry landfills and wet storage ponds are used around the country to store ash from coal-fired power plants. The man-made structures hold a mixture of the noncombustible ingredients of coal and the ash trapped by equipment designed to reduce air pollution from the power plants.
The latest Energy Department data indicates that 721 power plants nationwide produced 95.8 million tons of coal ash in 2005. The ash can contain heavy metals and other toxic contaminants, but there are no federal regulations or standards that govern its storage or disposal.
The EPA is currently considering regulating the waste, but it is unclear whether the agency will classify it as hazardous or regulate its disposal like it does household garbage.
Lisa Evans, an attorney with the environmental group Earthjustice, was told by the EPA in a June 3 e-mail that her request for information about coal ash sites was being delayed because the agency was still trying to resolve whether the information could be released to the public, given the Army Corps' concerns.
"It shows you that we should have been very concerned about these sites from day one," Evans said.
Is some California water use unconstitutional?...Dr. Peter Gleick, President, Pacific Institute. The idea for this post, and a significant part of the original draft, came from my Institute colleague Courtney Smith. 
As of now, Sacramento has some new rules about water use. These rules, at least marginally, begin to address that city's high level of residential use. The rules put some constraints on the time of day (and day of week, and method) that residents can water their lawns and wash their cars. This little step raises a far more serious and comprehensive question: What water use in California should no longer be considered constitutionally valid?
Water Number: 280. According to the Sacramento Bee, this is the number of gallons of water east Sacramento residents use each day for all uses (the comparable state average is 192). This is one of the highest water consumption rates in the nation. And about 65% of that water is used outdoors, mostly for lawns and landscapes.
The source of this water is taken directly from the Sacramento River and from groundwater wells throughout the North American Groundwater Basin, all of which feed the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. During the current water crisis, when reservoirs are low, deliveries increasingly limited, and solutions to the San-Joaquin Delta crisis (and other regional water crises) still out of reach, we need to re-evaluate what are "reasonable" and "beneficial" uses of our strained water resources.
According to the California State Constitution (Article 10, Section 2), the general welfare requires that the water resources of the State be put to "beneficial use," and that waste or unreasonable use of water be prevented. The California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) has the authority to determine what is and is not considered a "beneficial use." Maybe it is time to explicitly demand that the SWRCB determine whether and how much water for watering lawns and outdoor landscapes is "beneficial" or "reasonable." (In many parts of Australia, continued drought conditions have led them to ban landscape watering altogether.) Similarly, if you can grow a crop for 2 acre-feet per acre, but an irrigation district or grower is using 4 acre-feet per acre now, should that additional water be considered a non-beneficial or unreasonable use?
The Board has the authority to put pressure on water rights holders, both urban and agricultural, to cut their water waste and failure to cut waste can endanger the user's water rights. With a few exceptions, the SWRCB has not fully exercised this right. It is time for especially egregious cases to be tackled, fast, as part of the solution to our dire water situation.
While Sacramento's new watering rules constitute a (very) small step in the right direction, far more needs to be done on reducing wasteful water use statewide. In Sacramento, these efforts would require far faster installation of water meters for all users. While California is faced with unprecedented water problems, more than half of the Sacramento area's service connections remain unmetered. As of now, Sacramento won't have to meter all of their consumer connections until the 2025 deadline set five years ago (AB 2572). This is no longer just archaic, it is irresponsible. And Sacramento is not alone: water use in other cities and end uses, including most groundwater use, is not monitored or metered.
Water use in California will never be as efficient as it can until all water use is metered and monitored and the State authorities responsible for defining and regulating constitutional, reasonable water use do what they should have done long ago--step up and do their jobs.