Merced Sun Star: MID must contest flawed FERC impact statement
When the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission grants a license to operate a dam, it usually lasts 50 years. So you want to get it right.
Unfortunately, much of what we've seen in the 645-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement that would govern Merced Irrigation District's operation of New Exchequer Dam doesn't strike us as right or acceptable.
Where are the steelhead? Various state and federal wildlife agencies want MID to release 47,000 acre-feet of water from June to mid-October to help steelhead have a more comfortable summer in the river or go back out to sea. But Merced steelhead are a myth. Yes, conditions are right for steelhead, and it's likely steelhead once swam in the Merced. But there hasn't been a steelhead spotted or caught in the river in 20 years of intensive study.
Even FERC calls the presence of steelhead "likely," not certain. Taking so much water from those putting it to good use on the "likely" chance that there are fish that need it isn't rational. A steelhead is a rainbow trout that swims out to sea, feeds heartily and returns to the river of its origin. Rainbow, steelhead — same fish. But you can't force a rainbow to leave the river of its birth if it would prefer to remain a rainbow.
This year, water is selling for at least $700 an acre-foot, putting the value at $32.9 million. So the government wants the people of the district to forfeit $32.9 million to protect a fish no one has seen in 20 years. Before the federal government spends that much of our money, we'd like to know that it will actually do what's intended. Non-native bass kill virtually all of the juvenile salmon that reach the San Joaquin River; they would do the same to steelhead.
Shouldn't FERC first request the environmental agencies to guarantee safe passage for these fish before we provide the water?
— How much water? Over the past 40 years, the Merced has provided 1 million acre-feet of water on "average." Recognizing average doesn't exist (it's either wetter or drier), about half of that water remains in storage behind New Exchequer Dam each year, where it was first used to generate electricity before being used to irrigate crops.
For the past 20 years, the district has provided roughly 180,000 acre-feet per year for environmental purposes — keeping the Merced flowing year-round, watering the Merced River National Wildlife Refuge, and helping salmon come and go in the fall and spring.
The federal government wants a 58 percent increase in environmental water, from 180,000 acre-feet to 286,000 acre-feet.
"The real impacts," said Bryan Kelly, MID's deputy general manager for water resources, "will be felt in the critically dry years. That's when you need the water the most. . Our growers are going to feel that significantly."
Ask farmers how much they're getting this year — nothing. There's nothing left to give.
— Counting water. FERC wants water planning done using the Hughes Method rather than the industry's more familiar formula. The Hughes Method was developed by a wildlife expert to estimate water flows, and is accurate for high mountain reservoirs. It is less accurate on storage reservoirs. Why is this important? Because water releases are based on the classification of wet, dry or critically dry years. The Hughes Method tends to predict more wet years that turn out to be dry than the other way around, meaning the state could require more water to be released for fish in those years.
"It's a significant difference," said Kelly, noting outflow numbers would be set in February when wild fluctuations can still occur. "So you end up releasing a whole bunch of water, and then there's no getting that water back."
— Shocking cost. Obviously, powerhouses at the dam generate power. By requiring more environmental flows, the district will lose roughly $650,000 per year in electricity generation.
No one expected relicensing to come without costs, but several components of the FERC environmental draft should be addressed before being accepted. Providing enough water for a viable salmon population is necessary, as are many of the habitat recommendations. But depriving the region and its farmers of vast amounts of water on the offhand chance that one or two rainbow trout might decide they'd rather be steelhead is wasteful folly. It must be vigorously contested.
FERC's enormous document is still a draft, and it is accepting comment through May 29. Other water districts should join MID in contesting this flawed analysis.
The Napa Valley Register: Rebounding strongly from the quake
In the early days after last August's earthquake, a common question was "what will this mean for downtown Napa?"
Would the quake halt the renaissance that downtown seemed to be experiencing? Would the damage to several historic anchors, including the courthouse, the Goodman Library, the Borreo Building, and the Sam Kee Laundry in some way damage the soul of Napa, meaning that its eventual revival would be more plastic and generic?
Eight months on, it seems that those fears were misplaced.
Napa roared back after the earthquake to the point where obvious signs of the quake are almost gone. All the historic buildings are well on their way to full restoration. Only a handful of really serious questions, such as the fate of the downtown Safeway property or repairs at the county jail, remain unresolved.
New businesses and buildings seem to have come downtown with barely a pause following the quake: the Archer Hotel and downtown shopping complex are underway, the Oxbow Bypass project is nearing completion, and there may soon be long-awaited activity at the Borreo Building and the hotel site on First Street that was once touted as a Ritz-Carlton.
The Napa Valley Editorial Board met last week with Napa Mayor Jill Techel and Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht to look back on the region's response to the quake and look forward to how it may affect us for the future. We found them both in an upbeat mood.
The verdict on the city and county response, it seems, is largely positive. Emergency response was prompt, law and order was maintained, public and relief agencies were able to set up shelter and provide emergency supplies. The city's overstretched water division, which has been plagued to this day by hidden leaks and cracks caused by the quake, managed to keep water flowing reasonably smoothly despite extensive damage to the century-old system.
Even more impressive, they say, was the private response to the quake. Not only did we see neighbors helping neighbors in residential districts, but businesses were quick to sweep up the glass, restock shelves, and reopen to the public. Such quick, unprompted response suggests a healthy community and, both officials said, may have even hastened the downtown's revival since it is a clear signal to investors of a strong and vibrant community.
To be sure, not everything went well. The quake exposed the flaws and vulnerabilities of the aging water system, which will need expensive upgrades and repairs.
The city also found it did not have an adequate plan for establishing debris disposal sites, which led to some confusion in early days. The county found that much of the interior construction of government buildings was more fragile than expected, leading to extensive damage that could have resulted in serious injuries had the quake occurred during a work day.
In the wake of the quake, the city and county are both dusting off and updating emergency plans, making sure they reflect lessons from the quake. For example, the quake highlighted the need to have up-to-date versions of mutual aid agreements with nearby local governments and utilities.
The quake also taught some entirely unexpected lessons. Techel said she now advises her fellow mayors to set up a mechanism to process donations, to create some kind of community fund. When the Napa Valley Vintners stepped in with a $10 million donation days after the quake, Techel said, it proved surprisingly difficult to figure out how to administer it and to determine how it could be spent lawfully. Doing that kind of prep work in advance as part of an emergency plan would reduce confusion and stress in the midst of an active disaster recovery.
And many questions remain to be answered. It may be years, for example, before we know how much the state and federal governments and private insurance companies will reimburse the tens of millions of dollars local governments spent on emergency response. The city of Napa alone has 13 staff positions dedicated just to the task of filling out paperwork and filing reports to seek that reimbursement.
Overall, however, it appears the Napa has rebounded from the quake with style and vigor. The pride we felt in our community in those first few days after the quake appears to have been richly justified.
Redding Record Searchlight: National park fees could drive some away
We winced at the news that Lassen Volcanic National Park and Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, two National Park Service gems we're privileged to have in our own backyard, are increasing entry fees, passes and other costs for visitors.
But we should have seen it coming. And we're not alone.
Park Service Director Jon Jarvis sent out a memo to regional fee managers in August, authorizing them to "conduct stakeholder outreach" in their areas to gauge reaction to possible fee changes. Standard entrance fee rate schedules hadn't been updated since 2006 and entrance fees across the system haven't changed since 2008.
His memo, which wasn't released to the public at the time, included a proposed fee rate schedule and a "goal (if supported by civic engagement)" to bring parks into alignment with those rates by 2017 (a year after the park service's centennial celebration next year). In some cases that meant doubling or tripling fees.
By September, as park managers began planning their civic sessions, we learned that fee hikes were in the works and in November the local parks held their session, where park enthusiasts and frequent visitors voiced their opposition.
That didn't stop the increase, though many of the planned changes were reduced significantly. It's good they were listening, but a number of potential problems lurk in the aftermath.
The first is that the national parks belong to all of us — at least they do now. The more you raise fees, the more middle and low income people lose access to those once affordable treasures. Both Lassen and Whiskeytown are increasing the cost of an annual pass to $40 from $25. Lassen had hoped to raise its pass to $50, but backed away after public comment. Whiskeytown didn't up its $10 per vehicle charge, but Lassen's will double to $20.
Think about what that means for a low income family that wants to drive out for a day visit that costs maybe another $20 for gas. They could save money by bringing a picnic lunch and they almost certainly would want to avoid the gift shop and souvenirs.
There is, of course, good reason for the increases, 80 percent of which stay with the parks. Whiskeytown alone has $28 million in deferred maintenance costs, Park Superintendent Jim Milestone tells us. Across the 400 park service locations the deferred costs are estimated at almost $12 billion. Only 131 of those parks charge entrance fees.
Jarvis has said the park service now brings in about $180 million annually through fees and the increases are expected to bring in $45 million more.
That's because Congress, which funds the Park Service, has always seemed more interested in building new parks than maintaining them. A former park service director once identified the Congressional philosophy as "park barrel," reasoning that new construction in various districts has a greater political return than park maintenance.
History, too, may play a role in fee philosophy. Millionaire industrialist and park service founder Stephen Mather (the man who christened "20 Mule Team Borax"), concerned about poor conditions at some of the parks, actually paid for the original National Park Service staff he assembled out of his own pocket, and even bought additional park lands before the service was officially established as a government entity.
Mather wanted the parks to be accessible and insisted on better roads so more people could visit, but he also believed the park service should be supported with fees paid by visitors. And fees were high, even back then. A weeklong pass to Yellowstone Park cost $10 back in 1915, the Idaho Statesman has reported. That's $320 in today's dollars.
Looking at that figure makes today's fees look like a bargain. Certainly they're a bargain compared to spending a week at some overpriced theme park — and a lot healthier experience to boot.
But we would like some assurances that the extra money coming in will actually be spent to improve the individual parks. We worry that the higher prices could drive away enough people and lower attendance to the point where the income stays about the same.
We wish there were a fee waiver for families who really cannot afford those fees. They are, after all, the shared heritage of all Americans. They should never become a playground for the wealthy.
Los Angeles Times: Could you live in L.A. on $221 a month?
In the early 1980s, as today, Los Angeles County residents who qualified for no other form of public assistance were given a few hundred dollars in monthly last-resort payments known as general relief. It was a lifeline to people down on their luck, hoping to cobble together a few dollars to put a roof over their heads, at least for a portion of the month. The amount in 1982 was $221.
More than 30 years later, that's still what the county pays, despite the obvious many-fold increases over the decades in the cost of housing and other basic needs. Two general relief recipients pooling their money still can't afford a month in a typical L.A. apartment.
And leaders wonder why Los Angeles can't make headway against homelessness.
The orientation of county government toward its moral duty to help the most destitute of people has been grudging, to say the least. The Legislature has often been its ally, for example passing a law to permanently hold the county's obligation to 65 percent of the 1994 poverty line, taking the payment from a paltry $346 back down to $221 — miserly even then.
Certain that general relief recipients were using their monthly payments to fund princely lives on the streets, county supervisors embarked on one costly mission after another to ferret out fraud and whittle the general relief rolls. People who tried to make their payments go further by becoming roommates were disqualified, for example.
The county, as has so often been the case, got caught up in the minutiae of rules and regulations while losing sight of the program's goal, which is — or ought to be — to aid those most in need and give them a way to live without panhandling or engaging in some other troubling behavior.
A year ago, the county agreed to settle a lawsuit by correcting some of its most egregious practices. Recipients can now pool their money, for example. But Los Angeles — the county with the costliest housing — still pays the lowest general relief amount in the state.
In the budget process now underway, the Board of Supervisors is signaling a new willingness to question old rules in order to spend money more effectively and provide better service to foster children, the mentally ill and others in need. It's high time to boost payments to general relief recipients as well. They are part of the web of need that, unaddressed, puts more people on the streets and makes the streets meaner, more hopeless places to live.
Ontario Daily Bulletin: Appalling rip-off by the for-profit colleges
Why do for-profit "colleges" and "universities" even exist in a world in which we have so many superb genuine institutions dedicated to truly higher learning?
The first thing to understand is that, given the rapacious marketing campaigns aimed at unsuspecting veterans topped with the fact that it is only government-backed student loans that make these businesses profitable, the above is a question very much worth asking.
A good position for a (genuine) college debate team to argue would be: "Resolved: For-profit colleges should not exist." The cherry on top of the evidence that the schools should not be allowed to rip off students under the guise of providing them an education could easily be the recent bankruptcy of the appalling Corinthian Colleges Inc., which the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has labeled nothing more than a "predatory lending scheme," operating in the guise of an educational establishment.
Attorneys seeking to represent some 500,000 Corinthian students whose degrees are now essentially worthless or who never got to finish say that the school may be liable for up to $25 billion in student claims. The lawyers say the students were entirely misled by Corinthian and its subsidiaries about the schools' accreditation status and how much money a degree would really cost.
To be fair, one (genuine) scholar who has studied the matter has an answer to our original question: "For-profits exist in large part to fix educational market failures left by traditional institutions, and they profit by serving students that public and private nonprofit institutions too often ignore," Kevin Carey wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2010. There is a kicker to that from Carey: "There's no doubt that the worst for-profits are ruthlessly exploiting the commodified college degree. But they didn't commodify it in the first place."
Indeed they did not. Traditional American higher education, from Harvard to your local community college, is itself the greatest commodifier in the world of the notion that what it has to sell is worth almost any price. And it gets us to do the advertising. In no other nation in the world does the family sedan sport a decal — often multiple decals — bragging about where the kids, or the dad and mom, went to college. There are no "Oxford" stickers on London's Jaguars, no "Sorbonne" promotion on a Parisian Peugeot. The price we pay for traditional colleges has gone through the roof, and some of them go out of business, too, as Sweet Briar in Virginia has.
But it is a time of reckoning for the businesses that own schools. Their student base is shrinking rapidly, and many "campuses" — often just office space — are being closed. Even the biggest, the University of Phoenix, has less than half the students it had in 2010.
It's time for a rethinking of the entire well-meaning but failed notion that "every American student should go to college." The fact is that most high school students have neither the desire nor the aptitude for the old liberal-arts model of four years at State U. And no large economy can support that model.
We need to invest in our community colleges to provide affordable technical vocational training that will give students the skills they really need in today's changing workplace. With its large and excellent system, California could lead the nation in practical, affordable college for all, eliminating the need for the rip-off for-profits.
Orange County Register: Cut UC spending, don't raise tuition
University of California President Janet Napolitano sent an email blast last week to "friends" of the university system — students, parents, faculty, business and community leaders and alumni.
She urged them to contact Gov. Jerry Brown and their legislative representatives to urge the lawmakers to give UC "an additional $97.7 million dollars" (sic) on top of the $119.5 million the governor already has proposed.
"The California economy is improving and state funds are available," Ms. Napolitano suggested, noting that a report last month from the state's Legislative Analyst's Office projects $4 billion more revenue flowing into the state's coffers than Gov. Brown foresaw in his January budget.
No one recognizes more than we do what a tremendous asset the UC system is to the Golden State, with its 10 campuses, including UC Irvine and UC Riverside. Indeed, we know firsthand what contributions UCI has made to Orange County and UCR to Riverside County.
That said, we found Ms. Napolitano's online plea rather off-putting. We understand that she believes the UC system underfunded, despite its current $2.9 billion allocation from the state and the additional $119.5 million proposed by Gov. Brown.
We also do not begrudge her seeking additional monies from Sacramento "to make up for the nearly $1 billion in cuts" the UC system suffered during the Great Recession.
Our issue with the UC president's plaintive plea for a 7.5 percent increase in the system's state funding is that it was accompanied by an implied threat — that, if Gov. Brown and the Legislature acceded to Ms. Napolitano's funding request, it would "prevent the necessity of a tuition increase."
But, if Sacramento doesn't pony up, UC parents and students can look forward to a tuition hike for the 2015-16 school year. And there also would be thousands fewer undergraduate admissions, Ms. Napolitano makes all but clear.
Most California voters look askance upon the UC president's stance, according to a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll.
Some 57 percent of respondents agreed with Gov. Brown's position that "rather than raise tuition on students and families, the UC system needs to cut spending, limit executive pay raises and offer more online classes."
We suspect that sentiment is shared by at least some of the students, parents, faculty, business and community leaders and alumni and other friends of the UC system who received Ms. Napolitano's recent email blast.