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A dried-out lawn is seen in the city of Glendora, east of Los Angeles, this week. About 58 percent of California is now under the most extreme drought conditions, a new report says. (AFP/Getty Images)

Most Of California Reported To Be In 'Extreme Drought'

Jul 31, 2014

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The latest Drought Monitor report from U.S. agriculture and weather experts finds 58 percent of California in the worst of its four drought levels, in conditions normally seen only once every 50-100 years.

For our Newscast unit, Nathan Rott reports:

"The U.S. Drought Monitor measures drought in five levels. The most benign is called Abnormally Dry. The worst is labeled Exceptional Drought. As of this week, roughly 58 percent of California is considered to be afflicted by that last category. Three months ago, only a quarter of the state was.

"The report also says that the state is short more than a year's worth of water in its reservoirs and that the state's topsoil reserves are nearly depleted.

"State officials are asking for residents to reduce their water usage by 20 percent. New regulations are going into effect this week that allow authorities to fine people up to $500 a day for wasting water."

In central and northern parts of California, conditions have worsened to the most extreme level, driven by hot weather and wildfires, according to the report.

Because of its persistent drought, California's governor declared the state to be under a state of emergency in January; the situation has only grown worse since then.

The dire conditions are making drought experts consider creating a new category — a "D5" that would surpass its current most-extreme level, D4. But as member station KPCC, they're hampered by having only 120 years' worth of records.

"We would never use it, because we don't have the database to support it," KPCC quotes Department of Agriculture meteorologist Brad Rippey, an author of the drought report. "But something in the order of a 1-in-100 to 1-in-200-year drought would be the equivalent of what we would call this theoretical D5."

News of the drought's severity comes as member station KQED reports that there is an "alarming lack of information" about California's biggest water source: the state's underground reservoirs.

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This statue is located in Utah's Capitol building, beneath a mural of Brigham Young and the first Mormon pioneers traveling out west. "Utah is a place that understands the value of immigration," says Utah's speaker of the House, Becky Lockhart. (NPR)

Three Years On, Utah's Immigrant Guest Worker Law Still Stalled

Jul 31, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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Becky Lockhart, Utah's speaker of the House, helped pass the state's guest worker law in 2011. She continues to hope that the federal government will grant the waiver needed for the law to go into effect.

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At the Utah State Capitol, a mural of Brigham Young and the first Mormon pioneers brings some color to the building's spartan rotunda. Beneath it is a more modern sculpture — a woman walking forward with her son, who's holding a globe.

Underneath the statue are the words "Immigration and Settlement." The symbolism isn't lost on state House Speaker Becky Lockhart.

"Utah is a place that understands the value of immigration, the value of peoples coming to find a better life," she says, pointing up at the sculpture.

"We've always believed ... 'Come here and live the American dream,' but we want people to do it legally," Lockhart says. "And something's wrong with the legal way; it's not working as it should."

Lockhart, a Republican and LDS church member, was among a group of Utah leaders that sought to break new ground on the immigration debate in 2011. Arizona had passed a law the previous summer requiring police to check immigration status during routine traffic stops.

In Utah, Lockhart and her colleagues watched the boycotts and court battles that followed — and decided to go a different way.

The state passed a law creating a guest worker program. But three years later, that program still hasn't gone into effect — and now an effort is brewing to repeal it.

A 'Uniquely Utah' Approach

In November 2010, business, government and religious leaders had signed the "Utah Compact," which called on federal and state leaders to pass so-called "reasonable immigration reform." Lockhart and other lawmakers, inspired by the compact and the battles in Arizona, then passed a bipartisan set of immigration reform laws.

The main bill set up a guest worker law that would allow immigrants in the U.S. illegally and living in Utah to apply for a two-year work permit if they pay a fine and pass a criminal background check.

For Lockhart, "reasonable immigration reform" was pragmatic. Tens of thousands of immigrants have come to Utah illegally in recent years, lured by plentiful jobs in construction and tourism — the state has the second-lowest unemployment rate in the nation. But Utah's education and health care budgets are strained. So why not bring all the new residents "out of the shadows," she says, and tax them?

"When states get involved in this, it's because states are very frustrated, because we're dealing with the consequences of a failed federal policy," she says.

But three years on, the guest worker law has yet to be formally implemented. It was predicated on the federal government granting Utah a waiver to proceed. Lawmakers have extended the law's effective date twice as they've waited for a response from the Obama administration. (Neither the White House nor the Department of Homeland Security would discuss Utah's waiver request with NPR.)

The impasse has sparked growing calls for lawmakers to just repeal the whole thing when they reconvene next year.

"Nothing will happen with it, and we just keep extending it and it makes us feel good to say ... 'We have the solution for the entire world in the state of Utah,' " says Bob Wren, chairman of Utahns for Immigration Reform and Enforcement.

There's also cynicism among immigrant-rights activists, like Tony Yapias, the director of the group Proyecto Latino de Utah.

"I've been pessimistic from day one. I mean, we are just saying, 'Why are they pushing this law?' — because this is never going to get implemented," Yapias says. Of all states, he asks, why would the Obama administration let Utah, a Republican bastion, launch a pilot program on immigration?

Changing Attitudes

But whether or not the guest worker law is ever implemented, there has been a big shift in Utah. The entire atmosphere toward immigration in the state is a lot less charged than it used to be.

"It's not an issue in Utah anymore," says Sen. Luz Robles, a Democrat who co-sponsored the guest worker bill. "I think that's, like, the first thing that gives us a signal ... that we have succeeded."

It hasn't hurt that police in cities like Salt Lake, for the most part, don't worry about immigration status. Utah also gives in-state tuition and driving privileges to people living in the state without papers.

Jesus Savala, a resident of Salt Lake City since the late 1980s, says laws like those are helping curb discrimination and racism.

On a recent afternoon, Savala and his wife and grandson were shopping in the Latino Mall, a collection of taquerias, clothing stores and banks on the city's heavily Latino west side.

In an interview in Spanish, Savala says he remembers the 2011 guest worker law fondly. Yet, three years on, he has a brother-in-law who's still struggling to find steady work. He's the last in the family without papers.

It's frustrating, he says: His brother-in-law just wants to be able to work here legally.

A Softer Approach, Influenced By Religion

Latinos are Utah's fastest-growing minority, but due to the influence of the Mormon Church, this region has also seen a sharp rise in immigration from Pacific Island nations. A booming tech sector has also attracted Indian and Pakistani immigrants.

From those communities, you hear some of the same things: attitudes toward immigrants — legal or not — have changed considerably in Utah.

"It's been gradually getting better," says Yaser "Sunny" Nisar.

Nisar opened his Curry Fried Chicken restaurant a year ago on this gentrifying block of State Street, south of the downtown Salt Lake City skyline. On a recent night, people filed in to break the Ramadan fast at sundown.

Nisar knows first-hand that things are improving. Two days after Sept. 11, his family's original Halal restaurant in Salt Lake City was set on fire. It was quickly deemed an anti-Muslim hate crime. Nisar says community leaders — and the LDS Church — rallied behind them, and that started something bigger.

"There's a lot of awareness going on, a lot of people are getting to know us better than just going off what they see on TV and what they, maybe, have a misconception in their head," he says.

Nisar doesn't pay very close attention to politics, but he says Utah's religious values are a big reason why the state embraced a softer approach to immigration.

You hear this from business owners, Republicans, Democrats, churchgoers: Utah is a pro-family state, and the tone on immigration is a lot calmer here than along the border.

Just take the views of Becky Lockhart, the state speaker of the House, who says her views on immigration have "evolved" a good deal in recent years.

"Utah is a unique place and we understand the human factor," she says. "It's not a black and white issue; there are people's lives here."

Lockhart, who's not running for re-election and has been named as a possible candidate for governor next year, says she's proud of what Utah did. She's also still holding out hope that the federal government will consider granting that waiver so the guest worker "pilot project" can move ahead.

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Flares light up the night sky over Gaza City early Friday, Aug. 1. Leaders of Hamas and Israel have agreed to begin a cease-fire Friday at 8 a.m. local time, the U.N. says. (AP)

Israel And Hamas Agree To 3-Day Cease-Fire, U.N. Says

Jul 31, 2014

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Becky Lockhart, Utah's speaker of the House, helped pass the state's guest worker law in 2011. She continues to hope that the federal government will grant the waiver needed for the law to go into effect.

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A temporary peace will begin Friday morning in Gaza, as Israel and Hamas agree to an "unconditional humanitarian ceasefire," according to a statement by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Secretary of State John Kerry.

The truce is set to begin at 8 a.m. local time Friday and last for 72 hours. U.N. Special Coordinator Robert Serry says he's been assured by officials from both Israel and Hamas that they will abide by the truce. The envoys will also travel to Cairo to negotiate a possible longer peace deal, in talks hosted by Egypt.

As NPR's Emily Harris reported earlier today, Gaza has been hit by water and power shortages.

From the statement from Ban and Kerry:

"This ceasefire is critical to giving innocent civilians a much-needed reprieve from violence. During this period, civilians in Gaza will receive urgently needed humanitarian relief, and the opportunity to carry out vital functions, including burying the dead, taking care of the injured, and restocking food supplies. Overdue repairs on essential water and energy infrastructure could also continue during this period."

News of the truce comes after the U.S. revealed it had allowed Israel "to dip into a little-known U.S. munitions stockpile" for ammunition, using some of the emergency ammunition to conduct its offensive in Gaza.

In the 24 days of fighting, more than 1,360 people have died in Gaza, Palestinian officials say. In Israel, 59 people have died, according to officials there.

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A corn purchaser writes on his account in northwest China in 2012. In November 2013, officials began rejecting imports of U.S. corn when they detected traces of a new gene not yet approved in China. (Xinhua/Landov)

When China Spurns GMO Corn Imports, American Farmers Lose Billions

Jul 31, 2014

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Becky Lockhart, Utah's speaker of the House, helped pass the state's guest worker law in 2011. She continues to hope that the federal government will grant the waiver needed for the law to go into effect.

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For a while there, China was the American farmer's best friend. The world's most populous nation had so many pigs and chickens to feed, it became one of the top importers of U.S. corn and soybeans almost overnight.

China also developed a big appetite for another corn-derived animal feed called "dried distillers grains with solubles," or DDGS, a byproduct of ethanol production. China's appetites for the stuff drove up global grain prices and filled Midwestern pockets with cash.

This year, though, the lovely relationship has gone sour, all because of biotechnology.

A couple of years ago, American farmers began planting a new type of genetically engineered corn invented by the seed company Syngenta. This GMO contains a new version of a gene that protects the corn plant from certain insects. Problem is, this new gene isn't yet approved in China, and Chinese officials didn't appreciate it when traces of the new, as-yet-unapproved GMOs started showing up in boatloads of American grain.

The crackdown began in November 2013. China began rejecting shiploads of corn when officials detected traces of the new gene. By February of this year, U.S. exports of corn to China had practically ceased.

At the time, some American grain exporters said that there was little to worry about. The Chinese move, they said, probably was intended to slow down imports temporarily in order to make sure that China's farmers got a decent price for their own corn harvest. As evidence, they pointed to the fact that China continued to accept imports of DDGS, which also contain traces of the unapproved gene. The U.S. sent $1.6 billion worth of DDGS to China last year.

Well, last week, China expanded the ban to DDGS, shocking many traders. The price of DDGS plunged.

According to the National Grain and Feed Association, the Chinese ban on corn and corn products may end up costing American farmers, ethanol producers and traders a total of about $3 billion.

Max Fisher, director of Economics for the NGFA, who came up with that estimate, says the ban actually is hurting the Chinese, too. "They replaced [the U.S. corn] with more expensive grains," he says, such as barley from Australia. But one group of American farmers is benefiting: China is importing lots more sorghum.

In an interesting twist, American farm groups seem unsure whom to blame. Some are angry at China. Others point their finger at Syngenta.

A few days ago, the U.S. Grains Council wrote a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, urging his "immediate, direct, and personal intervention" with Chinese officials "to halt this current regulatory sabotage of the DDGS trade with China."

The NGFA and the North American Export Grain Association, on the other hand, have called on Syngenta to stop selling the offending corn varieties until those varieties can be sold in major export markets.

"They're being a bad actor here," says Max Fisher of NGFA, referring to Syngenta. "They're making $40 million" selling the new corn varieties, "but it's costing U.S. farmers $1 billion."

Syngenta, for its part, rejects any blame for the debacle. "We want to get technology into the hands of farmers as soon as possible," said the company's CEO, David Morgan, in a video released on Syngenta's website. "We can't expect growers to wait indefinitely for access to technologies, based on what foreign governments decide to do." According to Morgan, China has failed to make a timely decision on the new gene, which goes by the name MIR 162.

Even if China approved MIR 162, however, the ban might remain. That's because Syngenta began selling yet another new new type of GMO corn this year, which also is not yet approved in China.

Syngenta has asked farmers to take that corn to specific grain processors, who will keep it from getting into export shipments. But Fisher thinks the new gene is likely to show up in exports. "Farmers are going to be farmers," he says, and sell their grain through the usual channels.

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Red Cross volunteers prepare to bury the body of an Ebola victim in Pendembu, Sierra Leone, early this month. (Tommy Trenchard for NPR)

As Ebola Surges, CDC Sends Aid And Warns Against Travel

by Linda Poon
Jul 31, 2014

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Two young patients rest at an Ebola isolation area run by Doctors Without Borders in Kailahun, Sierra Leone. Since March, the World Health Organization has reported more than 1,300 cases and 729 deaths in West Africa. A nurse helps health workers suit up before treating Ebola patients at an isolation ward run by Doctors Without Borders in Kailahun, Sierra Leone.

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For the second time this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has raised the travel alert for three West African countries, as the death toll in the Ebola outbreak increased at an alarming rate.

"The bottom line is that the multiple outbreaks in West Africa are worsening right now," CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden told NPR on Thursday. "This is the biggest, most complex and the most difficult outbreak of Ebola that we've had to deal with."

In only four days, the total number of cases has risen by 122, or about 10 percent. Since March, the World Health Organization has reported more than 1,300 cases and 728 deaths in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Nigeria has reported one case in a traveler from Liberia.

In response, the CDC is sending at least 50 more doctors and scientists to the region to help get the outbreak under control and stop its spread, Frieden says. The agency already has 12 people on the ground there now.

The CDC also elevated the travel alert to "Level 3" — the most serious level — for Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. It now advises against any nonessential travel to the three countries because of the "high risk."

This advisory level is reserved for grave situations, such as the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the Haiti earthquake in 2010.

The measure reduces the risk of Americans catching Ebola, Frieden says. And it also helps to prevent overcrowding of clinics and hospitals with emergencies not related to Ebola.

"Even before Ebola, they [these countries] had relatively weak health care systems that ... weren't always as highly functional as the government wished they would be," Frieden says.

The West African countries have also intensified their response to the outbreak. On Wednesday, Liberia closed all schools, and Sierra Leone declared a state of emergency. Sierra Leone started quarantining Ebola-stricken communities and put nonessential government workers on leave; President Ernest Bai Koroma called the measures "extraordinary."

One of the big concerns this week has been the large number of health care workers getting sick.

"It's a terrible infection, and it's taken a terrible toll on the health care system," Frieden says. More than 100 doctors and nurses in the region have gotten infected, and about 70 of them have died.

Two leading doctors in Liberia and Sierra Leone died this week, and two American aid workers are in serious condition at a clinic in Monrovia.

Dr. Kent Brantly, of Fort Worth, Texas, and Nancy Writebol, of Charlotte, N.C., were working with the Christian aid group Samaritan's Purse when they caught the virus. They are both in "grave condition," the group said on its website.

The Peace Corps is evacuating 340 volunteers from the region. Two of them were under observation after potential exposure to Ebola.

Despite all of this, Frieden says he's confident that the outbreak can be contained — as long as health care workers are able to "meticulously" track down cases and isolate them before they spread the virus.

But it won't be quick or easy, he says. In fact, in the best-case scenario, it will take at least three to six months to stop the outbreak. And "we are not in the best of circumstances," he says.

There's little worry that Ebola will spread to the U.S., Frieden says. One reason is that the disease isn't transmitted through the air but rather through close contact of bodily fluids, such as blood, sweat and saliva.

"The good news — if there is any good news about Ebola — is that you don't spread it when you don't have symptoms," Frieden says. "So you can't get it from someone who's healthy."

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