Robin Abcarian Commentary, news and analysis
Almonds, the demons of drought? Frustrated growers tell another story

It's not clear exactly when almonds became the scapegoat for the California drought.

Maybe it was last August, when the Atlantic posted "The Dark Side of Almond Use," implicating the tasty little nut in every environmental crisis from bee colony collapse disorder to the struggles of the state's Chinook salmon population.

Or maybe it was in February, when a headline in Mother Jones blared, "It takes how much water to grow an almond?!" (Profoundly misleading answer: 1.1 gallons per nut.)

Since then, the almond's culpability for you name it — our depleting aquifers, our sinking topsoil, the heartbreak of psoriasis — has become an article of faith among finger-wagging pundits and environmental activists.

Oh, yes, they may admit, our snowpack is negligible because of a dearth of rain, but the real reason we are suffering our yellow lawns, unflushed toilets and shorter showers is because rapacious farmers with dollar signs where their souls should be insist on growing almonds.

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In drought-stricken California, grass is greener on painted lawns

Some people look at a real estate crash and think: doom. Some look at a drought and think: more doom.

But two of the worst calamities to befall California in the last decade have turned out to be very, very good news for Jim Power, a 45-year-old mortgage broker whose business imploded in 2007.

"I was up real late one night watching 'Nightline,'" he told me, "and there was a story about a guy in New York that was painting lawns, and I said, 'What a great idea!'"

Soon after, he launched "LawnLift" (Tag line: "It's like a facelift for your lawn!"). Now he is a leading purveyor of lawn paint for homeowners, hoteliers, wedding planners and others who won't give up their natural lawns, but can't bear the look of drought-stricken grass.

When Power started, though, he had no thought for the drought, which was years away. His business was squarely aimed at real estate agents trying to unload foreclosed homes. After foreclosure, banks shut off utilities. Yards wither.

"Curb appeal," that oft-mocked...

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Two fired preschool teachers in Thousand Oaks: not Christian enough?

There was nothing in their employment record to suggest that veteran preschool teachers Lynda Serrano and Mary Ellen Guevara deserved to be fired in 2012 by Little Oaks School.

The two were described in court records as "capable" and "competent," with "no discipline history."

In 2009, Little Oaks was bought by Calvary Chapel, a Thousand Oaks church led by the Rev. Rob McCoy, a conservative Christian with political aspirations.

Over the next few years, the school transitioned from a secular tradition to an explicitly religious one: Mandatory chapel service. Prayers before snack and lunch. Art projects revolving around religious themes.

Teachers were expected to go along with the program. Neither Serrano nor Guevara had a problem with that.

But teachers were also expected to provide the school, starting in 2012, with a "pastoral reference," essentially a religious loyalty oath, signed by each teacher's pastor.

Serrano, 55, a Protestant, and Guevara, 65, a Catholic, were not regular church-goers....

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Pot farm a template for strapped Indian tribes -- or a cautionary tale?

It's quiet this time of year in Mendocino County.

The marijuana plants are still tiny, so the air is fresh and unmarred by the skunky smell of ripe weed. Day workers have not yet invaded the area in search of lucrative work trimming the county's famous resiny buds. "Helicopter season" — when skies thump with the sound of cops hunting down illegal "grows" — is months away.

Still, pot is very much on the mind of Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman.

Right now, sitting in his cluttered office, he's concerned about a new venture involving a local Indian tribe, the Pinoleville Pomo Nation; a Kansas company called FoxBarry that helps Native American tribes develop for-profit ventures; and United Cannabis, a Colorado company that develops strains of pot.

The Pinoleville marijuana farm could be the first large-scale medical pot cultivation and distribution enterprise on tribal land in California, if not the country.

The tribe would devote 2.5 acres of its 99-acre rancheria to the venture, which...

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Here's a banner headline: UC Irvine's flag flap has gotten absurd

It's not clear exactly why the American flag went up in the sitting lounge of UC Irvine's student government center. By one account, it was leftover decor from an America-themed party.

In any case, sometime in mid-January, it was tacked to a pale blue wall, where it soon became the object of a power struggle between students who wanted to leave it up and students who wanted to take it down.

On March 5, by a vote of 6 to 4, the take-it-down forces prevailed. The student government's Legislative Council passed a resolution banning the display of any flags in the lounge. The two students who wrote the resolution, Matthew Guevara and Khaalidah Sidney, used stilted, easy-to-mock academic jargon to explain why flags don't belong in the cozy space.

Flags, they wrote, "construct paradigms of conformity." The Stars and Stripes "has been flown in instances of colonialism and imperialism." The lounge is supposed to be "culturally inclusive" and while hanging the flag might be seen as free speech,...

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Groundbreaking textbook makes the case for reproductive justice field

In Boalt Hall's faculty lounge the other day, UC Berkeley Law professor Melissa Murray was telling me about some of the cases she and her colleague Kristin Luker included in their groundbreaking legal casebook about reproductive justice.

Of course the book includes benchmark Supreme Court decisions that everyone's heard of, the ones that struck down laws against abortion, contraception and sodomy. But it also includes less familiar cases, sometimes significant but often overlooked markers — or bumps — on the road to equality.

I'd never heard of Susan Fejes, a Colorado blackjack dealer and new mother who unsuccessfully sued a casino in 1997 because it would not accommodate her lactation schedule.

"There was no place for her to express milk, and the court's like, 'There doesn't need to be!'" said Murray, 39, who was once accused in a Berkeley restaurant of feeding her infant son "poison" because he was drinking from a bottle.

"We may have a culture that prioritizes breast feeding," she said...

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