MERCED - The University of California, Merced has been granted a key federal permit it needs to move ahead with future development of its planned 25,000-student campus and associated university community.
The university's permit application was approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) under Section 404 of the U.S. Clean Water Act. The permit was required because a portion of the university's campus and northern portion of the adjoining university community involves federally protected wetlands (approximately 85 acres). The initial application was filed in 2002 and resubmitted in 2008 after the university modified the proposed footprint for its campus and the adjacent university community.
"Receipt of this important permit is a critical step forward in the process of establishing a major 21st century research university right here in the San Joaquin Valley, where the needs and opportunities are enormous," said UC Merced Chancellor Steve Kang.
"University planners have worked very diligently over many years to meet all regulatory requirements and reflect the thoughtful suggestions of community leaders, agricultural groups, environmentalists, government agencies and other interested parties in our final proposal," he said. "We are thrilled that we can now move confidently ahead with long-term plans to build a world-class institution that will provide lasting benefits to the region, the state, the nation and the world."
Kang said the multi-year, collaborative effort also benefited greatly from the guidance and support of Congressmen Dennis Cardoza and George Radanovich.
"We are especially grateful for the leadership and due diligence of Congressman Dennis Cardoza and his staff," Kang said. "Since he first took office, Congressman Cardoza has worked at the highest levels to ensure the federal agencies recognized the unprecedented mitigation measures taken by the university as well as our commitment to environmental stewardship.
"The university would also like to acknowledge the efforts of Congressman George Radanovich, whose support and collaboration with Congressman Cardoza and the university were invaluable as we worked through the process."
"I have worked closely with the Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies to ensure that the university will have room to accommodate 25,000 students while at the same time minimizing impacts to the environment and prime agricultural lands," said Cardoza. "This decision clears the way for the university to expand the campus to a full-scale research institution, with all of the associated amenities and programs."
Proposal meets environmental standard
In issuing the permit, USACE found that the university's proposal to develop 1,544 acres directly south and east of its existing 104-acre site represents the "least environmentally damaging practicable alternative" (LEDPA) for future phases of the university's multi-year project. Approximately 711 acres of the proposed expansion site will be allocated to campus development and 833 acres to the northern portion of the university community (primarily housing, shops, services and related amenities to support the campus).
The southern portion of the university community, consisting of 1,118 acres directly south of the northern portion, is not a part of the current permit.
Development under the new permit could begin as soon as next month, when the university begins construction of a solar-energy facility to help supply future electricity needs. Full development of the campus is expected to take at least another 25 years.
In November 2008, UC Merced released its 2009 Draft Long-Range Development Plan (LRDP) and a corresponding Draft Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact Report (EIS/EIR) for public review and comment. The LRDP describes the layout, form, character and qualities of the fully developed campus and outlines the university's intentions to set new standards for sustainable development and environmental stewardship. The EIS/EIR examines the reduced environmental effects of its new, smaller footprint and summarizes the university's plans to offset or mitigate the remaining impacts.
The revised footprint for the campus and the northern portion of the university community calls for fill of approximately 85 acres of wetlands, down from 121 acres in the previous configuration, which will be fully offset by mitigation measures to ensure "no net loss" of wetlands values and functions, as required under the Clean Water Act. Approximately 2,318 acres of in-kind wetland habitat will be set aside for permanent preservation, a ratio of 30 acres preserved for each acre of wetlands developed. In addition, the university in cooperation with the state has set aside 26,000 acres of grasslands for permanent conservation.
The revised University Community Plan will require an amendment to Merced County's General Plan. The university is working with the county to ensure the revision complies with principles prescribed by the board of supervisors when they approved the first University Community Plan in 2004. There will be a separate EIR prepared by the county in its consideration of the revised University Community Plan. In addition, the City General Plan amendment is expected to take account of the revised footprint for the campus and the university community. 
Managing the wetlands
UC Merced is also seeking to add more than 6,000 acres of wetlands to the University of California's Natural Reserve System for research, monitoring and educational purposes. It has applied to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a $350,000 grant to fund this effort, which would be managed by the university's Sierra Nevada Research Institute.
The UC Natural Reserve System includes tens of thousands of acres of protected natural lands throughout the state. The acreage UC Merced hopes to add includes 5,030 acres within the Virginia Smith Trust Preserve and 1,309 acres within the UC Merced Campus Natural Preserve. These protected lands adjacent to the UC Merced campus are believed to represent the largest intact vernal pool landscape remaining in the world.
Patti Waid Istas 
UC Merced Office Communications