- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 29, 2015

July 22

The San Bernardino Sun on regulating California lawns:

Lawns are magic: Cool underfoot on a bare-toed summer day. An outdoor carpet for all animal life, especially babies and dogs. No wonder the world fell in love with the green.

But California has properly announced regulations limiting lawns to 25 percent of a residential lot for new construction, because that’s what our part of the world can sustain.

In Devon, England and Darien, Conn., even with climate change, vast public and private lawns are likely to be sustainable during our time, at least. Plenty of rain for natural irrigation - unlike here.

Here in the West, in our fourth year of severe drought, with an unsure water future even if we get one winter of El Nino-fueled rains, the California lawn will never again be punching above its weight.

Lawns are not a bad thing, a poison. But poison is dependent upon dosage. It’s not lawns that are bad for California. It’s vast lawns that are.

We can’t afford them. Never could, really, but we pretended over the last century-plus, as suburbia rolled out from the central cities of San Diego and Los Angeles and San Francisco, that we inevitably belonged to the American lawn club as well.

That pretending is over, most of us know. Our Mediterranean climate can’t sustain so much ornamental lawn - not millions of them. And yet, almost unbelievably, when new homes are built in our neighborhoods, especially in the teardown/mansionize mania that is afflicting Southern California, new owners are still demanding that their houses be surrounded by lawns seemingly big as a Wimbledon court. So they roll out the sod, much of which around Southern California is never played on, picnicked on, even walked on. That should be part of the new way for Californians to view turf landscaping - if it’s not walked on by someone, if it’s not used every day, it doesn’t belong here.

In a better world, all Californians would understand large lawns are wrong in this drought, in which we are using water - whether it’s from wells or the Colorado River - we don’t really have, stealing from the future as we suck the aquifers dry.

But many Californians don’t understand the issue, six months after Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency. So while we wouldn’t ordinarily support state regulations on how much of any plant material a property should have, hoping common sense would prevail, that hasn’t worked. So the state Department of Water Resources was right last week to institute new restrictions that allow lawns to take up just 25 percent of a residential lot for new construction rather than the 33 percent allowed now.

Lawns aren’t forbidden, by any means. And yet some Californians are reacting as if big government is telling them they’ll never stroll the St. Augustine again, relegated to sharp pebbles and ugly mulch.

Small lawns can still play a part in the California residential landscape - just make sure you and your family use them, that they are on flat areas of the yard rather than unwalkable hillsides. Drought-tolerant landscaping is easy to find out about and install.

Strictly ornamental lawns are not in our future. But efficient watering of different kinds of greenery still will be. Our tree canopy must be protected to cool our vast urban and suburban heat islands. Deep-water those shading, cooling trees with what you’ve saved from your lawn, and we’ll continue to hit the 25-plus-percent conservation targets the state has set, and live within our means.

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July 22

The San Francisco Chronicle on the legalization of marijuana:

A majority of Californians are ready to legalize marijuana, according to a March poll from the Public Policy Institute of California, and proponents are readying an initiative for next year’s election ballot. But a new report from a blue ribbon commission led by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom emphasizes the fact that there are more responsible ways for the state to legalize marijuana than just snapping its fingers and changing the law overnight.

California legislators - and voters - should heed the panel’s recommendations for care and caution.

Pot legalization has already happened in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, D.C.

But California is different - our state’s population, ethnic diversity, environmental concerns, and economic complexities all require a nuanced approach.

“This industry should not be California’s next Gold Rush,” the report states.

In fact, looking at marijuana as the next panacea for government budgets and personal enrichment would be disastrous for the state.

California won’t be able to stamp out the state’s current, well-established black market for marijuana if local government set taxes on marijuana that are too high.

Local governments might not like that - the promise of a new, heavily taxable commodity has been a big selling point for legalization proponents.

But getting the tax balance right is critical to both discourage underage usage and to prevent the black market from continuing to operate (with all of the safety problems that come with it).

“We do not believe that making government dependent on cannabis taxes makes for sound public policy, nor do we believe cannabis tax revenue will be very large in relation to the total budgets of state and local government,” the report says.

On the other side of the coin, the report stresses the fact that marijuana should be a heavily regulated market - not an entrepreneurial free-for-all.

Allowing the pot industry to develop without strict regulations could result in a variety of problems - from the rise of the next “Big Tobacco” companies to prices that are so low they encourage excessive consumption.

The report recommends setting up a tracking system for cannabis, from seed to sale, and making room in the industry for cultivators who have a reputation for being “responsible actors.”

Law enforcement will need assistance with stamping out illegal operations, testing impaired drivers, and enforcing new restrictions.

It’s a whole stew of potential problems, which is why the panel is recommending a legalization process that unfolds over many years and is flexible enough to allow policymakers to make adjustments.

A longer and more thoughtful process will help reduce possibilities for unintended consequences.

It might take away some of the proponents’ biggest arguments for immediate, unfettered legalization, but protecting public health, the environment, and consumers doesn’t come free.

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July 27

The Los Angeles Times on keeping down health care costs:

Early reports that 2016 health insurance premiums would increase in double digits brought out the usual cadre of critics to claim - once again - that Obamacare is not financially sustainable. These proposed premiums were neither finalized nor did they reflect the full picture of rates in most states.

We now have the full picture in California, where we are proving that health insurance exchanges can keep prices in check. Residents who enroll through Covered California, our statewide exchange, will see only modest 4 percent increases in 2016. Those selecting the lowest-priced plans actually will save 4.5 percent.

These low premiums were made possible because California law gave Covered California the power to actively negotiate on behalf of its 1.3 million consumers. The board and staff of Covered California have used this authority. That’s helping the Affordable Care Act work as intended - using market forces to hold down costs.

So how exactly is California getting such good results? First, Covered California selects which plans can be sold through the exchange. This gives it leverage with the insurers, which want to reach this source of new customers. Those insurers then are able to negotiate better deals from hospitals and doctors. In contrast, the federal health insurance marketplace and other state exchanges take all comers and do not force insurers to improve plans to get their products onto the exchanges.

In 2014 and 2015, Covered California turned away several plans because of serious concerns about high prices, inadequate physician networks or weak administrative capabilities. It is now expanding its offerings. For 2016, Covered California will add two new plans: UnitedHealthcare, the largest insurer in the nation, will target rural areas that lack adequate choices; and Oscar, an Internet-based start-up, will bring innovative consumer tools to urban Southern California.

Covered California also negotiates directly with health insurers on prices. We pressure carriers to keep premiums as low as possible and offer robust networks of doctors and hospitals. Passive insurance exchanges, including the 37 states that are part of the federal marketplace, allow insurers to charge whichever rates pass regulatory muster and cover however many doctors they want.

Equally important, Covered California standardizes the deductibles and other characteristics of plans offered. That empowers consumers, who can make apples-to-apples comparisons. Standardization also allays fears that low-premium plans might be complicated or rife with coverage exclusions. Californians can rest assured that their coverage means they can get the treatment they need without first paying a deductible that can be thousands of dollars.

Moreover, the benefit of standard plans and negotiated prices accrue to anyone who buys individual health insurance. Again, because of how California law implemented the ACA, the rates Covered California negotiates must also apply to policies those plans sell outside the exchange.

Covered California is using its heft to improve patient care and outcomes too. Contracts with insurers require that they participate in quality improvement programs, reduce ethnic and geographic disparities in access to care, and provide patients with access to doctors and hospitals that meet their needs.

Taken together, this process generates a better set of insurance options than do the federal and state insurance exchanges that adopt a passive market approach. Consider the choices available in Miami-Dade County - which, like much of the nation, has a passive insurance exchange. Consumers there face a dizzying array of choices. Just within the “silver tier” - by far the most popular category - that exchange contains 33 differently designed plans. In principle, silver products should feature moderate premiums and moderate deductibles. In Miami-Dade, however, the annual deductible ranges from $0 to an exorbitant $11,500. Monthly premiums for two 35-year-olds with two kids range from $546 to an unaffordable $1,274 - even after applying their income tax credit.

In a central Los Angeles ZIP Code, by contrast, Covered California offers only seven silver products, and subjects all of them to standardized benefits. Most of the care patients receive under these plans would not be subject to a deductible at all. And for that same family, the monthly premiums after the tax credit fall between $498 and $759.

Free market forces can be a powerful tool to contain health costs. But for that tool to work, consumers need the support of an active purchaser that can go toe-to-toe with the insurers. Other states and the federal exchange would be wise to look at what’s working in California.

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July 28

The Contra Costa Times/Oakland Tribune on the Pacific Gas and Electric company’s Bay Area tree-cutting plan:

While telling some cities that it has scaled back plans to remove trees on public property, PG&E; is considering ripping out thousands on private land in the Bay Area.

The company claims it’s working more cooperatively with residents. But the potential destruction without clear justification and oversight should be challenged by city leaders, environmentalists and the state Public Utilities Commission.

PG&E; could not provide comprehensive data on the number of trees cut down so far or slated for removal in the Bay Area or statewide. But its selective numbers for 14 Bay Area cities shows it’s considering removing more than 6,000 trees there.

That includes more than 2,000 in San Jose, 1,238 in Walnut Creek and Concord combined, 814 in Menlo Park, about 600 each in Livermore and Atherton, 507 in Brentwood and Oakley combined, 370 in Morgan Hill, and 125 in Danville.

The utility company launched the tree-cutting program after the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. PG&E; aims to clear obstructions above its 6,750-mile natural gas transmission system from Bakersfield to Eureka.

But it has not demonstrated that the “Pipeline Pathways” program is about safety rather than the company’s convenience. It has been evasive when asked for documentation to support the massive program.

PG&E; launched the program in the Central Valley, clearing 20-foot swaths — 10 feet on each side of gas lines — in cities such as Bakersfield and Fresno. But when it tried last year to start cutting in the East Bay, it ran into a buzz saw.

The utility company claimed it didn’t need city permission to act, but threat of legal action by eight East Bay cities prompted the utility company to re-evaluate. City officials were understandably upset. In Walnut Creek, PG&E; planned to rip up blocks of shade trees downtown and destroy median beautification on one of the city’s most heavily traveled thoroughfares. In Danville, PG&E; threatened to remove heritage trees in front of the town offices.

PG&E; says it doesn’t need to cut down so many trees on public land. It says it can accept a 5-foot buffer in most cases and evaluate trees between 5 and 10 feet away on a case-by-case basis. But it has provided no thoughtful rationale for either distance.

Suddenly, of 385 trees on public property in Walnut Creek and Concord slated for removal last year, 378 have been spared. But thousands of trees on private property remain threatened. PG&E; says it will not remove any without agreements from owners.

That’s not terribly reassuring. PG&E; should not be arbitrarily arm-twisting individual owners. Trees are beneficial beyond individual property lines. The entire program should be independently reviewed.

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July 28

The Chico Enterprise on El Nino and water conservation:

It’ll be interesting to see what the state’s water conservation numbers look like for July, because this is the month that we think a lot of people figured the drought is over.

This is the month when the possibility of a strong El Niño this winter became a pretty safe bet, and most people know just enough about that to be dangerous.

El Niño is a warming of water in the eastern Pacific Ocean about at the Equator, which has the potential to bring more rain to California. Strong ones like the one forming now are more likely to bring rain, but only four of the five of the strong El Niños that have been recorded have actually soaked the state.

But to hear people talk, above average rain is inevitable, and the drought is a gonner. Weather scientists have been trying to talk folks down, but the warning seems to be falling on deaf ears.

At least, that’s the perception we have. We hope we’re wrong, but we’re a state that hears what we like and not the rest, and then acts on the little bit of information that sinks in.

We can’t help but think a lot of folks just hear “El Niño,” and have decided the drought’s over and there’s no reason to keep conserving. California took a year and a half to actually hit Gov. Brown’s water conservation targets, and backsliding seems darn likely. All we need is an excuse. Like El Niño.

Even if the rains come, it could be a nightmare if they follow the forecasters’ projections.

Weather models point to increased precipitation in a swath across Southern California, and into Arizona, New Mexico and West Texas. Drier weather is forecast in Washington state into Idaho and Northern Oregon. For the places in between - here - the crystal ball is muddied.

So what we might get is torrential rains in Southern California, fading as you move north to nothing in our parts. The reservoirs that are the foundation of the state’s water system won’t get refilled, but the folks who use most of the non-ag water in the state will get soaked.

Conservation will be a hard sell in the Southern California in that scenario. Remember that as late as December a Los Angeles Times columnist was arguing there was no drought because it was raining then. It doesn’t take much to set an unpleasant reality aside.

That’s why the July water conservation numbers - which should come out around the first of September - will be interesting. They’ll show if we’ve already slipped back to life as usual, or whether a new water-saving sensibility has taken root.

El Niño or not, that new way of living has to become the new normal. Compare the natural landscape of California to what we try to create in our yards and it’s clear we’re not thinking right. Sure a garden is an oasis, a sanctuary and a work of art. It deserves some water. But there’s a point where it becomes almost an affront to nature. As the drought has shown, nature will win that throw-down at some point.


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