AmeriScan: December 11, 2002

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California Could Lose Access to Precious Water

SAN DIEGO, California, December 11, 2002 (ENS) - California stands to lose access to billions of gallons of Colorado River water next month if officials cannot reach an agreement on how to cut the state's water use.

On Monday night, the board of directors of the Imperial Irrigation District voted to reject the agency's part in a statewide plan to cut back on California's use of Colorado River water. The vote jeopardizes the entire plan, which must be in place by December 31 to prevent drastic cuts in the amount of water the state is permitted to draw from the river.

In October, four California water agencies reached an agreement on transferring water from agricultural users to urban users, providing a basis for settling almost seven decades of disputes among California Colorado River water agencies. California now takes more water from the Colorado River than allowed under a 70 year old agreement between Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Under a new seven state agreement, California has 15 years to reduce its draw on the river from about 5.2 million acre-feet to its basic annual apportionment of 4.4 million acre-feet a year in the absence of surplus water.

During the 15 year reduction period, California will continue to receive surplus water from the river, but only if it meets the December 31 deadline for adopting a formal plan for reducing its river water withdrawals. Failure to meet that deadline could force the federal government to slash California's river water allotment by billions of gallons of water each year, starting this January.

Under the October agreement, water transfers from farms in the Imperial Valley to three million users in San Diego County could begin next year. In order to meet benchmark requirements for reducing river water use, the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) was supposed to deliver one million acre-feet of water over the first 15 years, for which the San Diego County Water Authority would pay $258 to $400 per acre-foot.

As a result of the additional water from IID, San Diego County will not have to buy as much waster from the Metropolitan Water District, which now draws between 600,000 and 800,000 acre feet of Colorado River water more than permitted each year.

But on Monday, the IID board rejected the plan, saying they resented being forced to sell their water for far less than it is worth. They accused state officials of threatening the IID with severe repercussions, including the disbanding of the Imperial district, if the agency did not comply with the state plan.

The board also wanted assurances that the IID would not be made responsible for expensive restoration projects at the Salton Sea, a manmade lake that supports millions of migratory birds. The Salton Sea is fed by agricultural runoff, largely from the Imperial Valley, and could growing smaller and saltier if that runoff is reduced by the state's water conservation plans.

On Tuesday, Bennett Raley, assistant secretary for water and science at the Interior Department, said the federal government plans to hold California to the December 31 deadline.

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Landrieu Wins Louisiana Senate Seat

WASHINGTON, DC, December 11, 2002 (ENS) - Democrat Mary Landrieu has recaptured her U.S. Senate seat in Louisiana, narrowing the gap between Senate Republicans and Democrats to just two votes.

Landrieu defeated her Republican opponent, Louisiana elections commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell, by four percentage points in Louisiana's Senate runoff election on December 7. Louisiana's runoff election was mandated by state law because no candidate received 50 percent of the vote in the November 5 general election.

The 40,000 plus vote margin of victory for Landrieu - out of more than 1.2 million cast - enabled the Democrats to retain a seat for which the Republicans had waged a fierce campaign.

In January, the makeup of the Senate in January will be 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one independent, Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords, who votes with the Democratic Party.

President George W. Bush campaigned several times in Louisiana for Terrell in her unsuccessful bid, while Landrieu received campaign support from top Democratic leaders. The runoff included numerous negative ads by both candidates.

While Landrieu is not among the Senate's strongest environmental champions, she is expected to be a much stronger proponent of environmental issues than her opponent, Terrell, would have been.

Louisiana also held a runoff election for the state's 5th Congressional District, in which Democratic State Representative Rodney Alexander has apparently defeated Republican Lee Fletcher, the chief of staff for outgoing Representative John Cooksey. Fletcher has said he might contest the results due the close count, which showed Alexander leading by just 518 votes out of almost 171,000 cast.

If the results hold, it will leave the House with 229 Republicans, 205 Democrats and one independent in January.

In other late election results, Democratic State Representative Ed Case won a special election in Hawaii to fill the remainder of the term of the late Democratic Congresswoman Patsy Mink. A second special election will be held January 4 to fill the seat for the next two years.

And in Alabama, Republican Bob Riley was officially declared the winner of the general election contest when Democratic Governor Donald Siegelman conceded 13 days after the vote.

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Wild Areas Help Children Appreciate the Outdoors

GAINESVILLE, Florida, December 11, 2002 (ENS) - Unstructured natural spaces in urban areas offer children rich opportunities to learn how to find their way in strange territory and gain other skills, a University of Florida expert says.

Myron Floyd, an associate professor of recreation, parks and tourism, says his research shows that city planners need to create safe, wild spaces in urban areas.

"Contact with nature is important - as a learning environment, it's unique. Nature is information rich, complex and dynamic, and it challenges people, even adults," said Floyd. "We need to be asking, 'What kind of space is available to kids?' I mean more than just generic greenways or trails, but also parks that present challenges."

Floyd conducts research on how people of different ages, races and cultural backgrounds relate to and interact with parks and other natural areas. He says for youths in urban settings, woods, unmanaged fields and other natural spaces are just as important for learning and growing up as baseball parks and other traditional outdoor recreational opportunities.

Floyd said his and others' research shows exploring untamed spots helps children learn how to find their way around and lessens their fear of the unknown. Such exposure also tends to make children more appreciative of the environment and interested in exploring the outdoors as they age, he said.

In an article last month in the journal "Environment and Behavior," Floyd and two co-authors report the results of two studies involving a total of almost 2,000 teenagers on the lasting impact of childhood exposure to the environment. The researchers separated the youths - who ranged in age from 12 to 17 and lived in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas - into three groups based on the kinds of places they reported playing in as children up to age four.

"Wild land adventurers" had spent a lot of their early childhoods in woods and other wild settings, while "yard adventurers" played mostly in backyards and parks, and "urban adventurers" had little exposure to natural settings of any sort.

Using a written survey, the researchers examined the reactions of the youths in these different groups to different natural, suburban and urban scenes and activities. In one example of the method, the teenagers viewed 10 pictures of outdoor landscapes ranging from a manicured park path including a sidewalk and bench to a rough dirt path in thick vegetation. For each picture, the youths were asked to rate their preferences for the setting.

The teenagers who played in nature a lot as children reported higher preferences for pictures and activities tied to outdoor recreation, rural settings and outdoor education. They also reported less fear of unfamiliar wild territory and greater interest in pursuing careers tied to the outdoors and the natural environment, such as park rangers.

The study has implications not only for educators, but also for public policymakers, because the success of environmental efforts such as land preservation depends to a large extent on the support of the many people who live in urban as opposed to rural settings, noted Paul Gobster, a research social scientist at the U.S. Forest Service North Central Research Station.

"Building interest in nature at an early age could result in greater concern for protection of natural areas as reflected through such things as voting for local referenda supporting land acquisitions, donations to natural areas protection groups like the Nature Conservancy, [and] lifestyle choices that might help avoid urban sprawl," said Gobster.

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USFWS Has No Money to List Yosemite Toad

SACRAMENTO, California, December 11, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has concluded that the Yosemite toad may warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, but says it does not have the funds to list the toad as threatened or endangered at this time.

The agency said Tuesday that it will add the Yosemite toad to its list of candidate species and review the toad's status in a year.

"The Service is so backed up with other court ordered actions, including requirements that we respond to petitions, listings and critical habitat designations, that we don't have the staff or resources to complete the listing," said Steve Thompson, manager of the USFWS California/Nevada Operations Office.

The USFWS conducted a year long review of the Yosemite toad's status under a court order resulting from an environmental lawsuit. The agency concluded that there is sufficient scientific and commercial data to list the species throughout its range, but said lawsuits like the one that prompted the review keep the USFWS from completing the work to list the toad.

The Yosemite toad is a high elevation species found in the central Sierra Nevada mountains. The best available evidence indicates that some toad populations have declined by at least 50 percent from historical levels, due to habitat degradation, airborne contaminants and drought.

In another court ordered action, the USFWS has designated critical habitat for the Otay tarplant on about 6,330 acres of federal, state, county and private land in San Diego County. The plant was listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1998, by which time more than 70 percent of the plant's estimated historic range had already been lost to development and agriculture.

The Otay tarplant, a member of the sunflower family, relies on flies, bees, small mammals and birds for pollination and to spread seeds. Each of the designated critical habitat units support populations of the Otay tarplant and contain one or more of these pollinators.

The USFWS may be headed back to court over its failure to designate critical habitat for the endangered woodland caribou. National and international conservation groups petitioned the agency last week to designate critical habitat for the species.

"We are on the verge of losing the last remaining herd of woodland caribou in the U.S.," said Rein Attemann of the Lands Council, speaking at the bi-annual Interagency Mountain Caribou Technical Committee (IMCTC) meeting last Friday. "This petition is proof that the public is committed to ensuring greater protections of their habitat."

Early records suggest that woodland caribou were once plentiful in the mountains of northeastern Washington, Idaho, Montana, and adjacent parts of southeastern British Columbia. Since the 1960s, however, the Selkirk Mountain population of woodland caribou is the only remaining population in the United States.

In Canada, the species is primarily found around the lake in Stagleap Provincial Park in southeastern British Columbia.

With continued pressure of road building and logging in the woodland caribou's habitat, the population continues to decline. The most recent aerial census in March of 2002 counted 34 caribou in the Selkirks, nine of which were calves and far below the number of a viable species population.

"The survival of this species cannot afford to wait much longer. It is critical that we act now to save the declining woodland caribou populations both in Canada and the US," said Eva Riccius, ParkWatch coordinator of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

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New Restrictions Placed on Possession of Toxins

WASHINGTON, DC, December 11, 2002 (ENS) - Two federal agencies have tightened their regulations regarding the possession of certain biological agents that could pose a threat to public, animal and plant health and safety.

The U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture (USDA) said the rules, issued Tuesday, will establish new safeguards for the possession, use and transfer of the potentially dangerous biological agents and toxins. The regulations outline the safety and security requirements for possessing select biological agents and toxins and specify who should be restricted from working with select agents.

The restricted materials include viruses such as Ebola and yellow fever, bacteria that cause brucellosis and anthrax, and toxins that produce botulism and staph infections. Exceptions to the new rules will be made for medical and scientific research.

The HHS interim rule requires facilities to register with HHS' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) if they possess a select agent or agents that pose a potential threat to human health. The previous rule only required facilities to register with CDC if they intended to transfer a select agent.

"Protecting the health of Americans is paramount, and this new rule strengthens our ability to ensure that essential research on these agents continues while making certain they don't fall into the wrong hands," said HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson.

The USDA interim rule requires facilities to register with USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) if they possess a select agent or agents that pose a potential threat to animal or plant health.

"This new rule will continue to strengthen programs aimed at protecting the American people from acts of terrorism," said Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. "These safeguards will help protect the food supply without sacrificing valuable research being done on these agents."

Some of the select agents subject to these regulations appear on both the HHS and the USDA select agent lists. To reduce the burden on facilities required to register select agents in their possession that overlap both lists, HHS and USDA have worked together to establish a single, unified reporting system that will be used by both agencies.

The two interim final rules will be published in the Dec. 13 issue of the Federal Register and will take effect on February 7, 2003. Each department will accept public comments on the new rules for 60 days, and those comments could result in regulatory changes in the future.

The HHS interim rule can be viewed at: http://www.cdc.gov and the USDA interim rule can be viewed at: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/vs/ncie/bta.asp

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Added Species Diversity Not Always a Benefit

SANTA BARBARA, California, December 11, 2002 (ENS) - Statistics regarding increasing biodiversity do not always reflect the health of an ecosystem, a new study suggests.

While worldwide biodiversity is decreasing as species are lost to extinction, at smaller scales, diversity is increasing or at least changing in composition. These changes, which may undermine the functioning of local ecosystems, suggest the need for a dramatic shift in the current focus of ecological research, according to an article in the December issue of the journal "American Naturalist."

The authors - Dov Sax, assistant research scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara; Steven Gaines, director of the Marine Science Institute and acting vice chancellor for research at UCSB; and James Brown, professor of biology at the University of New Mexico - studied data collected on oceanic island land birds and plants. Records from islands are useful because they represent well defined areas where additions and subtractions of species can be confirmed.

The article, "Species Invasions Exceed Extinctions on Islands Worldwide: A Comparative Study of Plants and Birds," documents the fact that "land birds have experienced massive extinctions on oceanic islands, with many islands losing more than half of their native species," said Gaines.

"On these same islands, however, many exotic bird species have become established, such that the total number of land bird species has remained relatively unchanged," he explained.

Exotic species are those that are native to one region and have been introduced to another. They can reduce diversity by causing extinctions of native species. However, they also increase diversity by adding to the total number of species in a region.

"This constancy or increase in diversity on islands, however, does not imply that these changes are good," said Gaines. "To the contrary, they indicate a massive and underappreciated change to native systems that could have severe implications for ecosystem functioning, patterns of local diversity, and future losses of native species."

Gaines said that while few native plant species have gone extinct, vast numbers of exotic species have become established, according to the island data. As a result, the number of plant species has skyrocketed - almost doubling the total number of species on islands.

Sax, the article's lead author, pointed to New Zealand, where about 2,000 species once existed in the wild, and fewer than 10 have gone extinct. Yet an additional 2,000 species have been introduced.

"This is a massive change in the flora of the islands," said Sax. "We may be headed for a sort of biotic homogenization, with the same species everywhere. Lose a parrot, get a starling; no one wants that."

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Nanotechnology Could Be Applied to Restoration

SANTA BARBARA, California, December 11, 2002 (ENS) - The University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) has been awarded $1.2 million to develop new techniques and technologies for the conservation of natural resources and environmental restoration.

The grant from the philanthropic W.M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles will support the creation of an interdisciplinary research program in ecotechnology, a new, proactive approach to critical conservation issues such as the restoration of degraded habitats, the maintenance of biodiversity, and the enhancement of exploited populations.

Eleven UCSB scientists and engineers from the Marine Science Institute and the California NanoSystems Institute are collaborating to identify effective mechanisms to assist the recovery of degraded habitats and species, particularly in the marine environment. Initial research will focus on one of the most pressing ecological problems in the ocean, the global degradation of coral reef ecosystems.

The innovative research program combines UCSB's strengths in ecology, marine science, engineering, and nanotechnology - the science of manipulating matter at the atomic or molecular scale.

"We are poised for major advances in the development of ecotechnological applications to conservation issues," said Russ Schmitt, UCSB professor of ecology, "due to recent breakthroughs in the theoretical understanding of the ecological bottlenecks to restoration and dramatic advances in the development and miniaturization of technology that can be used to sense and manipulate systems at the nanometer or micron scale.

Schmitt and Evelyn Hu, professor of electrical engineering and materials, are co-directors of the new research initiative, which they say has the potential to bring about a paradigm shift in the approach taken to restore the environment.

"The ecotechnology program will capitalize on our progress by mounting a synergistic research effort, involving an interdisciplinary team of experts, to take the critical next step of developing and applying specific technologies in a real system," said Hu, who also serves as scientific co-director of the California NanoSystems Institute.

Ecotechnology involves the management of species within ecosystems to obtain a desired ecological outcome. Through the integration of electronic materials with biological materials, a host of critical biological processes that occur at very small scales could be monitored and controlled electronically, transforming the researchers' ability to study and manipulate the natural environment.

Over the last 20 years, there has been an increase worldwide in policies and practices to protect natural resources. In the marine environment, they have focused on changing human behavior, improving harvesting practices, and creating marine reserves.

Although important, these efforts have not been effective because they abate the threat, but leave the damaged ecosystem on its own to recover, a process that can be long, and in some cases may never occur, according to the researchers. Slow growth, limited reproduction, and other natural bottlenecks can stretch recovery out for decades or even centuries.

"With such slow rates of recovery, ecological restoration will inevitably lose the race with future environmental degradation unless new methods for environmental management are discovered and implemented," Schmitt noted. "We are now able to apply specific technological advances made by our engineers to surmount restoration bottlenecks that our ecologists have been central in identifying."

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Tribe Compares Genes of Wild, Hatchery Salmon

PUYALLUP, Washington, December 11, 2002 (ENS) - The Puyallup Tribe is undertaking a genetic study to determine how many distinct populations of chum salmon there are in the Puyallup watershed system.

At the Diru Creek Hatchery, genetic samples are collected to compare hatchery raised chum with their wild cousins spawning elsewhere in the watershed.

"This has pretty big implications in terms of how we deal with Puyallup River chum," said Blake Smith, enhancement manager for the Puyallup Tribe. "Are populations from these tributary streams independent of each other, or do they interbreed? That's a question we need to answer if we want to protect and enhance Puyallup chum."

Much of the Puyallup chum's historic habitat has been degraded in the past century and is still disappearing, making an analysis of their populations all the more important. Chum spawn in the lower reaches of river systems, sticking to low gradient areas with shallow water.

"Many of the streams that we would consider 'chum streams' don't exist anymore or have been severely altered," said Smith. "Industrial and urban development in the lower watershed has put limits on where chum can go to spawn. By learning more about the populations that use what is remaining of the Puyallup River's habitat, we can be smarter about protecting it."

Even though Puget Sound chum stocks this year are expected to come back in numbers not seen since records were first kept in 1913, Smith believes the Puyallup River once supported a much larger chum population that it does now.

"On the White River [a tributary to the Puyallup], historic catches used to be in the thousands," he said. "Now, we only see escapements in the hundreds."

Taking genetic samples during spawning surveys conducted throughout the chum's range on the Puyallup and at the Diru Creek Hatchery, the tribe is putting together a library of genetic material on chum salmon. The genetic information will guide the tribe to better hatchery practices.

Until 1993, chum spawned from eggs originating outside the Puyallup watershed were released into the wild.

"Early on, fish managers saw importing eggs as an essential way to supplement salmon populations," said Smith. "The genetic information we're gathering from hatchery and wild returns will tell us how the introduced chum salmon have impacted native stocks."

With the listing of two Puget Sound salmon stocks as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, tribal and state managers have put a new focus on evaluating the role of hatcheries in wild stock rebuilding efforts. The genetic research by the tribe dovetails with this effort.

The Hatchery Scientific Review Group, an independent science panel, is reviewing hatchery practices in the Puyallup watershed to determine how hatcheries can help recover and conserve wild salmon populations and support sustainable fisheries.

"Hatchery reform is a way for us to better integrate hatcheries into salmon recovery," said Smith.