Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series on the building of the 10th University of California campus in Merced. Today’s story looks at the environmental impact of construction, which has several groups, including the Sierra Club, organized against the proposed site.
Puddles, simple depressions in the ground filled with rainwater three months a year, could swamp the $400 million plans for the next University of California campus.
The puddles are called vernal pools – temporary bodies of water, ranging from 6 feet to a few inches deep, accumulated during rainy months before drying out in the summer. These pools are a rallying cry for environmentalists trying to block the construction of the 10th UC campus in Merced.
Plans call for a 910-acre campus, with 340 acres reserved for future construction, on a plot of land two miles from Lake Yosemite. The land, 2,000 acres sold to the UC for $10,000, is packed with vernal pools, home to endangered microscopic organisms called Fairy Shrimp.
The UC is trying to assuage critics, pointing out that 750 acres of the land will remain undeveloped and that a natural reserve of up to 60,000 acres is being planned with help from the Nature Conservancy. Environmentalists, such as the Sierra Club and Vernalpools.org, are unimpressed.
“[T]he consequences of this would be devastating to the region,” said Allan Eberhart, Sierra Club chair of Northern California and Nevada Conservation. “The Lake Yosemite site is as close as we have to a genuine Central Valley wilderness. It’s the largest remaining concentration of vernal pools in the state. … It’s absolutely beautiful.”
Vernal pools are not rare and should not hold up the 10th UC’s construction, UC Merced Communications Director James Grant said.
“There are vernal pools from one end of California to the next – it’s like going to Vermont and looking for a maple tree,” he said. “Basically the land is now grassland, on which you will see a whole lot of cows.”
Higher magnification, however, shows an endangered species of freshwater shrimp. Fairy Shrimp range from one-sixteenth of an inch to 1.5 inches in size. During wet months, the shrimp eat algae in the vernal pools and lay their eggs, which lie dormant in the soil until rain comes again. Vernal pools do not support fish, which leave the shrimp to thrive with few natural predators except for the larvae of flies and mosquitoes. In Merced, Fairy Shrimp also have a fierce, unnatural predator to compete with: bulldozers.
Vernal pools would have to be drained, flattened and paved over to build UC Merced – neither side disputes that. Debate arises over the exact amount of draining, flattening and paving that will be required, as well as the UC’s thoroughness in evaluating the environmental impact.
The University has proposed modifying its plans and moving 200 acres of the campus onto the Merced Hills Golf Course, which is owned by the Virginia Smith Trust – the same organization that sold the original 2,000 acres to the UC for $10,000. Given the golf course land, Merced’s campus would require another 710 acres to reach its full size of 910 acres.
Construction on the Merced Hills course would allow the University to get its foot in the door and eventually pave over vernal pools, Vernalpools.org Coordinator Carol Witham said.
“Trying to build on this golf course is piece-mealing,” she said. “They have to do more than just a study of the golf course. … It has a footprint that is much larger than 200 acres.”
University officials acknowledged that UC Merced would need to expand off the course.
“No final decisions have been made on this,” Grant said. “The golf course is only 200 acres; we would need additional acreage under any scenario. We are committed to ensuring that our students have access to on-campus and off-campus housing that is affordable and situated in close proximity. Final decision on location of student housing haven’t yet been made.”
UC Merced will be “the environmental campus,” Grant said. “Smart buildings,” partially built with recycled materials and solar-power roofs, will automatically reduce heating and lighting to save energy. A natural studies department will work with the National Forest Service to study the Sierra Nevada mountains. Grant said the University has conducted an extensive environmental impact review.
However, Eberhart said the University’s environmental reviews have been shoddy and sneaky.
“We feel the UC is piece-mealing,” he said. “They were doing studies one at a time. The environmental study was done separate from the road study, as was the sewage study, and so on. They aren’t taking the process seriously.”
Merced County and the UC released a statement pledging that environmental concerns will be accounted for, as “the vernal pool complexes in the planning area are part of the largest, intact vernal-pool grassland ecosystem remaining in the San Joaquin Valley.”
Economic concerns will also be protected, the statement said. “[The county and the University will] protect the region’s important natural habitats, wetlands and endangered other species, while also accommodating development of the University community and other development necessary for the economic growth of the region.”
That may be, Witham said, but she is not optimistic.
“We’re poised and waiting to see what the UC does,” she said. “There’s the hope that they will do the right thing, but we’re not holding our breath over it.”
UC Merced will be built, Grant said.
“We are committed to our mission of seeing the first students beginning in Fall 2004,” he said. “We believe we are on track to meet this goal.”