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California and the West

UC Merced Hits Environmental Barrier

Nature: Site is home to endangered fairy shrimp. Davis offers to preserve land elsewhere, but U.S. official warns of lengthy review.


The political leaders rushing to build a 10th University of California campus north of Merced have been forced to slow down and reconsider the plans because of concerns about the survival of fragile wetlands and an endangered creature called the fairy shrimp.

Complaints have increased in recent weeks among federal regulators, university faculty and students that the 2,000-acre UC Merced campus could devastate California's largest remaining cluster of vernal pools. Each spring, these shallow ponds teem with tiny crustaceans on the brink of extinction.

Gov. Gray Davis responded this week with a $44-million proposal to keep the campus on track by preserving 60,000 nearby acres of open space and seasonal wetlands in the Central Valley foothills.

The governor's conservation plan, to be outlined to the public today, would more than make up for any property degraded in the building of a new campus and leave plenty of habitat for the fairy shrimp and its cousin, the tadpole shrimp, say UC officials and boosters in the San Joaquin Valley.

But federal environmental regulators said that before they grant permits to fill in wetlands and eliminate rare species, they will put the university through a rigorous review that is expected to last three to five years.

UC officials must start by reexamining a dozen or more possible locations for the campus, to find which alternative would create the least environmental damage.

That means the governor's plan to sacrifice some wetlands for broader regional conservation may not help university officials clear their first federal environmental hurdle--at least not right away.

"The idea of the Clean Water Act is not to allow people to just buy their way out of these protections," one key federal regulator said in response to the Davis proposal.

Even some UC planners who had hoped to open the first buildings by 2004 now concede that delays are likely. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials predicted that UC will be able to keep the new university site in the pastoral setting near Merced, but probably by reconfiguring or reducing the planned campus community of 32,000 residents.

"I've joked that we may have to build the whole thing on stilts," said one university advisor.

Although much of the Central Valley's civic and political elite is aligned with the project, a cadre of environmentalists has joined forces seeking to minimize damage to 7,000 vernal pools that dot the campus site and surrounding lands.

"The bottom line is: I don't think that the site can survive the environmental review," said Steve Burke, a Central Valley activist. "The natural resources have to be protected. If we have to go to court to do that, so be it."

UC President Richard C. Atkinson said the university stands by its selection. The Merced site was chosen over dozens of others after eight years of study and environmental reviews.

"Despite all the concerns, we think this is the right place," Atkinson said Wednesday. "The campus will be at Merced. I don't think there is any question about that."

The San Joaquin Valley has long lobbied for its own UC campus, arguing that the economically struggling area is the most populous region without one.

UC administrators say they need the new campus to absorb part of a tidal wave of 714,000 extra students expected to flood California's colleges and universities by 2010. As now planned, UC Merced would enroll only 1,000 students by its opening and 6,000 by 2010.

It was five years ago today that the UC Board of Regents selected the site near man-made Lake Yosemite in the rolling pasture land six miles northeast of Merced.

Few environmental critics surfaced at the time. They would later say that construction seemed far off, or unlikely to occur at all.

But the state's improving economy, its continued population boom and a galvanized political hierarchy have made the project much more likely. When Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante from the Central Valley controlled state purse strings as Assembly speaker, he set up a special committee to propel the campus forward.

Davis, while courting voters in the region, realized the project's popularity and made delivering the campus a campaign pledge. Most recently, he has promised to open the campus a year ahead of schedule, in 2004. A "red team" of Cabinet officers has been assigned to speed the project along.

Even Vice President Al Gore got behind UC Merced. In a campaign swing through the Central Valley a year ago, he vowed to help cut red tape.

The flurry of activity roused environmentalists. In March, 29 biologists and other academics from UC Berkeley wrote a letter expressing concern about the potential destruction of "arguably one of the more important habitats left in the entire state in terms of endemic biological diversity."

A UC Davis scientist has arranged a workshop next month to quiz administrators about the potential damage. Rick Grosberg, an evolutionary biologist, said he was initially skeptical about the site's environmental value.

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