Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sierra foothill Christmas Day

Sunny, clear and crisp. Light frost in the morning.

Later we headed out to drive, walk and observe ...

Very little traffic.

Sheep and goats grazed where llamas stood guard. Calves are growing. The deer dressed now for winter's cold.

Turkeys loitered on new grass under a broad, bare-limbed oak.

Acorns abound.

A lone angler at the Middle Bar Bridge found refuge from the chaos of Christmas cooking and the temptation of food on every countertop. Fish weren't biting, but that mattered little.

The Mokelumne flowed clear and cold. A lone bald eagle soared overhead. Willows wore warm winter gray.

The trail's grass and leaves were slick from recent rains. Lichen, moss and fungi flourished. Lovely oak woodland. Gnarly old manzanita. Black slate here, white quartz there. Goldfinches.

Quiet now, except for geese. (Geese are not often quiet.) Not a duck in sight.

Returned on Gwin Mine Road. Patch on patch, but not a single car or truck. Dry remains of last year's flowers -- moth mullein, dudleya.

Red-tail hunted above the hills.

Jackson was quiet as people cooked and dined. First responders had no holiday. CHP, sheriff and police cruised; Jackson Fire and CalFire responded. A vehicle fire? Volunteers' dinners had to wait.

Clerks at Safeway wore Santa hats. Young men bought beer. Lots of it. One woman bought seasoning -- the missing ingredient?

Where do gossip magazines fit on Christmas?

Home to nap, then Sally's gift of Virginia ham.

Season's greetings to you, whatever your belief or holiday tradition. Enjoy the beauty and peace of this wonderful place we live.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A few random thoughts for early November

I haven't fallen off the planet, folks -- I've just been really busy with the big EBMUD fight. It was a good reminder that until we get the Mokelumne River protected with National Wild and Scenic River designation, we will be fighting these battles over and over.

Now I'm trying to catch up on everything I let go over the last few months -- my house, the Conservancy newsletter, visiting family and friends, etc.

The other day I did get-out-the-vote work for (new Congressman!) John Garamendi in Antioch. My GOTV partner and I worked in a nicely maintained suburban-style subdivision of the kind many people leave to move to the foothills. It had wide streets, well-kept homes, and absolutely no sign of human life during the workday (there were dogs at home, lots of dogs, mostly of the small yippy type).

To many people, this kind of subdivision represents the American dream: a nice home in a decent neighborhood with a good school nearby. There's certainly nothing wrong with that.

And it gave me some insight into why people may support this kind of project when it's proposed for our own local towns (as at Gold Rush Ranch). They may have lived in a place just like that before they came to our little county, or know people who do. Those subdivisions define so much of California living today.

To build that kind of subdivision, builders bulldoze the trees, mass-grade the land, and turn the site into a sort of generic California subdivision blank slate. Then they build homes that look an awful lot alike, and people quickly plant trees, lawns, and other landscaping to try to get some semblance of nature to return to their otherwise paved-over neighborhood. And they try to customize the homes -- at least to the extent allowed by the community's rules.

This neighborhood was a decent, clean and relatively safe place to live. But when you compare it to the older neighborhoods in small towns like Sutter Creek and Jackson, it was a place without character or soul. And I think that character, that soul, that unique sense of place, is part of what makes our small towns so special.

As local officials consider the large subdivisions being sold to them now in the guise of progress or economic salvation, they really need to think about that. Do we want to turn special places like Sutter Creek into anytown California?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Protected rivers are an economic resource

Earlier this month, we took a vacation and went to Idaho to raft the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. It's one of the country's original National Wild and Scenic Rivers.

Right before we left, we heard that some members of the Amador County Board of Supervisors were worried about the economic impacts of designating the Mokelumne a National Wild and Scenic River. I was happy to send them some studies about the local economic benefits of Wild and Scenic Rivers.

I also pointed out that on our trip to visit the Middle Fork Salmon the following week, we would be spending money in the Idaho local economy on meals, lodging, car rental, a car shuttle, gasoline, and supplies for our trip.

At the same time, the outfitter with whom we took the trip, OARS of Angels Camp, pays salaries to guides, charters small planes to take people to the river and buses to return them to town, buys huge quantities of food and supplies, and makes a major contribution to the local economy. And OARS is just one of the many outfitters that run the Middle Fork and other Idaho rivers.

The little towns we visited seemed to appreciate the river recreation business that helps keep them alive.

The Mokelumne is considerably smaller than the Middle Fork Salmon, of course. It won't ever be as big an economic engine as that river, but protecting the Mokelumne as it is today would ensure that money our community already receives from river recreation continues. People already visit our river to kayak, swim, innertube, fish, rock climb, camp, hike, hunt, view wildflowers and enjoy the scenic beauty. Everyone who visits the Mokelumne loves it, and most come back.

In addition, if East Bay MUD will ever cooperate and allow commercial rafting on the Electra-Middle Bar run (which OARS wants to do), or an outfitter starts to run the wilder sections of the river upstream, even more money will come into our local businesses from people who travel and spend money to visit the nation's special rivers. Our Middle Fork trip included river-lovers from Texas, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey and California, all of whom were willing to fork out some serious cash to spend six wonderful days floating a river in the middle of the largest contiguous wilderness area in the lower 48 states.

On our way home, we had supper with a friend who works for Idaho Rivers United, a conservation organization. He talked about how his group has worked with Republican Senator Mike Crapo to protect the state's rivers.

The folks in Idaho need water every bit as much as Californians do. It's a very dry state, and a very politically conservative one. It's also a place where people really enjoy the outdoors for hunting, fishing and more. And they obviously understand that keeping some of their rivers flowing free benefits Idahoans and local communities in many ways.

Amador County residents understand the importance of our Mokelumne River, as shown by the huge opposition to the proposed expansion of Pardee Dam. And more and more of them are supporting National Wild and Scenic River designation for the Mokelumne, since it's the only way to ensure we have a river in our future.

Maybe our county supervisors will join them one day.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Responding to the taxpayers

When I send a letter or e-mail to an elected official, I nearly always receive a response of some sort. That's true whether I'm writing for myself or on behalf of an organization. And it's true whether I write to our state senator or assemblywoman, U.S. Congressional rep or senator, a local city councilmember, or even the East Bay Municipal Utility District directors.

Sometimes it takes a while to get a reply. And sometimes the replies are obvious boilerplate. But still, the officials nearly always respond in some way.

Not so with the Amador County Board of Supervisors. When I send them information or ask questions by e-mail or snail mail, they seldom even acknowledge having received the communication. And it's exceptionally rare for a supervisor to respond in a substantive way.

It's puzzling. Our supervisors like to say that decisions should be made locally, where government is closest to and most responsive to the taxpayer. But just whom are they responsive to?

I've been a county taxpayer for more than 30 years. I've done a thing or do to contribute to our county. The organization I most often represent is made up primarily of Amador County residents. But the supervisors can't even find time to say, "Thanks for your comments. I'll think about them."?

I worked in government for nearly 25 years, most of it in state service. Both state agencies I worked for had a communication policy regarding response to public comments or questions. They both required acknowledging all communication within a certain amount of time, and a full response by a specific deadline. The policies applied to everyone, from the executive director on down. And no way would the elected officials on the boards of those agencies ever consider ignoring a comment from a taxpayer, regardless of its nature or what they might think of the individual or group. Even totally crazy, off-the-wall comments received a response.

One of those agencies even required everyone -- including the executive management -- to take customer service training. While taxpayers are not customers in the conventional sense (you don't get to pick your tax agency), that did lead to a better focus on the taxpayer. Responding to correspondence is just one example of what government agencies do to serve the public.

Our elected officials, including county supervisors, work for us. All of us. They don't just work for the people they know or like or agree with -- or those who helped them get elected.

So why is it that our supervisors cannot bring themselves to even acknowledge contacts from a local taxpayer?

I'd really like to know.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Working on the river

I've been so busy working to protect the Mokelumne River from the proposed Pardee expansion that I've been neglecting my blog of late. The work I've done on the river this year has been both frustrating and gratifying.

Frustrating, because despite the huge local opposition to the Pardee expansion, East Bay MUD may not listen. We'll know more about that after Tuesday morning's workshop in Oakland.

It's also frustrating because a few people are still spreading lies and disinformation about National Wild and Scenic River designation for the Mokelumne. What's even more frustrating is when people believe them. Wild and Scenic designation is the true long-term solution for Mokelumne river conservation, and it will only benefit our counties.

It's been gratifying because I've gotten to talk and work with so many local people and visitors who love the river and support keeping it a river forever. I've seen local businesses, especially OARS of Angels Camp, step up to help with its conservation. I've met dedicated river conservationists like angler-videographer Mikey Wier, who grew up in Plymouth. I've learned from native people who have ties to the river reaching back for thousands of years.

I've seen 350 people show up for local hearings. I've watched people work their networks and groups to help save the river.

I've also seen our community unite around an issue in a way we seldom experience. When was the last time you saw ranchers, native MiWuk people, local governments, environmentalists, businesspeople, anglers, young people, older people, anglers, and paddlers all agree on something? It's pretty rare. (We should try it more often.)

I've also spent more time on the river myself. I've rafted the Electra-Middle Bar run three times. I've seen people playing in and around the river from Salt Springs to Middle Bar. I've seen rafters come off the river absolutely enraptured. I've seen anglers cleaning hooks and debris from the Middle Bar Bridge. And I've taken many, many photos of the river, including some of the Foothill Conservancy benefit raft trips OARS put on this summer.

It's good to know that so many people love the Mokelumne River and want to protect it. We will save this river.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Mokelumne trips bring joy

Last Sunday, Foothill Conservancy held three raft trips down the Mokelumne River's Electra-Middle Bar run, thanks to rafting outfitter OARS. I was involved all day, from helping set up at 7:30 a.m. until the guides and rafts left just before 7 pm. It was a great day.

The 72 rafters were mostly local people who wanted to see the river from raft level. Some had floated the Electra run, but few, if any, had ever ventured below the Highway 49 bridge down to Middle Bar. They ranged in age from about 9 to somewhere around 80 (hard to tell).

Some folks were a little standoffish as they signed in. Others were a bit nervous, having never before floated a river. But once they got on the Mokelumne and began to paddle and float, you could see their expressions begin to change.

After the first riffles, the rafters were smiling and laughing. By the time they hit the Chute, they'd settled in to their buoyant yellow craft and learned to paddle as a team. And they were listening to and trusting their OARS guides, Tessa, Thomas, KZ and Kyland. Everyone was having a blast.

As fun as the rapids may be, the Electra-Middle Bar run isn't all about thrills. Beauty is its real attraction. Willows and alders line the river's edge. Valley oaks, live oaks, and cottonwood shade the water. The river itself is crystal clear, rippling and shifting from deepest blues to gleaming golden green.

Punk-feathered mergansers swim in the river margins and dive for fish near the rafts. Songbirds serenade from the willows. And there's the sound of the river itself, lapping the shore and rocks, roaring over rocks, splashing when fish jump.

Below the last big rapid, the river slows, and rafters slow down, too, moving in river time to better observe and appreciate the river, its wildlife, and the foothill scenery.

When the rafters reached the takeout at the 1912 Middle Bar Bridge, they were all in love with the Mokelumne. Everyone was smiling and laughing. Seeing all those happy people was more than adequate reward for those of us who put the day together.

The trips helped fund a worthy cause, too -- Foothill Conservancy's efforts to restore and protect the Mokelumne. All is not well on our local river. The entire Middle Bar reach of the river below Highway 49 and a mile of the Electra run are threatened by East Bay MUD's plan to expand Pardee Reservoir. If you haven't yet signed on to oppose that misguided plan, please do it today.

And be sure to tell your friends and family in the East Bay to contact their EBMUD director and urge the EBMUD board to protect what remains of our Mokelumne River. East Bay residents need to step up and say, "Don't destroy this river in our name." If you want to help in the East Bay, send an e-mail to Tim to volunteer.

It's time for East Bay MUD to solve its water issues locally, not by drowning more of a river that sustains such abundant life and brings such joy to those who have a chance to see it first hand.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Mighty Mokelumne's worth the visit

With a decent snowfall and early May rains, the Mokelumne River's really flowing this spring. Salt Springs Dam may spill soon. If it doesn't, that will only be because PG&E is releasing a huge amount of water into the river to keep the flow high and temperature cold (which has to do with foothill yellow-legged frogs, but I'll spare you the details).

If you've never seen the North Fork running high, now's a good time to do it. Ellis Road, Panther Creek and Tiger Creek Road are all open (see maps).

Downstream at Highway 49, the Mokelumne's Electra-Middle Bar run is also flowing fast and high. Normally the run is a forgiving, friendly river, a nice float trip with some fun rapids, plus a challenging, bouncy Class III rapid below the Highway 49 Bridge. People come from all over to learn to kayak there. In high flows, it's another river entirely -- definitely not a place for beginners.

We ran Electra-Middle Bar yesterday in a flotilla of four large rafts captained by experienced guides. It was a great trip, if a short one: It only took us 40 minutes to get from the put-in to the Middle Bar takeout. Normally the trip is close to two hours long.

During the safety talk before we headed downstream, our lead guide, David "Chicken" Nesmith, charged us with one main task: "stay in the boat." With the high flows, cold snow-melt water, and many "strainers" along the river's edges, the river's no place for a swim right now. Visualize trees and shrubs as a colander and rafters as spaghetti and you'll understand what strainers are all about.

Before we headed out, we had to rig boats, send vehicles to the Middle Bar takeout, and have lunch. As we went through these steps, we talked to other folks coming down to the river. I met one threesome of local men who are very familiar with and love the Mokelumne. They recognized that their skills were no match for the river at this flow.

And then there was another group. These folks had three rafts, none of which was really appropriate for whitewater river use. Two were little more than pool toys. BLM river ranger Scott was there, and took time to warn the would-be rafters about the dangers of the river at this high flow, especially considering their obvious lack of expertise and appropriate gear.

But these "we know the river" folks headed downstream anyway. All three boats flipped at the first little rapid. Scott was following them on land and went down to help, but a good Samaritan visiting the river reached them first. Everyone was OK, but we spotted one of the boats a good ways downstream, stuck in the trees. Truth is, they were very lucky to crash and burn early on before things got sticky.

We had a great trip, and a more successful one. It was quick, and pretty exciting at times (especially for the two people who briefly poured out of the rafts and into the Devil's Toilet Bowl rapid). We paddled hard. But we also had time to enjoy this beautiful river right here in our backyard.

The entire Middle Bar reach and nearly a mile of the Electra run would be drowned if East Bay MUD were to expand Pardee Reservoir as proposed. Let's hope that all of the foothill outcry, and continued good work by Foothill Conservancy and others, keeps that from ever coming to pass.

It's time to secure National Wild and Scenic River designation for the Mokelumne so that in the future, other folks like those in our group can experience the river first-hand, and in doing so, better understand our nation's history and culture as well as its environment.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Wonderful new Mokelumne video

Visiting the Mokelumne River from its upper watershed to the Delta takes a lot of time and some concerted effort. But now you can now get a quick tour online, thanks to a new video by Mike E. "Mikey" Wier.

Mikey grew up in Plymouth and has a sincere love of our local river and a good understanding of its ecology. His Mokelumne video shows not only the river's beautiful landscapes, but helps viewers understand some of the real threats facing the river today.

Be sure to check it out and share it with your friends! Then go online to endorse National Wild and Scenic River designation for the Mokelumne -- the only long-term solution that can ensure we have a river in our future.

Mokelumne River - Wild and Scenic from Mikey Wier on Vimeo.

Monday, May 4, 2009


We went over to El Dorado Hills on Sunday afternoon to see a movie, The Soloist, which is unlikely to ever play in our teen-centered Jackson Cinemas.

The movie was in the multiplex crowning the hill at the top of the El Dorado Hills "Town Center," an attempt to create a town-like central shopping district in a community of commuter subdivisions and strip centers. It's got the requisite parts: retail shops at ground level, offices (and maybe even apartments) above, sidewalks, some civic spaces (amphitheatre, places for people to sit and talk), some quasi-natural open space.

But it seems oddly cold and artificial, and not just because the shops are so shi-shi and everything is so obviously new.

The architecture's sort of Cal-Tuscan -- at least that's what I think it's supposed to be -- stucco, awnings, ironwork, tile, fake stone. The buildings look very much the same, as if someone took a limited palette of architectural elements and combined them in different ways over a few blocks.

Contrast that with a town like Sutter Creek, Murphys or Ione, which grew organically over 150 years. Even though there's a cohesiveness to the architecture on their main streets, it's not as if everything looks alike. Buildings are made of a variety of materials and have different scales and textures. They look, well -- authentic -- in a way the Town Center just doesn't manage.

An urban critic like James Kunstler could quickly describe why our old towns "work" for pedestrians and this new one doesn't. It would be interesting to have him do a walk-through.

But you don't have to be an expert on public spaces to understand the importance of maintaining the authenticity of our Amador communities, not only in our vernacular architecture, but in our culture and our landscape and our people with long ties to the land. It's awfully hard to create from scratch, and a good part of what makes living here truly special.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A momentous day

Yesterday was a remarkable day.

In Amador County, the Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to oppose the proposed expansion of Pardee Reservoir. They even said they'd oppose any other variation on a Pardee expansion if it had the same impacts as East Bay MUD's current proposal.

I think it's the first time in the nearly 30 years I've lived here that our board of supervisors has actually voted in favor of protecting the Mokelumne River. I may be wrong, but I can't think of any other examples.

In making their decision, the supervisors resisted a full-court press from EBMUD, whose senior staff and board vice-president came to town last week to convince our local agencies to support their project.

At the same time yesterday, over in San Andreas, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors passed a motion that should lead to rejection of the proposed Trinitas project.

If you live in Amador, you may not have heard of Trinitas, but it's something else. The developer built a golf course illegally on Williamson Act ag land, destroying important habitat in the process. Then he came back with a request to operate the course commercially and add houses and other development.

Trinitas has been hugely controversial. And the proponents have done everything possible to win, from threatening lawsuits to hiring a PR firm to round up local supporters to using Christian graphics to give their project some sort of righteous air. Their law firm, by the way, is the same one representing the Gold Rush Ranch developers.

What do these votes have in common? First, they demonstrate that our supervisors can make good decisions that break with their history. Second, they show what people can do to help bring those good decisions about. Had there not been huge public outcry and organization around both of these bad projects -- Pardee expansion and Trinitas -- the outcome might well have been different.

So stand up and be proud, Amador and Calaveras citizens! Because you stood up, made an impassioned case based on strong facts, and didn't quit, we're just a bit closer to truly protecting our special natural places, communities, and quality of life.

Of course the Pardee fight's not over yet. EBMUD's board still has the final say. But step by step, we're getting there. And finally, the story's made the Bay Area press. Stay tuned!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Electric Electra flowers

Today we went walking on Electra Road. The flowers are fantastic this year, and nearly at peak right now. Some things have yet to bloom, but the poppies and various kinds of lupine are fantastic.

We also saw blooming:
  • Phacelia (scorpion flower), lots and lots of phacelia
  • Popcorn flower (isn't it fabulous this year?)
  • Moth mullein, just starting
  • Dudleya
  • Globe lillies
  • Purple owl's clover
  • White owl's clover
  • Chinese houses
  • Jewel flower (streptanthus)
  • A couple of different pinks
  • A yellow composite
  • Fringe pod -- great year for that, too
  • Blue dicks
  • Two different onions, one blue, one white
  • Native clover
Plus others I now can't recall. Photos soon, but get out there and see it for yourself. Photos don't begin to do the riverside experience justice. You also need to hear the birds, the bugs, and of course, the river.

Meanwhile, here are some great photos by Dave Skinner of the Electra flowers and nearby poppies on Highway 49, which are now a bit past peak.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Wishful thinking on Gold Rush Ranch

It's hard to believe that local realtors and others really think approving the Gold Rush Ranch project will somehow boost our local economy in the short run (there are questions about the long run, too, but I'll ignore those for now).

Amador County isn't an economic island. We can't ignore state and national trends, including these:

-- Housing starts nationally in January and February were the lowest since before 1959, according to the Department of Commerce. Demand for new homes is way down.

-- The people who fueled our local housing bubble (and ensured home prices rose beyond what local working families could afford) were folks with large amounts of equity in their homes in urban parts of California. Now that the state real estate bubble has burst, there's no longer a big pool of equity-amenity refugees able to quickly cash out a home and move to the foothills.

-- Last year's gas prices (and increasing awareness of carbon footprints) caused commuters to think hard about how far they live from work. Long-distance commutes of the type common in the past will be less acceptable to homebuyers in the future. Homes in rural subdivisions built on a commuter-resident model are going to be less desirable than homes closer to jobs.

-- The stock market decline and resulting crash of 401(k) values, combined with declines in home equity, have led many people to delay their retirement by 3-5 years, or more. We won't be seeing as many people retiring in the next few years as once anticipated.

While people may once again start moving to the valley and foothills, it's going to take a while, according to the Sacramento Bee.

And in any case, a project approved now won't be built for some time. There are even approved subdivisions for sale locally.

We need to build our local economy, not more houses for people who don't already live here.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A bright light out in the Range

It should be raining in the Sierra, for the Range of Light has lost one of its finest friends. Andrea Mead Lawrence of Mammoth Lakes passed away at home with family on Monday.

For those of us who knew and loved Andrea, the news is beyond sad. We knew her not only as someone of incredible achievement, but as a person of remarkable resilience, perseverance, and love of life. She was a big-picture thinker who could inspire others to join in her vision -- whether of a healthy, restored Sierra Nevada or a saved Bodie or a restored Mono Lake or sustainable communities or a regional organization to bring together everyone working for the Sierra.

Her passing is a time to reflect on all she brought to the region and to our lives. I don't know whether to work even harder on my conservation efforts today or go take a walk on the river with the wildflowers. I'll likely do both.

Ad Astra, Andrea!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

People love our river

I've been actively working to conserve and restore the Mokelumne River for nearly 20 years. I know people love our river and use it.

That's been made manifest in the last couple of weeks since word got out that East Bay MUD, having years ago abandoned plans to expand Pardee Reservoir, has included a Pardee expansion in its draft 2040 water plan.

We "may not" do it, EBMUD says. "It's just an option." But the risk of losing miles of free-flowing river has locals and visitors alike up in arms.

Last weekend, nearly 50 kayakers converged on the river in a "Paddle for the Moke" organized by Theresa Simsiman of Sacramento. They ranged in age from 10 to 60-ish. Paddlers came from all over Northern California, including the East Bay. It was a great event!

The next night, nearly 150 people showed up for EBMUD's EIR hearing in Sutter Creek, overflowing a room designed to hold 40 people. Most were from Amador and Calaveras counties, although some folks came from farther away. The crowd included ranchers, farmers, kayakers, anglers, Miwok people, riverside landowners, conservationists, and more. It was a true cross-section of folks.

By the time the hearing began at 6:30, people were standing in the room, sitting on the floor, standing in the hall, and peering in the windows, straining to hear.

Only one person spoke in favor of the reservoir expansion, long-time local water manager/dam advocate Hank Willy. Everyone else spoke of their love for the river and their opposition to obliterating miles of it under a reservoir. They were respectful, but passionate.

EBMUD pushed the idea that all will be OK because they'll draw down the reservoir in summer to expose the lower end of the Electra run. But speakers familiar with New Melones pointed out what that means: a dead-zone bathtub ring devoid of vegetation. It's a far cry from what exists along the river today.

EBMUD is saying they'll hold another public hearing up here, in Calaveras County. Of course, this process has been in the works for more than two years, and last Monday's meeting was the first opportunity for foothill residents to testify to EBMUD directors (two came).

For more on Monday's meeting, read the Foothill Conservancy or Ledger-Dispatch article. The latter article includes great quotes from local officials Steve Wilensky and Keith Sweet.

For more about the issue, see the Foothill Conservancy's webpage on the subject and Chris Wright's op-ed in the Ledger Dispatch.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Mokelumne River threatened again

Our local river is under threat once again. In its 2040 water plan, the East Bay Municipal Utility District is including a proposal to expand Pardee Reservoir. This larger version of Pardee would drown the entire Middle Bar reach of the Mokelumne -- and seasonally, nearly a mile of the Electra run above Highway 49.

The East Bay doesn't even need the water. EBMUD's directors chose to head down this path rather than impose stricter conservation standards. So there's less impact on Bay Area residents, but we lose miles of river people use every day, year 'round. The Mokelumne's Electra and Middle Bar reaches are the most accessible and family-friendly river segments in our area.

Everyone needs water. But we need our river, too.

For more information, some photos and video, and to send an e-mail to EBMUD and local officials -- some of whom are encouraging this misguided, destructive plan -- see the Foothill Conservancy's Pardee expansion webpage.

While you're there, sign on to support National Wild and Scenic River designation for the Mokelumne. It's the only way to ensure we have a river in our future.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Items of interest

A couple of things have come up in the last few days that may be worth following ...

First, there's the departure of Larry Peterson as head of the Amador County Department of Public Works. Larry brought real professionalism and a true public service ethic to the county. Now he's gone, and no one's saying just why.

And this coming Tuesday, the Alpine County Board of Supervisors is going to hear a presentation from the county's District Attorney Will Richmond and a representative of the Department of Fish and Game regarding civil penalties collected from Kirkwood Mountain Resort to resolve "criminal action" against the resort.

It'll be really interesting to learn what that's all about. A few years ago Kirkwood was responsible for a great deal of silt flowing into streams feeding Kirkwood Creek, so that may be the issue.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Economic element to be discussed

Last fall, the county supervisors decided to add an optional economic element to the update of the county general plan. Among other things, the element will address the role of agriculture in the local economy.

The first public meeting to discuss the draft policies in the element will be held on Tuesday, February 17, from 9:30 to noon.

Notice that the meeting will be held on a weekday, during the day. When the board of supervisors limited the economic element committee members to business and agriculture groups, the supervisors said the public can comment at the public meetings. But if you have a business to run during the day, or a job to go to, guess what? Apparently you are out of luck.

I guess you can submit written comments, but that's not the same as being in the room to hear the discussion.

I've asked the county planning staff three questions about the draft economic element:
  • When will the draft policies be available for public review?
  • If people have ideas for policies, to whom should they send them and by what date?
  • Will there be any review meetings held in the evening when working people can attend?
No response so far.

It still annoys me that the Amador County Business Council was asked to participate on the committee. This is a pay-to-play organization, whose board members have paid either $1,000 or $2,500 to belong. The group has no history in the county, no track record, and no regular members other than the ones who've paid the big bucks -- at least none that I know of. But apparently, forking out money to pay a consultant to represent your interest is all it takes for county recognition and a seat at the table, at least if you're among the county's business elite.

The timing of the meeting and shape of the committee send an interesting message to the public. Affluent business owners get a seat at the table while working people can't even get in the room.

Ain't democracy grand?

For background information on the county's economy, see the Meeting 15 information on this county planning department page.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A note to the supervisors

Yesterday, the county board of supervisors held a workshop on ethics, governance, guidelines and procedures, etc. I didn't attend. But I did send them a note in advance. Here's what it said ...

Dear Chairman Novelli and Members of the Board:

I am going to skip your workshop Tuesday because it is a historic day and I plan to spend the morning celebrating our amazing country. However, I'd like to share a few thoughts for your discussion of ethics, responsible governance and leadership, county operating guidelines, etc -- things I might like to say if I did attend. These comments are based on my more than 20 years of interacting with county government, 24 years in public service at the county and state level, and nearly 30 years as a local resident.

I believe that county supervisors should try to:

  • Treat all taxpayers like customers, and build a customer-service driven local government with standards that apply across all agencies. In some state agencies, all staff, including the senior executives, are required to take customer-service training.
  • Train and require staff to do completed staff work before they bring an important issue to you for a decision. A full, written analysis that lays out facts, proposes a variety of alternatives for addressing the issue, analyzes those alternatives, and makes a recommendation can help the board do a better job and ensure that key issues are fully vetted.
  • Ensure the county is governed in a broadly inclusive way. Everyone who lives in this county pays taxes of one kind or another, and we all contribute. We all deserve to be heard and treated with respect, and our opinions considered, whether we are rich or poor, landowners or renters, old or young, from old families or new arrivals, conservative or progressive, Republican or Democrat, etc. We all have an interest in creating a strong, prosperous, sustainable county. Too many people in this county feel they have no say because they are not part of the "good old boy network." You can overcome that alienation by example and help our community move ahead.
  • Ensure that county committees and commissions include broad and balanced points of view and perspectives. That is not only fair -- it will produce better results. Committees about services or programs should include not only the people who provide services, but those who receive or are affected by them. The economic element committee you recently formed could have included representatives of the sizable nonprofit sector (big chunk of local economy, never quantified), the arts, business customers and agricultural product consumers, not only business people and agriculture group reps. If you staff committees and commissions with people who mostly think alike and share the same knowledge and experience, the county will not benefit from the good ideas, networks, energy and critical thinking and analysis that can emerge from a more diverse group.
  • Respect the triple bottom line in all things; economy, people, environment. If you favor any one at the expense of the other two, our county will suffer. Many businesses and institutions have embraced this triple-bottom line approach -- and some have added another element: equity.
  • Not prejudge people who come before the board. It's easy to think you know what someone is going to say, or what they mean, based on a preconceived idea of who they are or what they have done. Instead, supervisors should strive to give them a fair hearing.
  • Involve the public in meaningful, useful ways. Try more workshops and fewer public hearings. Promote conversation and respectful exchange instead of setting up situations where people can only stand up, make statements and sit down. Hold more meetings in the evening and on weekends when working people can attend. Hold more study sessions to learn about issues, inviting experts and the public to participate. Calaveras County has done that for years.
  • Employ innovative technology and broader techniques for public involvement. Many people will not or cannot bring themselves to stand up and speak at a public hearing, but they will answer an online or mail survey, vote confidentially using electronic keypads, or contribute their opinions and insights in other ways.
  • Recognize that you need to cooperate, not compete with the cities, and avoid duplication of services.
I hope these thoughts will help with your discussion.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Life in a civilized society

A friend forwarded to me a "letter" that appears all over the Internet. A local elected official sent it out. It purports to be from a business owner, bemoaning high taxes, the stimulus checks given out last year, welfare mothers, and the like.

I thought about it for much of the day. Here's my response ...

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called taxes, "the price we pay for living in a civilized society."

My extended family includes people who have started and run successful industrial and retail businesses as well as people like me who have spent their careers working for businesses or government. My husband has been self-employed most of his adult life.

I respect the hard work of businesspeople and their importance in our society. I also know that the taxes they pay can seem onerous at times. My taxes seem that way at times, too.

But those taxes do not come without benefit. Like the rest of us, businesspeople have benefited and continue to benefit from generations of public investment in public services and infrastructure made possible by taxes and other government funding.

Without roads, highways, airports, ports, railroads, police and fire protection, emergency medical services, correctional institutions, the Internet, public colleges and universities (and their innovations), teaching hospitals, public schools, landfills, water and wastewater systems, SBA loans, and more, it would be pretty tough to run a successful business in this country.

Developing countries look to our own to learn how to develop and implement tax systems because they know they need public investment in services and infrastructure to allow businesses and communities to flourish. Delegations come to California every year to learn how our tax system works (and doesn't, I imagine -- it's far from perfect).

I was also interested in the welfare reference in the letter.

People will always argue about what level of taxation is best or most fair and how that money should be used. But many of us do not mind having some of our taxes go to children who would who otherwise not have clothes, food, or housing. No child should suffer in our affluent country, even if their parents are less than perfect. Accountability for adults is one thing, but forcing innocent kids to suffer is quite another. Taking care of children is an American value consistent with all of our traditions.

I looked up the county budget to check out local social services expenditures. If I got the math right (always open to question), the social services part of the county budget is about 14.4 percent of the total. More than 97 percent of the revenue for that chunk of the budget comes from "intergovernmental transfers" -- the state and federal government. Among other things, the money goes to help:
  • Abused children and seniors. There are more of each here than most people realize.
  • Elderly people in nursing homes who have run out of money to pay for this expensive care themselves. These folks have always been a large percentage of the local and state Medi-Cal caseload.
  • Elderly people, blind people, and people with disabilities living at home who, without In-Home Supportive Services, would also be in nursing homes, costing us all a lot more.
  • People who would otherwise have no health coverage for themselves or their kids. Without assistance, they often turn to emergency rooms for their health care and seek care much later when conditions are more costly to treat. The costs get passed on to the rest of us in higher health care costs.
  • People who cannot feed their children without food stamps.
  • And yes, people on public assistance, which largely goes to families with children.
Long ago, I worked for the county Department of Social Services. There are people who use those services that shouldn't, sure. But there are plenty of good people leading hard-working lives who at some point find themselves needing Medi-Cal, or food stamps, or some other helping hand until they can get a job again, or get through some other rough financial spell. And many local middle-class families need help from Medi-Cal when they need to place a loved one in a nursing home. The stereotypical "welfare mother" is just that, a stereotype.

I agree that we need a system in our country, and in our county, that rewards hard work and understands that small business is the foundation of our economy. But I also think we need a system that cares for people when they need help. It's the compassionate, American thing to do.

Does that make me a bleeding heart? Maybe so. But if the alternative is turning a cold shoulder and a hard heart toward people in need, so be it.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Losing auto dealerships would be a big blow

Some folks have wondered why I would work to keep the Prospect auto dealerships in business even though I have criticized the sales tax arrangement that helped them move to Martell.

It's pretty simple ...
  • More than 80 people have lost their jobs and their families are hurting. These folks are our neighbors.
  • We need good family-wage jobs in our community.
  • Our county, Jackson and Sutter Creek really do need the hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales tax revenue the dealerships provide. The dealers are the single largest source of sales tax for the cities and a huge contributor to county coffers as well.
  • The dealerships and their employees spend a lot of money in local businesses, supporting those businesses and their employees, and creating more local government revenue. It's called the "multiplier effect" -- every dollar spent locally recycles in the community many times.
  • According to one study, each job lost to a layoff leads to another 0.5 to 0.7 jobs lost in a community. It's a downward spiral -- a reverse multiplier effect.
  • Local residents are going to buy cars somewhere. Better that they buy them here and create local jobs and revenue than go to Lodi or Folsom.
  • Local residents, especially working people and the elderly, also need the convenient warranty and repair services provided by the dealerships. While independent repair shops may ramp up if the dealerships stay closed, many people will always prefer a dealer for their warranty service and repair.
  • Many local charitable causes benefit from the dealerships.
As we work to save the Prospect dealerships, we also need to work hard to keep other local businesses alive. You can do you part by shopping local, and patronizing locally owned small businesses instead of huge corporate chain stores. And local businesses can do their part by buying from each other.

We also need to be finding more ways to support other local people who have lost their jobs in this difficult time.

At the rally on Saturday, several people said to me, "We're all in this together."

Indeed we are. And that's what community is all about.