AmeriScan: December 17, 2002

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San Francisco Salt Marshes To Be Restored

SAN FRANCISCO, California, December 17, 2002 (ENS) - Federal and state officials have completed a deal with Cargill Inc. to buy 16,500 acres of salt ponds around San Francisco Bay, a first step toward restoring some of the region's tidal marshes and wetlands.

The agreement was reached Monday following more than six months of intensive negotiations with Cargill, the owner of the salt ponds. Cargill has conducted salt making operations in the Bay since 1978 and is the latest salt making company in a long line stretching back more than 150 years.

"This project offers Californians an unprecedented opportunity to improve the physical, biological and chemical health of the San Francisco Bay," said California Governor Gray Davis. "This is the single largest wetlands restoration on the West Coast, and it lies in the heart of a heavily urbanized area. This is a one of a kind project that will benefit the environment and people of California for generations to come."

The agreement meets principles outlined in May, and sets the stage for the largest wetlands restoration project on the West Coast, on a par with current restoration efforts in the Chesapeake Bay, Everglades, and along the Mississippi River.

Under the terms of the conveyance agreement, 16,500 acres in the San Francisco Bay and Napa County will be purchased from Cargill for $100 million, with funding coming from the state and federal governments and several philanthropic foundations. The agreement is contingent on a vote of the California Wildlife Conservation Board, which will consider the issue at its February 11, 2003 public meeting.

"This historic agreement sets in motion the largest wetlands restoration undertaken in California history," said Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who worked with federal, state, philanthropic foundations and Cargill officials to reach an agreement. "By forging a public private partnership, we have developed a project that will benefit generations of Californians to come and may serve as a model for future environmental projects."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) will own and manage the properties. Cargill will continue to operate and maintain the ponds after the USFWS and CDFG acquire title, until the ponds meet the transfer conditions specified in the phase out agreement.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton called the agreement "an example of a new environmentalism in which government works hand in hand with conservation groups, corporations, tribes, private landowners, and others to conserve our land."

"The restored marshes will improve water quality by filtering storm water runoff, provide a buffer between the bay and urban areas, and benefit hundreds of species of fish and wildlife, including endangered and threatened species such as the California clapper rail, the salt marsh harvest mouse, the California least tern, and the western snowy plover," Norton added.

The full funding package includes $100 million for acquisition and $35 million for five years of initial stewardship and restoration planning. Funding for acquisition includes $72 million from the state of California, $8 million from the USFWS, and $20 million from a consortium of the Hewlett, Moore, and Packard foundations and the Goldman, and Resources Legacy Funds.

The private foundations are also providing $15 million toward the cost of initial stewardship and restoration planning. The remaining $20 million will come from both the federal and state governments to be provided over a five year period.

"San Francisco Bay is a site of international significance, and this acquisition sets the stage for the largest tidal wetlands restoration ever attempted on the U.S. Pacific Coast," said National Audubon Society president John Flicker.

Environmental site assessments of the property, the details of Cargill's responsibilities for site cleanup, the agreement regarding the phase out of salt making operations, and a full summary of the conveyance document will be finalized and made available to the public in January.

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California, Nevada Facing Loss of Colorado River Water

LAS VEGAS, Nevada, December 17, 2002 (ENS) - If California does not live up to its part of a seven state agreement to reduce its use of Colorado River water by 2015, Interior Secretary Gale Norton says she will slash the water the state to can draw from the river beginning January 1, 2003.

Speaking to the Colorado River Water Users Association at a meeting on Monday, Norton said she is required by law to limit the state to 4.4 million acre feet of water from the Colorado River if the agreement is not met.

"If specific California agencies choose not to adopt agreements necessary for the gradual, voluntary reductions contemplated under the plan developed by the seven Colorado River Basin states, California will lose access to extra Colorado River water," Norton said. "The state will be forced to live within its 4.4 million acre-feet apportionment from the Colorado River beginning on January 1, 2003."

California agreed to and helped craft a historic agreement on Colorado River water use, which was negotiated and approved by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. The principal issue of the negotiations was how to achieve certainty that California would reduce its overuse of Colorado River water.

The agreement is embodied in what is known as the Interim Surplus Guidelines, which implements the Law of the Colorado River and an order of the United States Supreme Court.

Under the multi-state agreement, California can continue to have enhanced access to surplus water by taking specific actions to reduce its Colorado River water use to 4.4 million acre-feet by the year 2015. If the California entities do not take the required actions, the state would lose enhanced access to surplus water, effective January 1.

The choice will be determined by whether California water entities sign a document known as the Quantification Settlement Agreement by December 31.

On December 9, the board of California's Imperial Irrigation District voted to reject a water sale to San Diego County that is a linchpin of the voluntary approach. It appears that the District may not sign the Quantification Settlement Agreement, though other California water agencies required to sign the QSA appear ready to do so.

Cities in Southern California would bear the brunt of the shortfall, losing as much as half of the Colorado River water they now receive. Because the Metropolitan Water District in Southern California has developed alternative water supplies, people there will continue to see water flow from their taps.

But over time, the reduction in Colorado River water could have very real impacts to all water users in Southern California. Nevada water users would also suffer, as that state would be barred from continuing to take an extra 30,000 acre-feet above its 300,000 acre-feet allocation if the multi-state agreement does not go into effect.

"We are at a turning point in the history of the Colorado River," Norton said Monday. "Our common future is shaped by record drought and population growth within the Colorado River Basin. These factors herald a new era of limits on Colorado River water use - limits that shape the decisions that will guide the future course of the river."

"While drought and population growth are causing change, what must not change is our commitment to honor treaties, compacts, decrees and agreements," she added. "Otherwise the legal foundation upon which this river is administered will be at risk."

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Republicans Denounce White House Forest Proposal

WASHINGTON, DC, December 17, 2002 (ENS) - In their first post election break with the White House over anti-environmental stances, 11 Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives are expressing serious concerns with a Bush administration plan to weaken rules that govern national forest planning for logging and other forest activities.

The group, led by Representative Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican, is calling for a National Academy of Sciences panel to review the proposed regulations.

In a letter sent to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, the group highlights key issues in the proposal to rewrite the 1976 National Forest Management Act's (NFMA's) implementing regulations, including the administration's effort to weaken requirements for ecological sustainability and species viability in forest plans, and the move to exempt these plans from National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review.

"The President needs to pay attention to this commonsense call from Congressional members of his own party. It's time for a little balance instead of a gung ho rush to throw open the public lands to his industry supporters," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife.

"It's not just the environmental community demanding moderation in forest policy - we're in good company with scientists, the nation's leading editorial writers, the courts, responsible Democrats and Republicans, and the vast majority of the American people on this," Schlickeisen added.

The House members' letter to Secretary Veneman cites serious concerns with the proposal unveiled on November 25. The authors note that elements of the proposed rule "appear to loosen requirements that ensure that forest plans are based on sound science" and make "the establishment of science advisory boards optional, so that there is no established independent mechanism to review the use of science in forest plans."

"This White House has yet to meet an environmental safeguard they didn't want to dump. But even now when the President's party leads both houses of Congress, it's heartening to see this growing evidence that there is still strong, bipartisan support for sensible environmental protection," said Schlickeisen.

Concern within the Republican House caucus is the latest in a flurry of moves and countermoves over forest policy proposals since the November elections. In addition to the rewrite of forest planning rules released the day before Thanksgiving, the White House last week unveiled proposals that expand exclusions for forest projects under NEPA and place new curbs on the public appeals process for logging projects linked to fire reduction.

But the administration suffered a serious setback last week when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals restored protection for 58.5 million acres of roadless areas in U.S. national forests. The administration had opted not to defend against an industry lawsuit to lift a ban on logging, road construction and other commercial activities in these pristine, roadless areas; but environmental groups - including Defenders of Wildlife - had stepped in to defend the forests in place of the administration.

Defenders of Wildlife is also pursuing a Freedom of Information Act suit to reveal documents relating to development of the NFMA rule proposal. Responding to Defenders' initial FOIA request, Undersecretary of Agriculture for National Resources and Environment Mark Rey, whose office oversees the Forest Service, claimed to have no records whatsoever that related to development of the new logging regulation.

Before his current government position, Rey worked as a lobbyist for a variety of timber industry groups over the past 18 years.

Key congressional Democrats complained about the weakening of NFMA and NEPA in a November 27 letter to Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth. This new letter from House Republicans adds to growing criticism of the logging rule proposal, including the lack of full scientific and public input in the proposed forest planning process.

"The President should heed the warning from this growing chorus of complaints. The timber industry isn't the only voice he should hear when he decides the future of our forests," Schlickeisen said.

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Ongoing Protection Needed at Brownfields

WASHINGTON, DC, December 17, 2002 (ENS) - Thousands of brownfields and other contaminated sites are being cleaned up and redeveloped as a result of state programs, yet many of these sites lack adequate measures to protect site users from any contamination that may be left, a new study finds.

The report by the nonprofit Environmental Law Institute (ELI) shows that while states have cleaned up more than 29,000 sites since the first program began in 1976, they fail to ensure long term stewardship. The report, "An Analysis of State Superfund Programs: 50-State Study, 2001 Update," reveals gaps in state programs for assuring that public health and safety will be protected from residual contamination over the long term.

For more than a decade, ELI has examined cleanup programs throughout the 50 states, the District and Puerto Rico, issuing six reports that outline state statutes, program organizations, staffing, funding, expenditures, cleanup standards and cleanup activities. The 2001 Update, the seventh installment in a series of studies funded by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, highlights states' increased use of long term stewardship and institutional controls.

Such controls are of growing importance due to the increasing use of remedies in voluntary and brownfields cleanup programs that allow residual contamination to remain on restricted sites.

States and the federal government use institutional controls, or legal and administrative measures, to protect the public from harmful exposure to leftover hazardous substances. Forty-three states and the District use such measures at some or all of their sites, but implementation is inconsistent, ELI found.

"Some states don't use institutional controls at all sites where they are needed," said John Pendergrass, ELI senior attorney and director of the Center for State, Local, and Regional Environmental Programs.

"Colorado requires institutional controls at sites cleaned up under state mandate, but makes them optional for voluntary cleanup program participants," Pendergrass explained. "On the other hand, Indiana, Missouri, West Virginia, and Wyoming use institutional controls in their voluntary programs but not for mandatory cleanups."

The 2001 Update found that for fiscal year 2000, states completed 4,500 cleanups of sites that were not on the National Priority List, or Superfund list. An additional 15,700 non-Superfund cleanups are ongoing.

The study found that states cleaned up about the same number of sites in 2000 as in 1997, while spending $505.6 million - $59.5 million or 10 percent less than three years earlier.

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Ice Shields Unique Antarctic Lake Ecosystem

WASHINGTON, DC, December 17, 2002 (ENS) - Antarctica's Lake Vida may represent a previously unknown ecosystem, an ice sealed lake that contains the thickest non-glacial lake ice cover on Earth and water seven times saltier than seawater, U.S. researchers say.

Because of the arid, chilled environment in which it resides, scientists believe the lake may be an important template for the search for evidence of ancient microbial life on Mars and other icy worlds.

Researchers once thought Vida was one of several Antarctic lakes that are frozen to their beds year round. However, using ground penetrating radar, ice core analyses, and long term temperature data, the researchers now show that Vida has a thick light blocking ice cover, a vast amount of ancient organic material and sediment, and a cold, super salty, liquid zone underlying the ice - an environment that remains liquid at temperatures under -10C, well below the freezing point of pure water.

The researchers extracted two ice cores from Lake Vida in early Antarctic spring, October 1996. With an electromechanical drill, team members spent two weeks at temperatures below -35C drilling a 10 centimeter (about four inches) diameter core through 16 meters (52 feet) of ice cover.

The researchers filled both of the holes with deionized water to seal the columns with an ice plug, placing temperature measuring instruments in one of the shafts. From the cores, the scientists found a layered chemical and biological history preserved in the ice, and revived viable microbes that are at least 2,800 years old.

"The ice covers of these lakes represent an oasis for life in an environment previously thought to be inhospitable," said John Priscu of Montana State University. "These life forms may possess novel ice-active substances such as antifreezes and ice nucleation inhibitors that allow the organisms to survive the freeze-thaw cycles and come back to life when exposed to liquid water."

"Importantly, the cold temperatures preserve DNA extremely well making them perfect 'ice museums' for the study of ancient DNA," Priscu added.

Research on the ancient DNA will provide an evolutionary and functional history of the microorganisms, he said, and he believes the findings might help scientists draw implications for the type of life that may exist in Lake Vostok, a huge lake which lies more than four kilometers (2.5 miles) beneath the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Lake Vida, more than five kilometers (three miles) long, is one of the largest in the cold Antarctic desert region known as the McMurdo Dry Valleys. The area receives less than 10 centimeters (four inches) of snow per year and the average annual temperature hovers around -30C.

Using data from the ice sensors and from an automatic meteorological station on the shore of the lake, the researchers created a thermodynamic model to understand the complex melting and freezing processes within Vida.

The model provided a better understanding of the evolution of the ice cover and the underlying salt water. The freezing, growing ice cover concentrates the salt, thereby depressing the freezing point of the water, and extending the viability of a lake ecosystem.

"Any primary producers potentially living in the brine down deep are not getting sunlight, so they would have to be chemosynthetic, that is, getting energy from the surrounding chemicals instead of sunlight," said Peter Doran of the University of Illinois at Chicago. "The microbes frozen in the ice above seem to be life that was living shallow in the lake at some time, then water flowed on top of the thick ice cover and froze."

"Lake Vida provides insight into a novel terrestrial ecosystem," Doran added. "What happened at Lake Vida may have been the fate of other Antarctic lakes, during even colder times, and more tropical aquatic ecosystems during extreme global glaciations of the past, such as the 'snowball Earth' 550 Million years ago."

The research appears in the December 16 issue of the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."

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Protection Sought for 12 Puget Sound Species

SEATTLE, Washington, December 17, 2002 (ENS) - A coalition of environmental and scientific organizations filed petitions with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) this week to put 12 Puget Sound area species on the federal endangered species list.

Among the species are the streaked horned lark, a colorful ground nesting bird that once so common that it plagued turn of the century golfers; the island marble butterfly which was thought extinct until rediscovered on San Juan Island in 1998; and eight pocket gophers, three of which may already be extinct.

All 12 species are dependent upon prairies and oak woodlands. In the past 150 years, more than 90 percent of Puget Sound's prairies have been destroyed, and just three percent are considered healthy.

Those that remain are being devoured by sprawl in the San Juan Islands, Mount Vernon, Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, Centralia and other growing areas. The prairies of Puget Sound have been designated "endangered ecosystems" by biologists.

"Prairies are one of Puget Sound's more important, most endangered, and most forgotten ecosystems," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "When prairies are gobbled up by sprawl, the quality of human life suffers and animals are driven extinct."

"The streaked horned lark, northern goshawk and Taylor's checkerspot butterfly are already gone from the San Juan Islands," added Stephanie Buffum, executive director of the Friends of the San Juans. "We have to do everything in our power to save the island marble. A part of the mystery and beauty that is the San Juan Islands disappears with every species that becomes extinct."

In addition to habitat loss and pesticide spraying, eight of the species are threatened by bureaucratic delays. The streaked horned lark, eight pocket gopher subspecies, Taylor's checkerspot butterfly, and the Mardon skipper butterfly are listed by the USFWS as candidates for addition to the endangered species list.

By definition, candidates are known to be endangered, but their protection is being delayed by lack of funding or other issues. The candidate list provides no legal protection to species or habitats. It often it functions as legal graveyard where species continue to decline for decades without any movement toward listing.

The Mardon skipper has been on the candidate list for 13 years. The pocket gophers have been on the list for 17 years. All have suffered significant declines during that time.

Since they are now closer to extinction, saving them will be more difficult and expensive, or even impossible: three of the pocket gophers may already be extinct.

"No imperiled species should have to wait 20 years to be protected," said Suckling. "The money needed to save them is drop in the bucket compared to the federal budget."

Joining the Center for Biological Diversity and the Friends of the San Juans in the petitions are the Xerces Society, Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Gifford Pinchot Task Force, and The Northwest Environmental Defense Center.

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Coalition Plans Suit Over Missouri River Transportation

ST. LOUIS, Missouri, December 17, 2002 (ENS) - A coalition of Missouri River stakeholders has filed a notice of intent to sue state and federal agencies over actions aimed at protecting threatened and endangered species on the river.

The coalition is comprised of farmers, navigators, municipalities, utilities, recreation and environmental interests and industry. The groups say that actions mandated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and State Fish & Game Agencies under the Endangered Species Act, shut down navigation on the river and led to severe economic losses for coalition members.

The notice of intent to sue, issued Monday, charges that:

The coalition includes the Coalition to Protect the Missouri River; the Illinois Corn Growers Association; the MO-ARK Association (aka the Missouri-Arkansas River Basin Association); the National Corn Growers Association; Blaske Marine, Inc.; ConocoPhillips; Ergon Asphalt & Emulsions, Inc.; Koch Materials Company; Magnolia Marine Transport Company; Memco Barge Line, Inc.; RiverBarge Excursion Lines, Inc. and the Terminal Grain Corporation.

The coalition stands in stark contrast to conservation groups and scientists who argue that maintaining the Missouri River for transportation is devastating the river's ecosystem. Earlier this year, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences issued a report warning that the Missouri River ecosystem faces the prospect of "irreversible extinction of species."

Almost three million acres of natural riverine and floodplain habitat along the Missouri River's mainstem have been altered through land use changes, inundation, channelization, and levee building, the committee said. Of the 67 native fish species living along the mainstem, five are now listed as rare, uncommon, or decreasing across all or part of their ranges.

One of these fishes, the pallid sturgeon, and two bird species, the least tern and piping plover, are on the federal Endangered Species List. The flies that provide food for Missouri River fishes have been reduced by 70 percent.

Reproduction of cottonwoods, once the most abundant tree species on the floodplain, has almost ceased.

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Stealing Irrigation Water Nets Repeated Fines

SPOKANE, Washington, December 17, 2002 (ENS) - For a second time, a Washington state man has been fined $46,000 for irrigating his farmland with water that does not belong to him.

For two years, Thomas Rotta has been irrigating 60 acres of land near George, Washington, without proper authorization. According to the state Department of Ecology (Ecology), Rotta does not have a water right permit for the property.

Because the property lies within the "Quincy sub-area," he also must have a special license from the federal Bureau of Reclamation to irrigate. He does not have that license.

Ecology fined Rotta $46,000 in July 2001 for irrigating the same 60 acres without a water right. Rotta appealed the penalty to the state's Pollution Control Hearings Board. The case has not yet been heard because of various legal delays, and the penalty remains unpaid.

In addition to the new $46,000 fine, Ecology is considering other legal remedies to stop the illegal irrigation.

"We need to look at other options to stop illegal irrigation when our efforts to get people to comply with water law are ignored," said George Schlender of Ecology's Spokane office. "We need to protect people who have legal rights to the water."

According to Schlender, Rotta has been irrigating his land since 1991 without a permit. In 2000, he received a cease and desist order from Ecology, but continued to irrigate in 2001 and 2002. The cease and desist order required that Rotta install a water measuring device or flow meter, but the meter has not been installed.