Environmental news from California and beyond

Category: Bettina Boxall

Retired federal judge withdraws from Westlands Water District case

Oliver WangerOliver Wanger won't be representing the  Westlands Water District after all, at least not this time.

The recently retired U.S. District Court judge caught a lot of flak last week when word got out that he would defend the powerful irrigation district in a state Superior Court lawsuit filed by environmental groups.

Newspaper editorials and bloggers criticized the move, saying Wanger had tarnished his judicial legacy by agreeing to represent Westlands, a party to numerous big water cases that he had decided in federal court.

In a statement released Tuesday, Wanger's Fresno law firm said the "recent media comment has raised confusion about the cases" he can take on as a private attorney. "The rules do not prevent him from taking cases involving parties who previously appeared before him. No conflict or violation of any rule has occurred."

But to avoid "misperception and diversion of attention from the merits of the case," Wanger and the law firm "have substituted out of the pending state appellate case involving the Westlands Water District. Neither he nor the law firm has provided any legal service whatsoever to the Westlands Water District in the state appellate case or in any other matter, nor is Westlands a client of Mr. Wanger or the firm."

Westlands, which has a tradition of hiring former federal water officials, apparently hasn't crossed Wanger off its list. "His decision not to proceed with this matter is entirely consistent with the meticulous attention he applied to all aspects of the law during his long career in the federal judiciary," Thomas Birmingham, the district's general manager, said in a statement. "We hope to work with him on other issues in the future."


The man with his hand on California's spigot

Judge orders U.S. to revise salmon safeguards

Retired federal judge to represent Westlands Water District

 --Bettina Boxall

Photo: Oliver W. Wanger. Credit: Gosia Wozniacka / Associated Press

Retired federal judge to represent Westlands Water District

Oliver WangerTwo months after he retired from the federal bench to return to private practice, Oliver Wanger has agreed to represent an influential irrigation district that frequented his courtroom.

As a U.S. District Court judge in Fresno, Wanger decided most of the last decade's major water cases in California. Many involved Westlands Water District as either a plaintiff or a defendant.

Now Wanger is going to defend Westlands in a recently filed Superior Court lawsuit brought by several environmental groups and a Native American tribe.

“It’s one case only in the state court. It involves matters of law and fact that I, of course, had nothing to do with and no association with” as a federal judge, Wanger said.

The suit contends that under California law, Westlands should have undertaken a state environmental review of its proposed federal water contracts.

Known for its combativeness, the district has over the years hired a number of former U.S. Interior Department officials.

Wanger said Westlands contacted his Fresno law practice about the suit. "The representations that we've been given … are that this case had nothing to do with anything that I worked on.”

“I obviously am bound by the canons of ethics and judicial conduct and will observe those scrupulously,”  added Wanger, who has been a featured speaker at several meetings of water contractors since he left the bench Sept. 30.

Stephan Volker, attorney for the plaintiffs, said his clients “are flattered that Westlands felt it needed to hire a former federal judge to defend against our case. But its strategy will not defeat our lawsuit.”

Generally considered even-handed in his rulings, Wanger caused a stir during his final weeks as a judge  when he attacked the credibility of two federal biologists who had testified before him in a case involving environmental curbs on water deliveries to Westlands and Southern California.


The man with his hand on California's spigot

Judge orders U.S. to revise salmon safeguards

The energy, and expense, of bringing water to the Southland

--Bettina Boxall

Photo: Oliver W. Wanger. Credit: Gosia Wozniacka / Associated Press

Tree rings document ancient Western megadrought

PineResearchers say they have found new evidence of prolonged drought in parts of the West, suggesting megadroughts are not the rarity Westerners would like them to be.

Analyzing corings taken from ancient living and dead bristlecone pines in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, University of Arizona scientists found signs of extreme drought in the 2nd century that matches or exceeds the better-known droughts of the medieval period.

The composite tree-ring chronology, extending from 268 BC to AD 2009, shows that the longest dry periods in the entire record occurred during the first four centuries AD. The most pronounced drought lasted for about five decades in the second century.

Comparing their findings with two other tree-ring studies, the researchers concluded that the 2nd century drought was regional, extending from southern New Mexico north and west into Idaho.

Paleoclimatologist Connie Woodhouse, a co-author of the study that will be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, said scientists have wondered if the severe Western droughts that occurred between 900 and 1400 were unique.

The new tree ring record indicates they weren't -- and could occur again. “There is no good reason that we shouldn’t expect to have those,” Woodhouse said.

She added that researchers are not sure of the causes of the megadroughts but speculate that above-average temperatures and persistent La Nina ocean conditions may have contributed to them.


The energy, and expense, of bringing water to the Southland

Bounty at Lake Powell follows record dry stretch

For water researchers, an atmosphere full of questions

--Bettina Boxall

Photo: University of Arizona geoscientist Cody Routson takes a tree ring sample from a bristlecone pine. Credit: Mark Losleben / University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research

Forest biofuel projects could increase West Coast carbon emissions

Forest thinningThinning West Coast forests on a widespread scale to feed bioenergy projects would increase the region's production of greenhouse gases, according to a new study.

Research published Oct. 23 in the journal  Nature Climate Change undermines the argument that substituting wood-based biofuel for fossil fuels would reduce carbon emissions.

“Most people assume that wood bioenergy will be carbon-neutral, because the forest re-grows and there’s also the chance of protecting forests from carbon emissions due to wildfire,” said Tara Hudiburg, the paper's lead author and an Oregon State University doctoral student in the College of Forestry. “However, our research showed that the emissions from these activities proved to be more than the savings.”

Using data from thousands of forest plots in Oregon, Washington and California, Hudiburg and her co-authors calculated carbon storage and emissions under current forest management practices and then projected changes under three different thinning/biofuel scenarios.

Two involved thinning of varying intensity in fire-prone forests in the three states. The third called for widespread harvesting of trees up to 2 feet in diameter on public and private lands. The study assumed the harvested wood be burned to produce heat and power, converted to cellulosic ethanol and, in the case of larger, more valuable trees, milled into wood products.

The scientists took into account carbon dioxide emissions in harvesting, transportation and biofuel production as well as carbon credits for reducing wildfire and fossil fuel emissions, and long-term storage in lumber for housing. In some areas with relatively low forest productivity and high fire frequency, greenhouse gas emissions did not rise under the treatment scenarios. But in most they did.

"We are not saying that any project will increase emissions compared to current levels, whether they are from decomposition, wildfire, or harvest," Hudiburg said in an email. "We are saying that on average, this is what happens in West Coast forests, and if implemented widely will increase regional emissions -- contrary to policy goals." 

Total West Coast carbon emissions rose 2%, 6% or 14% under the three treatment schemes.

The study dealt solely with emissions and did not consider other potential benefits of forest thinning, such as reducing wildfire risk, which is projected to increase with global warming.

"In this study region," the authors wrote, carbon storage in forests "is more beneficial in contributing to reduction of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions than increasing harvest to substitute fossil fuels with bioenergy from forests."


California adopts historic cap-and-trade regulations

Australia moves closer to law establishing carbon tax

Climate skeptic admits he was wrong to doubt global-warming data

-- Bettina Boxall

Photo: Loggers use a machine that cuts and piles whole trees to thin an area in the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota. Credit: Associated Press / Doug Dreyer

Interior Department reviewing allegations in delta smelt case

Delta smelt

An Interior Department official said Thursday the agency will ask independent experts to review allegations by a federal judge that the testimony of two department scientists was so inconsistent and contradictory it amounted to deliberate deception. 

U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger attacked the credibility of the biologists last month shortly before retiring from the bench. At a hearing on a motion in a court case involving delta smelt protections, Wanger called one of the scientists a "zealot" and accused the agency of engaging in "bad faith."

A transcript of his remarks was widely circulated, providing ammunition for critics of endangered species protections that have cut water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta. Wanger later said his statements dealt with a limited issue and had been blown out of proportion.

Testifying before a House subcommittee on the Endangered Species Act, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Assistant Director Gary Frazer said the Interior Department disagreed with Wanger's comments and stood behind the work of its scientists.

"We also believe that, when questions arise regarding the integrity of scientific work, it is important to resolve them swiftly, independentlyand decisively," he said, adding that the agency has instructed its  scientific integrity officers "to retain independent experts to evaluate the allegations made by Judge Wanger."


Delta smelt numbers rise in recent survey catch

The man with his hand on California's spigot

Judge orders U.S. to revise salmon safeguards

-- Bettina Boxall

Photo: A delta smelt. Credit: University of California Davis

California lists flame retardant as a carcinogen

Prop 65

A state science panel voted Wednesday to place a commonly used flame retardant on California's Proposition 65 list of cancer-causing chemicals.

The action does not ban chlorinated Tris (TDCPP), which is found in foam furniture cushions, auto seats and a variety of baby products, but it will require warning labels that the products contain carcinogens.

TDCPP was withdrawn from use in children's sleepwear in the late 1970s but resurfaced in a number of products as a substitute for other flame retardants banned in California within the last decade.

Manufacturing representatives argued against the listing at an Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment meeting, saying there was no evidence that the chemical causes cancer in humans. But after hearing testimony that TDCPP has been found to cause tumors in rats, a science committee voted 5 to 1 to list the chemical as a carcinogen.

“It's really important because it brings the public's attention to the fact that there are these cancer causing flame retardants in their furniture, and nursing pillows and kids' strollers,” said Arlene Blum,
executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, who testified at the hearing.

California product requirements have been a driving force in the use of flame retardants, which have been detected in adults, newborns, domestic pets and birds of prey.        


Flame retardants detected in baby products

Gov. Jerry Brown signs ban on chemical BPA in baby bottles

Pregnant California women show high levels of flame retardant

Photo: Proposition 65 requires the posting of public notices that warn of potentially harmful substances contained in products sold in California. Flame retardant was added to the Proposition 65 list of cancer-causing chemicals. Credit: Stephen Osman / Los Angeles Times

Increased monitoring finds more water pollution in California

Malibu Lagoon

The latest review of water pollution data in California shows substantial jumps in toxic and pesticide contamination, the number of dirty beaches and tainted fish. But federal regulators attribute the rise to improved monitoring and data collection by the state rather than a tide of new pollution.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, states are required to monitor water quality and periodically submit the results to the Environmental Protection Agency. California's 2010 list, which the EPA finalized Tuesday, shows a number of dramatic increases compared with the 2006 list.

--Waters with toxic pollution increased 170%. 

--Locations in which bacteria levels were unsafe for swimmers climbed 90%.

--Waters fouled by trash jumped 76%.

--The number of waterways tainted by pesticides increased 36%.

--The number of waters inhabited by fish unsafe to eat was 24% higher. Mercury contamination was up  the most.

Although many of the more remote streams, rivers and coastline lack monitoring data, EPA Water Division Director Alexis Strauss said “California has done a a superb job" of assembling pollution information. The state used 22,000 data sets to compile the new tally, seven times the number reviewed for the previous listing.

More than 1,000 waterways are deemed "impaired" by pollution of one kind or another. “To me it was fairly shocking,” EPA Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld said of the new figures.  "That really does speak to the enormity of the problem in front of us."


Heal the Bay: Long Beach water quality improves dramatically

$4.4-million settlement reached for San Gabriel Valley cleanup

California toxic waste case settled

--Bettina Boxall

Photo: A man wades between Surfrider Beach and Malibu Lagoon in Malibu. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

$5,000 reward offered in killing of mountain lion

Mountain lion

A $5,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of poachers who killed a mountain lion in the Santa Monica Mountains.
The state Department of Fish and Game is providing half of the reward and the Humane Society of the United States the rest.

The mutilated carcass of the 7-year-old male was found Sept. 11 in the Ventura County portion of the Santa Monicas several weeks after a tracking collar used to follow the animal's movements stopped transmitting signals.

It is illegal to hunt or trap mountain lions, which are protected under state law. Anyone with information about the case should call the fish and game department hot line at (888) 334-2258.


Mountain lion killed by poachers in the Santa Monica Mountains

Mountain lion killed crossing the 405 Freeway

Two mountain lions spotted on front lawn of Sierra Madre home

 -- Bettina Boxall

Photo: A remote camera recorded this photo of the mountain lion, known by biologists as P-15, before his death. Credit: National Park Service  

Nation's wetlands continue to disappear


Wetlands in the U.S. are still disappearing, although at a slower pace than two decades ago.

A national wetlands inventory released this week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that between 2004 and 2009, the lower 48 states lost a net average of 13,800 acres a year. That compared with a slight annual gain in wetlands during the previous six year-period.

The lower Mississippi River region and the coastal plains of the Southeast suffered the greatest declines, which the report attributed to development, drainage for the establishment of tree plantations and hurricane damage.

Rising seas associated with climate change are also taking a toll on the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastlines. Effectsof the BP oil spill were not included in the survey, which ended before the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

“Wetlands are at a tipping point,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said. “While we have made great strides in conserving and restoring wetlands since the 1950s, when we were losing an area equal to half the size of Rhode Island each year, we remain on a downward trend that is alarming."

In calculating acreage, the fish and wildlife agency took into account wetlands established through farm conservation and other programs. But the report notes that a large portion of those new wetlands consist of freshwater ponds, which some scientific studies have concluded don't provide the same ecological services as natural wetlands.     

The lower 48 states have an estimated 110 million acres of wetlands, 95% of them freshwater, according to the inventory, which was based on aerial surveys and some field sampling for verification.


A century later, Santa Cruz Island wetland to be restored

$44.4-million settlement reached in San Francisco Bay oil spill

Discovery of rare wildflower in Ballona Wetlands could halt recreation project

-- Bettina Boxall

Photo: A bird takes off in the wetlands of Grand Isle, La. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Mountain lion killed by poachers in the Santa Monica Mountains

Poached mountain lion

A mountain lion found dead last month in the western Santa Monica Mountains was killed and mutilated by poachers, according to state fish and game wardens who are seeking tips in the case.

“We're going to have to get lucky on this. There's virtually no forensic evidence," said Andrew Hughan, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Game. Investigators, he added, are hoping a member of the public will hear “somebody bragging about how they killed a mountain lion and they'll call us” at (800) 334-2258, the agency's hot line.

The 7-year-old male, known as P-15, had been tracked for nearly two years by National Park Service biologists who trapped him in Point Mugu State Park. They outfitted him with a GPS collar as part of an ongoing study of mountain lion movement in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

One of six or seven mountain lions believed to live in the Santa Monicas, he roamed the entire range.

In late August, P-15's collar stopped transmitting signals. Biologists searched the area of his last known location but did not find him. Then on Sept. 11, they received a call from a member of the public who had found a mountain lion carcass in a canyon between Cal State Channel Islands and Newbury Park in Ventura County.

The tracking collar had been removed and the animal had been mutilated. To determine its identity, researchers sent tissue samples to the UCLA Conservation Genetics Resource Center, which compared it to samples previously taken from mountain lions in the study. It was P-15.

Continue reading »

Recommended on Facebook


In Case You Missed It...


Recent News
Invitation to connect on LinkedIn |  December 12, 2013, 9:58 am »
New Cook Islands Shark Sanctuary proposed |  December 8, 2011, 8:00 am »