July 4, 2015

Come to the Chapter’s annual potluck picnic on August 14th

Friday, August 14, 2015, 5 to 8 pm
Fremont Central Park, Brook 1 Picnic Site
40000 Paseo Padre Pkwy, Fremont CA

picnic-2013-08-16-18.48.13-300x225Join fellow Sierra Club members for an evening of good cheer, good food, and good company at our annual potluck picnic.

The Park is 2 blocks south of Fremont BART Station. Our picnic site is another block south along the trail on the west side of Lake Elizabeth, just beyond the community center.

There are parking lots along Paseo Padre Pkwy. Come early to walk the two-mile trail around the lake and enjoy its beauty.

Please bring: a potluck dish or beverage to share, reusable dishes and flatware (let’s go zero waste!), jackets, blankets, games, friends, and family.

Organizers will provide, tablecloths, games, information about the chapter’s latest campaigns, and PRIZES!

Volunteers are needed to get things to the picnic, set up, welcome guests, clean up, and take things back to the chapter office. To volunteer, please contact Joanne Drabek at joanne1892@gmail.com or 510-530-5216.

SF Group seeks new Executive Committee member

4364570914_0297c85e28_bThe Executive Committee of the San Francisco Group of the Sierra Club sadly lost a member and is now seeking interested applicants to fill the remainder of his term. If you are interested in serving on the Executive Committee, please contact Susan Elizabeth Vaughan at selizabethvaughan at gmail.com or call (415) 668-3119. We want to fill the vacancy as soon as possible. The position lasts through December 2015. The person who fills the position may choose to run for election to the committee this fall.

The nine-member San Francisco Group Executive Committee works with the larger Conservation Committee in shaping conservation policy on development proposals that may impact water quality and conservation, air quality, energy generation, transportation, and land use, parks and open space, and good government. We also recommend candidates for local office and review ballot measures for endorsement by the Sierra Club. If you are interesting in serving on this committee, please contact us.

Richmond takes bold stand on coal and petcoke pollution

Sierra Club and partners at Richmond City Hall to advocate for the passage of resolutions designed to protect the community from coal and petcoke pollution.

Sierra Club and partners at Richmond City Hall to advocate for the passage of resolutions designed to protect the community from coal and petcoke pollution.

On May 18th, the Richmond City Council passed two important resolutions intended to protect local communities and the environment from the harmful impacts of coal and petroleum coke (petcoke) pollution.

The first resolution opposes the mining, export, and burning of coal, as well as the transport of coal and petcoke along waterways and through densely populated areas. That resolution includes a clause that would prohibit exports of coal and petcoke from ports on City land.

A second resolution calls on the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to require all piles of coal and petcoke to be stored in enclosed facilities.

Coal is currently being exported through the private Levin-Richmond Terminal on Richmond’s bay shore. The coal is extracted from mines owned by Bowie Resources and travels hundreds of miles to Richmond from either Colorado or Utah in uncovered rail cars. Each open-top rail car can lose up to 600 pounds of coal dust on the journey from the mine to the port; this translates to 60,000 pounds of toxic fine particulate matter entering our air and water for every trip made by a coal train.

According to the Energy Information Administration, between 2013 and 2014 coal exports through the Bay Area rose from 1.3 million tons to over 3 million tons — a 126% increase in one year. Eyewitness reports place long, uncovered coal trains parked right alongside Richmond’s BART tracks at least twice a week.

Coal dust contains arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium, nickel, selenium, and other toxic heavy metals. Prolonged, direct exposure to coal dust is linked to chronic bronchitis, decreased lung function, emphysema, and cancer. Residents living near the rail lines and export terminal are at greatest risk of these health issues and tend to be lower income communities and communities of color.

Ratha Lai, community organizer with the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Chapter, said, “The Sierra Club applauds the City of Richmond for formally recognizing the harmful impacts of coal and petroleum coke. Their actions today will protect the community, workers, and the environment. The Levin-Richmond Terminal Company has been profiting by shipping coal and petcoke overseas while the Richmond community suffers the harmful impacts. It is time to stop exporting dirty fuels through our ports and start protecting the community from the toxic pollution in coal and petcoke. Today’s City Council resolutions are landmark decisions in transitioning our community away from dirty fossil fuels to a clean and renewable energy future.”


We’re working hard to support a grassroots movement in Richmond and other communities across the Bay Area that suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation and corporate pollution. As always, one of our key strengths is the energy, thoughtfulness, and experience of our members. We will be canvassing and advocating in the coming months and your help would be greatly appreciated! To join the campaign, email Ratha Lai at ratha.lai@sierraclub.org or call (510)848-0800 ext. 328.


Sierra Club, nurses collect Richmond community health data as a weapon against coal

Sierra Club and nurses canvassing to collect community health data in Richmond's Parchester Village.

Sierra Club and nurses canvassing to collect community health data in Richmond’s Parchester Village.

“You can’t run if you can’t afford to leave,” says a middle-aged man with long, graying dreads. He’s standing in the driveway of his home in Richmond, California. “But I do think they’re trying to get rid of us, either by making us move, or by—”

His unfinished sentence hangs in the air, as he fills out a community health survey on the impact of the coal trains that are running through his neighborhood, their uncovered cars spewing toxic dust into the air.

Where is the dust coming from? Big corporations in Utah and Colorado use the rail lines to transport coal to East Bay Area shipping ports, where it can be exported to other countries.

While moving toxic fuels means profit for corporate interests, local residents may be paying the price with their health. In addition to the trains, they also live adjacent to the Chevron refinery, which has been repeatedly cited for environmental violations. That’s why the Bay Chapter has partnered with nurses from the California Nurses Association (CNA) to canvas Richmond’s Parchester Village and other impacted neighborhoods. We’re surveying residents of the predominantly African American and Latino neighborhoods for information on any health impacts they may have experienced as a result of environmental toxins.

“Uncovered coal trains come in 125-car trains, twice a week, and they are polluting our community. That’s why we are doing this community health survey,” says Ratha Lai, Bay Chapter conservation coordinator and Richmond resident. “Through this, we are going to build some concrete, raw data that our elected official partners can take and advocate at the state level.”

On a recent Monday night, three CNA-registered nurses joined in the canvassing: Mary Roth, a Kaiser Vallejo advice nurse and 29-year Richmond resident; Johanna Lavorando, a Kaiser Richmond Medical/Surgical nurse and former Richmond resident of 8 years; and Maria Sahagun, a 10-year Richmond resident and former registered nurse at the recently-closed Doctors Medical Center (DMC).

“I came out here tonight because healthcare and environmental discussion go hand in hand,” says Sahagun, who wonders how residents will be treated for the symptoms they may experience as a result of the toxic trains, when the closure of DMC left a hole in access to healthcare. “West County is surrounded by these coal trains and a toxin-emitting corporation, and you removed the hospital? It’s a blatant act of discrimination.”

DMC closed on April 21, and now the more than 40,000 people—many of them low-income Medicare and Medi-Cal patients—who used the DMC emergency room each year are without a nearby hospital. As Sahagun points out, these residents are now experiencing a reduction in care while living in Chevron’s backyard and adjacent to coal trains.

“Poor communities have to suffer such an assault on their health because of the way heavy industries are placed near them. And when we don’t even have a healthcare system to help them deal with that stuff, it’s really disturbing,” agrees Roth, who explains that nurses wind up treating patients for asthma, heart disease, and other illnesses that can be triggered by environmental toxins.

“I think it’s important, from a public health point of view, for nurses to participate in community events,” Lavorando adds. “With these coal trains, it’s critical that we gather as much information as we can, and give it to officials who can try to change regulations.”

Lavorando explains that at one stop during the evening’s canvassing, a young father shared a lengthy list of symptoms, including vision and breathing problems. Yet, he wasn’t sure if pollutants were a factor.

“He said the doctor checked him out and told him he was okay, but he was telling us, ‘I know I’m not okay,’ because his chest was hurting and his throat was closing up,” Lavorando says. “And his story wound up being the same story that a neighbor shared.  So again, that’s why it’s important as nurses to take part in these events and gather this information—to get people thinking about what kind of symptoms can be triggered by the environment.”

At the end of the evening, Lai gathers the anonymous surveys to bring back to Sierra Club’s Berkeley offices, where they will be compiled with data gathered on future canvassing events, to eventually turn over to local and state representatives. Will the data spur change? For the RNs and the Sierra Club, a healthier community and a cleaner environment is worth the work of standing up to corporate interests.

“I’m glad someone cares. We tend to disappear,” says the man filling out the form in his driveway. “I think you guys have a big fight. But it’s good someone is ready to fight.”

Sierra Club and partners at Richmond City Hall to advocate for the passage of resolutions designed to protect the community from coal and petcoke pollution.

Sierra Club and partners at Richmond City Hall to advocate for the passage of resolutions designed to protect the community from coal and petcoke pollution.

Hope for Richmond

The Sierra Club worked with the City of Richmond on two important resolutions intended to protect local communities and the environment from the harmful impacts of coal and petcoke pollution; the first opposes the mining, export, and burning of coal as well as the transport of coal and petcoke along waterways and through densely populated areas. That resolution includes a clause that would prohibit exports of coal and petcoke from ports on City-owned land. A second resolution calls on the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to require all piles of coal and petcoke to be stored in enclosed facilities.

Both resolutions were passed by the Richmond City Council on May 19th.


If you live in Richmond, take the quick community health survey.

We’re working hard to support a grassroots movement in Richmond and other communities across the Bay Area that suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation and corporate pollution. As always, one of our key strengths is the energy, thoughtfulness, and experience of our members. We will be canvassing and advocating in the coming months and your help would be greatly appreciated! To join the campaign, email Ratha Lai at ratha.lai@sierraclub.org or call (510)848-0800 ext. 328.

This article was adapted from a blog post by the California Nurses Association.

Sierra Club files suit to protect East Bay hills from fire risk

The Sierra Club and the Sustainability, Parks, Recycling and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund (SPRAWLDEF) have filed suit over plans by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to fund a vegetation-management program in the East Bay hills that would increase fire hazards, threaten endangered species and native wildlife, and increase the financial burden on taxpayers.

“The best way forward is to promote native vegetation that is less flammable and encourages healthy ecosystems and greater biodiversity,” said Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter director Michelle Myers. “That’s a win-win for the environment and for homeowners who want to feel secure that they won’t lose their homes in another Great Fire like the one we lived through in 1991. Unfortunately, FEMA’s approach isn’t in line with the priorities of fire safety and habitat restoration.”

Native vegetation restoration in Berkeley's Garber Park. Photo courtesy Marilyn Goldhaber.

Native vegetation restoration in Berkeley’s Garber Park. Photo courtesy Marilyn Goldhaber.

FEMA has over $5.5 million in grant money to disburse for vegetation management in the East Bay Hills from Richmond to San Leandro. These areas contain thousands of acres of highly flammable eucalyptus and non-native pines, which choke out more fire-resistant natives like oaks, bays, and laurel. Flying in the face of the best science and land-management practice, FEMA has signaled its intention to fund a plan to thin flammable non-natives, rather than remove them entirely. The Sierra Club / SPRAWLDEF suit contents that this is the wrong approach.

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups including the Claremont Conservancy, the Golden Gate Audubon Society, and the California Native Plant Society have all advocated for removing all of the flammable eucalyptus and pine trees over time so that less-flammable native habitat can reclaim those areas. In contrast to clearcutting, this approach calls for removing eucalyptus in phases, so that native trees — which cannot grow to full size underneath the eucalyptus canopy — are able to thrive. Mere thinning of eucalyptus and pine plantations in fact denudes hillsides to an even greater extent, as it requires the clearing of native plants in the understory.

Restoration of native habitat would provide an opportunity for the return of local endangered species like the Alameda whipsnake. FEMA’s plan fails to follow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Biological Opinion for protecting the whipsnake. Eucalyptus and pine groves, even thinned, do not provide habitat for this endangered species, and the areas that the FEMA plan covers are prime habitat areas for this endangered species.

The City of Oakland and the University of California, Berkeley applied for FEMA grants to fund the removal of non-natives and the restoration of native habitat. Only the East Bay Regional Park District plans would allow non-natives to remain. By directing funds to a misguided program, FEMA would force Oakland and UC Berkeley to forgo their sensible plans.

Native vegetation restoration in Berkeley's Garber Park. Photo courtesy Shelagh Brodersen.

Native vegetation restoration in Berkeley’s Garber Park. Photo courtesy Shelagh Brodersen.

The approach FEMA has endorsed would burden taxpayers with hundreds of millions of dollars in future maintenance costs. Over a period of 20 to 30 years, the costs of regular thinning of non-natives and debris removal would be at least $250 million. Long-term maintenance costs would force agencies like the East Bay Regional Park District to levy fire-maintenance taxes as high as $200 per household in the East Bay — or else defer maintenance and risk a deadly and destructive fire.

“It’s time for us to be economically smart and environmentally conscious,” said Norman La Force, chair of the Sierra Club’s East Bay Public Lands Committee and president of SPRAWLDEF. “I’ve served in government and I know that when a public agency runs out of money it defers maintenance. Letting flammable material build up on our hillsides is an accident waiting to happen. We know that’s what caused the Great Fire of 1991, so why would we go back to the same failed approach? The restoration of native habitat will make our hills much safer and will be far less costly to maintain.”

Michener Award goes to Ron Ucovich

Ronald Ucovich, one of the Chapter’s most creative and knowledgeable outings leaders, is the 2015 winner of the Michener Award for outstanding outings leadership.

Ron leads a Sierra Club group on a tour of the USS Hornet.

Ron leads a Sierra Club group on a tour of the USS Hornet. Photo by Barbara Hebert.

Ron’s guided adventures for the Hiking Section are unique. Perhaps you will examine the marshes, dikes, and abandoned settlements of the Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge. Perhaps you will sample the surprising variety of a seemingly simple suburb such as Hayward. Perhaps you will board the USS Hornet in Alameda, and explore the aircraft carrier stem to stern.

Ron taught high school Spanish, French, Latin, and signed English for 35 years. Walk with him and you’ll be convinced his subject was local history. Ron loves research, and his Sierra Club hikes are famous for combining appreciation of natural wonders with historical particulars. For each of his hikes, Ron keeps an updated file with records, articles, pictures, legends, and trivia. He is a treasure trove of local lore, informed in part by his other volunteer gigs at the USS Hornet, the Hayward Museum, the Alameda Museum, East Bay Regional Parks, and the USS Potomac. Ever the teacher, Ron has even been known to give homework assignments to the participants.

Ron leads cleanup after one of his “famous” lunches during a hike at Fernandez Ranch. Photo by Barbara Hebert.

Ron leads cleanup after one of his “famous” lunches during a hike at Fernandez Ranch. Photo by Barbara Hebert.

On Ron’s walks, lunch is a special occasion. Ron often brings food for the group, and it’s always a feast. After eating, however, his flock must abide by the precept “There is no such thing as garbage.” They do not use trashcans in the parks; they carry out the scraps to be composted.

Ron has lived in the area all his life. In the 1950s the Ucovich family dragged a new-fangled trailer to state and national parks for their vacations, helping Ron develop an early love of nature. After high school, Ron studied foreign languages at San Jose State, and stayed to get a graduate degree in Spanish and French. While teaching at Aragon and Hillsdale High Schools in San Mateo, Ron hiked on the weekends, which is how he met his wife. She thought guided hikes sounded like a good idea, and so she talked him into joining the Sierra Club in 1989.

While he was teaching, Ron had anticipated a retirement of traveling with his wife. Now, however, he finds new experiences in the “old” places close to home. Following his wife’s death in 1994, Ron began hitting the trails with Sierra Clubbers. The hike leaders noticed that he often knew the terrain better than they did, and suggested that he might want to become a trip leader himself. We’re lucky he took us up on the offer!

As of November 2014, Ron had led 341 outings with the Bay Chapter. These days, his hikes are exclusively on Thursdays. If you have had the pleasure of joining one of Ron’s outings, you know this award is well deserved; if not, clear your schedule for his next hike! And be prepared for mental as well as physical exercise.

Fighting the rising tide of shoreline development around the Bay — Updates on three campaigns

In my work as conservation chair for the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter, I often ask myself: Is there actually hope that our society will recognize in time the need to protect and preserve the shoreline in the face of rising sea level? Or will we descend into fantasy and pretend that technology and engineering can solve all of our problems?

Will the urge to develop every available acre mean that new communities face inundation and/or a shoreline consisting of high levees that hide the Bay from view and destroy the mudflats and tidal marshes that sustain aquatic life? Or will we, as a society, recognize that we need to provide room for wetlands to move into adjacent uplands wherever possible as sea level rises and existing wetlands disappear?

Well there’s HOPE! Here are two recent instances where logic prevailed and the natural world was given a shot at survival — and one case where your advocacy is sorely needed.

Oakland’s Coliseum City



Recently, the Oakland City Council approved the “Coliseum City Specific Plan” project. This project proposes to develop over 800 acres of land including the site of the present Oakland Coliseum and the San Leandro Bay shoreline. The original proposal put dense housing right on top of a thriving seasonal wetland that was itself a mitigation project for the loss of wetlands at the Oakland Airport. It also proposed high-rise housing on the Oakland Business Park, a site immediately adjacent to the Bay and contiguous with one of the richest tidal habitats in the Central Bay, the Martin Luther King, Jr., Regional Shoreline Park. All of this would have had significant impacts on Bay wildlife.

But thanks to the efforts of our volunteers, community members, and groups like the East Bay Regional Park District, the City rezoned the mitigated wetland (now called the Edgewater Wetland) and the immediate shoreline as open space. The city also kept the Oakland Business Park area zoned for business, not residential (business uses can be much more compatible with the adjacent Bay and its wildlife).

We extend a large thank you to Oakland City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, who authored the zoning decisions.

This is just one victory in a long and ongoing struggle. Despite the favorable zoning decisions, the actual Coliseum City Specific Plan was not changed, and it still calls for the destruction of the Edgewater Wetland and for building dense housing right on the Bay (all in areas that are predicted to be under water in 2100 or before). And the Plan still proposes to bury Elmhurst Creek. We have not seen a living stream culverted in the Bay Area for decades, as we now recognize that they play a crucial role in the health of our community and its aquatic resources. As this project progresses, stay tuned for opportunities to help protect our shoreline.

Redwood City salt ponds

The Redwood City salt ponds. Photo courtesy Doc Searls on Flickr Creative Commons.

The Redwood City salt ponds. Photo courtesy Doc Searls on Flickr Creative Commons.

In another victory for a healthy Bay, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently took action in Redwood City to protect the 1,400 acres of shoreline used as salt ponds by Cargill Salt. These ponds are bay waters that have been surrounded by levees and used to concentrate the water as it is moved from pond to pond until it starts precipitating salt — and presto! There it is on your table. Cargill Salt claimed that the “liquid” in these salt ponds is too salty to be considered water, and thus should no longer be protected under the Clean Water Act.

While we’re all entitled to our opinions, this one fails the laugh test. So imagine our surprise and disappointment when the federal regulators of our nation’s waters and wetlands, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, actually swallowed Cargill’s ludicrous argument and proposed to give up jurisdiction over these salt ponds. They ignored the fact that each winter these salt ponds swell with rainwater (yes, even this year) and provide aquatic habitat to tens of thousands of waterbirds.

Luckily, logic won out over Cargill’s army of lobbyists. In response to an outburst of protest over the Army Corps decision, the EPA stepped in and claimed jurisdiction over the decision of whether the salt ponds deserve protection. We don’t know when the EPA decision will be reached but we have faith that they will reach the obvious conclusion that water is water — even if it is behind a levee and even if evaporation has made it salty.

We thank Jared Blumenfeld, Regional EPA Administrator, and national EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy for this brave action.

More great news out of Redwood City is that City Councilperson Ian Bain came out publicly against large-scale development on lands (or in this case waters) that may be underwater by 2100. Given that the Redwood City Council has consistently supported Cargill’s desire to build on the salt ponds, this is an encouraging development.

Newark Area 4 wetlands

Newark’s “Area 4" tidal marsh. Photo by Margaret Lewis, courtesy SaveSFBay.org.

Newark’s “Area 4″ tidal marsh. Photo by Margaret Lewis, courtesy SaveSFBay.org.

And then there is Newark. If ever there was a city government that turned its back on the Bay and its wetlands, Newark may be the one. Despite massive logistical and regulatory hurdles, Newark has persisted in pursuing an ill-advised plan for a golf course and upscale housing development at the (unromantically named) Area 4 wetland. Area 4 was historically part of the bay before being walled off by levees in the 1960s. Yet even levees and regular pumping can’t keep the land dry; despite these measures, over half of the land is active wetland.

This April, the Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge won a lawsuit over the city’s Environmental Impact Report (also opposed by the Sierra Club), which had found that the site was just fine for development. Unfortunately, winning a CEQA lawsuit does not magically stop bad projects. The City simply rewrote part of the document — changing essentially nothing — and the project starts up again.

But that struggle isn’t over. The developer and the City still need permits from many agencies. Now is the time for citizen activism. We’ll be working to get these lands absorbed into the adjacent Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge. If you are interested in helping you can call me at (415)680-0643.

— Arthur Feinstein, Conservation Chair

Time to put the “Public” back in the California Public Utilities Commission

In the coming months, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) will be making critical decisions that will have a big impact on how much electricity our state consumes and where that energy comes from. Your energy bill and the environment hang in the balance.

California has been a leader in developing policies to prevent and combat catastrophic climate change. However, turning vision, executive orders, and legislation into action requires effective implementation. The CPUC is the regulatory body responsible for making decisions about the way many of California’s energy policies are implemented. The decisions currently on their plate include how residential electricity rates should be structured, how power generated by local rooftop-solar installations should be paid for, and whether California utilities should contract for new fossil-fuel-based electricity generating capacity.

Because of their intense financial interest to the utilities, CPUC proceedings are well attended by utility lawyers and technical staff. Unfortunately, what’s in the best immediate financial interest of the utilities is often counter to the best interest of the public and the environment. And because the issues are technical and complex, the public is not as engaged or present as one might hope. Yet we, the ratepayers, pay the price when energy policy threatens California’s environment, degrading our air, our water, our ecosystems, and our climate.

With critical decisions pending, this year is a key time for public engagement and volunteer action. The CPUC is under intense scrutiny due to allegations of inappropriate, potentially illegal communications between the investor-owned utilities and former CPUC president Michael Peevey. Commissioner Michael Picker’s confirmation to the CPUC presidency is now pending; a confirmation hearing will be held in August. It is therefore a particularly important time to insist that the CPUC protect the public interest.

Members should be aware of the importance of the following issues, and can comment as concerned individual citizens and ratepayers.

San Diego’s chance to “go clean”

The CPUC is charged with overseeing utility plans for assuring adequate and reliable generating capacity to meet California’s needs. To meet power demands, the CPUC is required to first draw on “preferred resources”: energy efficiency, renewable resources, and programs that encourage smart, informed consumption to curb power use during peak periods (an approach known as “demand response”). The CPUC’s commitment to “preferred resources” is currently being tested as it considers how to replace the now-defunct San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in San Diego County.

The local utility, San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E), has proposed purchasing partial replacement power from a $2-billion, 600-megawat (MW) gas-generating plant to be built in Carlsbad, California. The Carlsbad plant would represent a substantial cost to the ratepayers and would mean increased greenhouse-gas emissions over the 20-to-40-year life of the plant.

In March, an Administrative Law Judge issued a Proposed Decision denying SDG&E’s application to purchase power from the Carlsbad plant. In response, President Picker filed an Alternative Proposed Decision authorizing 500 MW of new gas-generating capacity. The Sierra Club has filed extensive technical comments making it clear that new gas-generating capacity is not needed, as the Request for Offers to replace the nuclear plant produced, in the words of the Administrative Law Judge, “a robust number of offers for preferred resources and energy storage.”

This is an opportunity for the CPUC to define whether they are regulating for California’s clean-energy future, or protecting fossil-fuel interests by authorizing new and unneeded dirty power. The CPUC will consider SDG&E’s application to purchase the gas-generated power at its May 21st meeting.

Rate restructuring to incentivize or punish conservation?

The CPUC is also working to implement California Assembly Bill 327, complex legislation that requires a reconsideration of California’s residential electricity rates. A proposal supported by the utilities would levy fixed charges of approximately $120 per year on ratepayers, irrespective of how much electricity they use or whether they have rooftop solar. The utility-sponsored model would also “flatten” the rate structure, effectively raising the rates for those using little electricity and lowering them for those using lots.

If the CPUC adopts this rate model, it would reduce economic incentives to conserve electricity, make energy-efficiency upgrades, or install solar panels. Economic models suggest that fixed charges and flattened rates will in fact lead to an increase in electricity usage. Fixed charges are an unfair burden on those who use little electricity, and may harm low-income ratepayers.

Later in 2015, the CPUC will consider proposals for how owners of residential rooftop-solar installations should be compensated for the power they feed back into the electrical grid. This is another contentious topic, with the utilities pushing to discontinue the current Net Energy Metering program.


As these issues come to a head in the next months, we will need your support! Go to sierraclub.org/sfbay/email and sign up for the “General” list and your local list to make sure you receive updates.

— Claire Broome

A sustainable development success story in El Cerrito


El Cerrito’s PDA will feature buffered bike lanes like this as well as protected cycle tracks.

Members of the Chapter’s Transportation and Compact Growth Committee are reviewing Priority Development Areas (PDAs), which are a cornerstone of the $292-billion Regional Transportation Plan. The purpose of PDAs is to reduce car travel by focusing new residents into areas where the transit service is good and where people can easily walk or ride a bike to nearby destinations. Grants of planning money are available to get the PDAs off the ground.

This article will briefly review a PDA success story in El Cerrito. PDAs are complicated creatures, and in no way is this review meant to be comprehensive.

El Cerrito has two PDAs, and both run along San Pablo Avenue, the main street in the city. El Cerrito’s city government treats them as one combined development area (the San Pablo Avenue Specific Plan), and that is how they will be treated here, too.

According to the Association of Bay Area Governments, in 2010 there were about 1,200 households within the boundaries of the combined El Cerrito PDA. By 2040, the plan is to have about 1,000 more households in the same area.

Transit service in the area is good now, with bus service provided by AC Transit, Golden Gate Transit, Vallejo Transit, and WestCat. Along San Pablo Avenue, there is an AC Transit bus about every 7 minutes. There are two BART stations in the PDA too.

El Cerrito is moving forward to make things work for the expected new residents and to cut down on driving. First, the city asked developers what changes they would like to see made to make development easier. The city was told that the building height limit had to be increased and that the number of parking spaces required was too high. The City Council increased the height limit to 75 feet and cut down on the number of parking spaces required. In areas close to BART, the reduction in parking is greater than for housing units farther away.

The city is also working with the Contra Costa Transportation Authority and AC Transit to increase bus service along San Pablo Avenue. The first success was recently achieved when the 72 Rapid bus line began operating on weekends, not just on weekdays.

One of the volumes of the Specific Plan that serves as a guide for the PDA is titled “Complete Streets.” It lays out, over 90 pages, what’s needed to make the area more attractive for transit passengers, pedestrians, and bicyclists. One interesting feature is the way bicycles and buses will be kept apart from one another, with a special, separate bike lane.

There are other things that are necessary to make a PDA work, of course. Parks, schools, and shopping are important, too. It looks like El Cerrito has these elements under control and a successful PDA on its hands.
You can check out the San Pablo Avenue Specific Plan.

The next article in this series will review a PDA in Newark that unfortunately does not look as promising. Want more? Follow @abetterbayarea on Twitter for the latest on sustainable communities in the Bay Area.

— Matt Williams, Chair, Transportation and Comact Growth Committee

State Transportation Plan shifts focus to reducing greenhouse gas emissions

ctp2040_logo_new_445x197The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) earlier this year released its draft California Transportation Plan 2040 (CTP2040), a long-range policy framework that defines goals and strategies for the state’s transportation system. Comments have been accepted from the public, and after more work, a Final Plan will be issued late this year.

The document lays out some of the things that have to happen to meet Governor Brown’s 2012 executive order requiring that transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) have to be 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

CTP2040 is intended to shift the transportation system “from a focus on infrastructure, capital improvements, and delivery, to a more sustainable focus that supports economic prosperity in concert with GHG emission reductions.” Here Caltrans is signaling that in order to reach our goals, no more highway lanes should be built. CTP2040 makes this point in more than one place. It also states, “The need to reduce GHG emissions makes the case that adding automobile capacity is not the answer.”

This new focus is a huge change for California’s transportation vision! CTP2040 is clear on the magnitude of the change, too. The shift from building highways to a sustainable focus will, in the Plan’s words, “require a fundamental, holistic transformation of the transportation systems.”

A part of the transportation “systems” that need transformation are the County Congestion Management Agencies (CMAs), many of which continue to plan for and finance expansions of roadway capacity (widening arterial streets and building new freeways are examples). How quickly will CMA policy board members (typically, members of city councils and county boards of supervisors) respond to CTP2040’s notice that a “fundamental [and] holistic transformation” is required?

Besides the rejection of more highway construction, the plan notes several other things that have to happen to get to the 2050 GHG target. Among them is the elimination of all “emissive vehicles from California roads.” By 2040, the plan says, cars would have to be “zero- to near-zero-emissions vehicles.”

Even with cleaner vehicles, Californians will still have to drive less, meaning that transit needs to carry more passengers than today. That could happen through a combination of strategies, including increasing transit travel speeds, decreasing fares, and converting 20 percent of the bus routes in the state to Bus Rapid Transit (dedicated right-of-way bus routes to avoid traffic). High Speed Rail is presumed to be running by 2040. Bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure also need to be improved.

Housing and land use is also addressed in CTP2040; the plan notes past practices have often led to an increasing reliance on cars. The goal now is to have people live in housing near transit — an approach sometimes called “transit-oriented development”. The Bay Area’s 2013 Regional Transportation Plan is attempting also to move in this direction, directing new development to areas that are walkable, bikable, and close to public transit.

In its early pages, CTP2040 references a quote from the 2013 statement titled “Scientists’ Consensus on Maintaining Humanity’s Life Support Systems for the 21st century,” signed by over 1,300 scientists worldwide:

“By the time today’s children reach middle age, it is extremely likely that Earth’s life-support systems, critical for human prosperity and existence will be irretrievably damaged by the magnitude, global extent, and combination of these human-caused environmental stressors, unless we take concrete, immediate actions to ensure a sustainable, high-quality future.”

It is encouraging to see this likelihood acknowledged in so important a document. CTP2040 is not perfect. One blunder is presuming that unbuilt highway-expansion projects (including some in the Bay Area) will go forward. An improvement would be to not build them at all. Getting to grips with GHG emissions now is critical, and despite such lapses, CTP2040 seems to take this imperative seriously.

— Matt Williams, Chair, Transportation and Compact Growth Committee