Friday, December 30, 2011

2011-12-30 "Wolf's entry into Calif. major environmental step" by Peter Fimrite from "San Francisco Chronicle"
[http://articles.sfgate.com/2011-12-30/news/30571700_1_gray-wolf-wolf-packs-male-wolf]
A lone gray wolf crossed the border into California and was on the move south of Klamath Falls on Thursday, becoming the first wild wolf in the state in almost a century.
The 2 1/2-year-old male wolf, known as OR7, was tracked using a GPS collar as it crossed the Oregon border, to the delight of conservationists and the horror of the many ranchers in the forested northern regions of California.
 "Whether one is for it or against it, the entry of this lone wolf into California is an historic event and the result of much work by the wildlife agencies in the West," said Charlton H. Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Game. "If the gray wolf does establish a population in California, there will be much more work to do here."
The presence of the mythic predator in California is a major event for environmentalists, who would like to see the state's native predators and wildlife returned. But it could also influence environmental and ranching policies and gun laws if the large, potentially dangerous canine carnivores become prevalent in populated regions.
 The young wolf, which left his pack in northeastern Oregon in September, was confirmed to be in Siskiyou County at about noon Wednesday. A signal from his radio collar at 6 a.m. Thursday showed that he was several miles south of the border.

Endangered species -
Wolves are listed in the state as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.
 Nobody knows what OR7 will do next, but the presence of a wolf in California is alarming to ranchers, who are afraid recolonization could endanger their livestock.
"We do not welcome the wolf back in California," said Jack Hanson, a cattle rancher in Lassen County and the treasurer of the California Cattlemen's Association who hopes to work with game wardens to monitor and control the population. "We would like to put a big shield up and keep him out, no doubt. ... If there were no regulations, our family would shoot them on sight so that they did not multiply."
 Patrick Valentino, who is on the board of the California Wolf Center, which is dedicated to the preservation of wild wolves, has a different view. "We need to reduce the emotional component about wolves and focus on both the science and conservation of wolves," he said. "The return of wolves should not be seen as an anti-ranching event. In fact, we should find ways to bring stakeholders together whether they are pro- or anti-wolf."
Mike Fris, the assistant regional director of ecological services for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific Southwest region, said wolves are a concern regarding livestock only when they are in packs. Domestic dogs are virtually identical genetically to wolves.
 "A single wolf is more likely to be feeding on carcasses than livestock," he said. "He's the only wolf we know of in the state of California at the moment."
 Experts believe that will inevitably change.
 OR7 came from a pack in Wallowa County, Ore., one of four known wolf packs in the northeast corner of the state, bordering Idaho. The wolves would not be there at all if 66 Canadian wolves had not been released in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in the mid-1990s.

Hunted down -
 The reintroduction campaign was necessary after bounty hunters and trappers - harboring largely erroneous myths about wolves as vicious man-eaters - drove them to extinction in the lower 48 states. The last wild wolf in California was trapped in Lassen County in 1924.
 There is no doubt that gray wolves are fearsome predators. They are smart and work efficiently in packs, and the males can reach up to 115 pounds. But they've never been known to hunt humans. Most attacks have been attributed to rabies or starvation.
 The gray wolf population has multiplied and spread out since being reintroduced. There are now more than 1,600 wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains. Congress delisted wolves in some areas this year, meaning ranchers can once again hunt the mysterious animals.
 A lone wolf crossed into Oregon in 1999, becoming the first of the predators seen in the state in 60 years. The first wolf pack was confirmed in 2008. There are now at least two dozen wolves in the four Oregon packs, and they, too, have created controversy.
Pack members have killed 20 cows and calves over the past two years. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife killed two of the culprits and were planning to cull two other wolves before conservation groups filed a lawsuit.

700-mile wildland trek -
The California wolf, a 90-pound subadult that was tranquilized and collared in February, was already a minor sensation before he crossed the border. As most young males do, he left his pack three months ago. Since then, he has wandered over mountains, across highways, through forests and meandered about 700 miles back and forth across Oregon's wildlands.
OR7 has been near the California border for several weeks now, leading to a great deal of speculation among wildlife officials, ranchers and conservation groups, one of which is holding a contest to change the wolf's decidedly un-sexy name.
His presence, however, doesn't mean he will stay in California. In fact, experts said, he will have to wait a long time before a female wolf also discovers the Golden State.
"He's looking for a pack or other mates," Fris said. "If he stays in California, that most likely won't be fruitful for him."

Keeping them wild -
More about how to avoid human-wildlife interactions can be found on Department of Fish and Game's website at www.dfg.ca.gov/keepmewild.

The mother of California's first wild wolf in almost a century is seen in Wallowa County, Ore., in 2009. Her son crossed the border into California on Wednesday.
Credit: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife 2009

Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011-12-29 "When Special Fishing Regulations Differ on the Same River"
[http://californiaoutdoors.wordpress.com/2011/12/29/when-special-fishing-regulations-differ-on-the-same-river/]
Even if regulations on various stretches of the same river differ, anglers may never exceed the daily bag or possession limit for the location where they are currently fishing, regardless of where the fish was caught:
Question: What are the bag limits for waters that have special regulations for trout? In some cases, specifically the middle fork of the Stanislaus River, the river is broken down into sections. For example, from the Beardsley Dam down to the Spring Gap Bridge there are certain restrictions and the bag limit is two fish of at least 14 inches. From the same bridge down to New Melones Lake there are no special restrictions and the bag limit is two fish.
If you fish on one side of the bridge following the special restrictions (only artificial lures and barbless hooks) and you keep two fish that are at least 14 inches, can you also be in possession of two fish from the other side of the bridge that allows any type of bait and hook? Meaning you would be in possession of four fish because they were caught essentially under the bag limit of the two different bodies of water based on the regulations. Also, how would you be able to prove to a game warden if they ask about the additional two fish that you caught up river beyond the bridge? (Larry G.)

Answer: You may not exceed the daily bag or possession limit for the location where you are currently fishing, regardless of where you caught the fish. In your example, the daily bag limit is two fish, and you cannot exceed that limit on the same day even if you fish multiple segments of the river.
For an alphabetical list of waters with special fishing regulations, see California Code of Regulations Title 14, section 7.50. In the current California Freshwater Sport Fishing Regulations booklet, they can be found beginning on page 30.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

2011-12-21 "Lone Holdout's First Nuclear Winter Looms in Tohoku" by Christopher Johnson from "The Japan Times"
[http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20111218x2.html]
MIHARU VILLAGE, Fukushima Prefecture — As bitter winds blow around cesium and other radioactive particles spewed from the nearby Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant's reactors, Naoto Matsumura lights a cigarette, which he considers relatively good for his health.
"I would get sick if I stopped smoking; I have a lot to worry about," says Matsumura, 52, who reckons he is the only person still living within a 20-km radius of the world's worst atomic disaster since Chernobyl.
According to reports from Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency published in August, following the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, and subsequent explosions at three reactors about 13 km from Matsumura's door, the plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) has released 168 times more radiation than the atomic bombs that razed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Living without electricity or enough money to fill his generators with gas, even as the mercury is already dipping below zero, Matsumura wonders if his neighbor's supply of charcoal will be enough to keep him warm through the frigid winter in his corner of the once-thriving town of Tomioka that used to be home to 16,000 people.
He's worried, too, that the hundreds of animals he's been feeding since the area's other residents were evacuated in haste on March 12 — some 400 cows, 60 pigs, 30 fowl, 10 dogs, more than 100 cats, and an ostrich — won't survive to see another spring.
"They need help from humans," he says while lighting another of the 20-odd cigarettes he admits to smoking a day. "My supplies to feed them will be gone by the end of December. They need food, and buildings for shelter from the winter. I'm the only one taking care of everything. The government should do it, but I'm doing it."
As we stand in a rice field outside the exclusion zone about 40 km due west of the ongoing meltdowns, Matsumura tells me that he comes from an ancestral line of samurai, and he was raised by a "spartan" father to work hard and think for himself.
A lifelong farmer, he's lived alone since separating from his wife 10 years ago. When his worried children, aged 23 and 21, called from their homes in distant Saitama Prefecture after the explosions in March, Matsumura says he told them: "Don't worry. If the whole world dies from this nuclear disaster, I'm still not going to die. I'm not going to leave here."
Indeed, this silver-haired, soft-spoken man of the land who has enjoyed playing golf in Saipan and the Philippines, says he now views himself as a lone maverick in a toxic desert — one hunted by an invisible enemy called "radioactivity" eating away at living things now and into the future. As the other animals perish around him, he wonders when it will be his turn.
All Matsumura's friends have left, and they no longer ask him to bring their stuff to them in the temporary shelters they must now inhabit. The automatic vending machines, which used to light up the country roads, no longer work.
After sunset, he is surrounded by miles of total darkness devoid of human movement. He has no television or Internet, only a cellphone that loses charge all too quickly. He stokes up a charcoal fire in his house, tucks himself into a futon, and goes to sleep by 7 p.m. — haunted by nightmares of what could be happening inside his body.
Waking with the rising sun, he eats another can of food, and takes his dogs for a 20-minute walk among barren fields. He spends daylight hours cleaning grave sites and tending to animals withering around him in their stalls, sheds and barns. Meanwhile, cows and pigs and other animals set free by their fleeing owners in March now fend for themselves in wild, radiation-contaminated nature.
Even nine months after everybody else fled on March 12, Matsumura says he is still shocked by the scenes of cruel death he encounters daily: the bones of cows that starved tied up or in confined spaces after they'd eaten all their fodder; a locked cage full of 20 shrivelled canaries denied by their keeper's panic even a chance to fly away free.
"People don't want to see dead animals. They would be shocked if they saw it for themselves. I see it every day," this animal-lover says quietly with real feeling.
His efforts to publicize the plight of the animals haven't worked, he says. He tells how he once showed a low-level government official around nearby Tomioka town — formerly famous for having one of the longest cherry-blossom tunnels in Japan — and told him they should at least take away carcasses. But even though Tepco brings in thousands of workers to stabilize the reactors, he says the official told him: "Sorry, Mr. Matsumura, we can't do anything inside the 20-km evacuation zone."
On April 21, more than a month after the ongoing disaster began, Matsumura joined a protest outside Tepco's headquarters in Tokyo. "I told them, 'Take care of the pets and farm animals, it's your responsibility.' But they only said, 'We are studying it.' They still haven't taken action," he reported.
In September, he showed two lower-level Tepco officials around Tomioka. During their conversation together, he says, "I told them to tell the top people about what they saw. Maybe they told them, but the top guys pretend they don't know anything," he said, pausing to light a cigarette. "They don't have human hearts. They only think about money."
Though he's not alone in lambasting Tepco, Matsumura's rage is more intense than most. He blames Tepco for "killing" his 100-year-old aunt, who he says died from exhaustion after being moved from several hospitals between Tomioka and finally Aizu-Wakamatsu in western Fukushima Prefecture.
"Many people died like that because of Tepco," he declares. "It's a terrible company. They have more power than the national parliament, because they control the supply of electricity, and they have power over the media through advertising."
He says Tepco, which will need massive taxpayer funding to stay afloat, has only paid nuclear refugees ¥1 million each in compensation (about $12,000).
Yet the company, which claims to be on schedule with its plan to achieve a cold shutdown of the damaged reactors by the new year, saw fit to present itself in a positive light when, on Nov. 12, it invited 35 journalists (including four from overseas) for a first media view of its wrecked nuclear plant.
"I think it's remarkable that we've come this far," Environment Minister Goshi Hosono told those on the tour. "The situation at the beginning was extremely severe. At least we can say we have overcome the worst."
Such hints of hubris, however, sit uneasily with the established facts.
In November, the esteemed journal Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences carried the results of an international research study led by Teppei Yasunari of the Universities Space Research Association in Maryland. This found that radioactive cesium had "strongly contaminated" the soils in "large areas" of eastern and northeastern Japan, including Fukushima Prefecture, while western Japan had been relatively sheltered by mountain ranges. (To view this report, visit www.pnas.org/content/108/49/19530.)
Since the release of those findings, the Tokyo government has recently banned the sale of rice from large swaths of Fukushima Prefecture after high levels of cesium were found in crops from Onami, about 65 km northwest of the nuclear power plants.
Though Matsumura, who doesn't have a geiger counter, says he somehow thinks radiation levels are decreasing, he believes it's not safe for former residents to return to Tomioka. And he's adamant that children shouldn't eat rice from eastern Fukushima Prefecture, though he does himself.
Parking his white Suzuki truck near Koriyama City train station outside the evacuation zone, he says that his plight and that of the animals in his locality is not widely known in Japan — largely, he riles, because TV companies have ignored him or repeatedly canceled segments about him.
"It's now impossible for me to meet with Japan's mainstream media," he explains. "If I say bad things about Tepco, and the government, they won't run it because Tepco is their sponsor."
One tabloid magazine, Friday, did run a two-page feature on Matsumura, with bizarre photos of him feeding an ostrich — which it quipped in bad taste was "the official mascot of Tepco."
So, as he believes himself to have been ostracized in his native Japan, Matsumura has made a few trips to Tokyo to beg foreign journalists to tell the truth about Fukushima. To reach him inside the no-entry evacuation zone, one such from Italy walked along railway tracks for 20 km under cover of darkness to evade police patrols. Searching for him, as their meeting was prearranged, Matsumura says he could hear the man's footsteps in a pitch-black railway tunnel. "When he was about 10 meters away, I called out ghost noises — and he was dumbstruck with fear. He later told me he'd thought his heart was about to explode."
Another visit Matsumura received recently was on a Sunday afternoon in November. The farmer tells how an ambulance suddenly showed up at his door. "I was a bit unnerved that they'd come into my house, and I didn't know who'd sent them," he said, adding that "they checked my body and my health, but they didn't find anything bad in particular."
He gets most passionate talking about the abandoned animals and about nuclear energy. "The whole world should stop using this bad form of energy. Anything we build with our hands can break someday," he says. "Governments should stop lying to us. Everybody in Fukushima — everybody — doesn't believe the news about the nuclear situation."
As he prepares to leave me at the station and return to his home in the no-go zone before night falls, he says that Tomioka, like other towns in the evacuation zone, will disappear unless drastic action is taken immediately.
As he put it: "Only senior citizens are saying they want to move back, not the younger people. Eventually, in 20 years, all these elders will pass away, and there won't be any younger generation to maintain the circle of life. Nobody will be left."
But for now, he says, he's going to stay. "I am not bored or depressed, because I'm used to being alone. I know I am doing the right thing. My own doctor says I'm a 'champion of radiation.' "

 In the zone: Naoto Matsumura, who believes he is the only person still living in the evacuation zone around the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant. (Christopher Johnson Photo)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

2011-12-20 "American Canyon High School lauded by Huffington Post for being green" by Rachel Raskin-Zrihen from "Vallejo Times-Herald"
[http://www.timesheraldonline.com/ci_19583942]
AMERICAN CANYON -- This city's first and only high school was recognized in a national publication as the nation's "greenest" -- an achievement the writer seemed to think all the more remarkable for its history and proximity to Vallejo.
Former Sierra Club Chairman Carl Pope's story in the Huffington Post on Friday notes that -- despite American Canyon's being "a far cry from the high-priced vineyards and estates to the north" -- its 3-year-old high school last month was the nation's first to be certified as a "green school" by the Collaborative for High Performance Schools.
The article describes the city as bordering "blue-collar Vallejo" and for years, the "low-income community" where facilities and problems "the rest of Napa County didn't want to deal with" were dumped.
Since its 1992 incorporation, however, American Canyon has "developed a remarkable culture of civic engagement and participation," of which the high school is one expression, Pope said Monday.
"I wasn't trying to make a comment on Vallejo, but (American Canyon) is not part of the (upscale) Napa Wine Country, and I think most people would have assumed the country's first green high school would be someplace like Mill Valley or Calistoga," he said. "Poor people don't typically get the best stuff, and this time they did, and that's what's exciting about it."
Before the high school was built, American Canyon students were bused to up-county schools. A bond measure was passed to build the school, and make it "a 22nd century investment," outgoing City Manager Rich Ramirez said.
While Pope writes that he hopes in five years American Canyon High will be just one of hundreds of ecologically friendly American schools, city officials are proud to be first.
"It's kind of cool," Ramirez said of the Huffington Post article. "It was a conscious decision by the school board to make an investment to save money in the long run."
The "clever" energy-saving efficiencies incorporated into the school's design are a source of pride for city leaders.
"There have been some minor bugs to work out, like some communications issues that have been resolved, but, that said, the design used every imaginable energy efficiency," Ramirez said.
Mayor Leon Garcia, too, said "the community is quite proud of that," noting "an awful lot of planning went into that."
Though John Stong of Quattrocchi Kwok Architects, the Santa Rosa-based firm that designed the school, had not heard it was named the nation's greenest, he said he wasn't surprised.
"We were asked to design a very sustainable school and we took that to heart," he said. "We are very proud it's been so well accepted by the community."
Most of the sustainable features could be incorporated into any building nearly anywhere, he said.
"For example, the use of (solar panels) is available anywhere the sun shines, as are ground source geo-thermal heating systems that take advantage of the constant temperature deep below ground for energy efficient heating and cooling," Stong said.
Pope attributes the American Canyon High School success in part to the community "pulling itself together in very interesting ways."
"I think it's remarkable that they have now got this achievement that's recognized as a wonderful thing nationally," he said. "I'm blown away and thrilled. I've driven past that location frequently and never knew there was something wonderful two blocks away."

Monday, December 19, 2011

2011-12-19 "Proposed plant at Potrero Hills would connect energy to PG&E grid" by Melissa Murphy from the "The Vacaville Reporter"
[http://www.timesheraldonline.com/ci_19577410]
Potrero Hills landfill in Suisun City is more than just huge mounds of trash. It sits on a renewable resource that has hardly been tapped -- yet.
Currently, 75 wells drilled deep into the heap of decomposing trash siphon off the gas produced by the rotting garbage, pulling it out like a vacuum, so it can be burned.
The process allows the dump to emit fewer greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but there is a better solution said Potrero Hills District Manager Jim Dunbar.
"We're doing the right thing by burning it," Dunbar said. "But we want to do the better thing and turn it into power."
The landfill is teaming up with DTE Biomass Energy Inc. to reuse the landfill gas. Instead of burning it as a flare, the plan is to send the gas through a pipeline to a power generation plant on site.
DTE is earning permits to build the plant which would connect the energy to the Pacific Gas & Electric grid.
The $20 million project, once approved, will sit on the landfill site and produce 9.6 megawatts of renewable power, enough to power 6,000 homes.
Just as important, DTE officials said, the project will create jobs and bring tax revenue to Solano County.
"It's a good addition to the area," said Lou Wilkinson, vice president of business development for DTE Biomass Energy Inc. "It's a win-win for everyone."
He said using the landfill gas is a "significant" advantage to using other popular renewable sources for energy.
Unlike solar or wind energy, gas produced from the landfill is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Wilkinson described the renewable resource produced at the landfill as a "use it or lose it" opportunity. Right now, Potrero Hills isn't taking advantage of the resource, he said.
The reason for picking Potrero Hills to start a new project, Wilkinson, is its established relationship with the corporate office of Waste Connections Inc. and Solano County.
"Solano County is a great place to do business," he said. "Potrero Hills is a good fit for a gas to energy project."
He added that the proposed project is very economical and very cost competitive with other options.
DTE Biomass Inc. has made a commitment to invest $1 billion in energy nationwide and has managed gas and electric utility businesses in more than 20 states for more than 25 years.
"We want people to know that they can trust us because we're a company that has the funds to do this," Wilkinson said.
Still, he said, the Potrero Hills project is a big one for the company.
DTE is obtaining an interconnect permit from PG&E and an air permit from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. The interconnect permit will ensure that DTE is using the right equipment and that it is correctly installed and delivered in a safe way to PG&E and then to customers. Electricity moved to the PG&E grid will be sold by DTE. The company expects to be up and running at the end of 2013.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

2011-12-18 "Endangered Species Act Neglecting Hundreds of Animals" by Alicia Graef
[http://www.care2.com/causes/endangered-species-act-missing-hundreds-proposed-changes-announced.html]
Last week the Obama administration proposed a new rule that would change the way plants and animals are classified under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in different states.
The new rule would grant endangered species protection across state lines, forcing states to adhere to federal regulations, which is expected to make it easier for the ESA to be enforced and help clarify which species are eligible for protection. However, it may make it more difficult to add new species or keep some species on the list under this proposed change.
“The new policy would clarify that a plant or animal could be listed as threatened or endangered if threats occur in a “significant portion of its range,” even if the threat crosses state lines and does not apply in the species’ entire range,” according to the AP [http://www.flatheadbeacon.com/articles/article/obama_no_more_listing_endangered_species_by_state/25733/].
This rule proposed by the two federal agencies responsible for administering the ESA, the Interior Department’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries), would essentially replace a Bush-era policy that allowed for animals to be classified differently in neighboring states and applied protection only to areas where they were struggling, a policy that was withdrawn after being rejected in federal courts earlier this year in the case of gray wolves.
“This proposed interpretation will provide consistency and clarity for the services and our partners, while making more effective use of our resources and improving our ability to protect and recover species before they are on the brink of extinction,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe [http://westernfarmpress.com/government/endangered-species-act-gets-clarification-upgrade?page=2]. “By taking action to protect imperiled native fish, wildlife and plants, we can ensure a healthy future for our communities and protect treasured landscapes for future generations.”
But not everyone agrees that this interpretation will be beneficial to species who need protection.
“The phrase “significant portion of range” is important, because it means that species need not be at risk of extinction globally to receive protection. The policy proposed today sharply limits interpretation of this phrase by both defining “significant” to mean only where the species currently exists, not its historic range and by defining significant to mean that loss of the species from that portion of range would threaten the survival of the species as a whole,” according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
“Under the policy proposed today, a species could be absolutely gone or close to vanishing almost everywhere it’s always lived — but not qualify for protection because it can still be called secure on one tiny patch of land,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director the Center [http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/press_releases/2011/endangered-species-act-12-08-2011.html]. “The policy absolutely undermines the spirit of the Endangered Species Act and will be a recipe for extinction of our native wildlife if it’s finalized — a loophole that’s really a black hole. It will allow for massive species decline and habitat destruction.”
The timing of the proposed change also coincides with a study published this month in the journal Conservation Letters, that compared the number of species listed under the ESA to the number listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List [http://www.iucnredlist.org/], which is the mother list for threatened species worldwide, and found that nearly 75% of animals, or 531 species, in the U.S. that are globally classified as threatened or endangered have no protection under the ESA.
“Our study found that hundreds of imperiled animals are not receiving the protection they need to survive,” said Bert Harris, lead author of the study and a graduate student at the University of Adelaide in Australia [http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/press_releases/2011/endangered-species-act-12-15-2011.html]. “The Endangered Species Act is the world’s most effective law for saving species, but it can only work if species are protected as threatened or endangered.”
You can submit a comment about the proposed change at the Federal eRulemaking Portal by following the instructions for submitting comments to Docket No. [FWS–R9–ES–2011–0031] [http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=FWS-R9-ES-2011-0031-0001].

Friday, December 16, 2011

2011-12-14 "Niles Canyon Road widening project on hold" by Carolyn Jones from "San Francisco Chronicle"
[http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/12/13/BAF61MC538.DTL]
Niles Canyon Road got a reprieve from the bulldozers Tuesday, at least for the time being.
Caltrans agreed to stop plans to widen the scenic, 8-mile route between Fremont and Sunol due to environmental concerns, according to a legal settlement reached with the Alameda Creek Alliance.
"We got to put a lump of coal in Caltrans' stocking," said Jeff Miller, head of the Alameda Creek Alliance. "I think it's clear Caltrans screwed this up on every level."
Miller's group sued Caltrans in June to stop the $80 million project, which called for widening the shoulders and adding retaining walls and a median to Highway 84, a twisty route through the East Bay foothills that Caltrans called one of the most dangerous in the region.
The improvements would have made the road safer by giving motorists more room to safely pull over or make turns, said Caltrans spokesman Bob Haus. From 1998 to 2008, Niles Canyon Road was the scene of 436 collisions, resulting in 13 deaths and 342 people injured.
The project would have been devastating for the sensitive habitat in Niles Canyon, though, Miller said. The canyon and creek are home to the endangered Alameda whipsnake and California red-legged frog, along with steelhead and dozens of other species.
Caltrans has already removed about 100 sycamores, willows and other trees in the canyon in preparation for the widening project. The agency will have to plant replacements in the canyon.
Caltrans had also started repaving the road before Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch issued a restraining order in June. Caltrans will now rip up the new pavement and replace the rumble strips it had removed, Haus said.
The settlement stops the first phase of the project, the portion of the road closest to Fremont. The next two phases are still under review.
Caltrans will probably start over with the first phase, putting forth an environmental impact report and essentially starting the process from scratch, Haus said.
"Caltrans' No. 1 priority is the safety of the motoring public," he said. "We're halting construction on Highway 84 as we continue to look for ways to address safety."
Hundreds of residents of Sunol and Fremont had opposed the project, saying it would encourage motorists to drive faster through the canyon and mar the scenic beauty of the area.
"This settlement is the best thing we could have hoped for," said Dorothy Bradley, 66, of Fremont. "Let's face it - we have bars at both ends of the canyon. Making it easier for people to drive fast was not a good idea."
Instead of widening the road, Caltrans should add stop signs and ask the California Highway Patrol to increase enforcement of speed laws, she said.
"I'm very happy they now have to do an EIR," she said. "At least now they can go back and do this properly."


2011-12-16 "Big Victory for Niles Canyon Protesters" from "Livermore Independent"
[http://www.independentnews.com/news/article_47ecacfe-274d-11e1-8445-0019bb2963f4.html]
A court settlement has stopped CalTrans from further work on the first phase of its Niles Canyon Road improvements. As a result, the first phase went back to square one.
The agency will be pulling up asphalt that it already had installed, re-striping the roadway to its original configuration, and putting rumble strips back, said Bob Haus, public information branch chief for CalTrans District 4.
The settlement comes six months after the Alameda Creek Alliance (ACA) filed suit against CalTrans over the project.
"This is a victory both for protecting Alameda Creek and forcing transparency in public agency decisions," declared ACA director Jeff Miller.
"CalTrans must mitigate for damaged trees along Alameda Creek, and cannot pursue a highway project in lower Niles Canyon without adequate environmental review and full public participation," added Miller.
"If CalTrans comes back with a revised project, we strongly suggest it not involve significant highway widening or unnecessary damage to trout habitat," said Miller.
CalTrans had planned to spend $80 million on three segments, including widening the roadway to provide two 12-foot lanes, a 2-foot median, and shoulders up to 8 feet wide. A CalTrans contractor cut down 99 trees to make room for the road widening in phase 1. In phase 2 of the project, CalTrans has plans to cut down more than 400 trees.
The sudden removal of trees along the road was the lightning bolt that shocked Sunol and Niles residents into impromptu action. They picketed along the roadway while the trees were being removed.
Once they found out about the overall project, the residents organized politically, and formed Save Niles Canyon. With the help of Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett and Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, they held large public meetings with CalTrans officials.
The protests led to the lawsuit by ACA, whose main interest is to prevent a project that would damage fish habitat in Niles Creek, because of the increased muddy runoff and bank erosion that the ACA says the changes would cause.

CALTRANS PLEDGES ITS COOPERATION
Asked about CalTrans' future plans for phase 1, Haus replied, "We'll work with the Alameda Creek Alliance. We will work with our local partners and the community, while improving the safety of the scenic highway, and will continue to consider the canyon's natural resources and beauty."
CalTrans puts safety first, in view of the "high incidence of traffic accidents and the high fatality rate" on the road, said Haus.
Such statements were challenged at public meetings by residents. They referred to CalTrans' own data to show that traffic safety has actually improved toward the end of the period to which CalTrans was referring.
The ACA sued CalTrans in June. The suit contended that CalTrans made a unilateral decision internally to go ahead with the project, without providing proper public notice about the project during its environmental review phase. CalTrans said it did run small classified ads in two daily newspapers about the environmental review. There were a dozen comments, but no public hearings. There was a negative declaration issued for the project.
Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch agreed with ACA that public notice was insufficient, and directed that a settlement be reached.
Miller said that the ACA will ask to leave the enforcement of the settlement in Roesch's court, since he is familiar with the case.
According to the settlement, CalTrans must return all permits that it obtained for the project. The agency must go through the entire permitting process again for phase 1.
One condition of one of the permits, which was granted by the state water board, said that 68 trees must be planted as mitigation for the 99 that were cut down in phase 1. In addition, CalTrans must mitigate more trees on 5 acres of stream-side habitat along Alameda Creek. Those mitigation conditions in the permit will remain an obligation, although the permit itself would no longer be in effect.

PHASE 2 THREATENS MANY MORE TREES
There is potential for the removal of more than 400 more trees in phase 2 of the project, said Miller. That phase of the roadway, in the middle segment of the canyon, has been the subject of public hearings that were attended by as many as 200 people.
CalTrans is still researching its answers for phase 2. Miller said that the prepared response was expected to be issued next summer. CalTrans spokesman Haus was not able to confirm any estimated date.
Miller said, "ACA is monitoring any project approval for phase 2, since the environmental review for that project was also severely flawed."
Sunol resident Bob Foster, a former school board member there, said, "CalTrans has to be watched. They do not have a record of good transparency."
Commenting on the settlement, Foster said, "I'm thrilled that CalTrans seems to see the writing on the wall. They realize we won't go away." If they want to do something that impacts any of us, they will have to work with us.
"Those of us who live in Sunol can be worked with, but not ignored," added Foster.

WORK ON RESTORATION
CalTrans will be working on State Route 84 in Niles Canyon beginning Tuesday night, December 13 to restore the road to pre-Phase 1 conditions. Weather permitting, there will be one-way traffic control as necessary from the Rosewarnes Underpass to Alameda Creek/Richmond Bridge through Thursday night, December 15, from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., and Friday night, December 16, from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. Flaggers will be on location to assist with traffic flow.

 
 
 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

2011-12-15 "The Plot to Oust America’s Nuclear Watchdog" by ANDREW COCKBURN
[http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/12/15/the-plot-to-oust-america’s-nuclear-watchdog/]
In what may well be a temporary aberration, the Obama Administration appears to be sticking by Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko, even though the nuclear industry most definitely wants him out.  The current assault on Jaczko has come in the form of a “confidential” letter from Jaczko’s four fellow commissioners sent in October  to White House Chief of Staff William Daley complaining that the NRC Chairman pays scant attention to their views and generally runs the Commission as a one man show.  Should the attack succeed, the new Chairman will most likely be William Magwood, long a tireless promoter of nuclear power as Director of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy where he promoted the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, a program to restart reprocessing of nuclear waste.
Obama himself has had a long and unpleasing record of engagement with the nuclear industry, notably the Exelon Corporation, which has been making generous provision to Obama’s campaign chest ever since his days in the Illinois Senate, where he performed various useful services on the corporation’s behalf.  It should therefore have come as no surprise that when a vacancy arose on the NRC board early in his administration, Obama nominated Magwood.
The nomination was opposed by over a hundred organizations which vainly cited Magwood’s shameful record as a tout for the industry he was now supposed to regulate.  Once installed early in 2010, he showed every sign of a zealous commitment to advancing the priorities of the nuclear power industry.
Back in those happy pre-Fukushima days, the future appeared bright for nuclear power . The public obloquy that followed Three Mile Island, condemning the industry to years of stagnation, was at last dissipating, thanks to artful invocation of the specter of global warming and concurrent recasting of nuclear power as a “clean” energy source and toast of the environmental movement.
One problem remained: longterm disposal of high level nuclear waste.  In 1987 it had seemed that this particular issue had been settled with the passage in Congress of the “Screw Nevada” bill nominating Yucca Mountain, 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as the sole suitable site that could be considered for the permanent interment of 72,000 tons of lethal waste currently stored at reactors around the country.  The selection had little scientific validity, given that the site marks the juncture of two seismic fault lines and in any case is volcanically active and composed of porous rock, through which flows drinking water for one of Nevada’s most important farming areas, as well as an Indian reservation.  The mountain is also sacred to the Western Shoshone people.
Opposing the infamous bill was freshman Senator Harry Reid.  Outraged and humiliated by the way that legislators from Washington state and Texas, the two other nominees for a waste site, had effectively consigned Nevada to be the radioactive trash dump, Reid, a former amateur boxer, remarked that “sometimes you have to go round the back of the bar” to finish a fight.
In ensuing years, as the construction crews tunneled away into the depths of the mountain, Reid took several initiatives to ensure that Yucca Mountain never opened for business.  First, he advanced through the Democratic leadership to become Majority Leader in 2006.  Second, he maneuvered successfully to move Nevada’s Democratic caucuses to January, thus rendering them potentially crucial in the nomination race.  This had the natural consequence of generating fervent pledges from Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton in 2008 that, so long as there was breath in their bodies, Yucca Mountain would never hold nuclear waste.  Thirdly, Reid recruited as his appropriations director and science policy adviser Gregory Jaczko, a former aide to  veteran anti-nuke congressman Ed Markey.  Fourth, he induced George W. Bush in 2005, to nominate Jaczko as a Commissioner to the NRC in exchange for dropping Democratic opposition to a number of federal judgeships.  Following Obama’s presidential victory, Reid demanded and secured Jaczko’s appointment as Chairman of the NRC.
Once at the helm, Jaczko moved with commendable dispatch to shut down Yucca Mountain once and for all even while fellow commissioners  echoed the nuclear industry in pushing for a mere suspension of the project.  Then came the Fukushima disaster. As the reactor buildings  exploded and US military radiation monitors in Japan ticked remorselessly upwards, the US government began to panic.  “I’ve lived through many crises in the decades I’ve been in government,” one national security official intimately involved in the Fukushima response told me, “but this was the most frightening week of my professional life, by far.  We thought we were going to lose half of Japan.”
While the Japanese government reacted to the catastrophe with criminal quiescence – enjoining evacuation merely from an area within 12 miles of the plant – Jaczko took more decisive action, telling Americans within 50 miles to move out. This was anathema to the industry, a sentiment emphatically  mirrored in the four commissioners’ letter of complaint to the White House.  Further initiatives irksome to Magwood and the others included a push to enjoin additional safety measures on US reactor operators in light of Fukushima.
“He’s not ‘our guy’ by any means, he has voted to re-license plants that should probably be shut down” says Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear.  “But he does care about safety, in ways that the others do not.”
So far at least, the White House, conscious no doubt of Nevada’s electoral votes, is backing Jaczko.  But, even while Jaczko confronts his assailants, a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future has been chewing on the problem of what to do with the radioactive waste filling up pools at reactors around the U.S..  Headed by that perennial placeman, former congressman Lee Hamilton, the commissioners include Obama’s old pal, Exelon CEO John Rowe, who, as Beyond Nuclear’s Kamps points out, “has created more nuclear waste than anyone else in America.”
Senator Reid’s work may not yet be done.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

2011-12-13 "Wine grapevines and native plants make a fine blend, study shows"
[http://www.news.ucdavis.edu/search/news_detail.lasso?id=10078]
Vineyards that include a mixture of grape vines and native vegetation provide more environmental benefits than do just vines. (Louise Jackson/UC Davis photo)
Grapevines and native plants are a fine blend for the environment, suggests a team of researchers led by a plant ecologist at the University of California, Davis.
According to their research, reported in the online journal Carbon Balance and Management, vineyard landscapes that include both vines and native vegetation provide more environmental benefits than vineyards planted solidly in grapevines.
Potential ecological benefits include habitat for wildlife, pollinators and other beneficial insects; water quality enhancement; and mitigation of damaging greenhouse gases.
“All too often, natural ecosystems are rapidly lost in regions where intensive agriculture becomes economically successful,” said John Williams, a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy, and lead author of the study. “The results of this study clearly indicate that agricultural systems that include a mosaic of both natural vegetation and planted crops can yield significant environmental benefits.
“What is needed now are land-use policies that will include incentives that will make it economically viable for landowners to develop and manage such complex agricultural landscape mosaics,” he said.
“Agriculture has dramatically transformed both land-based and aquatic ecosystems around the world and much of that land will continue to be in agricultural production for years to come,” said Louise Jackson, a professor and Cooperative Extension specialist in the UC Davis Department of Land, Air and Water Resources. “It is imperative, therefore, that we promote a multifunctional approach to agricultural land use.”
UC Davis has for decades led California in research devoted to all aspects of grape growing and winemaking and to solving real-world environmental problems, including climate change and habitat conservation.
The new study examined the amount of carbon storage on five ranches that produce organic grapes for the Bonterra label of Fetzer Vineyards, located in Northern California’s Mendocino County. Altogether, the ranches cover 2,962 acres, with roughly one third each devoted to vineyards, forested wildlands or grasslands. The ranches have been organically certified since the late 1980s.
Carbon storage is the process through which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and stored in wood and soil, lessening its impact on global climate change.
The researchers found that the level of carbon storage varied throughout the wildland areas, depending on the type of native vegetation, and, as expected, was much lower in the vineyard areas. In addition, the areas of conserved wildlands also retained habitat for native plant and animal species.
Funding for the study was provided by Brown-Forman Corporation, Fetzer Vineyards, the Kearney Foundation of Soil Science, the U.S. Department of Agriculture — Agricultural Research Service, the California Energy Commission and the UC Agricultural Experiment Station.

UC Davis, Media contact(s):
Louise Jackson, Land, Air and Water Resources, (530) 754-9116, lejackson@ucdavis.edu
Pat Bailey, UC Davis News Service, (530) 752-9843, pjbailey@ucdavis.edu
2011-12-14 "The Fight Against Fracking in California; Will a new lawsuit save public lands from getting fracked?" by Alastair Bland from "Eastbay Express" newspaper
[http://www.eastbayexpress.com/ebx/the-fight-against-fracking-in-california/Content?oid=3068933]
A recent deal between the federal Bureau of Land Management and several energy companies has put more than 2,500 acres of California public land, mostly in Monterey County, at risk of being fracked — an oil and gas extraction technique that environmentalists say is one of the dirtiest in the industry. But with hopes of stopping the fracking before it begins, two environmental groups are suing. The lawsuit, filed on December 8 in federal district court in San Jose by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club, alleges that fracked oil and gas development projects could threaten landscapes, recreation opportunities, air and water quality, and endangered or threatened species.
Properly known as hydraulic fracturing, fracking involves shooting large amounts of water, sand, and chemicals into the earth to break apart rock structure and release reservoirs of oil or natural gas. Environmentalists have decried the activity as a cause of serious groundwater contamination, and the US Environmental Protection Agency recently reported fracking to be the suspected source of subterranean reservoir pollution in some locations. Yet the federal government leased 2,343 acres of public land in Monterey County and 240 acres in Fresno County to three oil and gas companies for a total of $257,051 on September 14 without, environmentalists say, conducting an adequate review of potential environmental impacts.
The suit contends that the bureau went ahead and leased "sensitive lands in California for oil and gas development without analyzing the full environmental effects of doing so," which would be a breach of the national Environmental Policy Act. "It's just absurd and outrageous that the Bureau of Land Management would be selling our public lands to fracking without conducting a real environmental review," said Kassie Siegel, senior council at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Bureau of Land Management released a lengthy environmental assessment last spring and subsequently accepted public comments before leasing the lands to Vintage Production California LLC in Bakersfield; Lone Tree Energy in Littleton, Colorado; and energy development baron Neil Ormond of Clovis. Erin Curtis, a spokesperson for the bureau, wrote in an email that the assessment included "a general analysis" of the potential impacts of extracting fuel sources with fracking.
Siegel conceded that "the paper is there. Our point is just that we don't believe their environmental assessment is adequate."
The lawsuit warns that vehicle traffic, underground blasting, leakages of oil and gas, increased need for local water resources, and air pollution that can be expected from fracking pose threats to the land as well as to the San Joaquin kit fox, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, and the California condor, each an endangered species. Monterey County streams, where imperiled steelhead trout spawn, could also suffer, the suit alleges.
Chemicals often used in hydraulic fracturing include kerosene, benzene, and formaldehyde, and concerns about fracking's effects on drinking water supplies have sparked controversy in Pennsylvania, New York, Colorado, and other states. Just last week, the EPA released a draft statement that benzene detected in groundwater reservoirs underneath Pavillion, Wyoming may be the result of nearby fracking work. Now, fracking opponents in California are concerned that a similar scenario could arise if chemicals pumped into the earth should seep into Lake San Antonio, which lies about two miles west of the Monterey County property now under speculation by Neil Ormond, who is an agent of the Austin-based Vinton Exploration LLC.
Gary Lasky, vice-chair of the Sierra Club's Tehipite Chapter in Fresno, says that fracking projects would mean intensive use of heavy machinery and trucks and would probably worsen air pollution in the Fresno area, where, he says, one child in three already suffers from asthma. "Any fracking done in Fresno County would negatively impact the air quality, and these cumulative effects would be a violation of the law," he said. Lasky, noting the many controversies surrounding fracking, added: "Natural gas might be cleaner to burn, and that's what the energy companies always tell us in their advertising, but it's not cleaner to mine."
In spite of the EPA's formal recognition of the problems posed by fracking, the activity is rampant nationwide. Almost all the natural gas now being extracted from the earth in Wyoming and Colorado, for example, is a product of fracking, and in late July PG&E began piping natural gas fracked from the Rocky Mountains into Northern California via the Ruby Pipeline.
Meanwhile, the oil and gas development industry enjoys a relatively lawless landscape, thanks to the so-called "Halliburton Loophole." This legal exemption was made in 2005 under the urging of then-Vice President Dick Cheney, known for his fossil-fuel industry ties, and exempts fracking activity from the restrictive language of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
And Cheney wasn't the only politician who has been corrupted by money from frackers, according to a report released last month entitled "Deep Drilling, Deep Pockets in Congress." The report, produced by the nonpartisan watchdog organization Common Cause, stated that "current members of Congress who voted for [the Halliburton Loophole] have received an average of $73,433 from industry, while current members who voted against the bill have received an average of $10,894."
The report also stated that more than one thousand reports nationwide have been made about drinking water contaminated by fracking. Siegel said that, should fracking activity commence during current legal proceedings, the Center for Biological Diversity would seek an injunction to stop it.
Curtis of the Bureau of Land Management said that detailed, site-specific environmental analyses will take place once the three energy interests produce their respective development plans of the lands they have leased.
But Siegel doesn't trust any environmental analysis that determines fracking to be a safe activity. "I just don't think you can conduct a review of fracking in the Monterey shale and find that everything is going to be fine," Siegel said.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

2011-12-13 "New Willow Creek Bridge Helps Salmon, Prevents Flooding" by Stewards of the Coast & Redwoods
[http://www.northbayvoice.org/20111213525/community-voices/new-willow-creek-bridge-helps-salmon-prevents-flooding.html]
The dedication of a new bridge over Willow Creek, as it winds through parklands in a remote west Sonoma County valley, drew an appreciative crowd of state and local officials last Friday.
Ruth Coleman, the director of California State Parks and Charlton H. Bonham, the director of California Department of Fish and Game, along with officials from the NOAA Restoration Center and other organizations, assembled to celebrate the construction of the Willow Creek 2nd Bridge. The new bridge will open the watershed of Willow Creek to migrating coho salmon and steelhead, and eliminate the annual flooding that created problems for residents, State Parks and the popular Pomo Canyon Campground.
Prior to the new bridge installation, Willow Creek had changed its position in the valley; instead of flowing under the historic bridge, it passed through a series of 3-foot culverts located under Willow Creek Road. Over time, sediment and debris had blocked the culverts, impeding passage for migrating fish and resulting in frequent road flooding. The dedication is the culmination of a 10-year process involving several nonprofit and government agencies.
“When this project began, folks were looking for a simple solution to open up historic coho habitat and to stop Willow Creek Road from flooding,” said Bonham, who had previously been involved in the project as California Director of Trout Unlimited. “But studies revealed a complex problem, compounded by historical logging and farming practices and poor road and bridge design.”
Coho salmon are listed as endangered in the Russian River watershed. Willow Creek was historically a vibrant coho stream, and there are indications that steelhead (listed as threatened in the watershed) also spawned in the creek.
 “Restoring passage to this watershed, by replacing the culverts with a clear-span bridge, allowed us to release 11,000 juvenile coho salmon raised through the Coho Broodstock Program at Warm Springs Hatchery into Willow Creek this past fall,” said Joe Pecharich, a biologist for the NOAA Restoration Center. “We are very hopeful that we will soon see adult coho salmon and steelhead returning to the creek.”
In developing a watershed management plan and channel restoration feasibility analysis, California State Parks (which owns Pomo Canyon Campground and much of the Willow Creek watershed) joined forces with Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, NOAA Fisheries, California Department of Fish and Game, Sonoma County Department of Public Works, Trout Unlimited, LandPaths, Mendocino Redwoods Company and Prunuske Chatham, Inc. Four years of research and planning led to the long-term, sustainable solution of allowing Willow Creek to flow in its new channel. This required the removal of the culverts and the installation of a new 43-foot span bridge.
“Once we had a restoration plan, we were really excited about the opportunities for coho, (which historically lived in Willow Creek) but we needed funding,” said Michele Luna, executive director of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods. “It took ten years, and a lot of sweat, persistence and wonderful partnerships, but we pulled together several partners to fund the $1 million project.”
Funders for the bridge project include the Department of Fish and Game, NOAA Restoration Center’s Open Rivers Initiative, NFWF California Environmental Management Fund and a pass-through grant provided by Trout Unlimited from the Sonoma County Water Agency.. Other funders for planning and prior restoration components include Russian River Watershed Project Grant Program (Proposition 13), California State Water Resources Control Board, Russian River Watershed Council, Sonoma County Fish and Wildlife Commission, and the California State Coastal Conservancy.

Monday, December 12, 2011

2011-12-12 "Fall of the Redwood Empire: Clearcutting for vineyards is nothing new in wine country. Can it be stopped?" by Alastair Bland from "North Bay Bohemian" newspaper
[http://www.bohemian.com/northbay/fall-of-the-redwood-empire/Content?oid=2200342]
This past Oct. 11, in a rare instance of a local politician speaking out publicly against a member of the North Bay's influential winemaking community, Sonoma County supervisor Efren Carrillo lambasted winemaker Paul Hobbs for uprooting hundreds of trees in Sebastopol and adding one more open wound to a Russian River watershed already impacted by erosion and sediment.
Carrillo called Hobbs "one bad apple," and noted that the globally renowned maker of high-end wines hadn't bothered to acquire a permit to remove the trees, part of the old Davis Christmas Tree farm, which Hobbs is planning to buy and convert to vines. It was one of three instances this year in which Hobbs has cut down trees to the dismay of onlookers; he leveled 10 acres in Pocket Canyon just east of Guerneville, and eight acres of redwood trees along Highway 116 on land acquired in a court settlement from his neighbor John Jenkel.
"Paul Hobbs has shown a blatant disregard for Sonoma County, its resources, his fellow vintners and community sentiment," Carrillo declared in his editorial, printed in the Sonoma County Gazette.
But local environmentalists feel Carrillo's outburst needs to be echoed a hundred times over. To Jim Doerksen, who has lived in the Mayacamas Mountains for 44 years and has watched local streams sucked dry as wineries near his property have been built, Carrillo's words on Hobbs only amplify the silence that nearly all officials have kept toward the local wine industry through years of alleged environmental abuse.
"Efren said Hobbs is 'one bad apple,'" Doerksen says, "but all we have are bad apples."
Doerksen points straight to his neighbors, whom he charges with illegally cutting down about 60 acres of conifers to plant vineyards. This activity, along with overuse of the area's groundwater, has virtually destroyed Mark West Creek, a story covered in January in the Bohemian.
"These guys at Pride and Cornell [vineyards] are doing way worse things than Hobbs, but no one can see what they're doing because they're way up here in the mountains," Doerksen explains. "Hobbs was right on Highway 116. Everyone saw the trees coming down. Efren had to say something."
Carrillo tells the Bohemian that Hobbs' plain defiance of the law mandated an objection. "My reaction was just my response to anyone not following policies that we have in place," Carrillo says.
But are those policies strong enough?
Carrillo says he recognizes that other winery and vineyard projects currently being considered by the county for approval have created strife. He cites the proposal by Wall Street banker Henry Cornell to build a new winery among his existing vines in the hills northwest of Santa Rosa, a proposal, Carrillo assures, that is being considered via a publicly driven, unbiased and transparent process.
"We have a process in place whereby these decisions are made," Carrillo says. "We have to ensure transparency and the opportunity for people to participate."
But local environmentalists say the process simply isn't working and that county lenience toward the wine industry has resulted in irreparable damage to the environment. Stands of trees have been illegally removed. Hillsides have collapsed under vineyards, devastating streams downslope. Groundwater reserves have vanished. Rivers have run dry, and thriving salmon populations in the Russian River and its tributaries have largely disappeared.
Cornell alone seems to have played a role in all of the above at various times during his 13 years of local land ownership, but in spite of numerous complaints issued by neighbors, officials have allowed his proposed winery project to advance steadily forward.
Elsewhere in Sonoma County, two very large forest-to-vineyard conversion projects will advance toward the desks of officials in the coming months: the Artesa Vineyards project, about five miles from the coast near Annapolis; and the Preservation Ranch project, a proposed development near Annapolis on 20,000 acres.
The Artesa project was first introduced in 2001 by a Spanish wine corporation called Codorníu, and poses to replace 171 acres of Sonoma County's redwood trees with vineyards. The project only needs a state permit before the trees may be felled. This would make it the largest conversion in county history of timber to agriculture.
But the Preservation Ranch project, if approved, would clear 1,769 acres of second-growth redwood trees in the upper reaches of the Gualala River drainage while planting approximately 1,100 acres of vineyards. Almost 15,000 additional acres of land would be reserved for use by timber interests, while just shy of 3,000 acres would be protected as wildlife preserve and parkland, according to land-use and environmental lawyer Eric Koenigshofer, who is employed by the project.
The county's Permit and Resource Management Department has been working with the Napa vineyard development company Premier Pacific Vineyards on producing a draft environmental impact report. This document will cost about $1.5 million and is said to be ready by early 2012. After public hearings and testimony, the board of supervisors will determine whether or not to grant a timber conversion permit; the state's Cal Fire office would also need to grant a permit based on its own review of the report.
Though officials with the state retirement fund CalPERS severed investment ties with Premier Pacific Vineyards in October, the fund, which owns the land, appears to be moving forward with plans, recently making a $400,000 payment toward the EIR.
Conversion of forestland to vineyards is tremendously destructive, according to Chris Poehlmann, director of Friends of the Gualala River. The activity, he explains, is far more impactful to a forest than clear-cutting; planting a vineyard requires permanently or indefinitely eliminating the forest as well as the soil, precluding any foreseeable opportunity for second-growth trees. The ecosystem from the treetops to the roots is annihilated as the stumps are bulldozed and the remaining forest detritus and topsoil scraped away, flattening the earth's surface and readying it for vines.
"The forest is like a living sponge that slowly drains water collected during the winter into the streams and keeps fish alive," Poehlmann says. "When you scalp these mountainsides and turn the mountain into a bald bowling ball, that effect is gone, and you have nothing but a biological desert." Without the stabilizing effect of tree roots, rain water gushes down such uprooted slopes like rapids down a waterslide, and erosion can be severe.
But Koenigshofer says that careful management at Preservation Ranch will amount to an overall benefit to the local ecosystem. Of the 300 miles of roads already extant on the Preservation Ranch site, the project proposes to put only 100 miles of them into use while reverting the other 200 miles into woodland, he says. Along the roads designated for use, the antiquated systems of ditches and culverts, which can exacerbate erosion, will be eliminated. The vineyards, he says, will be planted well within the slope-steepness limits defined by county grading laws.
"We believe this project is actually going to reduce the net erosion entering the Gualala River," Koenigshofer says.
Even with the EIR underway, environmentalists have their doubts. Jane Nielson, cofounder of the Sonoma County Water Coalition, doesn't believe that any stack of tedious paperwork can negate the reality of such a project's tremendous implications in the heart of the Gualala River watershed. "It is hard to see how a valid EIR could possibly demonstrate that this project has few or no significant impacts," she writes in an email to the Bohemian.
Koenigshofer says the timber harvest plan on the allotted 15,000 acres will allow no clear-cutting. Selective tree cutting will be set well back from streams, he says, and irrigation will be sourced from reservoirs built onsite and filled with captured rainwater.
While Preservation Ranch is 43 times bigger than the county's largest-ever permitted timberland conversion on record—a 41-acre plot owned by Kendall-Jackson, approved for cutting in 1997—"it's also the largest privately funded land preservation project that has ever been put in place here," Koenigshofer says.
Ray and Laura Waldbaum live in the mountains above Mark West Creek. Ray Waldbaum is a retired licensed geologist and calls himself "a reformed bureaucrat," having once worked as such for the county of Los Angeles. Here, Waldbaum says, he interacted with roughly 100 public agencies and reviewed thousands of proposed land-use projects.
"And I have never seen anything like what goes on in Sonoma County," he says. "From the board of supervisors down, county employees are nothing but advocates for the alcohol and hospitality industries. Their job is to see these projects approved."
He and his wife have spoken publicly against Cornell Summit Vineyards' proposed winery. The Waldbaums say that the project's managers, with the county's consent, have not conducted mandatory procedures to test for groundwater availability.
"The only reason they aren't testing for water is they know that if they do, they'll find there isn't enough water for the winery," Laura Waldbaum says.
Dave Hardy, supervising planner with the Permit and Resource Management Department, says the county agreed to skip the water availability tests after Cornell promised to permanently withhold 15 acres of his land from being planted in vines. Cornell also proposed a mitigated negative declaration, an action often required by the county instead of a more costly and time-consuming environmental impact report. A mitigated negative declaration is meant to offset part of a project's environmental footprint, which, in Cornell's case, is the expected use of groundwater.
Cornell's proposed mitigation is to take offline a large neighboring house which he purchased several years ago. The thing is, according to Doerksen and other neighbors, the house has served only as a barn and storage shed for years with little or no use of the area's water. Only after proposing to take the house offline to save water did Cornell bring tenants into the house to begin using water. Now, when Cornell removes the tenants, it will appear that water is being saved.
That the house was offline when the mitigation was concocted is irrelevant, according to Hardy. "The house could have been online with a simple use permit," he explains, echoing the consensus of county staff in 2009.
And so Cornell's mitigation scheme mitigates nothing in the eyes of critics—and his winery, if approved, will only suck more water from the thirsty streambed of Mark West Creek. The stream was in dire straits when the Bohemian last reported on the matter in January, and according to Laura Waldbaum, it's gotten worse. In June, she says, Mark West's North Fork went dry in spite of tremendous spring rains. Later in the summer, on Aug. 26, she accompanied Department of Fish and Game biologists on a fish rescue mission in which several dozen stranded steelhead smolts were bucket-lifted away to running waters.
Laura Waldbaum can't get over the irony of it. "We're using taxpayer money to restore this stream," she says, "and at the same time the county is illegally giving away all its water to these wineries."
Some environmentalists say that legal lenience toward the Sonoma County wine industry can be traced back to the 1970s, when the threat of suburban sprawl spilling off the Highway 101 corridor was staunched by amendments to county code that gave agricultural lands legal precedence in the fight to survive. Today, that agricultural land has become mostly vineyard land.
"In the old days, farming meant growing food or fiber, things to be eaten or things to be turned into clothing," observes Stephen Fuller-Rowell, a cofounder of the Sonoma County Water Coalition. "Now, a main product of farming here is alcohol."
Fuller-Rowell expects that global warming will begin driving grape growers into increasingly higher elevations as they chase the cool climes favored by Pinot Noir, a trend already at work in Oregon. In Sonoma County, this could mean increased pressure on hillside and ridge-top regions lacking in water and susceptible to erosion, and lax county laws could facilitate this uphill migration, Fuller-Rowell warns. He and his colleague Jane Nielson say that legal loopholes that once benefited the entire community by preserving farmland now may serve as red carpeting for the wine industry alone, which gets to bypass a number of regulatory speed bumps that apply to other forms of land development.
Fines against lawbreakers, too, may not be stiff enough, Nielson says, allowing winemakers to simply absorb the hit, "calculate their benefits into the fines they'll be paying," and proceed as planned.
But "piece-mealing" could be the law's most problematic loophole. This term describes the act of dividing large projects into a collection of less-imposing smaller ones and, by individually nudging these bits and pieces through the review process, effectively pushing through the entire package. The Cornell winery, Laura Waldbaum says, is a prime example. First, Cornell ventured in some illegal logging, acquiring a permit later in time. Then he got the go-ahead for a vineyard. Now, he is pushing through his winery. Meanwhile, he has bought up several surrounding properties which Waldbaum believes will eventually be turned into vineyards.
"We just can't afford to give away any more water," she says. "There's none left."
The outlook for forest conservationists could be improving in Sonoma County. The timber conversion ordinance of 2006 appears to have had an effect in slowing the crawl of vines into the county's wooded hill country. From 1979 to 2006, 25 conversions of timberland to agriculture occurred, amounting to 21 acres per year. Thirteen of those projects occurred in the grape-crazy years from 2001 to 2006, but all legal timbering activity abruptly stopped with the new ordinance in place. No officials could estimate for the Bohemian how common illegal timber removal is in Sonoma County.
Preservation Ranch is advancing along the lines of the law, but the fact that its size amounts to three times the area of all Sonoma County timberland ever converted into agriculture—573 acres—strikes dread in conservationists.
But even if 1,700 acres of stumped and uprooted redwoods appear in the watershed of the Gualala River, Supervisor Carrillo maintains that fairness and public input drive the management of county land. That some have alleged county favoritism toward the wine industry "definitely is a matter of opinion," Carrillo says, and he takes "very seriously" his job of assuring that the law is followed.
"Our county thrives through agriculture," he points out, "and how we look at land use balanced with long-term sustainability is important to this county, and to this board [of supervisors]."
Meanwhile, the Preservation Ranch project moves forward, and Carrillo promises that residents of Sonoma County can steer the course. "Once the draft EIR is completed," he says, "then the public can engage."


HILLTOP Evans Ridge Vineyard, part of Preservation Ranch, is shown in development stages in this 2007 photo by Jamie Hall


Saturday, December 10, 2011

2011-12-10 "Napa River restoration project serves as model" by Peter Fimrite from "San Francisco Chronicle"
[http://articles.sfgate.com/2011-12-10/news/30501397_1_restoration-project-floodplains-chinook-salmon]
 The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's top man in the region shook his head after tromping through a restored Napa River floodplain and then motoring on a boat through one of the nation's premier riparian revitalization projects.
"Why," asked Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA's regional administrator, "do we not hear more about this?"
 The grapevine is getting louder, with community planners and environmentalists taking note, as Napa County moves forward with a project that, when completed, will have restored 15 miles of the Napa River and added 135 acres of floodplains.
It is already California's largest floodplain and wildlife habitat restoration project.
 The EPA contributed $1.5 million Friday to the project, which would never have gotten off the ground without the cooperation of 43 landowners who agreed to take vineyard property out of production so that the river could be widened to create floodplains and riverside habitat. The State Water Resources Control Board and Napa County have also contributed several million dollars to the massive project, which is expected to cost as much as $17 million when it is completed over the next decade.

Flood protection -
For the vineyard owners, the work will protect their lands from erosion and floods.
"We hope it is a model for government, private owners and the public to work together," said Davie Piña, a vineyard owner and president of the Rutherford Dust Society, an association of nearly 100 growers and wineries. "We hope we can repeat this on every river, in every state and every community in the world, but we're starting here."
 The plan is to remove levees and berms and carve flat areas and side channels so the river can meander during high flows like it once did. The shallow floodplains will also reduce silt in the river caused by regular slides on the once steep banks.
Workers have restored 2 1/2 miles of the 4 1/2-mile Rutherford Reach, a viticultural area of Napa Valley. The work included the removal of barriers to chinook salmon and steelhead trout migration and the carving of channels for them at the Zinfandel Lane Bridge in St. Helena. Fisheries biologists said the work at the bridge, which was completed last summer, opens up 60 miles of spawning habitat to the fish.
Project planners expect to finish work on the Rutherford Reach in three or four years, then begin work on a 9 1/2-mile section of the river between Oakville and Oak Knoll, creating resting pools and spawning habitat for fish. The floodplains lessen the danger of catastrophic floods and flush out insects and invertebrates, providing the resting fish with food.
"Studies show that fish with access to floodplains grow bigger and are more likely to reproduce," said Andy Collison, a geomorphologist for ESA PWA, the project designers.

River runs deep -
The Napa River, which runs 55 miles from Mount St. Helena to San Pablo Bay, once meandered across a wide swath of the valley floor and supported as many as 8,000 migrating steelhead and chinook salmon. Levees and berms were built and the river was confined to channels with steep banks as agriculture moved into the area. The Napa is now as much as three times deeper in sections than it once was and erosion is a major problem.
The fish suffered in the channeled river. Silt from erosion and runoff covered the gravel were the fish lay their eggs. By the 1990s, the steelhead run in the Napa River had dipped into the hundreds and flooding regularly inundated the city of Napa, nearby homes and farms.
The Napa County Resource Conservation District began addressing the flooding and fish problems in the 1990s. Levees were removed along 3 1/2 miles of the river, and wetlands and flood zones were created on 970 acres in and around the city of Napa during the past decade. The vineyard owners and the county came together around the same time and began working on plans for the upper reaches of the river. That work, which is now being done, is funded by federal and state grants.
Model for success
 Leslie Ferguson, a fish biologist and the grant manager for the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board, said she hopes what is being done in Napa can be duplicated in other Bay Area rivers and streams.
"Every creek has different issues, but this is a model of how landowners can participate with local governments that are willing to remove regulatory barriers and come up with funding for a larger restoration project," Ferguson said. "The scale of this project is unprecedented."
Blumenfeld gazed at the restored wetlands and watched from the boat as ducks and shorebirds swam and poked around what is essentially a new river ecosystem.
"Everyone should know about this," he said.

Jared Blumenfeld, EPA regional administrator, tours a section of the Napa River that is part of the restoration project. Photograph Credit: Paul Chinn / The Chronicle

Friday, December 9, 2011

2011-12-09 "Fishers returned to area in Sierra after 100 years" by Peter Fimrite from "San Francisco Chronicle"
[http://articles.sfgate.com/2011-12-09/news/30494162_1_fishers-fish-and-game-sierra-nevada]
The furry, dark brown creatures hesitated at first and then shot out of their plywood cages and bounded into the forest near the hamlet of Stirling City.
It was the latest triumph in a remarkable campaign to bring back a long-lost predator known as the Pacific fisher to the northern Sierra Nevada.
 The four stubby-legged mammals were released by California Department of Fish and Game biologists as part of an innovative effort to reintroduce the weasel family species to a region they were driven out of 100 years ago.
 Three female fishers and one male were exposed to the dreaded sunshine - they're nocturnal - and gently prodded out of the open doors of their boxes onto Sierra Pacific Industries timberland in Butte County, bringing to 39 the total number of fishers moved into the area over the past three years. That's one less than the 40 fishers the reintroduction plan calls for.
"This is a milestone for us," said Richard Callas, a senior environmental scientist for the Department of Fish and Game, which is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and North Carolina State University researchers. "We will continue to monitor them for the next three or four years. We want to see how they are using the land, what habitats are important, how they are faring and how they migrate to other areas."

Unusual partnership -
The fisher program is the result of a highly unusual partnership with Sierra Pacific, one of the country's largest timber companies and the state's largest private landowner.
 The idea was first broached in 2004, when Sierra Pacific offered Fish and Game officials five large tracts of land where fishers historically occurred but no longer existed. The department evaluated each plot and determined that a 168,000-acre tract of timberland near Stirling City, near Paradise Ridge, was the most suitable place to reintroduce the species.
 Pacific fishers are cantankerous animals with lush fur, long slender bodies and short legs. They are related to martens, wolverines and weasels. The females are half the size of the males, which weigh about 10 pounds. They mate in the spring, but otherwise have little to do with one another.

Porcupine dinner -
Fishers prefer dense old-growth forests where they can hunt in the trees and den in hollowed-out areas up high. They hunt squirrels, chipmunks and mice, and often scavenge carcasses and also eat roots and plant material. They are one of the few animals that kill and eat porcupines, going for the throat and then turning the spiny beasts over to feed on the stomach.
 Curiously, though, fishers don't eat fish. It is believed they were named by early settlers who thought they looked like European polecats, also known in French as fiche or fitchet. The Dutch equivalent, visse, means "nasty."
The small, feisty mammals once ranged throughout the Sierra, Klamath, Cascade and Coastal ranges, but hunting, logging, development and habitat loss drastically reduced their numbers. In the early 20th century, fisher pelts, called North American sable, fetched hundreds of dollars.

Trapping banned -
By 1946, when fur trapping of fishers was banned in California, the population had been reduced and was living in an area that was less than half of its former range. Fishers, for the most part, were wiped out in Oregon and Washington. Only two populations now exist in the state; on the border between the Klamath and coastal mountain ranges and the other in the southern Sierra, near Yosemite. Nobody knows exactly how many are left - they are notoriously difficult research subjects because they have wide ranges, leave few signs and assiduously avoid human contact - but recent estimates had them down to 850.
Fishers have been named as candidates for the endangered species list, but they have not been awarded the federal protection despite repeated warnings that they are perilously close to extinction. Fishers have been relocated to the Crater Lake area of Oregon and in Olympic National Park, in Washington, but this is the first time it has ever been done in California, Callas said.
Sierra Pacific has agreed to manage its property over the next 20 years in a way that would benefit fisher mating, denning and habitat. In exchange, the company can expect regulatory leniency, including an incidental take permit, if the animals are ever listed under the Endangered Species Act. An incidental take permit is required when habitat modifications could injure or harm a listed animal.

Partnerships needed -
 Callas said partnerships with private landowners are the only way long-term, wide-ranging wildlife conservation recovery programs like this one can be accomplished.
"It is important because these animals have been absent from a substantial portion of their historic range," he said. "It puts more eggs in the conservation basket if landowners are willing to restore habitat and commit to protecting a species in an area where they have been missing for most of a century."
The animals that were relocated were trapped in a variety of different places at times of year when no mating was going on and the females were not raising young. Fifteen fishers were released at the site during the winter of 2009 and 2010, 13 animals were released last year, and 11 more have been released this year. Callas said he expects to capture and release one more male fisher this winter.
Tracking devices on the relocated animals show that most have remained in the area where they were released, but a few of the males have wandered as far as 60 miles.
 "We had an animal that left Stirling and moved all the way to the Central Valley," he said. "We believe it crossed Highway 99 to the Sacramento River and then turned around and went back on a parallel course almost to the place where he was released. It was amazing."
 Wildlife biologists and a team of researchers from North Carolina State will continue tracking and studying the fishers in the hope that they will learn more about the elusive animal's habits and one day help them repopulate their entire range.

Pacific fisher facts -
-- About the size of a large house cat.
-- Member of the weasel family, which also includes minks, martens, otters and wolverines.
-- Lives up to 10 years.
-- Feeds on birds, rodents, reptiles, insects and vegetation. One of the few known predators of porcupines.
-- Range reduced dramatically in the 1800s and early 1900s through trapping, predator and pest control, logging, urbanization and farming.
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A Pacific fisher exits its carrier as part of an effort to restore the species in the Sierra.
Credit: Paul Chinn / The Chronicle

2011-12-09 "Big data can lead to big breakthroughs in research" by James Temple from "San Francisco Chronicle"
[http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/12/09/BUDC1M9I8A.DTL]
UC Berkeley Professor Dennis Baldocchi has taken on the not-so-modest task of monitoring "the breathing of the biosphere."
He and a team of researchers oversee sensors in 500 sites around the world that measure things like wind, carbon dioxide, ozone and water vapor 10 times a second. They combine this massive amount of data with NASA satellite imagery to visually depict and analyze how climate change is altering the world.
If a year's worth of that data were collected and processed at once, it would take a regular PC an entire year to trudge through the task. But the researchers are making sense of this data through a partnership with Microsoft Research, tapping into its cloud of worldwide server farms to turn around the same work in as little as a day.
"We had the ideas, we knew what we wanted to do with it, but we were overwhelmed with the computational demands of the project," Baldocchi said. The ability to collect and analyze huge volumes of information, a concept known as big data, has "democratized computing and large-scale science."
In fact, big data has become a big deal across the disciplines of science, business, medicine and technology. A McKinsey Global Institute report in May dubbed it "the next frontier for innovation, competition and productivity." Gartner recently identified it as one of the top 10 strategic technologies for 2012.

Forces converge -
Like many buzzwords in technology, big data isn't really new. Companies have been processing a lot of information for a long time. But a convergence of forces has radically accelerated the amount of data at our disposal - as well as our ability to extract treasures from those troves.
Increasing Internet use, ubiquitous smart phones, cheaper cameras and better sensors are doubling the world's information every two years, according to some studies.
An IDC Digital Universe report sponsored by EMC said we'll collectively create or copy 1.8 zettabytes of data this year. That's equivalent to 1.8 trillion gigabytes - or the amount of data accumulated if every person in the United States tweeted three times per minute for nearly 27,000 years.
Meanwhile, the rise of cloud computing has granted far more people and organizations the ability to affordably tap into the supercomputing-level horsepower and data storage necessary to collect and process all those bits and bytes. In addition, increasingly sophisticated analysis software is allowing them to spot patterns that only become apparent on a mind-bogglingly massive scale.
"The scale and scope of changes that big data are bringing about are at an inflection point, set to expand greatly, as a series of technology trends accelerate," the McKinsey report stated. "We are on the cusp of a tremendous wave of innovation, productivity and growth."
Much of business interest in big data involves the ability to automatically analyze online behavior to create ads, products or experiences that are most appealing to consumers - and thus most lucrative to companies. There's also great potential to more accurately predict market fluctuations or react faster to shifts in consumer sentiment or supply chain issues.
This all suggests businesses will become increasingly responsive to the wants and needs of their customers. They'll be able to point them to perfectly suited music, movies, books, news - or even content tailored to their unique interests.
But there are dangers, of course.

Data security -
The sheer quantity of data involved raises a host of new questions on the sensitive subjects of online privacy and data security. We've already seen how an over-reliance on data and automation can exaggerate market downswings, as computer programs dump stocks in the face of price declines. And the application of data is only as good as the models and algorithms invented by imperfect humans.
But there's still much to be excited about. The biggest of the big data breakthroughs may lie in the scientific realm.
It's the fuel that powered many of the recent leaps forward in artificial intelligence, including IBM's "Jeopardy" champion Watson and Google's machine language translation tools. Big data can also be used to spot emerging disease epidemics at an earlier stage, to study the links between lifestyle factors and disease and to discover new insight into climate change.
For Baldocchi's team, the tools are providing greater understanding of the complicated interplay of environmental variables, and how they have affected things like vegetation patterns and water levels.
Yet we're still at a very early stage in realizing the power of big data, said Catharine van Ingen, partner architect at Microsoft Research, who collaborated on the climate project.
"We're just beginning to see the science that becomes possible with that kind of computation," she said. "It changes the way we think about things; it changes our ability to think about the world."

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

2011-12-07 "4-year-old watershed study program expands to include students from Vallejo" by Lanz Christian Bañes from "Vallejo Times Herald"
[http://www.timesheraldonline.com/news/ci_19487209]
SUISUN CITY -- There are many lessons young Vallejo scientists could learn at Rush Ranch, but one is sure to be firmly lodged in their minds.
Pickleweed, the succulent yet scraggly marsh plant, definitely lives up to its name.
"It tastes like a pickle," said Faith Hazzard, an 11-year-old sixth-grader from Solano Middle School.
Faith was among about 60 or so Solano Middle School sixth-graders who hiked their way through Rush Ranch Open Space on Tuesday as part of the Suisun Marsh Watershed Program.
This is the first time Vallejo students were included in the 4-year-old program developed by the Solano and Suisun Resource Conservation Districts, said Marianne Butler, spokeswoman for the Solano Resource Conservation District.
The program is funded primarily by the Solano County Water agency, though this year, the conservation districts were able to secure a $25,000 grant from the Solano Community College, Butler said. More than 1,100 students are expected to go through the program this year.
That college grant was able to pay for 12 more classes to go this year -- including four from Solano Middle School. Usually, classes are picked from Fairfield and Suisun schools because it is those cities' watershed that will be examined at Rush Ranch, Butler said.
The program includes five in-class lessons and culminates with a five-hour field trip to Rush Ranch, more than 2,000 acres of open grasslands and tidal marshlands owned and operated by the Solano Land Trust.
"It was really awesome," said Jonathan Aquino, 11, who enjoyed hiking through the rolling hills and occasionally muddy trails.
Students jotted down their observations of red-tailed hawks, sparrows, wrens and a sleeping barn owl, and searched for the elusive and endangered salt marsh harvest mouse.
For a day, they became soil scientists, hydrologists and botanists, conducting a variety of tests to check for water clarity, soil density and the overall health of the varied flora of Rush Ranch.
This included getting a taste of the ranch's pickleweed -- and a lesson on the safest times to pick plants for consumption to avoid eating pesticides.
"It was fun and creative," said Kyra Rhone, 11, whose favorite experiment was checking the phosphate levels in the marsh (it's 2 parts per million, if you were wondering).
Students also were expected to write poetry on the fly after climbing Overlook Hill, with its sweeping views of marshes, mountains and sky.
"The sound of birds / and the rustle of leaves / all help you come to believe /what this unique world can achieve," wrote one student.
Many of the Solano Middle School students who attended said they want to come out to Rush Ranch every year.
However, the college grant that funds the Vallejo students is only for this year, Butler said. It cost about $2,000 per class, including the in-class visits and the field trip, she said. Altogether, 33 classes are included in this year's program.
Regardless, Tuesday's field trip proved to be more than a simple science lesson for the Solano Middle School students.
"It was very educational -- and entertaining," Faith said.