Sunday, December 30, 2007

A foggy day

Today it was foggy all day long. Not the kind of overhead fog that can be confused with overcast, but ground-level, sitting-in-the-clouds mountain fog.

It was drizzly at times. It was mysterious at times. But mostly it was just damp, and gray.

Sometimes I could see across the meadow. Sometimes I could see only 50 feet.

We don't have many days like this. Fog is a more of an occasional and fleeting visitor. But not today.

I ditched my plans to take a good long walk with the dog. Too gray, too wet.

Maybe we'll get in that walk in tomorrow, celebrating a sunnier day, the end of the year, and longer days to come.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A gift that lasts

We don't often have the opportunity to give a gift to future generations—something that will benefit people of all ages, abilities, ethnic backgrounds, and income levels. But when we work together to protect special natural places, that's exactly what we're doing.

You can help leave a lasting legacy by endorsing National Wild and Scenic River designation for our local Mokelumne River. Foothill Conservancy's website has a simple online form that takes less than a minute to complete.

By taking a few seconds to fill out that form, you can help ensure that the National Wild and Scenic River designation for the Mokelumne will come to pass. It's a gift that really lasts.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Local global warming naysayers at odds with world business leaders

Our neighbors at the Amador Citizens for "Responsible Government" have been running ads in the BuynSell Press congratulating three Amador supervisors for voting against the Cool Counties initiative. The ads say that global warming concerns are based on "junk science."

That puts them at odds with 150 global business leaders including PG&E, Swiss Re (a huge insurance firm), Sun Microsystems, Shell Oil, DuPont, Hewlett Packard, Nokia, Johnson & Johnson, Volkswagen and others who recently signed the Bali Communique. That document asks the U.N. to adopt legally binding greenhouse gas emission limits.

Here's a quote from the communique:
The scientific evidence is now overwhelming. Climate change presents very serious global social, environmental and economic risks and it demands an urgent global response.
I may be wrong now, but I would guess that the combined scientific expertise of the 150 signatories to the document is probably a little greater than that of the local group.

Meanwhile, the California Attorney General's office has published a new website on global warming. It includes a nice section debunking the allegations of global warming naysayers. Check it out.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Calaveras Supervisors move to limit sprawl

It used to be that land use planning in Calaveras County was anything but smart. The county has been one of the fastest-growing in the state, with no constraints on the conversion of ranches and oak woodlands to golf courses and subdivisions, complete with overtapped groundwater and leaky septic systems. But it looks like those days may be over.

A few weeks ago, the Calaveras Board of Supervisors held a visioning session to establish a policy framework for the county's general plan update. It was most promising, with all five supervisors -- even Libertarian Tom Tryon -- agreeing that new development should occur in existing communities rather than sprawling all over the countryside. They even talked about incorporating the Ahwahnee Principles or the Land Use and Development Principles adopted by several Calaveras communities.

Then last week, the supervisors lifted the year-old subdivision moratorium put in place at the beginning of the plan update. But they didn't return to the bad old days of virtually unfettered growth.

Instead, they unanimously adopted policies to shape new development. The policies aren't binding -- the board will still look at each subdivision proposal -- but the clear message is "if you want us to approve your project, this is what it needs to be." The resolution even suggests to staff that they bring noncompliant applications to the board for an early decision rather than putting everyone through the time and expense of California Environmental Quality Act review.

The policies are intended to focus development in existing communities and limit sprawl. They express a clear preference for projects that
  • Create new parcels only in areas where public water and sewer are available (except for single parcels and parcels over 40 acres)
  • Protect onsite open space and habitat
  • Provide roads built to county standards
  • Promote affordable housing

And in the resolution language adopting the policies, the supervisors made clear they expect similar policies to be part of their general plan:

WHEREAS, during the October 23, 2007 workshop, the Board unanimously stated that the General Plan update, and in particular the Land Use Element of the General Plan, should include goals, policies and implementation measures regarding criteria for future development within the unincorporated area of Calaveras County that limits the use of groundwater and onsite septic systems to serve that development and should instead encourage high density development served by public surface water and public sewer with preservation of onsite open space as well as other associated infrastructure to serve the development such as roads built to county road standards;

Meanwhile, despite a moratorium on general plan and zoning changes, every month new well-and septic-dependent parcels are being created in rural Amador County, many in high fire zones. How smart is that?

Putting the dam before the plans

Amador Water Agency General Manager Jim Abercrombie has embarked on an early marketing effort to promote raising Lower Bear Reservoir. He's trying to sell the public on the idea by telling anyone who will listen that the county will need the additional water supply by 2030.

Abercrombie has come to this conclusion before the county or any of its cities have concluded their general plan updates -- and before the feasibility studies on Bear are even done. Last time I checked, the general plans -- not Water Agency estimates -- will determine our county's eventual population.

At the same time, Abercrombie is admitting that the Foothill Conservancy has been right about local water supply for more than 17 years: the county can more than double its population on existing water supply. And that doesn't even take into account growth in rural areas not served by the Water Agency, which includes vast parts of the county.

At last week's Regional Planning Committee meeting, AWA engineer Gene Mancebo said the Water Agency has enough water to supply another 16,000 Amador households.

Sixteen-thousand new homes is a lot. In comparison, the largest proposed new subdivision in Amador County is Gold Rush, outside Sutter Creek. It's a proposal for about 1,300 homes.

Sixteen-thousand homes would house a lot of people, too. Based on an average population of about 2.3 people per household, that's 36,800 more people than live in the county today.

Mancebo also said the agency hopes to provide 20 percent of total water supply from recycled water in the future. Since I wasn't in the room, I'm not sure whether he meant "add 20 percent to existing supply," but if he did -- or if an additional 20 percent could be developed through recycling plus efficiency -- that would free up enough potable water to add nearly 14,000 more people without building an expensive dam (15,0000 acre feet existing supply x 20% = 3,000 acre feet. 3,000 af x 2 HH per acre foot x 2.3 people per HH = 13,800 people).

Adding those two population figures results in a startling total: 50,600 people. So what the Water Agency is saying, in effect, is this: we expect Amador County to add more than 50,000 new residents by 2030. That's more people than live in fast-growing Calaveras County today.

Let's take a minute and think about that from a total planning perspective. If Amador County were to grow by more than 50,000 people, where would they live? How would we move them around our already gridlocked roads, many of which cannot be expanded due to lack of funds and the limits of topography or existing buildings?

How would we serve them with underfunded volunteer fire departments? Where would the children go to school, when the cost of new schools far exceeds developer fees? How many new libraries would we need? Would we need a new hospital? New parks and recreational facilities? How many new police officers and sheriff's deputies would have to be hired? Where will the adults work, considering that the price of oil is going to make commuting an increasingly uneconomic activity? They can't all be retired.

Not to mention this question -- the one that probably matters most of all to local residents: what would happen to our cherished rural character?

We need to plan our county based on what local people want to protect and what they want to change. I have yet to hear anyone say publicly that 50,600 additional county residents by 2030, or even nearly 37,000 new residents, is part of their vision for our county's future.

It's clear to me that Abercrombie has put the proverbial cart before the horse. While it is the Water Agency's job to supply water for the county, it's not their job to decide how fast or how much we're going to grow before our general plans are complete.

So when you hear and read those "we're going to need more water" stories, remember what that means -- more than doubling the county's population in the next 22 years. If you think that's a bad idea, be sure to let local officials know.