Friday, February 27, 2009

A tenuous web of water

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency because of a drought, setting the stage for a renewed push to dramatically revamp California's water system.

At the center of this "urgent need to update California’s water infrastructure," of course, is the Peripheral Canal, a controversial project that would direct water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta instead of through it — theoretically ensuring more stable water delivery to Places Previously Unwatered.

State Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Fresno, has introduced a bill to advance this and other measures, namely a dam on the San Joaquin River and other storage projects. Schwarzenegger has said this legislation — the Safe, Clean, Reliable, Drinking Water Supply Act of 2009 — will "get the ball rolling again."

"I know that California’s legislators recognize the need to ensure a clean, reliable water supply and I look forward to working with them to pass a comprehensive water solution this year that increases storage, improves conveyance, protects the Delta’s ecosystem and promotes greater water conservation," Schwarzenegger said.

It makes sense that this bill would come from Cogdill's desk. He represents one of the thirstiest corners of California. Without imported or dammed water, the fields of Fresno would be virtually unfarmable.

It seems obvious that the goal of the renewed push toward a new water system is to ensure that Central Valley farmers and Southern California residents get the wet stuff they've been used to getting ever since the Delta-Mendota Canal and California Aqueduct were built. All other thoughts seem somewhat auxillary.

But there are serious environmental questions that plague such a Peripheral Canal and dam-building spree, and there's been an often-overlooked constituency in the Delta Fate Debate. Namely, the people who call the Delta home.

If that's you, consider the Record's Mike Fitzgerald your champion.

"In the ominous Delta debate, south-state interests maneuver for reliable water. Environmentalists champion the ecosystem. No one gives high priority to the region.

"Us. The Delta's people. The Delta's communities, economies, infrastructure, architecture, history, its other habitats and various ways of life."

It's true there's been a lack of balance when talking about what should be done with California's water system. Farmers, fishers, environmentalists and residents of Northern and Southern California all have a stake. But too often the argument comes down to a one-or-the-other polemic.

Not really a great place to start negotiations.

Luckily, State Sen. Lois Wolk, who represents Tracy and most of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, is introducing a plan that would try to balance these competing interests.

"When saving the Delta, people forget about the Delta. Saving the Delta can't just be about balancing the interests of Southern California, corporate agriculture and endangered fish," she explains. "Doing just that is a recipe for ruin. There are people, communities, recreation, wildlife, history, transportation, and economic infrastructure that must be considered."

Let's not mistake the importance of getting water to where it's needed. Farmers should get water so that they can continue growing. Without water, they're sunk, and so is a vast chunk of California's economy and the country's food supply. But that is not the only concern to be balanced.

No one group has enough water for its needs right now. Residents are cutting back, farmers are fallowing fields, the Delta ecosystem is dying despite pumping restrictions. And Mother Nature ain't bailing us out this winter.

Wolk's bill acknowledges that tenuous web, which is more than many in this debate have done.

Tough choices must be made in the Capitol about the state's water future. No doubt there will be winners and losers. (Hopefully, the losers rhyme with Los Bangeles).

But most of all, let's hope the process is done with the thought in mind that virtually everyone south of Sacramento relies on the Delta in some way.

So far, all we've got is a push for a Peripheral Canal in the interest of the debate's most powerful players. That's simply not good enough with something so important.

What does it mean to be a patriot?

If you're John Bolton and speaking to the Conservative Political Action Conference, it means hoping for a nuclear terrorist attack to prove your political point.

Hawkish neocons are all but rooting for America to be attacked, just so they can say "I told you so" about President Obama's foreign policy.

Anyone else find it odd that these folks consider themselves true patriots?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Another airport takes flight

Second Thoughts has stressed the importance of Tracy Municipal Airport as an engine for economic growth in Tracy, but has never harbored any illusion that it might one day grow into a regional hub for larger jets or commercial passenger travel.

Aside from geographical limitations, there's another obvious reason TMA needs to find its sweet spot as a "niche" flypad: Stockton Metropolitan Airport.

If there's a chance for San Joaquin County to capitalize on air travel and its large-scale commercial/industrial benefits, this airport (big enough to handle Air Force One) is the one to put your bets on. Especially now that a grant will help connect it to Interstate 5 and Highway 99 in a meaningful way.

The airport, in addition to being an obvious commerce and transit hub, is home to the county's new agricultural center. And better access from the highways bolster Stockton Metro's case as an airport on the rise in a region that needs more economic diversity.

This doesn't cloud the importance of Tracy Municipal Airport. But airport supporters must be mindful that Tracy's flypad has its own important place in the area's economy. And it's a different place than that occupied by Stockton Metro.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bad news for the Bay Area

The San Francisco Chronicle — the self-proclaimed "voice of the west" — could soon be sold by parent Hearst Newspapers. Or shut down altogether.

It would be a sad day for the city if the Chronicle closes shop. But the large daily is bleeding red ink — to the tune of $50 million in 2008.

Efforts to save the paper are under way — management is seeking many changes, including a reduction in pay for nonunion and union employees alike (good luck with that, although the threat of shutting down the paper is a good bargaining chip even if it's not a serious option).

Whatever the plan is, I hope it works. I have a personal affinity for the publication. It's the traditional Saturday companion when my girlfriend and I chow down to eggs and bacon at one of our local greasy spoons.

However, the prospects of a turnaround look bleak. As she put it: "I knew it was coming, but boy does this feel like the possible loss of a good friend..."

Monday, February 23, 2009

No repeat run for Andal

Dean Andal — the current Lincoln Unified School District trustee and former Assemblyman and board of equalization member — has announced that he will not be the Republican who challenges Rep. Jerry McNerney for the 11th Congressional District in 2010.

Andal, who ran primarily on a platform of ethics reform and lower taxes, said through a statement that he plans to take a break. For now.

"... I've decided on a different path — one that still gives me an opportunity to stand up for California taxpayers. Although I enjoyed the time I spent with voters, this is the right decision for me and my family right now."

Andal's fiscal conservatism and pet peeve for government waste make for fine public-service stuff. And he's sharp as a whip.

But questions regarding his flexibility, especially when it comes to balancing workers' interests with the interests of employers, was a weight on his 2008 campaign. And the general groundswell in opposition to Republican politicians in '08 was just too big a mountain to climb, especially in light of McNerney's moderate liberal credentials.

Still, it's the guess of Second Thoughts that Andal remains a player on the local political scene.

For now, though, local conservatives will have to search for another banner-bearer to challenge McNerney in a once-safe Republican district that is growing more and more Democratic.

Defendnig the Little Airport that Could

Back in July 2008, I asked city leaders to not mess with the fledgling success at Tracy Municipal Airport.

Why? Because it could be one of the city's few economic bright spots when times are tough. Following Saturday's lead story in the Tracy Press, I can only repeat the call.

The centerpiece of Skyview Aviation's development plan for the airport — the manufacture of light sport planes — looks like it will indeed come to fruition. Combined with city airport management's in-the-works plan to expand hangar space at the perpetually full flypad, it seems Tracy is blessed with the Little Airport that Could.

Those who want this success story to continue — and others like it to begin — should be concerned with the residential development that will soon surround the airport.

The Ellis subdivision approved for just northwest of the flypad is not endangered by the airport, as far as I can tell. (If you've ever driven through San Jose on Interstate 880 or visited San Diego, you'll see why the safety concern is less dire than some would make it seem.) Rather, it is the airport that is endangered by Ellis.

The danger is not that the airport now will not be able to physically expand. Look at a Google Earth shot of Tracy Municipal and you'll see that its prospects for runway expansion of are bleak to begin with.

The danger is that residents of Ellis will raise a clamor about planes flying over their McMansions and the airport will have its operations severely curtailed to mollify the homeowners. Choked to death. City leaders both now and in the future cannot allow that to happen if Tracy is to shake its reputation as a city built for housing only.

The airport is a rare homegrown business success. Ellis will eventually be a reality. There's no reason the two can't coexist.

And if they can't, the city's vitality demands that the former take precedence over the latter.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Fear the robot uprising

If you're in need of some weekend reading that's both hilarious and super-scary, check out this report from the Times of London.

Money graph:

"Autonomous military robots that will fight future wars must be programmed to live by a strict warrior code or the world risks untold atrocities at their steely hands."

A prison fix-it?

The state of California might have to release some 60,000 inmates to ease overcrowding, per a federal court ruling.

San Joaquin County is searching for operational funding sources for a new county lock-up, since the money to build the new facility is already secured.

Both are serious consequences of prison overpopulation.

In that light, this article dealing with the boom in the United States' prison population might be an interesting read for our lawmakers.

Breaking the bad news to farmers

We knew it was going to be bad, but this bad?

Federal Bureau of Reclamation officials today said that they don't have enough water to fulfill the contracts of many Central Valley farmers. Estimated supply to agriculture via the Central Valley Water project: 0 percent.

"Farmers in the Westlands Water District have already begun destroying thousands of acres of almond orchards and plan on fallowing over 300,000 acres of land," said district general manager Tom Birmingham in a statement.

"...Cropping decisions have already been made. Fields are being abandoned. The unemployment rate in the community of Mendota alone has soared to 40 percent."

The past two years have been tough on farmers. This year might break many who can't get enough water from wells or third-party contracts.

By the way, deliveries for municipal and industrial groups is projected at 50 percent of normal. Refuges and "water rights" contracts will get 75 percent.

Woe to the farmers, indeed.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Don't spend that tax refund yet

Just because the Legislature (OK, just because one more GOP state senator) came to its senses and passed a budget doesn't mean your check is in the mail.

As Hallye Jordan, a spokeswoman for the state controller, told the Sac Bee: "Just because they passed it doesn't mean there's all-of-a-sudden cash in the treasury."

Delayed payments will be made as soon as possible, the controller's office reported.

Of course, if you do have a refund coming you might be better of saving it, anyway. All the better to help pay the increase in the state's car registration fee and gas taxes.

But no matter how hard it will be paying those taxes, remember it beats the alternative — completely gutting the school system, as opposed to the below-the-kneecaps amputation it will already have to endure.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

When ideology is worth more than solutions

Is ideological purity more important than a pragmatic response to a crisis? For the rank-and-file of California Republicans, the answer seems to be yes.

Despite the state teetering on the edge of a financial abyss, Republicans in the State Senate (well, except for Dave Cogdill and Roy Ashburn) refuse to support a budget compromise that includes $15.8 billion in spending cuts, $14.3 billion in tax hikes and $10.9 billion in borrowing. Only one more Republican vote is needed to pass the budget.

It's not a perfect solution, but it's better than sitting back and doing nothing. Which is what the GOP seems content to do.

The Republican State Seante caucus even ousted its leader late last night, partly because he was one of two GOP members to support the compromise bill. Their new leader, Dennis Hollingsworth of Murietta, insists that any tax increases should be off the table.

Nevermind that the Hollingsworth-GOP strategy would mean almost doubling the proposed $14 billion in cuts — the same cuts already forcing the Tracy Unified School District to slash $15 million in spending, which means possibly shutting down one school, slashing dozens of jobs and increasing class sizes.

Under the GOP's all-cuts-no-taxes plan, students — you know, the future of America — would bear the brunt of further cuts.

But that would be a small price to pay for political positioning and purity, right Sen. Hollingsworth?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Life in the desk lane

I fully intended to brave the afternoon drizzle to catch Lance Armstrong and the Tour of California whiz past Tracy. But I was detained because of copy editing duties.

One of the pitfalls of being a copy editor is you don't get out as much as you'd like.

I often am asked why I wasn't at the Tuesday City Council meeting, even though I frequently editorialize about what is said at such meetings. The answer is that Tuesday night, along with Friday, is a print deadline night for the Press, so I'm all but chained to my desk in the newsroom. (DVD copies of those meetings, which I typicially get my meeting info from, are a godsend.)

On the plus side, if anyone ever needs to contact me on a Tuesday or Friday night, they know where I am.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Stating the obvious

Looks like several of California's water agencies are finally considering desalination as a viable water supply option.

With the Pacific Ocean, the world's largest body of water, at the doorstep of a state plagued by drought and overpopulation, I can't help but wonder why it took so long.

The process isn't without environmental and economic pitfalls, but certainly it's an option that should be explored.

Friday, February 13, 2009

More city name game

Tuesday night, the city will reportedly entertain its first offer of an exchange of money for naming rights.

The discussion comes just two weeks after the City Council decided that selling naming rights to events and/or unnamed community buildings was an acceptable way to help close the city's budget gap.

I've expressed concerns along the lines of those made by Councilwoman Evelyn Tolbert before casting the lone vote in dissent — that naming city assets for money could endanger some of the city's soul.

Luckily, all naming decisions must be approved by the City Council, according to Councilman Steve Abercrombie.

He also said that he's much more inclined to give the green light to selling sponsorships for events — such as the city basketball league or the Music in the Park series — than, say, something more permanent like the Community Center.

Let's hope the other council members feel the same way.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A ration of reality

Add Santa Clara Water District to the growing list of Delta water users considering mandatory conservation during what could turn out to be the third driest year in more than a century.

If the water supply doesn't substantially improve before March 24, the East Bay water district says it will enforce a reduction of water use in the neighborhood of 10 to 20 percent.

Right now the call is for a 10 percent voluntary reduction, but all signs point to the stricture becoming mandatory.

One unanswered question to ponder: If an environmentally conscious individual already reduces water use by 10 or 20 percent voluntarily, is it unfair to ask that individual to reduce use another 10 or 20 percent manditorily?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

San Joaquin to Sacramento: Get on with it!

Counties are getting anxious about the state's finances. No wonder — anticipated delays in payments could cost San Joaquin County $12.7 million. Just for one month.

That money goes toward programs like MediCal, Calworks, mental health care and funding San Joaquin General Hospital.

Note that these institutions disproportionately help the county's lower-income residents, the very same residents hit hardest by the slumping economy in the first place.

It's a double-whammy, and the Legislature is letting the second half of it happen.

So cheers for the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors, who voted 5-0 on Tuesday to sue the state if payments are deferred. (Sacramento County and possibly San Diego County plan on joining the possible suit.)

Of course, litigation could be avoided if a budget is passed before Friday. Though I'm not holding my breath.

Friday, February 6, 2009

This city idea won't sell

Apologies for the lag. The blog was down during a last-minute scramble to not buy a house. On to the posting:

Piggybacking on my most recent post regarding the City Council's decision to sell naming rights to city venues, let's discuss a decision made in the same meeting to get Tracy into the ad-selling business.

The move struck me as curious at first because advertising dollars — especially in print media, where the city hopes to make its money in this endeavor — just aren't out there right now. If you wanted to make money, going after print ads would not be my first tactic in the current economy.

But more than that, it makes it seem as if the city is indifferent to privately owned businesses.

Advertising revenue is scarce, and outfits like San Joaquin Magazine and, yes, the Tracy Press, are fighting for survival along with every other company out there. These two companies, and others, depend on advertising revenue to keep their business models going. Now the city intends to further divide that revenue source.

Before you judge this as a self-serving rant (as my job at the Press pays my bills, after all) consider this:

Tracy has a reputation as being unfriendly to business. Mayor Brent Ives (who didn't vote on this proposal) and other city leaders have pledged to turn that around and encourage local businesses to flourish. But the city decided to possibly enter into direct competition with local businesses, essentially making it harder for them to survive.

This is larger than the Press. It's about living up to the pledge to fix the city's image and practices.

No doubt the city needs to find creative ways to shore up its budget gap, so kudos to the city staff and City Council for taking a novel approach this time. But that effort shouldn't come at the expense of the homegrown businesses we can boast about. It strikes me as counterproductive.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Buying in, or selling out?

It's difficult to argue at first with the City Council's 3-1 decision to allow staff to sell the naming rights of city centers.

After all, a projected $4.3 million budget gap is a serious problem, and it isn't like structures with historic names will be re-named. Money for monikers — it makes sense.

But then, consider dissenter Evelyn Tolbert, the councilwoman who rushed to the defense of the things you can't put a price tag on.

Among other things, she said, this vote would "(change) the very fiber of our community. We'll throw out a lot of things that have made Tracy Tracy."

In other words, the city would not just be selling out. It would be selling a piece of its soul.

Thanks, Councilwoman Tolbert, for reminding us that some things come with a price tag that isn't expressed in dollars.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A stimulating plan

The economic stimulus package winding its way through Congress toward President Obama's desk throws a bone to the Central Valley — one of the most overlooked places when it comes to federal spending.

Specifically, $50 million could be set aside for Delta restoration projects — including strengthened levees, fish protection and habitat restoration.

That could be both good for the ailing Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and for those who could be put to work on these local projects.

The catch: The House's $819 billion bill doesn't include the said $50M. It is found only in the Senate bill. And, even if it passes the upper house, the provision could be dropped when the two pieces of legislation are reconciled.

I have no idea if this giant stimulus bill is what we need to save the nation's economy. (If it puts millions to work like FDR's New Deal programs did, it will be deemed a giant success.) But if the stimulus passes — for good or bad — at the very least our traditionally economically depressed region should get some of the money.