Monday, March 31, 2008

Walters on Bullet Train

A great overview on the train, which I would love to see in California going though the center of the state all the way from Oregon to Mexico.

Dan Walters: Does California really need a bullet train?
By Dan Walters -
Published 12:00 am PDT Monday, March 31, 2008

Zipping through California on a 220-mph bullet train – in just 2 1/2 hours from Los Angeles to San Francisco, it's being said – is certainly a romantic concept.

They do it in Europe and in Japan, bullet train devotees say, so why not do it in California and relieve highway and airport congestion?

California voters may get a chance to answer the question in November. An often-postponed $10 billion bond issue to provide initial financing for the system that would link the state's northern and southern regions through the San Joaquin Valley is finally likely to make the ballot.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has praised the bullet train idea but balked at some financial details, appears ready to offer voters a revised version that would include public-private partnership financing, The Bee reported recently.

The notion is that the state bonds, which would have to be repaid from a general fund already seeing multibillion-dollar deficits, would trigger a like amount of federal funds, but that $20 billion or so would still be less than half of the current price tag of $42 billion.

Financing the remainder – through private funds, a special sales tax or some combination thereof – has been one of the hang-ups.

It's unlikely, however, that a complete plan, including the additional financing, will be available before voters are asked to pass judgment in November. And that's troublesome, because even the most ardent advocates have yet to present a persuasive, fact-grounded rationale for spending so much borrowed money on an entirely new transportation system.

Rattlers on the Trail

Be careful out there, it’s still a pretty wild place, though one hopes that someday the rattlers do move on to the unpopulated areas where they rightfully belong.

Recovering from a rattlesnake bite is no spring picnic
By Blair Anthony Robertson -
Published 12:00 am PDT Monday, March 31, 2008

Milla Austin is not your typical rattlesnake victim. She wasn't drunk at the time of the attack and – this is key – she's not a knucklehead.

That's right: Experts say a majority of those on the receiving end of venomous fangs are young men who have been drinking and suddenly get the urge to grab a rattlesnake, often to impress friends. The rattlesnake is usually not amused.

In Austin's case, she was out running with her husband, Gabriel, last August along a heavily used section of the American River bike trail in Fair Oaks.

The workout was supposed to be routine. Instead, the 31-year-old accountant wouldn't make it home for a week.

At one point, she thought she was going to die. And for several days in the intensive care unit at Mercy San Juan Medical Center in Carmichael, she fretted over the possibility she might lose her severely swollen leg.

Austin's frightening ordeal – she eventually recovered with two legs intact, after taking 16 – vials of anti-venom – is a reminder that even inside the city limits, rattlesnakes can't be taken for granted.

Warm spring weather means the area's rattlesnakes are awaking from hibernation, slithering out of a rock pile or thick bush to sun themselves on a bike trail, footpath or roadway near you.

People who encounter them often call someone like Len Ramirez, owner of Ramirez Rattlesnake Removal in Auburn. For about $150 plus expenses, he captures snakes and releases them in unpopulated areas.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Two Candidates, Two Cities

Now if they could maybe work together to bring the positive sense of ourselves into an uplifting vision of the future, with the inspiring leadership to bring others along with it, we might have something, or someone, worth voting for.

Editorial: Mayoral contest begins with tales of two cities
Fargo and Johnson look at Sacramento and find two very different communities
Published 12:00 am PDT Sunday, March 30, 2008

The postman rang twice last week, delivering a pair of strikingly divergent images of Sacramento and its current leadership.

Incumbent Mayor Heather Fargo sent out a glossy mailer that claimed the nation's news and business leaders have "put Sacramento on their 'best' lists." It included snippets from East Coast magazines concluding that Sacramento, at least up until last year, excelled in hospitals, business climate, job growth, cost of living, "food scenes" and other important indicators.

Then came challenger Kevin Johnson's mailer, which countered Fargo's boosterism with a dose of gloom.

"I know that Sacramento can be one of the most vibrant, growing cities in the country," Johnson wrote. "But right now, people see our city government as nonresponsive, tired, uninspired and bureaucratic."

So there you have it.

Sacramento is either the envy of a nation or an uninspired lump of red tape. Or perhaps our nonresponsive bureaucracies are the envy of the nation. It's a very confusing picture the two leading mayoral candidates are presenting. That, in turn, should force voters to choose: Which Sacramento do you live in? And which of the seven candidates for mayor can possibly take the city to the next level?

Water Supply

Tapping into the underground water table is important, especially when the above ground supply is so limited.

Public leadership in California (as the Governor and many Valley legislators are trying to do) really needs to come to grips with the reality of our need for much more above ground water storage (dams), and get busy building them, starting with the one at Auburn.

Water-shortage fears pump up well-drilling business in Central Valley
By Jim Downing -
Published 12:00 am PDT Sunday, March 30, 2008

MADERA – Steve Arthur loves a good drought. But trouble in the Delta serves him just as well.

Arthur, a stocky 48-year-old, runs one of the biggest agricultural well-drilling operations in the state. This year, he has enough orders to launch himself into early retirement.

"Everybody's planning ahead, because they know the water situation's not going to get anything but worse," he said.

A well-drilling boom not seen since California's last big drought in the early 1990s is under way in the San Joaquin Valley, as farmers chasing high crop prices tap the region's vast, largely unregulated groundwater reserves in the face of an increasingly bleak outlook for water from the state's rivers and reservoirs.

"Business is unbelievable," Arthur said on a recent morning in a field soon to be planted with almond trees. Through sunglasses splattered with mud, he watched the hoses on his drill rig buck as they spat water and sand from 700 feet underground.

California's reservoirs will be filling up this spring, thanks to an average winter snowpack. But court-ordered pumping restrictions intended to protect fish populations in the Delta mean that many San Joaquin Valley farmers won't get as much water this year as they would have in the past.

For the years ahead, the forecast only gets drier. The ecological crisis in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta shows no signs of abating. A restoration plan for the San Joaquin River has permanently reduced some farmers' water about 15 percent.

Climate change may diminish the Sierra snowpack. And new reservoirs or canals, if any are built, would be years away and might not appreciably increase supplies of farm water.

Environmentalism Movement a White Phenomena?

If this is proven true, it would ultimately degrade the credibility of this set of issues as having impact on societies at large, if none but one segment of those so affected are raising the issue.

White is the new green
Yes, even this headline is vanilla
By Sena Christian

Face it, the environmental movement is white. And classist. Just as you’d expect from a movement built around lifestyle choices and consumerism and, why not say it, a degree of self-righteousness. Caring about climate change is a luxury concern. Doing something about it, a privilege.

This realization was shoved in my white face a few weeks back when hundreds of enviros convened in Eugene, Ore., for the 26th annual Public Interest Environmental Law Conference. On the university campus where the event was held, I sat watching a group of hippie kids climb on benches, handrails, shoulders and pretty much anything else suitable for scaling. PIELC organizers touted the event as the premier environmental conference, but it looked about as diverse as an REI catalog come to life.

“This represents the modern environmental movement?” I thought. No, it can’t be.

But here’s the thing: Being green requires money, resources and leisure time. How to be eco-friendly? Spare yourself from nature-deficit disorder by camping out by a lake, thus developing an appreciation for flora and fauna. Don’t forget to wear pricy eco-friendly clothing woven of undyed organic wool, proclaim your refusal to buy an energy-zapping plasma television set and casually mention in conversation how you ride the bus out of choice. And you must have absolutely read Silent Spring. Twice.

Van Jones, founder of Green for All, wrote, “The celebrated ‘lifestyles’ sector is probably the most racially segregated part of the U.S. economy; at present, it is almost exclusively the province of affluent white people.

”Green building, a submovement of mainstream environmentalism, demonstrates the division. Sustainable building leads to healthier indoor environments, savings on electric bills and a self-congratulatory feeling. But green building is not affordable housing. Poor people and renters don’t benefit.

Back at the PIELC conference, a woman desperately asked a panel, “What about apathetic people?” How do we make them care about saving the planet?! She incorrectly assumed that someone who doesn’t share her green concerns is “apathetic.” What a college-educated, middle-class, white thing to say.

Tell me, is it reasonable to grab the elbow of a passerby in the middle of Detroit and say, yes, I know you might get shot on the walk home from your low-paying job, and you’re worried about not having health insurance or how your kids can’t seem to get a decent education, and no, you’re not really concerned about buying certified-organic produce for a vegan dinner because your mind’s on the high incarceration rate of black men and you’re angry about impoverished mothers raising their children alone, but come on, are you really trying to tell me you don’t break down in tears at the mere thought of polar bears floating on tiny scraps of ice as their habitat melts away? What’s wrong with you?! People aren’t apathetic. It’s just that our priorities differ.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Water for Salmon & People

Providing adequate water for salmon is absolutely crucial, and it is one of our guiding principles—“What’s good for the salmon is good for the river”—but only in an inverted values world would that take precedence over water for human beings.

In our region, we think both goals can be met with the addition of the Auburn Dam, which will provide more water for the salmon in the river running through the American River Parkway, and the people who depend on the river's water for life.

Greg King: Any Klamath dam deal must provide water for fish
By Greg King - Special to The Bee
Published 12:00 am PDT Saturday, March 29, 2008

Not long ago my neighbor said he'd seen me on TV discussing the Northcoast Environmental Center's opposition to the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. He seemed puzzled.

"I thought you guys wanted dam removal," he said.

My heart sank. Of course the NEC wants to tear down four dams on the Klamath River. The NEC is an original proponent of dam removal, as we've long worked to restore populations of fish and other wildlife along one of America's greatest rivers.

We want the dams out to open up more than 300 miles of former salmon and steelhead habitat, and to improve the abysmal water quality currently released by the reservoirs behind the dams. But dam removal is only one step, however significant.

The agreement's most controversial provision allocates to farmers 330,000 to 340,000 acre-feet of water during dry years, and 385,000 acre-feet in wet years. (An acre-foot is literally that: the amount of water it would take to cover an acre of land a foot deep.) This allocation can be renegotiated only during "extreme drought" years, but this "drought plan" will not be created until after the settlement agreement is completed, one of the many unsettling provisions of the agreement. Also, this allocation is about 10 percent more than farmers currently get during dry years under court-ordered Endangered Species Act protections.

…The NEC's rejection last month of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement was intended to make it better and to aid the recovery of the entire Klamath River ecosystem. We are still negotiating. Already the NEC has spent about $60,000 to review the science and legalities contained in the 256-page agreement, and we're not done yet. If we agree to support the settlement it will be because dams will come down and fish will get the water they need to thrive. That's our promise to our members and to the fish.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Free Transit for Seniors

What a great idea!

Illinois becomes 2nd state to offer free rides for 65-plus crowd: Transit agencies waiting to see impact on budgets
Richard Wronski, Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune (Illinois)
March 17, 2008

Mar. 17--Monday marked the start of free rides on mass transit for senior citizens, but transit agencies said it was too early to tell if the new transit benefit would produce any significant changes in ridership.

The program makes Illinois the second state in the nation to provide free mass transit rides for those 65 and older at all times of day. Pennsylvania, which funds its senior rides through the state lottery, was the first.

A random sampling of Metra conductors and CTA drivers said they noticed more riders than usual with RTA ID cards, which allow people 65 and older to travel for free.

One conductor aboard an early morning Metra BNSF Railway train said he saw two senior citizens with RTA cards in one train car which, he said, was two more than he usually saw that early on a workday morning.

The real impact on mass transit was likely to be evident later in the day when retired people take advantage of the free rides to shop, see the doctor or travel Downtown to visit a museum or the Art Institute, experts said. There are 850,000 seniors in the RTA service area.

To ride free, those 65 or older must have either a reduced-fare card or one of the new RTA free-ride ID cards. At last count, about 30,000 seniors had signed up for free-ride cards since January, with 15,000 applications coming in from March 7 to Wednesday alone, the RTA said.

Geo Caching in the Parkway?

Might be an interesting idea to try out.

A certain cachet treasure hunting gains modern fans who use GPS devices and clues to zero in on hidden items
Janice Crompton Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pennsylvania)
March 16, 2008

Deep-six the Nintendo and the computer games.

It's time to properly break in those fancy four-wheel drive SUVs and new hiking boots because geocaching is more popular and family-friendly than ever.

Previously reserved mostly for high-tech extreme sports junkies, geocaching is becoming more accessible to a larger segment of the population, as beginners discovered last Sunday at Mingo Creek County Park.

About five years ago, there were four geocaches hidden in the park. Now, there are 22, at least two of which were hidden for or by children.

A group of about 17 participants learned how global positioning system devices work and the history of geocaching, and got some hands-on experience finding hidden geocaches.

The program was sponsored by the Washington County Parks and Recreation department and the Three Rivers Informal Geocaching Organization, or TRIGO for short.

Geocaching is similar to treasure hunting. Players use global positioning systems to zero in on certain locations where geocaches, sometimes called just caches, are hidden by other players.

The devices work on the same principle as automotive global positioning navigation systems -- they gather location data that's triangulated from satellite signals. As more satellites became available for non-military use, a GPS can now direct a user to within 9 feet of a location in the woods.

What is a geocache?

Usually, the caches are waterproof plastic containers or ammunition canisters full of swag, like small toys, trinkets or other mementos of nominal value that players trade for other items. Each cache also contains a log book which players must sign to prove they found it.

Caches can vary in difficulty. Some can take repeated attempts in underwater or other difficult environments to find.

Purists prefer locations such as Mingo Creek County Park where walking on unpaved ground and communing with nature is required.

Occasionally, caches contain geocoins or travel bugs, special items identified by serial number that move quickly from cache to cache, sometimes with a mission.

"It's like hiking with a purpose," said John Motto, of Hempfield, Westmoreland County, better known as "Quest Master" on Internet discussion boards where many enthusiasts gather to discuss everything geocaching.

As with computers and other electronics, some of the children who turned out at Sunday's program seemed more adept at learning how to use the devices than the adults.

Downtown Towers

Another project discussed.

Five new towers envisioned downtown
An L.A. firm, undaunted by others' failures, plans to transform apartment site.
By Mary Lynne Vellinga -
Published 12:00 am PDT Friday, March 28, 2008

Undaunted by the recent failure of two high-rise condominium projects planned for downtown Sacramento, a Los Angeles-based developer proposes to transform a leafy, four-block area south of the Capitol with five new residential towers.

The Bond Cos., an experienced developer of infill housing and retail projects nationwide, filed an application with the city of Sacramento Thursday to replace 206 low-rise apartment units in the Capitol Towers neighborhood with five towers ranging from 15 to 33 stories.

Mark Bachli, a principal in the Bond Cos., said the "market will determine what is actually built" on the Capitol Towers property, bounded by Fifth, Seventh, N and P streets.

Still, he said his company views the parklike superblock – where no cars are allowed – as the perfect place for a high-density urban development, which can be built in phases as market conditions permit.

"It's ideally located along the light-rail line. It is close to thousands of jobs, retail, restaurants and entertainment opportunities; those are the key ingredients to smart and sustainable growth," Bachli said.

The proposed project also would contain 50,000 square feet of street-level retail – which Bachli said could include a grocery store – and parking garages wrapped by three to five stories of housing or office space. It may also include a hotel.

The 15-story apartment building at the center of Capitol Towers would remain.

In total, Bond Cos. is proposing to build 1,646 new housing units. Doing so would create a neighborhood nearly eight times as densely packed with people as the current one on the four-block property, which city leaders have long viewed as underused.

"I think it's great," Assistant City Manager John Dangberg said of the plan, which is in its formative stages.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

New Nonprofit to Help Government

It is generally a good thing when help is offered and this seems to be coming from a particularly well situated organization with resources and vision.

Let’s hope they can do some good with their first challenge, legislative redistricting.

New foundation to campaign for more efficient California government
By Shane Goldmacher -
Published 12:00 am PDT Thursday, March 27, 2008

Could late and unbalanced budgets, along with partisan gridlock, disappear from Sacramento?

That's the goal of a new bipartisan political foundation that unveiled its campaign Wednesday to improve state government, bringing along a three-year, $15.9 million budget and high hopes for overhauling the way the state does business.

The group, called California Forward, will be directed by a 13-member bipartisan board, including six former elected officials and a group of business, civil rights and political activists.

"California cannot be a leader in the 21st century if its government is not functioning effectively and efficiently for the people of this state," said the group's co-chairman, Leon Panetta, a Democrat who has served in Congress and as chief of staff to President Clinton.

Thomas McKernan, a wealthy Republican activist in Orange County and CEO of the Automobile Club of Southern California, is the other co-chairman.

The foundation's leaders promised it will differ from past reform coalitions. As board member and former state Sen. Chuck Poochigian, a Fresno Republican, put it, California Forward has "the resources to get the job done."

The funding comes from five of the state's leading public policy foundations, which leaders of California Forward described as tired of seeing important research studies brushed aside by elected officials.

The member foundations are the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the California Endowment, and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund.

California Forward will also operate a political fund – fueled by private donors and separate from the nonprofit's three-year, $15.9 million budget – to make its voice heard on more overt political matters, such as ballot measures.

The coalition is already backing one such measure, aimed for the November ballot, that would strip state lawmakers of the power to draw their own legislative districts. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and California Common Cause are among the other backers.

Lincoln General Plan Announcement

Lincoln's 2050 general plan approved
Published 12:00 am PDT Thursday, March 27, 2008

LINCOLN – The City Council on Tuesday night approved the 2050 general plan, shaping how the city will look at its ultimate build-out.

"I think this plan strikes the right balance between planned growth and open space, with big-city amenities and yet creating the small-town feel we're so fond of here in Lincoln," Mayor Primo Santini said. "It provides a well-thought-out platform for growth."

The plan, six years in the making, calls for a build-out population of 132,000, and adding another 13,800 acres to Lincoln's sphere of influence.

Development will be organized into seven self-contained "villages" with a mix of housing densities, schools, parks and commercial centers, and 40 percent of the land preserved as open space.

Some residents, however, expressed concern about the added growth.

"It will alter Lincoln into something you can't recognize," Don Chandler said.

Chandler and resident Pat McCartney suggested putting the 2050 general plan on the November ballot for voters to decide.

– Jennifer Morita

McClellan Addition

This appears to be a great project for the region, and one promising about 500 jobs in manufacturing down the road and helps bring McClellan closer to full capacity.

Good work!

Sacramento supervisors OK tax breaks for solar-energy firm
By Ed Fletcher -
Published 12:00 am PDT Thursday, March 27, 2008

Calling it a "grand slam" economic development project, Sacramento County supervisors have approved $20 million in tax breaks for a Bay Area solar energy company planning to build a manufacturing plant at McClellan Park.

The facility will be one of the largest photovoltaic manufacturing plants in the United States.

The agreement made earlier this week requires OptiSolar, of Hayward, to employ 50 people nearly immediately and 500 people by 2011.

"This is the proverbial grand slam," said Supervisor Roger Dickinson. "It fits everything we are trying to do."

Dickinson and others said they were excited the company would be adding increasingly scarce manufacturing jobs to the region. Area leaders said they hoped other green technology jobs would follow.

OptiSolar builds and operates photovoltaic energy farms – doing everything from manufacturing solar cells to securing contracts to sell energy. The company has contracts to build solar farms totaling 150 megawatts in capacity in five locations throughout southwestern Ontario, Canada – a fact that helped spur the Sacramento expansion.

The company had been looking at other states and other parts of the region before settling on the former Air Force base. Officials said the tax breaks helped make the deal possible.

"We are just really excited. It's a huge win for the region," said Tracey Schaal, director of strategic marketing for the Sacramento Area Commerce and Trade Organization. "We feel that we're poised to be a leader here. We really feel Sacramento is poised to be green tech leader."

Once OptiSolar moves into McClellan's building 783 – a former defense logistics warehouse – more than 72 percent of McClellan's existing square footage will be in use. The plant will initially occupy 600,000 square feet of the building.

New York’s West Side Railyard Development

We are not the only ones having trouble with these projects.

March 27, 2008
Profit and Public Good Clash in Grand Plans

The bitter battles over reconstruction plans for ground zero. The unraveling of the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn. And now this.

Given current economic realities, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s selection on Wednesday of a team led by Tishman Speyer to develop the West Side railyards seems like a wishful fantasy. Yet even if the project takes decades to realize, it is a damning indictment of large-scale development in New York.

Like the ground zero and Atlantic Yards fiascos, its overblown scale and reliance on tired urban planning formulas should force a serious reappraisal of the public-private partnerships that shape development in the city today. And in many ways the West Side railyards is the most disturbing of the three. Because of its size and location — 12.4 million square feet on 26 acres in Midtown — it will have the most impact on the city’s identity. Yet unlike the other two developments, it lacks even the pretense of architectural ambition.

On the contrary, as a money-making venture conceived by a cash-starved transit authority, it signals a level of cynicism that should prod us to demand a moratorium on all such development until our public officials return to their senses.

Dollar signs first appeared in the eyes of authority officials when the city unfurled its misguided vision of playing host to the 2012 Olympics. That plan would have involved building a football stadium for the New York Jets on the western part of the railyards. (The stadium plan was mercifully abandoned in 2005 after it failed to receive state support.)

The current proposal essentially takes off where that earlier plan left off by championing profit over the public good. Rising on a vast platform to be built over the train tracks, the project is conceived as a series of soaring corporate and residential towers flanking the northern and southern ends of a narrow park running from 10th Avenue to the West Side Highway, between 30th and 33rd Streets. City officials say the deal will generate $1 billion in income over a 99-year lease.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sale of Sheraton

Let’s hope the deal, with its give back feature, results in a good give back to the efforts to develop downtown.

Sacramento City Council OKs sale of Sheraton-Grand
By Mary Lynne Vellinga -
Published 12:00 am PDT Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Sacramento City Council approved the $130 million sale Tuesday of its Sheraton Grand Hotel and garage on J Street – along with an unusual agreement to return about $23 million of the city's profits to the buyers as subsidies for additional downtown projects.

Council members voted 8-1 in favor of the sale despite a public admonition by interim city Treasurer Tom Berke that more review is needed, particularly given the depressed state of the real estate market. He suggested the city might hold on to the hotel longer and wait for prices to rise.

"By all means, if the price is fair and if the timing it right, let's do the sale," Berke said. "But why are we rushing into this?"

Councilman Kevin McCarty, who called Berke the city's "top fiscal watchdog," cast the only no vote.

"Our treasurer said he'd like to have more time to evaluate it; I don't think that's an unreasonable request," McCarty said.

Other council members called the price fair, and expressed fear that market conditions would deteriorate further and the deal would evaporate. And other high-level city staff advocated the sale, which is expected to close by April 15.

Councilman Steve Cohn, addressing Berke, said, "If you're correct about how severe this recession is, now is exactly the time to sell. None of us has a crystal ball, but what we've been presented with has great benefits for the city. Frankly, I want to get out of the hotel business and invest in other things."

After the vote, Mayor Heather Fargo said, "I think we made a good decision, and a big decision."

A team of two developers, David Taylor and the CIM Group, plan to pay $130 million to buy the hotel and the city-owned garage used for guest parking.

After money is set aside to pay off the hotel's construction bonds, the city expects to receive proceeds of between $40 million and $45 million.

On Tuesday, the City Council agreed to the developers' request that half of the city's profits be set aside to help underwrite future, as-yet-unspecified downtown projects by Taylor and CIM.

A Team to Join

This is a team of nuclear powers we need to join with right away to ensure the cleanest power capacity available begins to grow again in our country.

Britain and France to take nuclear power to the world
Brown and Sarkozy agree joint measures on energy and illegal immigration
Patrick Wintour, political editor
The Guardian
Saturday March 22, 2008

Britain and France are to sign a deal to construct a new generation of nuclear power stations and export the technology around the world in an effort to combat climate change.

The pact is to be announced at the "Arsenal summit" next week when prime ministers Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy will meet at the Emirates stadium in north London.

Britain hopes to take advantage of French expertise to build the power stations that do not rely on fossil fuels. Nearly 79% of France's electricity comes from its highly-developed nuclear power industry. The UK's ageing nuclear plants are ready for decommissioning and supply 20% of its energy needs.

Brown hopes the partnership will create a skilled British labour force who would then work in partnership with France to sell nuclear power stations to other countries over the next 15 years.

Britain this week started the process of licensing four generic reactor designs, including the French-designed Areva run by EDF (Électricté de France).

The Anglo-French plan will be controversial among those who believe that nuclear power is too dangerous and dirty, and that governments should place more emphasis on renewable sources of power as part of an international effort to reduce carbon emissions by 50% by 2050.

There is a growing view within the energy industry that nuclear power could be the next lucrative market. British Energy, the country's biggest reactor operator, has become the target of a potential £7bn takover bid as the UK tries to guarantee a secure future energy supply without relying on gas imports from Russia as North Sea oil and gas supplies dwindle.

The nuclear deal is one of several Anglo-French initiatives the two are expected to announce when they meet on Thursday.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Illegal Homeless Camp

Be careful out there.

There is a major illegal camp along the Parkway, traditionally a source of increased crime, clearly visible underneath the 160 freeway at the Northgate exit.

Look to your left as you exit from downtown along 16th Street and make the stop at Del Paso Boulevard.

The North Sacramento Chamber of Commerce has been advocating something be done about the illegal camping in their neighborhoods for years

Parkway Phones Announcement

Parkway phone boxes will be fixed
Published 12:00 am PDT Tuesday, March 25, 2008

SACRAMENTO – Emergency call boxes on the American River Parkway and another bicycle trail are out of commission, but officials promise they will operate soon with the latest technology.

The emergency phones along the parkway are being retrofitted with digital technology, replacing the analog innards of the yellow boxes. They were supposed to be fixed already but a couple of retrofitting problems have delayed the upgrade.
It looks like the boxes will be working by April 1 – no fooling.

The boxes have not been working for about three weeks. There are 37 on the American River Parkway from Discovery Park to Folsom Lake, and eight on the Sacramento Northern Trail from about Del Paso Boulevard to Elverta Road.

They have a receiver inside the box and a button to push to connect the parkway user to the appropriate police agency. Most calls are then transferred to county park rangers.

If a major crime is reported, police agencies respond.

Even with the popularity of cell phones, the county believes it is important to keep the phones working.

"We don't get a lot of calls from the boxes," said Chief Park Ranger Steve Flannery. "It is more common to get calls from personal cell phones, but there have been a couple of bike accidents where the call boxes came in pretty handy."

– Bill Lindelof

Salmon Run

Whither the run?

Scientists try to explain dismal salmon run
Jane Kay, Chronicle Environment Writer
Monday, March 24, 2008

Amid growing concern over an imminent shutdown of the commercial and sport chinook salmon season, scientists are struggling to figure out why the largest run on the West Coast hit rock bottom and what Californians can do to bring it back.

The chinook salmon - born in the rivers, growing in the bay and ocean, and returning to home rivers to spawn - need two essential conditions early in life to prosper: safe passage through the rivers to the bay and lots of seafood to eat once they reach the ocean.

Yet, the Sacramento River run of salmon that was expected to fill fish markets in May didn't find those life-sustaining conditions. And some scientists say that's the likeliest explanation for why the number of returning spawners plummeted last fall to roughly 90,000, about 10 percent of the peak reached just a few years ago.

The devastating one-two punch happened as the water projects in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta pumped record amounts of snowmelt and rainwater to farms and cities in Southern California, degrading the salmon's habitat. And once the chinook reached the ocean, they couldn't find the food they needed to survive where and when they needed it.

"You need good conditions in the rivers and ocean to get survival and good returns for spawning," said Stephen Ralston, supervisory research fisheries biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, and a science adviser to the Pacific Coast Fishery Management Council.

Without those favorable conditions, the salmon run crashed. Five years ago, the peak was 872,700 returning spawners. Roughly 90,000 were counted in 2007, and only 63,900 are expected to return to spawn in fall 2008.

Helped by cool-water winter

The fishery council, a regulatory body charged with setting fishing limits, has recommended a full closure or a strict curtailment of the commercial and sport season. A final decision will come in April.

NOAA researchers say a cool-water winter will help the beleaguered run in the future. An influx of cold Alaska waters, along with a shot of nutrients from vigorous upwelling of deep waters, have been fueling the food chain that feeds salmon, birds and marine mammals.

But the scientists warn that chinook, which have swum through the San Francisco Bay for thousands of years, have suffered human harm over the past half-century and now also need human help.

They've proposed a number of solutions, including sending more water over the dams and reservoirs and down the tributaries where salmon spawn; removing barriers to migration such as old dams; screening the fish away from the pumps and diversion pipes that suck them up, misdirect or kill them; controlling pesticide and sewage pollution - and catching fewer fish while the populations try to rebuild.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Homeless Housing Complex Concern

The neighborhood is right to feel concern as the complex will degrade their neighborhood as the concentration of homeless services have degraded the 12th Street and Richards Boulevard area downtown, which has been spilling over into the illegal camping in the Parkway and aggressive panhandlers on the K Street mall for years.

The housing first model being used is the right model for alleviating homelessness among the chronic homeless, but the concentration format is the wrong implementation approach. The preferred implementation, which is more successful, cost less, and is much less degrading to neighborhoods, is the scatter-site approach where individual apartments, houses, and duplexes are rented out for the homeless, with the needed services delivered to the site by treatment teams rather than being housed on-site (which adds to the concentration of homeless by attracting other homeless to the area.).

It is an approach that may be less convenient for the service delivery folks but it sure saves the neighborhoods.

The other major benefit is that the homeless, rather than being surrounded by other homeless who, in effect, help create the very failure oriented situation they are trying to escape from, are scattered into neighborhoods of regular folks whose influence is much more salutary.

During the formation of this project in Sacramento, our organization advocated for the scattered site approach to alleviate the illegal camping along the Parkway (See report on our website, page 25)

However, our advice was not taken and the illegal camping by the homeless in the Parkway, (to stay close to the concentration of homeless services in the 12th Street/Richards Boulevard area) camping which is now spilling over into the midtown areas of the Parkway, continues.

Stockton Boulevard housing project stirs neighbors' criticism
By Ed Fletcher -
Published 12:45 am PDT Monday, March 24, 2008

Plans to replace an aging Stockton Boulevard motel with housing for the homeless has sparked a sharp debate over what's best for the neighborhood.

Homeless advocates contend permanent housing is needed to get people off the street –and keep them sober.

Some community activists concerned about the project say that if such housing is set aside, their new neighbors should be clean and drug free before they move in.

The proposed 74-apartment complex at 5321 Stockton Blvd. is part of an ambitious 10-year plan by the city and county of Sacramento to end chronic homelessness.

Last week, a Stockton Boulevard redevelopment advisory group voted to recommend the project, but other activists vow to fight on. The project must ultimately be approved by Sacramento's City Council.

The debate over the project is a preview of future tiffs as neighborhoods push back at the program, aimed at helping long-time homeless people.

Aided by federal dollars, the program targets the chronically homeless – defined as people with mental or physical disabilities who have been on the street for a year or who have been homeless at least four times in the past three years.

Program leaders report that they've housed 171 people in the first year of the plan.

They hope to build or find 1,600 housing units over the program's 10 years.

The plan calls for a quick start by initially using existing residences to get people off the streets, then building on the effort by constructing permanent housing with supportive programs on-site.

Some jurisdictions implementing similar programs report savings of $10,000 to $16,000per person, according to information provided by initiative organizers.

"Since Sacramento has placed 171 people into permanent supportive housing, we are likely saving $1.5 (million) to $2.5 million per year," they wrote in the recently released First Year report.

Unlike some homeless programs, the initiative follows a "housing first" approach, meaning conquering demons isn't a prerequisite for housing.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Bicyclists Cause Most Accidents

We really do need more bike only trials (particularly on the Parkway where separate trails for bikes, pedestrians, and horses, makes a lot of sense), but bicyclists also need to follow the rules of the road, as we see in this article, the price for not is getting more severe.

Fortunately, the situation in the Bay Area is not completely replicated here.

Bicyclists blamed twice as often as drivers
Erin McCormick, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, March 22, 2008

Bicyclists were twice as likely as drivers to be at fault in the nearly 2,000 collisions that killed or severely injured Bay Area bike riders in the past decade, an analysis by The Chronicle shows.

Bicycle and safety advocates say the deaths two weeks ago of two cyclists hit by a Santa Clara sheriff's deputy's cruiser should serve as a call to improve relations between cars and bikes on the roadways.

The advocates say large numbers of cyclists fail to follow the rules of the road, running stop signs and red lights, and drivers are becoming more aggressive.

"There is a juggernaut out there - the tension between the cyclists and the drivers is so high that it's become a war," said triathlon coach Marc Evans, who is starting a campaign to get the cycling community, drivers and motorcyclists to put more focus on avoiding deadly collisions on the roads.

The Chronicle's analysis of the 33,000 Bay Area collisions involving bicyclists since 1997 shows that, in the most serious accidents, the driving behaviors of bicyclists often were blamed for the crashes. Data collected by the California Highway Patrol show that bicyclists were deemed at fault in 1,165, or nearly 60 percent, of the 1,997 accidents that killed or severely injured cyclists; drivers were blamed only 520 times, or 26 percent. In most other cases, no one was listed as being at fault.

Suspicion of bias

Bicycling advocates said the statistics might in part reflect a bias among police officers, who they say often "blame the victims," especially because cyclists might not get to tell their side of the story as they are being carried off on stretchers.

"There is a prevalent perception among police officers that bikes don't belong on the road," said Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

Yet even the most staunch cycling advocates acknowledge that some cyclists give others a bad name by failing to obey traffic laws.

"When I see a rider run a red light, I cringe," Shahum said. "Not only is it totally unsafe, it makes me and all other cyclists look bad."

As for drivers, the data suggest their behavior is getting worse by the year.

Serious crashes

The number of serious Bay Area crashes in which cyclists were at fault has hovered at about 100 per year for the past decade, but the number in which motorists were blamed has steadily risen - from 38 in 1997 to 61 in 2006, the last full year for which data were available.

In addition, the number of accidents involving drivers hitting cyclists and then fleeing has spiked in recent years. Hit-and-run drivers killed four cyclists and severely injured 26 others in 2006 - significantly more than any other year in the past decade.

"There seems to be a natural tension between bicyclists and motorists," said Susan George, town manager of Woodside, who finds the streets in and around her hilly San Mateo County community swarming with cyclists, motorcycle riders, equestrians and drivers out for a good time on weekends and lunch hours.

Groups of dozens or even hundreds of bicyclists sometimes take over the roads, blowing through stoplights and disobeying signs, she said. At the same time, some motorists retaliate aggressively, tailgating the bicyclists, honking at them and trying to force them off the road.

"The majority of cyclists obey the rules, and the motorists, too, but then you get these outlaws," George said. "It's an ongoing battle, and in recent years the tensions have gotten worse."

I-5 Update

Water was problem from the start.

I-5 stretch due for repairs was a bust from the beginning
By Tony Bizjak -
Published 12:00 am PDT Sunday, March 23, 2008

Some freeways age well. Others require a little extra care. Then there's the "boat section" of Interstate 5 in downtown Sacramento.

Built amid controversy in the 1960s, the stretch of sunken freeway has been trouble since it opened.

Concrete cracks appeared immediately. Drain pipes have since clogged, and the pavement is crumbling fast.

Fearing a freeway flood, state officials announced plans last week for an unprecedented project this summer to save the worrisome mile of interstate.

"With the potential for flooding, we feel we need to go in now," state Department of Transportation project manager Ken Solak said. "The wearing surface is in dire need."

They will partially close I-5 for weeks at a time – risking massive traffic jams – to rip out and rebuild much of the freeway.

The project is scheduled to start the last week of May.

The project area runs from Richards Boulevard on the north to the Highway 50 interchange on the south.

But the trickiest task lies below ground, where the freeway dips under Capitol Mall and P Street.

Engineers call it the "boat section," where the concrete-encased freeway is pressed in on three sides by muddy groundwater, below the level of the Sacramento River. The lowest portion of the boat section is anchored in the mud by numerous 80-foot-long piles.

Pressure from water pushing upward over the years has caused extensive pavement cracking. An underground drainage system designed to suction away water is failing. Pipes are packed so tightly with silt "it's almost as hard as concrete," Caltrans engineer Erol Kaslan said.

Maintenance crews and engineers have applied patchwork fixes for decades, but most have not taken, Caltrans reports show.

Crews will close the freeway's northbound lanes in downtown for an estimated two weeks, likely after the Memorial Day weekend and Jazz Jubilee in Old Sacramento.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Water Policy in California

Nice look at the development of water policy in our state.

Steve Wiegand: California water war follows a decades-old flow
By Steve Wiegand -
Published 12:00 am PDT Saturday, March 22, 2008

In today's historical epistle, we provide some admittedly simplistic background for the current tussle over addressing California's water woes:

Edmund G. "Pat" Brown probably wasn't the most eloquent chief executive California has ever had. He's the guy who, after touring a North Coast flood in 1964, exclaimed, "This is the worst disaster since I was elected governor."

Still, Brown succinctly defined the state's water dilemma just after taking over as governor in 1959.

"We do not have enough water when and where we need it," he told legislators in unveiling what would become known as the State Water Project. "We have too much water when and where we don't need it."

Of course Brown wasn't the first Californian to notice this problem, nor the first to try to resolve it.

In the early part of the 20th century, Los Angeles officials put together a plan to build an aqueduct that would carry water from the Owens River Valley on the eastern side of the Sierra to the growing, and thirsty, metropolis. San Francisco officials did much the same thing in the north, building a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley to store water from the Tuolumne River.

In the late 1920s, a combination of private, state and federal interests pushed through construction of a dam at Boulder Canyon in Nevada to store water from the Colorado River, much of it to be used by California farmers in the Imperial Valley.

And in the 1930s, legislators and voters narrowly approved the Central Valley Project, a $170 million plan to re-engineer water distribution through the heart of the state.

But the "second Gold Rush" swelled California's population after World War II and necessitated another major undertaking.

High Speed Rail

A wonderful project that deserves funding to move it forward.

High-speed rail backers hope adding private investors to bond measure will avoid delays
By Judy Lin -
Published 12:00 am PDT Saturday, March 22, 2008

Democratic lawmakers have agreed to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's request to include public-private partnerships for a high-speed train that could travel from either San Francisco or Sacramento to Los Angeles in 2 1/2 hours.

Supporters of the high-speed "bullet" train are hoping the changes will ensure that a $10 billion bond measure doesn't get delayed a third time – which some fear would jeopardize the entire project.

Under a compromise bill, Assembly Bill 3034 would modify a measure already on the November ballot to encourage private investment, whether through regional transportation authorities, Wall Street investment firms, or a combination of both.

"We're pleased the bill addresses previous concerns," Schwarzenegger's spokeswoman Rachel Cameron said Friday. "The governor is a big supporter of high-speed rail, and he believes strongly that Californians would benefit from a network that would connect communities throughout the state."

Although the governor has not taken a formal position on the bill, proponents say they are optimistic the ballot measure will now stay on the November ballot.

Twice already, in 2004 and 2006, the Legislature has postponed the bond measure that would allow voters to kick-start construction on high-speed rail. The original bond language was adopted in 2002.

The bill is expected to be heard first in the Assembly Transportation Committee next month, and its language may undergo changes. It requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

In keeping with the governor's green image, Schwarzenegger officials worked with the state's High-Speed Rail Authority to craft language that emphasizes the environmental value of the 700-mile system by reducing air and road congestion.

Social Entrepreneurs

The concept developed out of several different strands of helping, mostly from those who had worked in the technology sector and had seen what could be done to create major change with small resources.

It is well worked out in the great book "How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas".

March 21, 2008
Thoroughly Modern Do-Gooders

Fashions in goodness change, just like fashions in anything else, and these days some of the very noblest people have assumed the manners of the business world — even though they don’t aim for profit. They call themselves social entrepreneurs, and you can find them in the neediest places on earth.

The people who fit into this category tend to have plenty of résumé bling. Bill Drayton, the godfather of this movement, went to Harvard, Yale, Oxford and McKinsey before founding Ashoka, a global change network. Those who follow him typically went to some fancy school and then did a stint with Teach for America or AmeriCorps before graduate school. Then, they worked for a software firm before deciding to use what they’d learned in business to help the less fortunate.

Now they work 80 hours a week, fighting bureaucracies and funding restrictions in order to build, say, mentoring programs for single moms.

Earlier generations of benefactors thought that social service should be like sainthood or socialism. But this one thinks it should be like venture capital.

These thoroughly modern do-gooders dress like venture capitalists. They talk like them. They even think like them. That means that aside from the occasional passion for heirloom vegetables, they are not particularly crunchy. They don’t wear ponytails, tattoos or Birkenstocks. They don’t devote any energy to countercultural personal style, unless you consider excessive niceness a subversive fashion statement.

Next to them, Barack Obama looks like Abbie Hoffman.

It also means that they are not that interested in working for big, sluggish bureaucracies. They are not hostile to the alphabet-soup agencies that grew out of the New Deal and the Great Society; they just aren’t inspired by them.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Transit & 1-5 Work

While obvious that if transit has too many riders and not enough buses and trains to accommodate them, then funds need to be made available (without a tax increase) to secure them.

But increasing that capacity on a permanent basis, to accommodate a short-term problem like the I-5 fix, is bad policy.

The temporary transit fixes should do the job and for the rest, folks will find a way, though it will be slow going for the duration.

Editorial: Coming 1-5 snarl puts focus on needs of transit
Published 12:00 am PDT Friday, March 21, 2008

When Interstate 5 through downtown Sacramento closes for repairs in late May, the public will brace for monumental traffic jams. Even with the shortened time frame for the freeway fix – 42 days of land and ramp closures instead of the 300 initially announced – the partial closure of the major north-south artery through the heart of downtown will be disruptive.

But there is plenty of time both for the public and various transportation agencies involved to prepare. Transit agencies, in particular, need to gear up for the coming problems.

Counting the Capitol Corridor Intercity Rail Service, there are at least 10 public transit agencies that bring riders into downtown Sacramento. They have been meeting with Caltrans officials and among themselves for several weeks to coordinate their systems in a way that will best meet the needs of the public when I-5 closes.

Transit leaders recognize the challenges. They also see tantalizing opportunities.

Even before the coming freeway closure was announced, local transit agencies were experiencing big surges in ridership. Last month, YoloBus saw a 12 percent increase in riders compared to the year before. Some of its commuter buses from Woodland and Davis into Sacramento ran at standing-room-only levels. As The Bee noted last week, Placer County Transit has had to turn riders away because it did not have enough capacity on express buses into Sacramento. Transit officials attribute increased ridership to record high gas prices and a slumping economy. People looking for ways to economize are leaving their cars at home.

To deal with the increased demand that was already building and to meet the special challenge of the I-5 closures, transit districts will need help from each other and the state. The state needs to provide help in getting more buses to the transit agencies that desperately need them. Placer County needs extra buses now. So does Yuba- Sutter transit.

Walters on Legislative Secrecy

A great overview and reminder that we still have a way to go to make government transparent and accountable, how it should be when folks are working on our dime.

Dan Walters: Legislature protects its secrecy
By Dan Walters -
Published 12:00 am PDT Friday, March 21, 2008

Describing K.W. Lee as a dogged investigative reporter would be a gross understatement. An obsessive, even maniacal, heat-seeking journalistic missile in the target-rich environment of the state Capitol would be more like it.

During the early 1970s, while working for the Sacramento Union, Lee embarrassed Capitol politicians with revelations about the rich pension benefits they had voted for themselves, forcing the Legislature to rescind some goodies.

Lee also revealed that an Oakland assemblywoman was operating a travel agency adjacent to her district office and that hundreds of long-distance calls on her state-paid phone line were to hotels, cruise lines, consulates and other sites connected to her travel business. The Assembly's response to this rather outrageous misuse of taxpayers' money should have been censure. Instead, it shut down access to phone records.

That, however, merely revved up Lee even more, and he acquired some additional reportorial help in the person of yours truly. Over the ensuing months we delved into how the Legislature was spending the many millions of dollars it appropriated for itself. We were forced to find ways of overcoming the Legislature's almost complete exemption from the open records laws that it applied to other state agencies and local governments.

Some of our tips came from legislative employees disgusted with the waste and self-dealing they saw. But Lee also discovered a back door into legislative spending – the archives of the state controller's office. We spent countless hours poring through boxes of invoices paid out of the Legislature's budget, finding clues that evolved into stories.

Transit Plan

While the minority of users is still getting the majority of funding, it is important to build the two new bridges and the lapse of one planned over the American between Watt and Sunrise continues to belittle our aspirations to become a regional community.

Regional plan tries to drive fine line on cars, transit
By Tony Bizjak -
Published 12:00 am PDT Friday, March 21, 2008

After two years of debate, Sacramento has a new regional transportation spending plan, but no end to the disagreements over how many of us should still be driving cars in the coming years.

The $42 billion Metropolitan Transportation Plan was approved unanimously Thursday by representatives of six Sacramento-area counties and 22 cities, serving as the Sacramento Area Council of Governments board.

Proponents say the spending plan for the next 28 years strikes a balance between the often competing desires for more roads for cars, and for more transit and pedestrian-oriented development.

That is a dramatic reversal from past regional spending plans, which focused mainly on roads to move more cars, SACOG executive Mike McKeever said.

"We're turning the nose of the ship," McKeever said. "We're not all the way where we need to be, but we've significantly raised the bar."

Not nearly far enough, opponents contend.

Environmentalists argued the plan should be tied directly to city and county land-use policies; cities that approve sprawl growth shouldn't receive transportation funds to support that.

"It just hasn't gone far enough," said Alex Kelter of the Environmental Council of Sacramento.

The plan, which covers Sacramento, El Dorado, Placer, Yolo, Sutter and Yuba counties, will be revisited and updated in four years, as required by the federal government, officials said. Some projects could be dropped from the list and others added.

…It earmarks funds for a plan to reintroduce streetcars downtown, connecting West Sacramento's redevelopment area with Sacramento over the Tower Bridge. The plan puts more emphasis on adding cycling and pedestrian areas on new streets.

It also addresses what some contend is a weak spot in the region's transportation grid – a lack of bridges. Two of them – one over the Sacramento River at Broadway, the other over the American River at Truxel Road in Natomas – are controversial and face lengthy public fights.

Notably, the plan does not include money for any river crossing between Watt Avenue and Sunrise Boulevard, where many battles of over potential bridges have been fought in the past.

Suburban American Dream

It is alive and well and attracting the diversity Sacramento began during the Gold Rush, the greatest westward movement of people in history, and it continues to enrich and deepen the cultural and economic life of our region, a very good thing.

Influx of immigrants reshapes Sacramento suburbs
By Susan Ferriss -
Published 12:00 am PDT Friday, March 21, 2008

There may be fewer McDonald's and Wienerschnitzel eateries.

And if suburban Sacramento is any indication, Middle America is in for more Asian noodles and octopus, and Mexican chiles and pickled cactus.

U.S. suburbs are getting an ethnic makeover as more immigrants leave traditional big-city ethnic enclaves and head to the 'burbs to forge their American dream.

The Sacramento region – and eight other U.S. metropolitan areas – are featured as examples of the phenomenon in a new book, "Twenty-First Century Gateways: Immigrant Incorporation in Suburban America."

Published by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank, the book chronicles how unprecedented immigrant influxes – with Latinos and Asians in the lead – are transforming what once were mostly white suburbs.

"As the nation as a whole becomes more suburban, so do immigrants," said Robin Datel, a California State University, Sacramento, geography professor who co-wrote the book's chapter about Sacramento with her husband, Dennis Dingemans. He's a retired geography professor at the University of California at Davis.

In the past, the book points out, it was the offspring of immigrants who moved out of cities, many of them abandoning their cultural practices.

Today, immigrants from Sacramento to Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis to Charlotte, N.C., are going suburban and taking their tastes with them.

Vallejo’s Bankruptcy Backstory

It appears the cause of the bankruptcy that was barely averted was underfunded employee salaries and benefits, making the decision by the Sacramento Bee to put access to state salaries in a public benefit context.

Maybe once we find out what is really happening we’ll vote to slow it down, before we bankrupt ourselves.

The Unions Go to Town...
...and bankrupt America's cities.
by Stephen Moore
03/24/2008, Volume 013, Issue 27

It didn't get much attention on the East Coast, but in late February the town of Vallejo, California, came within an eyelash of becoming the first city since Bridgeport, Connecticut, back in 1991 to declare bankruptcy. This San Francisco Bay suburb of 120,000 residents was threatening to take this radical step because it can no longer afford to pay the extravagant salary and retirement benefits of its public employees. Just a few hours before the city council was to file for bankruptcy, the unions caved in and granted wage concessions to keep the city operational.

There are several other cities in California that are contemplating the bankruptcy option thanks to multi-billion-dollar public employee pension and health care obligations that have become effectively unpayable. "Vallejo's fiscal problems aren't unique. They're just the tip of the debt iceberg here in California," says Keith Richman, a former state legislator and now president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility (CFFR). The California Public Employees' Retirement System has $26 billion of unfunded liabilities. The teachers' retirement system is $20 billion in the red--health benefits add another $48 billion to its shortfall.

Welcome to the next great financial bubble in America--a fiscal time bomb that could cause your local and state tax bills to double or even triple in years to come.

Vallejo's story of financial woe raises eyebrows because it is not a desperately poor or dilapidated city like Newark or Detroit. It is quintessential middle-class America, with an average family income of about $57,000. When the city announced it wouldn't be able to meet $6 million of unpaid bills starting in April, no one was as surprised as the residents themselves. Part of the problem is that the real estate crisis is especially pronounced in California and, as housing values fall, so do city property tax collections. The city projects a $20 million budget shortfall this year and next, which is a big bucket of red ink out of an annual budget of $80 million. City officials saw bankruptcy as the only legal option to void its unsustainable wage and retirement labor contracts and their $135 million of unfunded liabilities.

These contracts are so exorbitant that some of the richest residents of Vallejo are the police and firemen. Ten firemen earned more than $200,000 last year with overtime--a salary nearly four times higher than what the average family in Vallejo earns. Incredibly, 80 percent of the city's budget is consumed by labor and pension costs. "No city or private person wants to declare bankruptcy," says Councilwoman Stephanie Gomes, "but if you're facing insolvency, you have no choice but to seek protection."

Soaring public employee pension costs are crunching municipal budgets and causing service cuts or tax hikes across the state. In the Los Angeles County school system, health, pension, and workers compensation liabilities are so mountainous that an estimated one of every three dollars budgeted for the L.A. schools goes to teacher retirement costs. "The three Rs in the L.A. County school system are now reading, writing, and retirement," moans Richman.

There are other horror stories. The CFFR found that many cities have a 3 percent rule which allows a worker to accrue a pension benefit of 3 percent of his final salary for each year worked. So an employee who started on the job at age 22 can retire at age 52 with a lifetime pension benefit of 90 percent of the final salary. Most California towns also allow city employees to "spike" their pensions. This is a popular scam that allows workers to pad their final salary--and so their pension--by as much as 50 percent through bonuses, overtime, accrued vacation, and other add-ons. These pensions also come with an annual cost of living adjustment and lifetime health care.

"Pensions are the second biggest line item in most municipal budgets today behind law enforcement," says Steven Frates, a professor at Claremont McKenna College and an expert on California's pensions system. He adds that "the annuity value for many public employee pensions in this state is $1.5 million." Some of the highest paid state workers are walking away with lifetime annual pension and health benefits of $300,000 a year. With hundreds of thousands of public employees in California, you have the potential for catastrophic long-term financial distress.

More Flooding Coming?

Yes, according to this report.

Current Major Flooding in U.S. a Sign of Things to Come
NOAA Urges Communities to Prepare During Flood Safety Awareness Week
March 20, 2008

Major floods striking America’s heartland this week offer a preview of the spring seasonal outlook, according to NOAA’s National Weather Service. Several factors will contribute to above-average flood conditions, including record rainfall in some states and snow packs, which are melting and causing rivers and streams to crest over their banks. This week, more than 250 communities in a dozen states are experiencing flood conditions.

The science supporting NOAA’s short-term forecasts allows for a high level of certainty. National Weather Service forecasters highlighted potential for the current major flood event a week in advance and began working with emergency managers to prepare local communities for the impending danger.

“We expect rains and melting snow to bring more flooding this spring,” said Vickie Nadolski, deputy director of NOAA’s National Weather Service. “Americans should be on high alert to flood conditions in your communities. Arm yourselves with information about how to stay safe during a flood and do not attempt to drive on flooded roadways – remember to always turn around, don’t drown.”

Nadolski called on local emergency management officials to continue preparations for a wet spring and focus on public education to ensure heightened awareness of the potential for dangerous local conditions.


It is becoming a much more credible alternative and that is a good thing.

Published online 19 March 2008 | Nature 452, 260-261 (2008) |
Water: Purification with a pinch of salt

Climate change, growing populations and political concerns are prompting governments and investors from California to China to take a fresh look at desalination.
Quirin Schiermeier

Water has always been a volatile topic in Australia, the world's driest inhabited continent, but the political row that broke out last week was perhaps surprising. Protesters are complaining that a planned desalination facility outside Melbourne, Victoria, will generate too much freshwater.

The US$3-billion government-owned plant will produce more than 300,000 cubic metres of drinkable water a day when it opens in 2011, putting it among the world's biggest. Environmental groups claim that the plant is unnecessary. Even if water consumption rose by 25%, there would be an excess of about 60% in supply over consumption by 2016, according to Neil Rankine, a spokesman for protest group Your Water Your Say. Rankine's figures are based on the state increasing other efforts such as recycling water and harvesting rainwater.

Nobody, of course, is actually worried about the possibility of having too much water — at issue is the cost to the environment. “Desalination is the most energy-intensive form of water supply,” says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an independent environmental think-tank in Oakland, California. The Victorian plant will sit next to a six-turbine wind farm, but few believe that the small, inefficient farm will be able to power the huge facility. The highly concentrated brine discharged by the desalination processes is also of ecological concern.

The economic payout is steep too. Unlike the mass production of other consumer goods, there is no pronounced economy of scale at play in 'making' water — even massive plants cannot produce desalinated water at significantly lower costs than small, community-based facilities.

Increasingly, countries are willing to pay the price. Nations from Australia to Britain, the United States to China, have desalination projects in the works — 75 major plants are at various stages of development globally (see graph, right). Currently, more than 40 million cubic metres of desalinated water are produced every day by 15,000 or so production facilities worldwide. “In the next 10–20 years we will see a massive increase in capacity and production,” says Bruce Durham, an independent consultant who has worked with the water industry for more than 30 years. In California alone, proposals have been put forward for at least 20 new large desalination facilities (see map), which together could ultimately supply some 6% of the state's urban water demand.

Costs have come down. Even the very energy-intensive thermal plants in the Gulf region — which purify seawater by boiling and condensing — can produce fresh water at less than US$1 per cubic metre. And the desalination plant at Ashkelon in Israel, once the world's largest, produces more than 300,000 cubic metres of freshwater per day at costs of around 50 cents per cubic metre. That's 1,000 litres of drinking water for less than half the retail price of a 1-litre bottle of Evian. But on average, the technique is 3.5 times more expensive than using other sources of freshwater such as pumping from aquifers.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Peripheral Canal

The farmers know we need it.

Jean Sagouspe: Rains only help if water can be delivered to farms
By Jean P. Sagouspe - Special to The Bee
Published 12:00 am PDT Thursday, March 20, 2008

The winter snow and rain hasn't put an end to our water shortages. Indeed, California's water crisis cannot be solved if we permit the legal and regulatory roadblocks to prevent us from moving the water from this year's snowpack south to the cities and farms where it is needed.

This crisis, like many others, is the result of a failure of leadership, a failure to act and surrender to the gridlock assured by a host of environmental laws.

Farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley have known for some time that we're facing a looming disaster. But now, because of restrictions to protect the Delta smelt that the federal court has placed on pumping by the Central Valley Project and State Water Project, the effects of the crisis are extending beyond the San Joaquin Valley to have an impact on major urban areas in San Francisco and Southern California.

Some Southern California cities are already informing builders they may not be able to meet water demands created by new construction. And supplies could be cut back even further as a result of an order by the state Fish and Game Commission imposing more restrictions on pumping.

If uninformed people read the news about fishing declines in the Delta, they would get the impression that, prior to these recent legal and regulatory decisions, nothing had been done. Of course, this is not the case.

More than $1 billion has been spent on habitat improvements. Hundreds of millions more have been spent on scientific research. For decades, multiple restrictions have been imposed on pumping, and in the last 10 years, we have seen more than a million acre-feet of water a year relocated from human uses to environmental purposes.

…The planning efforts focused on the Delta today are very important to the future of California's water supply. The Bay-Delta Blue Ribbon Task Force has concluded that isolating and building a conveyance system apart from fish habitat offers our best hope of recovering the fisheries, restoring the Delta and securing the water supply California needs. It's time to have a serious conversation about how to fix the problem instead of continuing to point fingers.

SACOG Transportation Plan

Unfortunately it still focuses on alternative transit systems used by a tiny minority rather than the roads used by most everyone else, but there is a responsible call for more bridges, though more are needed, and also unfortunately, it calls for new taxes.

Editorial: New SACOG transportation plan maps a path to future
Published 12:00 am PDT Thursday, March 20, 2008

Expected to grow by another 1 million people in the next quarter-century, the Sacramento region can no longer plan new roads and transit as it has in the past.

In previous decades, cities and counties came up with their own individual wish lists for projects, and then the Sacramento Area Council of Governments would cobble them all together into a long-range document.

Things are different now. At a meeting today, the SACOG board will consider a new metropolitan transportation plan that will guide $42 billion in state and federal investments in roads, transit, bridges and other projects through the year 2035.

This consensus plan doesn't go as far as some – including this editorial board – would like in promoting alternative modes of travel. Nonetheless, it marks a major step in bringing a regional vision to the planning of transportation projects, and marrying that vision with realistic financial assumptions.

Compared with the version approved in 2002, the new $42 billion plan increases investment in transit by 21 percent, and would reintroduce street cars to the region.

It increases funding for bicycle and pedestrian improvements by 56 percent. It also increases maintenance funds for local roads and freeways.

...But as SACOG's Mike McKeever has pointed out, the region can't earmark capital investments for transit projects that lack a clear source of operating revenue. That is why it's essential for transit advocates to press Placer and El Dorado leaders to pass a sales tax for transportation.

Florida Nuclear Reactors Approved

Two new nuclear reactors approved in Florida, wonderful news for the one technology that supplies significant power more cleanly than any other significant power producing technology.

Posted on Tue, Mar. 18, 2008
State OK's new Turkey Point nuclear plants

In a major milestone, state regulators Tuesday morning approved Florida Power & Light's request to build two nuclear plants at its Turkey Point facility.

The Public Service Commission unanimously accepted FPL's statement that there was a need for the facilities at the location in South Miami-Dade, which already has two nuclear units, two gas-and-oil units and one natural-gas unit.

The new nuclear units are not expected to be operating for another decade or more, generating an estimated 2,200 megawatts or more, which would serve the needs of an estimated one million homes.

''Trends indicate there will be a substantial need for more power in FPL's service territory, and these new nuclear units can help meet that need,'' PSC Chairman Matthew M. Carter II said in a statement. ``The nuclear units will provide a clean, noncarbon-emitting source of base-load power to meet Florida's growing energy needs.''

The nuclear units still must clear federal hurdles before they get the green light.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Commitment Confusion

Let’s hope this uncertainty—at the very least in communication—doesn’t throw a wrench into a much more important project to satisfy a lesser one.

At times like this the capital region truly needs effective executive leadership able to articulate to the public and other stakeholders the clarity of vision that determines complex decisions.

Council backs funds for Township 9 project, angers railyard developer
By Terri Hardy -
Published 12:00 am PDT Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Sacramento City Council stood firm Tuesday and backed a riverfront development project for a pot of state funds – upsetting the developer of the downtown railyard who maintains that the same money is crucial for his project to move forward.

In a compromise move, the council agreed to recommend the developer of Township 9 for a portion of state bond money in "infill funds" now, but made it clear the city would thereafter designate Thomas Enterprises as the No. 1 priority in all other "infill" funding cycles.

The council previously designated Thomas Enterprises as the city's top preference for a different pot of bond money known as "transit funds."

Salmon Gone This Year

A lot of questions but no one knows for sure what has happened to this year’s run, but it may be as simple as a natural cycle of plenty one year and few the next, wax and wane, an ancient way.

March 17, 2008
Chinook Salmon Vanish Without a Trace
SACRAMENTO — Where did they go?

The Chinook salmon that swim upstream to spawn in the fall, the most robust run in the Sacramento River, have disappeared. The almost complete collapse of the richest and most dependable source of Chinook salmon south of Alaska left gloomy fisheries experts struggling for reliable explanations — and coming up dry.

Whatever the cause, there was widespread agreement among those attending a five-day meeting of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council here last week that the regional $150 million fishery, which usually opens for the four-month season on May 1, is almost certain to remain closed this year from northern Oregon to the Mexican border. A final decision on salmon fishing in the area is expected next month.

As a result, Chinook, or king salmon, the most prized species of Pacific wild salmon, will be hard to come by until the Alaskan season opens in July. Even then, wild Chinook are likely to be very expensive in markets and restaurants nationwide.
“It’s unprecedented that this fishery is in this kind of shape,” said Donald McIsaac, executive director of the council, which is organized under the auspices of the Commerce Department.

Fishermen think the Sacramento River was mismanaged in 2005, when this year’s fish first migrated downriver. Perhaps, they say, federal and state water managers drained too much water or drained at the wrong time to serve the state’s powerful agricultural interests and cities in arid Southern California. The fishermen think the fish were left susceptible to disease, or to predators, or to being sucked into diversion pumps and left to die in irrigation canals.

But federal and state fishery managers and biologists point to the highly unusual ocean conditions in 2005, which may have left the fingerling salmon with little or none of the rich nourishment provided by the normal upwelling currents near the shore.

The life cycle of these fall run Chinook salmon takes them from their birth and early weeks in cold river waters through a downstream migration that deposits them in the San Francisco Bay when they are a few inches long, and then as their bodies adapt to saltwater through a migration out into the ocean, where they live until they return to spawn, usually three years later.

One species of Sacramento salmon, the winter run Chinook, is protected under the Endangered Species Act. But their meager numbers have held steady and appear to be unaffected by whatever ails the fall Chinook.

Peripheral Canal

A new study begins.

California begins study of canal's effect on delta
By Mike Taugher
Bay Area News Group
Article Launched: 03/18/2008 01:37:51 AM PDT

Plans to build a peripheral canal to divert water around the delta took a key step forward Monday when the Department of Water Resources launched a 30-month study on how to stabilize unreliable water supplies.

The environmental analysis will examine the effects of building a canal, along with other methods of getting water from the Sacramento River to the East Bay, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

The study comes as state officials search with increasing urgency for a fix to the delta's myriad problems, which include collapsing fish populations, increasingly unreliable water supplies and aging levees that could fail and cause flooding while also jeopardizing water deliveries.

Since 2006, water agencies, regulators and some environmentalists have been meeting to craft a "Bay-Delta Conservation Plan," which would relieve water agencies of onerous endangered species requirements in exchange for a long-term commitment to help recover dwindling fish populations.

In a sign of the urgency with which state officials view the delta's problems, the analysis of the plan is being launched even though the plan is not complete and its participants have not agreed on a solution.

The state's top water official, Lester Snow, said the two efforts will be closely coordinated and that starting the analysis now will speed a solution.

"We need to get started on the official processes," said Snow, the Department of Water Resources director.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Money Pots

This pot, that pot, hard to keep it straight, but that’s why we pay these folks the big bucks.

Editorial: City should stick to its plan for Prop. 1C money
Published 12:00 am PDT Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sacramento has a lot riding on a City Council decision today. The decision involves millions of dollars from Proposition 1C, the state's affordable housing bond.

The city has two strong proposals with great potential for creating whole new neighborhoods in aging industrial areas. One is The Railyards, on a 244-acre site in Sacramento's old downtown railyard. The other is Township 9, on a 65-acre site between the American River and Richards Boulevard. In the first phase, each is promising to build 850 units of housing around transit – with 15 percent for lower-income households.

For the first round of Proposition 1C funding, the council should stick with its Feb. 19 decision to make The Railyards its top priority for one pot of money and Township 9 its top priority for a second pot of money.

Unfortunately, The Railyards folks are panicking unnecessarily over the city's priorities in this first round of funding. Stan Thomas of Thomas Enterprises, developer of The Railyards, has sent a letter to Mayor Heather Fargo and the City Council falsely accusing the city of weakening its commitment to The Railyards. He demands that The Railyards be the city's top priority for both pots of Proposition 1C funds. Get a grip.

The fact is, Sacramento already has made The Railyards its top priority for the first pot of money (known as the Transit Oriented Development Program). That application was submitted March 15. The state will select one signature project per region, with the Sacramento Area Council of Governments region guaranteed one project.

Water Plan Announcement

Comments about water plan welcomed
Published 12:00 am PDT Tuesday, March 18, 2008

SACRAMENTO – The public can comment Friday on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to cut California water use 20 percent by 2020.

The conservation goal was set partly in response to deteriorating environmental conditions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which provides a portion of the drinking water enjoyed by 25 million Californians. Court-ordered Delta pumping cutbacks have reduced those water deliveries this year.

The California Water Plan Advisory Committee, which reports to the Department of Water Resources, will discuss the conservation target at its meeting Friday in Sacramento at the Doubletree Hotel, 2001 Point West Way. The meeting starts at 9 a.m. and the conservation issue is scheduled for 2 p.m.

DWR Deputy Director Mark Cowin said the state's primary tool to achieve the conservation target will be grants and incentives to local urban water agencies. But it will also consider new legislation that would allow DWR to impose regulations to meet the goal.

For more information, visit or call (916) 653-7101.

– Matt Weiser

Sacramento’s Birthday

Happy birthday and many happy returns!

Lisa Heyamoto: Happy 158th birthday, Sacramento!
By Lisa Heyamoto -
Published 12:00 am PDT Tuesday, March 18, 2008

One hundred and fifty-eight years ago today, the city of Sacramento was incorporated to become the oldest city in the state.

And if you're not exactly inclined to bust out the party hats, Dennis Bylo is.

As he has in some fashion for the past four years, Bylo, a local activist, is throwing the city a birthday party at Cesar Chavez Plaza at noon. Eventually, he hopes to parlay it into an annual food and music festival he's dubbed the Sacramento Valley Fair.

For now, however, he and the city can swap stories about their respective budget woes. Bylo paid for today's affair with only the help of a neighbor, and the main attraction will be a red bucket intended as a depository for donations to help bail out the Parks Department during the city's budget crisis. He's suggesting checks be made out in some denomination of 1850, the year the city was formed.

"You can put the decimal point wherever you want," he said. "If you put it all the way to the left, you're getting your two cents in."

Unless, of course, you'd prefer to contribute the old-fashioned way and pay off all those parking tickets.

I-5 Work

Great plan, serious congestion, but over quickly.

I-5 repair project detailed; complete closures planned
By Tony Bizjak -
Published 12:25 am PDT Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Interstate 5 downtown will be closed northbound for up to three weeks, followed by a similar closure southbound, as part of major repairs this summer, officials announced Monday.

The back-to-back closures on more than a mile of downtown freeway are expected to cause significant congestion around downtown Sacramento – with ripple effects to other freeways and surface streets.

State highway officials called the repair plan aggressive and innovative – something they would have shied away from a few years ago – and said it means necessary fixes on the decaying freeway will be far faster than expected.

In total, the project will involve 42 days of various lane and ramp closures. The project start date is planned for late May.

Caltrans first planned to close two lanes in both directions for the better part of a year during the project, until contractor C.C. Myers of Rancho Cordova, a company known for speedy work, proposed the more aggressive approach.

"The plan, very simply, is to get in, get to work, and get out," state Department of Transportation head Will Kempton said.

A few on- and offramps into downtown in both directions will be kept open throughout the 42-day period, allowing access to downtown, officials said.

Wave Power

A science we have blogged on before, an update.

Europe's Next Green Thing
By Mark Scott

Ireland's OpenHydro and Germany's RWE are spending millions to try to turn the power of waves into electricity.

With oil prices hitting almost daily record highs and global warming climbing up the public agenda, the need for alternative energy sources has never been more urgent.

But while wind and solar have dominated the recent rush to invest in renewables, market watchers reckon it could now be marine energy's turn to shine.

Ocean power -- using the energy from waves or tidal flows to produce electricity -- is quickly coming of age as a viable green resource that could help meet ambitious global targets to reduce greenhouse gases and dependency on fossil fuels.

European and North American power companies such as Canada's Emera and Germany's RWE are spending millions to fund wind and tidal projects. This investment has led to a new generation of more efficient technologies, with dozens of prototypes expected to be ready for commercial deployment within the next five years. "There's huge interest in both wave and tidal technology," says Thomas Boeckmann, clean tech analyst at market research firm StrategyEye in London. "It's gaining a lot of attention from energy companies, which will be able to offer financial backing and technical expertise to these startups."

Venture Capitalists Are Interested

It's no surprise utilities are keen to harness marine power. According to Britain's Carbon Trust, a government-funded research and advisory group, the world's oceans have the capacity to produce as much as 4,000 terawatt hours per year of electricity -- enough to power Britain 10 times over.

Of course, getting to that point is a long way off. Analysts expect Europe to have between 2,000 and 5,000 megawatts of installed capacity from wave and tidal farms by 2020. That's equivalent to between four and 10 coal-fired power plants.

The growth potential is already driving investment. Dublin-based OpenHydro, for instance, has raised more than $80 million (€51.4 million) from energy firms and venture capitalists since 2005 to develop a new type of turbine that lies on the seabed and rotates to produce electricity as the tide rises and falls. Among its investors is Canada's Emera, which holds 7 percent of the company.

Partnerships With Utilities Could Help

OpenHydro already has a 250-kilowatt prototype in the water off the coast of Scotland and plans to install a 1-megawatt plant in Canada by 2009. Chief Executive Officer James Ives says the biggest hurdle for marine power is persuading investors that it can consistently produce electricity. "You have to show that the technology is reliable even in the worst conditions," Ives says.

Monday, March 17, 2008

CC Rides Again

And kudos to the vision of public leadership who continue to have the good sense to bring in this fast and efficient developer to do building projects that need to be done fast and efficiently.

Plans set for speedy I-5 fix
C.C. Myers is expected to repair the damaged freeway downtown in just 60 days.
By Tony Bizjak -
Published 12:00 am PDT Monday, March 17, 2008

The biggest freeway fix in Sacramento history, due to tangle traffic downtown and beyond starting this spring, will be a dramatically shorter disruption than originally expected.

Caltrans officials are expected to announce today a last-minute strategy change that will allow them to repair the crumbling freeway in just 60 days, far fewer than the initial 300-day projection.

There is, however, a downside: During those two months, Interstate 5 will be partially closed, and the work may cause some of the worst traffic jams the Sacramento region has seen.

Caltrans chief Will Kempton is expected to announce the new plan today. He'll be joined by the plan's architect, contractor C.C. Myers of Rancho Cordova – the builder with Bunyanesque renown for his dramatic fixes of troubled freeways.

Myers declined comment prior to today's announcement. Caltrans officials also refused to discuss their plan, except to say they are pleased they may be able to handle the long-planned repair more cheaply and easily.

"It's going to be a bold plan," state Department of Transportation spokesman Mark Dinger said. "We think the public will be pleased."

Work is scheduled to begin in late May, after the rainy season, Dinger said.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Welcome Development

The return of the one industry able to provide clean and unlimited power is indeed great news.

Nuclear power industry reasserts itself after 3-decade lull
By David Whitney -
Published 12:00 am PDT Sunday, March 16, 2008

WASHINGTON – Stoked by new federal subsidies and worries over global warming, the nuclear power industry is beginning to glow brightly once again.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission received seven applications for new power plants last year and is expecting a dozen more by the end of December. The applications, combined, will cover a total of 22 reactors since more than one is proposed at some sites, spokesman Scott Burnell said.

"Nobody had started the applications process for 30 years until last year," Burnell said.

Even in California, where state law bars new plants from being constructed until a permanent repository opens to hold the highly radioactive spent fuel, business is picking up.

Westinghouse Electric Co., a Pittsburgh-based Toshiba Group Co. subsidiary, announced this month that it is opening a San Jose office "to support the growth of its boiling water reactor nuclear power business."

Some are even beginning to plan ways around the state's 1976 moratorium, which has effectively capped the number of operating reactors at four – two at San Onofre in San Diego County and two at Diablo Canyon near San Luis Obispo.

Former labor union leader John Hutson is head of the fledgling Fresno Nuclear Energy Group, which wants to build a 1,600-megawatt power reactor on 80 acres of city land, using effluent from a wastewater treatment plant for cooling.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Charitable Americans

The level and diversity of the charitable habits of Americans is truly astounding, and drives the success of so many public efforts—including this one—which work to improve communities and individual lives.

A Nation of Givers
By Arthur C. Brooks From the March/April 2008 Issue
Americans are remarkably charitable. But what sorts of people give the most? And how do we compare with the Europeans?

Q. How much do Americans give? Is the amount we give going up?

A. In 2006, Americans gave about $295 billion to charity. This was up 4.2 percent over 2005 levels, and charitable giving has generally risen faster than the growth of the American economy for more than half a century. Correcting for inflation and population changes, GDP per person in America has risen over the past 50 years by about 150 percent, while charitable giving per person has risen by about 190 percent. That is, the average American family has gotten much richer in real terms over the past half century, and charitable giving has more than kept pace with this trend.

Q. So where do the donations go?

A. A large majority of U.S. citizens donate money each year to houses of worship and charitable organizations. Most estimates place the percentage of American households that make monetary contributions each year at 70 to 80 percent, and the average American household contributes more than $1,000 annually. But it is not the case that American giving goes entirely—or even mostly—to religious institutions. About a third of individual gifts go toward sacramental activities, primarily supporting houses of worship. The rest goes to secular activities, such as education, health, and social welfare.

Q. Are Americans more or less charitable than citizens of other countries?

A. No developed country approaches American giving. For example, in 1995 (the most recent year for which data are available), Americans gave, per capita, three and a half times as much to causes and charities as the French, seven times as much as the Germans, and 14 times as much as the Italians. Similarly, in 1998, Americans were 15 percent more likely to volunteer their time than the Dutch, 21 percent more likely than the Swiss, and 32 percent more likely than the Germans. These differences are not attributable to demographic characteristics such as education, income, age, sex, or marital status. On the contrary, if we look at two people who are identical in all these ways except that one is European and the other American, the probability is still far lower that the European will volunteer than the American.

Q. Do Americans mostly give because our tax system rewards it?

A. The U.S. federal government and state governments make monetary gifts to public charities tax deductible. So if a taxpayer gives $1,000 and pays a tax rate of 35 percent on her last dollar of income, her donation saves her $350 in taxes.

The amount of taxes not paid because of donations is huge: it represents the single largest government “matching grant” program ever. The Internal Revenue Service estimates that in 2002, individuals donated and deducted $142.4 billion in monetary and in-kind gifts. Breaking this figure down by income class and applying 2002 marginal tax rates for these classes, we can estimate that this represents foregone income tax revenues—and hence a government subsidy to nonprofit organizations—of about $37.2 billion.

Still, tax deductibility is actually irrelevant for most people. IRS records show that only about a third of people who file tax returns itemize their deductions—which means that most Americans (particularly middle- and lower-income citizens) don’t even claim the deductions to which they are entitled. Even among households earning over $120,000 per year, only about 40 percent itemize their deductions. Furthermore, research shows that virtually no one is motivated meaningfully to give only because of our tax system.

Q. Monetary giving doesn’t tell us much about total charity, does it? People who don’t give money probably tend to give in other ways instead, right?

A. Wrong. First of all, there is a bright line between people who give and people who don’t give. People who do give time and money tend to give a lot of it. According to the Center on Philanthropy, the percentage of givers donating less than $50 to charity in 2000 was the same as the percentage giving more than $5,000. Similarly, the same percentage of people who only volunteered once volunteered on 36 or more occasions in 2000.

Second, people who give away their time and money to established charities are far more likely than non-givers to act generously in informal ways as well. For example, one nationwide survey from 2002 tells us that monetary donors are nearly three times as likely as non-donors to give money informally to friends and strangers. People who give to charity at least once per year are twice as likely to donate blood as people who don’t give money. They are also significantly more likely to give food or money to a homeless person, or to give up their seat to someone on a bus.