Environmental news from California and beyond

Category: California

San Diego water deal upheld, Salton Sea fight continues

A state appeals court Wednesday upheld the landmark water transfer between the Imperial Valley and San Diego County but left room for more legal wrangling regarding the Salton Sea.

A three-judge panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal overturned a 2010 ruling by a Sacramento Superior Court judge that the water sale was improper because the Legislature had essentially signed a blank check to repair damage done to the Salton Sea.

So, the deal itself is now salvaged. But the same panel refused to decide the arguments that redirecting irrigation water to slake the thirst of San Diego decreases the amount of runoff into the sea, causing it to shrink. That, in turn, is imperiling birds and fish and creating toxic dust storms as ground laden with agricultural pesticides is suddenly exposed to the air.

Those arguments, the panel said, should go back to the Sacramento Superior Court, thus preserving the chances that opponents will be able to scuttle the deal between water-rich but cash-poor Imperial Irrigation District and the cash-rich but water-poor San Diego County Water Authority.

“This is obviously good news, and it’s been a long time coming,” said Kevin Kelley, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District, “but there’s still considerable work to do in turning this agreement into one that is environmentally sustainable for the Salton Sea and economically viable for Imperial Valley agriculture.”

Maureen Stapleton, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority, noted that in water issues, perseverance is key. “We were confident we would persevere and prevail,” she said.

The deal, the largest transfer of water from farms to cities in the nation, was signed in 2003, after years of pressure on the Imperial Irrigation District by the federal government. The water sales have continued despite the Superior Court ruling that the Legislature lacked authority to make an open-ended agreement to save the sea.

Straddling Imperial and Riverside counties, the Salton Sea is dependent on agricultural runoff for replenishment. As more water is sold to San Diego rather than used to irrigate farms, runoff has decreased and the sea has shrunk.

The appeal court’s 156-page opinion could serve as a treatise on the complexities and feuding that are part of California’s use of the Colorado River. Its opening sentence tells the tale: “For the better part of 100 years, citizens of the American Southwest have been fighting over the right to water from the Colorado River.”

Imperial County enjoys the largest allocation of any agency in the seven states that depend on the Colorado River. Farmers were braving the valley’s boiling summer temperatures a century ago to pull water from the river, long before California coastal cities saw the river as a source of water.

San Diego County, blessed by nature with mild weather and a gorgeous landscape, is virtually devoid of groundwater. For nearly half a century San Diego officials have hunted for a way to get an “independent” supply of water and decrease the county’s dependence on the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Although the Legislature agreed in 2003 to help the Salton Sea, the state’s financial woes, and a lack of a political constituency for the sea in the power corridors of Sacramento, have largely kept the state from following through on its promise, a point that environmental lawyers are sure to make when the issue returns to the Superior Court.


Tapping into natural water sources

Tree rings document ancient Western megadrought

Retired federal judge withdraws from Westlands case

-- Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: A tributary of the New River flows into the Salton Sea. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

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

Occupy Landfills! Trash from Occupy L.A. not recycled

From the Out of Sight, Out of Mind Dept: Remember the 25 tons of material left behind by Occupy L.A. campers after they were evicted from the park in front of City Hall early Wednesday morning?

It went to the dump.

As reported earlier in the Times, the mess of debris left behind after the two-month encampment included not just tents, tarps and other materials used for shelters, but also books and CDs, luggage and boom boxes, mattresses and dining chairs, cellphones, electric razors, even a small red guitar with its neck snapped. What was previously reported as 30 tons is now believed to be 25 tons.

According to Peter Sanders, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, none of that was reclaimed or recycled.

“The material collected by the Bureau of Sanitation after the park was closed was sent to a transfer station, and then to landfills. The collected material could not be recycled,” Sanders said.

Over 300 people were arrested during the eviction process, but the LAPD says that most of them either didn’t take their stuff or didn’t identify it as theirs.

“When the people were advised to leave, they were advised to take their property with them. If they don’t take their property, it’s booked as found property,” said Tenesha Dobine, a public information officer with the LAPD. “The tents and stuff: that might be considered abandoned property.”

Dobine said that anyone who was able to identify property as theirs during the arrests was given a receipt for that property and would be able to reclaim it.

Most of it, however, was simply left behind in the rush of the operation.

“Just like if you went camping and you drove away from your campsite and didn’t come back, you’d expect someone else would take it or it would get thrown away,” Dobine said.


Playa Vista plan gets court approval

Peter Brown back onboard with Sea Shepherd

Entourage's Adrian Grenier and Peter Glatzer SHFT Hollywood green

-- Dean Kuipers

Photo: Gino Ramirez of the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation picks up blankets during cleanup of the Occupy Los Angeles encampment following the Los Angeles Police Department raid on Wednesday. All of this material went to a landfill. Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

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

Playa Vista plan gets court approval

This post has been corrected. See note at bottom for details.

A state appellate court has upheld the city of Los Angeles' approval of Playa Vista's second and final phase.

Wetlands activists had challenged a revised environmental impact report for the Village, as Phase 2 of the big project south of Marina del Rey is known.

Wednesday's decision comes after a long trail of litigation, revision and further appeals.

The Los Angeles City Council initially approved the environmental analysis for the Village in April 2004. Challengers sued, alleging that the report was flawed. In January 2006, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge upheld the city's approval.

The activists appealed, and a three-judge panel in the 2nd District Court of Appeal agreed that three aspects of the environmental impact report should be revised.

The City Council approved the revised EIR in 2010. Activists once again challenged that approval in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The trial court upheld the council's approval in January 2011, and the challengers appealed again.

The three-judge panel that affirmed the trial court's ruling on Wednesday was the same panel that ordered the EIR revisions. The wetlands activists have 40 days to petition the California Supreme Court for review.

Rex Frankel, president of the Ballona Ecosystem Education Project, one of the Playa Vista challengers, said his organization planned "soon" to petition the state high court. He contended that there "is a good likelihood the Supreme Court will take our case."

Playa Capital Co-President Patti Sinclair said the company would vigorously oppose his filing. She added that the high court seldom takes rulings that are "unpublished," as this one is. She said the company expected to begin construction on the Village early next year.

The Village is intended to be the link between the Phase 1 residential community and the commercial campus that is home to Facebook, USC and a division of Fox Sports, among other employers. The Village will include retail stores and restaurants as well as parks, office space and multi-family residences.

[For the Record, 6 p.m. Nov. 10, 2011: An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported that Patti Sinclair was president of Playa Capital.]


Christo river wrap gets BLM approval

Grand Canyon mining ban moves forward

Super committee could gut national parks budget

-- Martha Groves

Photo: Playa Vista's first phase can be seen behind the Ballona Fresh Water Marsh. Environmentalists eager to preserve wetlands have sought to limit development. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times

Are birds getting bigger because of global climate change?

Common Yellowthroat
Birds in central California are significantly larger than they were 25 to 40 years ago, and researchers believe it may be because they are bulking up in body weight to ride out severe storms related to global climate change.

Over the last 25 years, a robin, for example, has increased about an eighth of an inch in wing length and about 0.2 ounces in mass, according to a paper published online in Global Change Biology.

The findings fly in the face of assumptions based on an ecological benchmark known as Bergmann’s rule: Birds and mammals tend to be larger at higher latitudes, perhaps to conserve body heat. Under this reasoning, birds and mammals would get smaller as they adapted to rising global temperatures.

But they also suggest that explanations for the bigger birds are more complex, according to researcher Jill Demers, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory.

“The degree of physical change over a relatively short scale of time is remarkable and surprising,” Demers said. “Similar studies in Pennsylvania and Europe, for example, show that birds there have decreased in size over the past several decades.”

Overall, birds in central California have grown an average of 2% to 5%  in body weight and wingspan, said Rae Goodman, who discovered the trend while working as a graduate student at San Francisco State University, analyzing data from thousands of birds caught and released each year near San Francisco Bay and the Point Reyes National Seashore.

More study is needed to determine whether these changes are good for central California birds and how they affect food chains, Goodman said.

The data was gathered from “banding stations” where dozens of species of birds each year are captured, banded around the leg with an identification tag, weighed and measured before being released, allowing researchers to analyze physical traits over several decades.

Researchers, including a team from PRBO Conservation Science, analyzed data from 14,735 individual birds collected from 1971 to 2010 near the southern end of Point Reyes National Seashore, and 18,052 birds collected between 1983 and 2009 from the southern end of San Francisco Bay.

“I recently presented my research to my students,” said Goodman, who now teaches biology at San Francisco’s Jewish Community High School of the Bay. “It was something a little more glamorous than the lessons they’re used to.”



Burning oil from BP spill produced carbon plumes

Climate skeptic admits he was wrong to doubt temperature data

Forest biofuel projects could increase West Coast carbon emissions


-- Louis Sahagun


Photo: Common yellowthroat. Credit: Courtesy of San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory.

EPA’s secret list shows pollution unchecked

A secret EPA “watch list” unearthed by National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity revealed that hundreds of the nation’s worst industrial air polluters violate toxic air emissions standards with little or no action by state agencies, sometimes for decades. Several of the plants on the list are in Southern California.

NPR reports that about 1,600 power plants and other industrial facilities were flagged as requiring urgent action to reduce emissions, and nearly 300 were marked as “high priority violators” of the Clean Air Act for more than a decade.

If a facility is noted as needing urgent action, and no enforcement action is taken within nine months, it is automatically bumped onto a watch list, which now includes more than 450 plants. It’s unclear why the list was kept secret, although a former Environmental Protection Agency official noted in the story that it was to prevent tipping off the facilities that were the targets of criminal investigations.

Not all the plants on the list are being investigated, and some end up there for bureaucratic reasons not directly related to the seriousness of the violations.

The upshot is that some big polluters skate by for years without any remediation. CPI used this data to put together its “Poisoned Places” report, telling the story of communities across the U.S. that are wrestling with elevated incidence of cancer and other illnesses thought to be related to high concentrations of benzene, formaldehyde, mercury and other toxic substances released by industrial plants.

In response to Freedom of Information Act requests, NPR and CPI received watch lists from July and September 2011. California companies on those lists are noted below. In notes included on the lists, several of the companies explain why they do not belong on the list or how they ended up there due to administrative error.

Aera Energy, San Ardo (Monterey County).
Big West of CA, LLC, Bakersfield.
Blue Lake Power, Blue Lake.
CA Portland Cement Co., Mojave.
Cold Canyon Landfill, San Luis Obispo.
ConocoPhillips Santa Maria Refinery, Arroyo Grande.
ConocoPhillips SF Refinery (Phillips 66), Rodeo.
E&J Gallo Winery and Brandy, Modesto.
Forward Inc. Landfill, Manteca.
Red-Scotia, LLA (Town of Scotia Co.), Scotia.
Shell Oil Products U.S., Martinez Refinery, Martinez.
Tamco, Rancho Cucamonga.
Tesoro Refining and Marketing Co., Martinez.
TXI Riverside Cement, Oro Grande.
Valero Refining Company, California, Benicia.


Keystone XL pipeline decisions to be probed by State Department

Burning oil from BP spill produced carbon plumes

California adopts historic cap-and-trade regulations

-- Dean Kuipers

Photo: Oil refinery near Martinez, Calif. Several area refineries are on an EPA watch list with unaddressed Clean Air Act violations. Credit: Ray Saint Germain/AP Photo/Contra Costa Times

Laguna Beach hotels to recycle all soaps -- a first in U.S.

HotelbarsoapsLaguna Beach welcomes more than 6 million visitors annually to its sandy shores. Now visitors who stay in the beachside city's 22 hotels and lodging establishments will be inadvertent participants in a citywide effort to recycle all of the soaps, shampoos, hair conditioners, lotions and bath gels that are left over after a night's stay.

Starting Monday, Laguna Beach becomes the first city in the nation to have all of its hotel properties with more than 20 rooms participate in Clean the World -- a Florida-based nonprofit that provides recycled hotel soaps and hygiene products to those in need. Montage Laguna Beach, Pacific Edge Hotel and Best Western Laguna Brisas are among the 18 participating hotels, along with four of the city's six bed and breakfasts, for a total of 1,229 rooms.

In an average year, with an estimated 75% occupancy rate, Laguna Beach hotels generate 336,000 bars of soap and a slightly lesser number of shampoo, conditioner, bath gel and lotion bottles, all of which were previously thrown in the trash. Working with Clean the World, those hygiene products will be reclaimed by the housekeeping staff and set aside in a separate receptacle to be shipped to a Las Vegas processing facility. The bars of soap are cleaned of hair and paper, sterilized, ground into pellets and pressed into new bars of soap that are distributed to non-governmental organizations in 45 countries that do not have ready access to soap.

The bottled amenities are likewise reclaimed. If they're full, the bottles' exteriors are sterilized and redistributed to homeless shelters and soup kitchens inside the U.S. If the bottles are 25% empty, the plastic is recycled or potentially upcycled for use in other products.

Founded in 2009, Clean the World has 1,200 partner hotels across the U.S. and Canada, 126 of which are in California, including the Disneyland Hotel, Disney’s Grand Californian Resort & Spa and Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel in Anaheim. Since joining the Clean the World Hospitality Partnership Program in July, Disney's three Southern California resorts have collected 3,152 pounds of hotel soap and 2,212 pounds of bottled amenities such as shampoo.

Clean the World charges hotels 65 cents per room per month for the service. Of the 4.6 million hotel rooms in the U.S., Clean the World recycles the hygiene products for about 6% of them, said Shawn Seipler, who co-founded the nonprofit in 2009.

At the time, Seipler was a business executive and on the road four nights a week.

Continue reading »

Plastic water bottle-makers sued by California over green claims [Updated]

AquamantraThis post has been updated. See below for details.

California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris filed a lawsuit against three companies Wednesday for allegedly making false and misleading claims about their plastic water bottles' recyclability and biodegradability. The lawsuit is the first to enforce California's environmental marketing law, which  makes it illegal to label a plastic food or beverage container as biodegradable because plastic takes thousands of years to break down naturally and may never do so in a landfill.

According to the lawsuit, Balance and AquaMantra plastic water bottles, marketed by ENSO Plastics in Mesa, Ariz., falsely claim the bottles are both biodegradable and recyclable. The labeling states the bottles contain a microbial additive that helps them break down in less than five years. The lawsuit says the microbial additive doesn't accelerate the breakdown process and also compromises the bottles' recyclability because the microbial additive is considered a "destructive contaminant" by the Assn. of Post Consumer Plastic Recyclers.

In 2008, California banned the use of the terms "biodegradable," "degradable" and "decomposable" in plastic food and beverage container labeling. Senate Bill 567, going into effect in 2013, will expand the 2008 law to all plastic products.

An email request for comment to ENSO Plastics' public-relations department did not receive a response as of publication time.

[Updated 1:40 p.m., Oct. 28: ENSO released a statement Friday in response to the lawsuit. “Our industry is young, and we are still improving standards and dispelling false beliefs," ENSO president Danny Clark said. "Our products perform as we claim, and we have the data to prove it. The situation in California is a lack of education and misunderstanding new technologies; this is not an issue of false claims. We will take this opportunity to bring legislators up to speed with ENSO technologies and the value they bring to the environment.”]

[Updated 3:01 p.m., Oct. 28:  The L.A. Bureau of Sanitation also issued a response Friday afternoon. "Development of new materials, for packaging and otherwise ... [is] often made without regard to the recycling infrastructure in place, resulting in incompatibility or outright non-recyclability of the new material," said Enrique Zaldivar, director of the bureau. "The Los Angeles Recycling Program urges the material manufacturing industry to work with the recycling (and composting) industry to avoid misrepresentations to the public on the recyclability of products."]


Can I recycle PlantBottles?

Why recycling in Los Angeles is so confusing

Biodegradable plastics: Plant symbol chosen as icon

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo: AquaMantra water bottles. Credit:

Protection zone established for endangered black abalones

Black abalone
Federal wildlife officials on Wednesday issued a final ruling designating about 140 square miles of critical habitat for endangered black abalone along the California coast.

The hard-shelled, edible marine snails were once abundant in rocky intertidal areas from the state's northernmost waters down to the tip of Baja California, but their numbers plummeted in the 1980s, mostly due to a bacterial disease called withering syndrome.

The decline may have been worsened by warming coastal waters, power plant discharges, overfishing and poaching, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service.

Black abalone was listed as an endangered species in 2009, which requires the government to set aside as much critical habitat as possible to aid their recovery.

Black abalone critical habitatIn the areas, which stretch from Del Mar Landing Ecological Reserve in Sonoma County south to the Palos Verdes Peninsula and Catalina Island, projects that go before federal agencies or receive federal funding will be reviewed to make sure they do not threaten black abalone habitat.

The rule will take effect next month.

Excluded from the designation was an area of rocky habitat from Corona del Mar State Beach to Dana Point.

That was because "the economic benefits of exclusion outweigh the benefits of inclusion, and the exclusion will not result in the extinction of the species," according to a NOAA news release.

Black abalone are one of seven abalone species that live in California waters, typically wedged between rocks near the shore.

Their commercial harvest dates back to the 1800s and peaked in the 1970s. The fishery was closed in 1993 after landings plunged by 95%.


Glendale considers ban on plastic bags

Santa Monica considers dog beach; environmental worries linger

Forest biofuel projects could increase West Coast carbon emissions

-- Tony Barboza

Photo: Black abalone cluster together in a rocky, intertidal crag on San Nicolas Island. Credit: David Witting / NOAA Restoration Center.

Graphic: Black abalone critical habitat. Credit: NOAA


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