November 21, 2015

Water Agency's Land Purchase Rattles California Farmers

Bart Fisher, farmer and president of the Palo Verde Irrigation District, looks at the Colorado River. The third-generation farmer who was born in Blythe, left 29 percent of his farmland fallow this year. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the nation’s largest distributor of treated drinking water, became the largest landowner in the region including Blythe for good reason: The alfalfa-growing area sits at the top of the legal pecking order to Colorado River water, a lifeline for seven Western states and northern Mexico.(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

By Elliot Spagat and Jae Hong
Associated Press

BLYTHE, Calif. (AP) -- The nation's largest distributor of treated drinking water became the largest landowner in a remote California farming region for good reason: The alfalfa-growing area is first in line to get Colorado River water.

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California's play in Palo Verde Valley, along the Arizona line, tapped a deep distrust between farm and city that pervades the West over a river that's a lifeline for seven states and northern Mexico.

Farmers recall how Los Angeles' modern founders built an aqueduct a century ago to bring water hundreds of miles from rural Owens Valley, a story that was fictionally portrayed in Roman Polanski's 1974 film, "Chinatown."

"Are we going to dry up our rural, agricultural communities just to keep Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego growing? I think it would be a sad state of affairs," said Bart Fisher, a melon and broccoli farmer who is board president of the Palo Verde Irrigation District.

Metropolitan tried to calm nerves by sending its chairman in September to a public forum in Blythe, 225 miles east of its Los Angeles headquarters. It pledged to honor a 2004 agreement that caps the amount of land it pays farmers to idle at 28 percent of the valley.

That agreement, which expires in 2040, is hailed as a model for farms and cities to cooperate. Metropolitan pays farmers about as much as they would profit to harvest - $771 an acre this year - to bring foregone Colorado River water on its 242-mile aqueduct to 19 million people in the coastal megalopolis it serves.

Palo Verde enjoys California's highest rights to the river, making their immune to drought.

The dynamic changed when Metropolitan paid $256 million in July to nearly double its Palo Verde holdings to 29,000 acres, or about 30 percent of the valley. The agency denied its purchase from Verbena LLC, a company that bought the land several years earlier from the Mormon church, was part of an orchestrated plan.

"It's made the farmers out there nervous that we are the largest owner but there was a strategic opportunity that came up," Metropolitan's general manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said.

Metropolitan stirred similar angst this month in Northern California when its board expressed interest in buying farms on several islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Its staff said the land could provide water storage and wildlife habitat.

Blythe, a riverside town of about 13,000 people in the Mojave Desert with two state prisons, is an oasis of gas stations, motels and fast-food restaurants on Interstate 10 between Los Angeles and Phoenix. Thomas Blythe staked claim to the river in 1877, beating Southern California cities under a Gold Rush-era doctrine called 'first in time, first in right.'

Los Angeles and its suburbs founded Metropolitan in 1928 to build the remarkably durable Colorado River Aqueduct. Parker Dam and the reservoir it created in Lake Havasu empties into a gray Art Deco-style building with nine pumps that quietly pipe water 300 feet up a steep slope. Teal metal cases that cover the pumps vibrate so little that a nickel placed on top stands on its side.

The water goes uphill through four more pump stations and through tunnels, canals and pipelines before reaching Southern California's coastal plain two days later.

The Colorado's huge man-made reservoirs have made the river an unheralded savior in California's four-year drought. Last year, the river supplied two-thirds of the 1.7 billion gallons of drinking water that Metropolitan delivers daily, up from a third three years earlier.

The river sustains 40 million people and farms 5½ million acres, but white "bathtub rings" lining walls of the nation's largest reservoir in Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, are evidence of shrinking supplies. California took more than it was entitled to until Sunbelt cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas clamored for their share and forced the nation's most populous state to go on a diet in 2003.

"It's really the only supply of water to this otherwise bone-dry region," said Bill Hasencamp, Metropolitan's manager of Colorado River resources.

Metropolitan has diverted up to 118,000 acre feet of water a year from Palo Verde since 2005, enough for about 250,000 households. It paid $3,170 an acre to farmers who committed for 35 years, plus an annual fee for fallowed land. It idles 7 percent to 28 percent of the valley each year, depending on its needs.

Jack Seiler, a grower who volunteered 900 acres, calls the agreement a "poster child" for farms and cities to cooperate but Metropolitan's July purchase of nearly 13,000 acres unsettled him. It gave Metropolitan the largest voting bloc on Palo Verde's water board.

Metropolitan says it won't have to pay someone else to idle the land it now owns and will lease it to farmers, cutting its net cost to about $50 million. It voted for incumbents in a September election to Palo Verde's seven-member board, which includes Seiler.

"I obviously don't know why they bought all this land," Seiler said. "It puts us a little bit at odds."

November 20, 2015

Arkansas phone booth is first of its kind to make National Register of Historic Places

Phone booth historic, hello? Prairie Grove 1959 site put on national list

Prairie Grove teenagers Mason McCourt (left) and Blake Williams use the telephone booth on U.S. 62 in Prairie Grove in April, when the booth was first nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. (NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo)

By Bill Bowden
Arkansas Online

A telephone booth in Prairie Grove has become the first structure of its kind to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The 56-year-old Airlight outdoor booth was selected for nomination in April by the state review board of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program.

But there was a hang-up.

The National Park Service had reservations about putting a phone booth on the list, said Ralph Wilcox, the National Register/survey coordinator for the state's Historic Preservation Program. It had never been done before.

The "listing blurs the line between a 'place' and an artifact, and it begs the questions about where the line between significance and nostalgia is drawn," according to the response that the National Register sent to Wilcox in July.

Wilcox had to convince the decision-makers that the phone booth is "truly significant."

He resubmitted the nomination, emphasizing that the Airlight "represented a new and advanced design for the telephone booth."

For one thing, it was intended to be outdoors.

Before the Airlight was developed in 1954, telephone booths were made of wood and were inside buildings, Wilcox wrote.

The Airlight's metal-and-glass construction could hold up to the elements, he said. And this booth was strategically placed to serve the motoring public -- on U.S. 62 in front of the Colonial Motel and across from the entrance of Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park.

With that ringing recommendation, the phone booth was officially listed on the National Register on Nov. 9.

"It is my understanding that this is the first and only telephone booth listed on the National Register," Wilcox said Thursday.

Airlight phone booths were once common along highways across America.

According to the nomination form, there were 2.6 million pay phones in the United States by 1996.

But, while pay phones still exist, phone booths have become harder to find since cellular phones took over the market.

The Prairie Grove phone booth is rare in Arkansas because it has a working telephone, Wilcox said. The only other one in the state that he knows of is in Bluffton in Yell County, where there's no cellphone service.

David Parks, president of Prairie Grove Telephone Co., said he's not sure when the company put the phone booth in, but he believes it was around 1959.

Parks said Wilcox notified him Thursday about the National Register listing.

"I'm happy," Parks said. "It's just a little hard to believe. I mean, who would have thought? I'm tickled. I really am."

Parks said there are no plans for a plaque outside the phone booth.

Parks said he thought about removing the phone booth years ago but decided to leave it up for nostalgia's sake. He said it yields $3 to $4 in change per year.

Patrick Andrus, a historian who has been with the National Register for 35 years, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in April that the Prairie Grove submission was the first nomination that he knew of for a telephone booth.

Andrus said the National Register lists five types of properties: buildings, districts, sites, structures and large objects, such as outdoor fountains.

Generally, properties must be at least 50 years old to be listed on the National Register, which is administered by the National Park Service.

Telephone booths were part of American culture throughout the 20th century. Countless villains and heroes ducked into phone booths as movie plots unfolded.

A mild-mannered reporter could enter a phone booth and emerge as Superman. A telephone booth even saved Tippi Hedren from avian attackers in Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 movie The Birds.

Whether the Prairie Grove phone booth has ever served such a purpose isn't known, but it is an "excellent example" of the aluminum-and-glass phone booths that were developed for Bell Telephone System in 1954, according to the National Register nomination form.

It was also nominated for its "importance in the communications history of Prairie Grove."

Airlight phone booths were used for decades. Each booth had a red panel at the top of all four sides, with the word "TELEPHONE" in white letters.

The telephone is in one corner, and the booth has a "bifold door."

"Its aluminum and glass construction was durable enough to stand up to the elements and the amount of glass along with the louvers on the sides allowed its namesake elements -- air and light -- to flood the booth," according to the nomination form. The Airlight booths also had fluorescent overhead lights.

The phone booth is a tourist attraction on U.S. 62 across from Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park.

People often stop at the booth to take pictures.

In June 2014, a motorist driving a 2003 Chevrolet Tahoe dozed off and ran into the Prairie Grove booth, knocking it from its concrete foundation in front of the Colonial Motel.

A public outcry on the city's Facebook page led Parks to fix it. The phone booth was repaired and reinstalled that August.

November 15, 2015

Researchers determine origin of mysterious stone columns along Crowley Lake

A mystery in stone

Robin Wham photographs the columns, which for decades were regarded as little more than curiosities along the eastern shore of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's Crowley Lake reservoir. They had been buried and hidden for eons until the reservoir's pounding waves began carving out the softer material at the base of cliffs of pumice and ash. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

by Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times

Mammoth Lakes, CA -- The strange pillar-like formation emerged after Crowley Lake reservoir was completed in 1941: stone columns up to 20 feet tall connected by high arches, as if part of an ancient Moorish temple.

They had been buried and hidden for eons until the reservoir's pounding waves began carving out the softer material at the base of cliffs of pumice and ash.

In the ensuing decades, the columns were regarded as little more than curiosities along the eastern shore of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power reservoir, which is best known as a trout fishing hot spot about 10 miles south of Mammoth Lakes.

But now answers are emerging from a study at UC Berkeley. Researchers have determined that the columns were created by cold water percolating down into — and steam rising up out of — hot volcanic ash spewed by a cataclysmic explosion 760,000 years ago

"These columns are spectacular products of a natural experiment in the physics of hydrothermal convection," Noah Randolph-Flagg, 25, a PhD candidate and lead author of the study, said in an interview.

The blast, 2,000 times larger than the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens, created the Long Valley Caldera, a massive 10-by-2-mile sink that includes the Mammoth Lakes area. It also covered much of the eastern Sierra Nevada range with a coarse volcanic tuff, or ash fall.

Randolph-Flagg said researchers not only discovered the origin of the columns but also learned a great deal about the surrounding landscape. "They have lot to tell us about what the region was like before and after the caldera exploded, and about how volcanoes can change local climate," he said.

The columns began forming as snowmelt seeped into the still hot tuff. The water boiled, creating "evenly spaced convection cells similar to heat pipes," according to the study to be presented next month in San Francisco at an American Geophysical Union meeting, the world's largest conference in geophysical sciences.

From the very first moment I laid eyes on this weird and wondrous place a year ago, I was smitten. It made me go back to school to get a master's degree in geology.
- Robin Wham, 62, a graduate student at Cal State Sacramento
Analyses by X-rays and electronic microscopes of samples of the columns found that tiny spaces in these convection pipes were cemented into place by erosion-resistant minerals.

Randolph-Flagg estimates that as many as 5,000 columns exist within a 2- to 3-square-mile area east of the lake. They appear in clusters, and are diverse in size and shape.

Many are gray, straight as telephone poles and encircled with horizontal cracks about 12 inches apart. Some are reddish-orange in color. Some are bent, or all tilting at the same angle. Still others are half-buried and resemble the fossilized backbones of dinosaurs.

Next year, the Department of Water and Power will begin ferrying students to the site as part of an "effort to further educate the public about these invaluable natural resources," said Amanda Parsons, a spokeswoman for the utility.

Edward W. Hildreth, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and expert on the history of the Long Valley Caldera and the chemistry of its tuff, welcomes the sudden interest in the columns, which can be reached by boat, on foot or by four-wheel-drive vehicles.

More analysis could help scientists better understand how quickly the columns solidified, and the chemistry and temperatures that produced their spacing, width, height and composition.

Among other researchers investigating the columns is Robin Wham, 62, a graduate student in geology at Cal State Sacramento whose proposed thesis involves mapping their precise locations and comparing their characteristics to those of similar formations in New Mexico and Mexico.

On a recent Sunday, Wham, a retired physical therapist, clambered down a steep trail with a clipboard and GPS device to double-check the coordinates of a grotto filled with columns that she likes to call "my office."

"From the very first moment I laid eyes on this weird and wondrous place a year ago, I was smitten," she said. "It made me go back to school to get a master's degree in geology."

November 9, 2015

Riders on the Storm

Democrats also use appropriations riders, despite recent protest.

Cadiz agricultural well head and pond in the Mojave Desert.

By Jim Swift
The Weekly Standard

A chorus of Democrats and activists are raising hackles about the potential of Republican policy riders being added to a year-end omnibus spending bill. Policy riders (or “limitation riders”) are the opposite of earmarks. Where the now-extinct earmark required money to be used on a certain project, a rider is a paragraph or two in an appropriations bill dictating what the money cannot be used for.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told Roll Call:
"The president, Pelosi, Reid, my entire caucus has agreed to hold hands. We are not going to approve anything that has all these ideological, short-sighted, crazy ideas; to do away with women’s health, to do away with clean air, to attack Dodd-Frank and all these.”
David Goldston, director of government affairs at the environmental group National Resources Defense Council told E & E News in an interview: “on riders there’s going to be a very private, intense tussle between Democrats and Republican leaders on whether spending bills will be used to block environmental progress.”

This, Majority Leader McConnell has said, is the likely outcome: “Both sides will get into a negotiation here at the Appropriations Committee level, and at the end of the day, there will be some riders.” Reid, however, has claimed “We don’t have any riders.”

The sudden about-face on riders from Democrats may seem strange, since in recent years Democrats have repeatedly sought and successfully secured policy riders. But, this is the first appropriations season during the Obama presidency where Republicans control both chambers, so now policy riders are a bad thing, of course.

It remains to be seen how far Democrats will go in their newfound opposition to riders. Just last week, 25 Democratic senators, a majority of that caucus, wrote to the president, urging him to “reject all spending bill riders that would undermine Endangered Species Act protections…” If Reid, Pelosi, and the President insist they’re quitting policy riders cold turkey, there are likely to be some Democratic casualties.

One of the biggest winners (and perhaps hypocrites) has been California senator Dianne Feinstein, who has used her position on the Appropriations Committee to stop a planned water project in her state. Feinstein has fought the project for 15 years.

The project is called the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery, and Storage Project. Cadiz owns 34,000 acres of land in the Fenner Valley in San Bernadino County, and below it are millions of acre-feet of water. With an acre-foot clocking in at 326,000 gallons, that’s hundreds of billions of gallons of water. Currently, the project is a combined effort by Cadiz, the Arizona & California Railroad, and a handful of water districts, like the Santa Margarita Water District.

California, as most know, is experiencing severe drought, and the project’s backers say 400,000 Californians could benefit from this water, some of which would otherwise evaporate into the thin desert air. An Environmental Impact Report, required by California’s stringent Environmental Quality Act of 1970 observes the following about the Cadiz project:

"California’s Constitution mandates maximizing the reasonable and beneficial use of water and avoidance of waste. The fundamental purpose of the Project is to save substantial quantities of groundwater that are present wasted and lost to evaporation by natural processes. In the absence of this Project, approximately 3 million acre-feet of groundwater presently held in storage between the proposed wellfield and the Dry Lakes would become saline and evaporate over the next 100 years. By strategically managing groundwater levels, the Project would conserve up to 2 million acre-feet of this water, retrieving it from storage before it is lost to evaporation.”

But even given the water emergency, Feinstein and other opponents of the project aren’t relenting.

The project was tried once before, in the early 2000s, but with a different partner: the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Feinstein and two House colleagues wrote to the Bush-era Interior Department to express their concerns about such use of the aquifer and its potential impact on the desert, which Feinstein, as author of the California Desert Protection Act, has taken a special interest in.

The Bush Interior Department signed off on the project, which needed government approval to “wheel” the water across a Bureau of Land Management “right of way” via a 35-mile pipeline. Feinstein and environmental allies convinced the board of the Metropolitan Water District to reject the proposal, which it narrowly did, as the LA Times reported: “with 50.25% of the board’s weighted votes in favor.”

The environmental and anti-development activists at Public Citizen crowed: "Cadiz Water Privatization Project Permanently Stopped!"

Feinstein knew the truth, though: The Cadiz project and its backers weren't going to go quietly, which is why she inserted a policy rider into the FY07 continuing resolution that blocked any funding for the project.

Only when Cadiz revised and revived the project and began to make progress with its new partners, the Santa Margarita Water District and the Arizona & California Railroad, did Feinstein expand the rider— inserted into the FY10 Interior Appropriations Bill, which became law in 2009 — to tighten the noose with this clause:

“Sec. 110. (a) Any proposed new use of the Arizona & California Railroad Company's Right of Way for conveyance of water shall not proceed unless the Secretary of the Interior certifies that the proposed new use is within the scope of the Right of Way.”

The Feinstein rider, due to her clout in Congress, has remained in effect ever since. But now, with the clarion call of the Democratic leaders for Republicans to eschew policy riders in the year-end omnibus bill, the rider is at risk.

At an Appropriations Committee hearing in July, Feinstein complained at length about policy riders. E & E News reported it this way:

"Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in turn lectured Republicans for using the spending bill to block environmental policies they oppose, arguing that doing so would result in a continuing resolution or omnibus package to fund the federal government come September.”

Feinstein argued that riders were just “a member really trying to impose their will to change a law on this bill, which is essentially a numbers bill of appropriations.” She further denounced the practice writ large:

“You shouldn’t do these on appropriations bills, if you want the appropriation bills to pass in regular order. Instead, there is no change for six years. It’s either a CR or an Omnibus, maybe a few things get stuck into an Omnibus, but what kind of progress is that for the people we serve in this nation? I don’t think it’s any real progress, and so, you’ve got this enormous conflict now between both sides. And I don’t know where this takes us, because we’re not going to let an appropriations bill succeed. What kind of long term sense does it make to continue in this way? So, I want to make a call for some sanity.”

Yet, despite this impassioned plea, her rider to block the Cadiz project had been included in the Interior Appropriations bill.

When asked whether Feinstein’s Cadiz rider would make it into yet another omnibus bill, a GOP aide on the Appropriations Committee responded: “We cannot offer any insight as to the ultimate fate of this provision, but it certainly illustrates that Democrats are plenty capable of using appropriations riders to pursue policy outcomes.”

When Feinstein complained about using policy riders as leverage for Senators to “impose their will to change a law,” she spoke from experience. That’s because her rider preventing the Cadiz project helped do just that.

To get the water to its new partners, Cadiz signed an agreement with the Arizona & California Railroad (ARZC), which has a right-of-way granted pursuant to the General Right-of-Way Act of 1875. This would enable Cadiz to deposit the water into the Colorado River Aqueduct, which services numerous water districts, including that of its new main partner, the Santa Margarita Water District.

In the case of railroads on public land, many rights-of-way are governed by the 1875 act, as is the case here. The 1875 Act is also subject to the interpretation by the courts, and by the legal opinions of the solicitor of the Department of the Interior, which oversees BLM. The solicitor issues “M opinions” that are intended to provide guidance to enforcement of public laws, and one, issued in 1989 (M-36964) effectively gave the green light to the Cadiz.

Back in the 1980s, MCI (a telecom that would later become Verizon), wanted to install fiber optic communications lines on a railroad right-of-way controlled by Southern Pacific Transportation Company. The decision clarified that Southern Pacific did not need to seek BLM’s approval to allow MCI to install the cable because it, even though a commercial venture, was “not inconsistent with railroad operations" because it benefited the railroad's operations.

The prospect of this M-Opinion, which Cadiz and the railroad believe they are in compliance with, horrified Feinstein. After securing the rider in the FY10 Interior Appropriations bill, she trumpeted the achievement in a letter to former Senate colleague and then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

“I write to bring to your attention language included in the FY10 Interior Appropriations bill regarding Cadiz LLC’s proposed use of the Arizona & California Railroad Right-of-Way (ROW) for a water conveyance pipeline in the Mojave Desert. I request that the Department start now to reexamine the previous administration’s position that the proposed pipeline does not require federal authorization.”

Feinstein wrote about a 2005 federal court opinion, Home on the Range v. AT&T Corp., which she claims the court “found that easements under the 1875 General Railroad Right-of-Way Act are limited to uses for railroad purposes, excluding non-rail activities analogous to the water pipeline here.”

The letter’s conclusion reinforced the ask: “I would like to request that the Department now initiate a review of its right-of-way policy regarding this project, as well as the Solicitor’s Opinion it is premised on, rather than waiting until the legislation is ultimately signed into law. It is my hope that by acting now, the Department can resolve the scope of the right-of-way promptly, rather than allowing legal questions and uncertainty to linger.”

Put another way, Feinstein went on record to say she’d hold up the project until BLM changed how it interpreted the law to her liking.

Two years after the letter was sent, the Interior Department did just what she asked, and issued M-37025, an M-Opinion from the Solicitor that withdrew the guidance provided by the 1989 M-Opinion that BLM approval was not required for activity not inconsistent with railroad operations.

The new M-Opinion provided that, in order to be within the scope of the Right-of-Way, “a railroad’s authority to undertake or authorize activities is limited to those activities that derives from or further a railroad purpose…” Only now, each activity “requires a fact specific case-by-case inquiry.”

The new M-Opinion was a setback, but still found that, in the case of MCI, its activity “furthered, at least in part, a railroad purpose…” and even that “…MCI’s line was primarily a commercial trunk line, a portion of its capacity was dedicated to the railroad.” Under the new guidance, Cadiz and the Arizona & California Railroad made their case to BLM as to why the water pipeline not only would further a railroad purpose, but would do so in a way that satisfies the underlying 1875 act itself.

In a 2013 staff memorandum to the Interior secretary, Jim Kenna, the director of the BLM in California, highlighted the design features in the water project that Cadiz and the railroad argued would further railroad purposes:

  • Fire hydrants placed along railroad tracks for fire suppression.
  • Access road to be constructed on leased area for railroad company for maintenance purposes or in case of emergencies such as rail car derailment;
  • Access to 10,000 gallons of water per day for vegetation control, washing rail cars, offices, and other contemplated improvements;
  • Access to power at meters located along the railroad tracks and emergency access to power at any location;
  • Water service for steam powered locomotives, to be used as excursion trains.
  • Right to connect and deliver water to any future water production facilities within the ROW to the pipeline and facilities.

The original 1875 act provides that the right of way is also granted for “ground adjacent to such right of way for station buildings, depots, machine shops, side tracks, turnouts, and water stations…”

The water stations Cadiz would supply are right there in the actual law. However, in a formal letter, BLM disagreed that the pipeline furthers railroad purposes. The letter is sadly comical, a Rube Goldberg exercise in futile bureaucratese.

The planned water suppression system, designed to remotely stop a disastrous trestle fire that could cripple the railroad for weeks?

“Use of water for fire suppression on creosote-treated timber is an uncommon industry practice, with dry sand being the preferred method, and thus the water-based hydrants and sprinklers, and fiber optic telemetry used to operate them do not derive from or further a railroad purpose. A BLM authorization is needed for use of fire suppression facilities along the 43 mile stretch of the ROWs that runs across BLM administered public land.”

The water stations for a steam-based tourism train? “may derive from or further a railroad purpose (emphasis added)…” but “…the excursion train’s prospective use of a small portion of the pipeline’s water does not convert the excursion train, the pipeline, or the water that runs through the pipeline into a legitimate railroad purpose.”

In other words, no, no, and… no: You have to get BLM approval now.

Except, BLM can’t even process an application from Cadiz and the ARZC even if it wanted to, as noted in a BLM memo:

“If a decision is made that the proposed use is not within the scope of the 1875 railroad ROW, such a pipeline would require a FLPMA ROW authorization from the BLM as it crosses BLM-managed lands. However, the processing of such a ROW would be prohibited this year, given the language in the 2012 Consolidated Appropriations Act H.R. 2055 118(b).”

The Cadiz project has bipartisan support in the House, as numerous Democrats and Republicans have written letters of support, and perhaps explains why the House Interior Appropriations bill does not contain the Feinstein rider.

While the BLM has shut the door to Cadiz and the ARZC’s quest to build the pipeline without their approval via an er, novel, interpretation of the law, if Feinstein’s anti-Cadiz rider isn’t included in the year-end omnibus, the project’s backers could apply for formal BLM approval. Other legal recourse, such as a lawsuit challenging BLM’s determination, is still on the table.

The question for Feinstein and Democrats is: How willing are they to part with policy riders on appropriations bills? In the coming weeks, we’ll find out, I guess, because Senator Feinstein’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

October 31, 2015

Why the BLM’s decision on the Cadiz project was the right one

In this undated file photo provided by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, water flows through the Southern California desert in the Metropolitan Water District's Colorado River Aqueduct from the Colorado River to the Los Angeles area. A different water conveyance project by Cadiz continues to meet resistance. (AP Photo)

Guest commentary

By Adell L. Amos and Sam Kalen
San Bernardino County Sun

Officials at the Bureau of Land Management have to make a lot of sensitive decisions. But their recent decision that a 43-mile, 7-foot diameter groundwater pipeline does not further the purpose of an 1875 railroad right-of-way should not be controversial. It is as simple as this — a water pipeline project is something different than a railroad.

Despite tremendous pressure to shoehorn a massive groundwater pipeline into a century-old railroad right-of-way, the BLM made a rational decision that the proposal was not in furtherance of the railroad’s purpose. Scott Slater, president and General Counsel of Cadiz Inc., asserts that BLM should rescind that decision.

Cadiz Inc., a Los-Angeles based company, wants to build a pipeline to carry groundwater from a fragile Mojave Desert aquifer to southern California. It’s the kind of project that calls out for careful and considered decision-making by public officials. The project could have a significant impact on sensitive desert habitat and the interests of tribes, local communities and national parks nearby. In fact, such careful review was completed under state law, though it is now undergoing appeal by project opponents.

If BLM had sided with Cadiz and determined that this new water project furthered a railroad purpose, then the project could proceed without federal environmental reviews, tribal consultations and interagency coordination that would otherwise be required.

Not surprisingly, Cadiz had a profound interest in trying to convince the BLM that its proposal — which is about transporting valuable water to thirsty urban areas in southern California — was actually about advancing the railroad’s purpose.

Ultimately, the BLM made a straightforward and common-sense determination that the water pipeline does not further a railroad purpose. This decision ensures, if the project goes forward, it will be subject to appropriate public review. Instead of criticism, the BLM ought to be commended for its responsible management of public resources in the face of tremendous pressure from private interests.

To move forward now, Cadiz will be asked to do what any private developer on federal public land is asked to do — participate in an open, public process under federal law that evaluates the various impacts of the project. That is not a controversial notion in the least. Developers on public lands, though they might prefer to avoid it, engage in this kind of review all the time.

Many opponents of the Cadiz Project worry that this attempt to locate the project in an existing railroad right-of-way was a clever sleight of hand designed to circumvent an open and public evaluation of the impacts and consequences of this project under federal law. To the extent that these concerns about the impacts are unfounded, the federal review process will bear that out.

Perhaps Cadiz worries that the federal review will shed light on what some believe to be faulty scientific assumptions about the recharge rate of the aquifer, or the irreversible environmental harm that could come from pumping 1-2 million acre feet of precious desert groundwater for 50 years, or the impact to historic, natural and cultural resources including the Mojave National Preserve, the lower 48’s third-largest national park unit. More than a decade ago Cadiz proposed a very similar project and the federal environmental review process revealed many of these concerns. Many of these concerns are also at issue in the appeal challenging the state review process.

In the end, BLM exercised sound professional judgment in a climate where water is becoming increasingly scarce and highly valuable. Some estimates put the price of the water associated with the Cadiz project at $1-2 billion. BLM is not required to advance private interests to achieve maximum profit for their investors. Rather, BLM exists to manage, for multiple and often competing purposes, the public lands consistent with all applicable laws. In choosing this course, the BLM carried out its mandate with integrity toward the process and acted as a responsible steward of the public resources it is entrusted to manage.

Adell L. Amos is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of Oregon School of Law. She is a former Deputy Solicitor for Land and Water Resources at the Department of Interior.

Sam Kalen is co-director of the Center for Law and Energy Resources in the Rockies at the University of Wyoming School of Law. He is a former Special Assistant for the Solicitor’s Office at the Department of the Interior.

October 20, 2015

Helicopter crash marks troublesome cattle roundup near Searchlight

Wild, feral, and menacing cattle of the McCullough Range near Searchlight, NV.
By Henry Brean and David Becker
Las Vegas Review-Journal

The wild remnants of one of southern Clark County's last cattle herds are now being cleared from the mountains between Henderson and Searchlight, but the work so far has not gone smoothly.

A crew of cowboys from Utah is gathering stray and feral cows from the McCullough Mountains under a contract with the Nevada Department of Agriculture.

Flint Wright, animal industry administrator for the department, said the operation started Friday and has no scheduled completion date. As of Monday, just 17 cows had been collected.

"They're essentially wild cattle, and it's going to take some time," Wright said.

The roundup hit a major snag Sunday, when a helicopter being used to find and chase cows crashed just off state Route 164 west of Searchlight.

On Tuesday, the wrecked helicopter and its pilot could still be found at a motel in the town 60 miles south of Las Vegas.

Richard Dick of Hutchinson, Kan., said he was hovering about 12 feet off the ground, trying to move a pair of stubborn bulls, when a gust of wind pushed his helicopter into a Joshua tree. The 1962-vintage Bell model 47G ended up on its side in pieces, but he walked away with bumps and bruises.

The pilot said it was his first domestic accident in 17,000 hours of flying, though he crashed three times in Vietnam.

When he climbed out the wreckage Sunday, Dick said, the bulls were just staring at him.

The cattle now being rounded up have roamed the range untended since 2006, when rancher Cal Baird relinquished his federal grazing permit and sold his water rights to the county to preserve habitat for the desert tortoise and other federally protected species.

According to the Bureau of Land Management, Baird moved most of his livestock from the 111,000-acre federal grazing allotment to Arizona, but a few stragglers were left behind.

For the past several years, officials say, those survivors and their unbranded descendants have been damaging springs and menacing people in the mountains and desert between Interstate 15 and U.S. Highway 95 south of the Las Vegas Valley.

BLM spokeswoman Kirsten Cannon said the animals are aggressive and "present a danger to the public recreating in the area."

Wright said: "We've had some complaints from people who were hunting deer and were run off by the cattle."

Baird could not be reached for comment.

Under Nevada law, unbranded stray or feral livestock are considered state property. The BLM has been asking the state to remove the unclaimed cattle from the McCullough Range for several years.

In 2013, the state rounded up and sold off approximately 30 animals, but an unknown number remain. Last year, the BLM counted about 40 unbranded cows spread across two wilderness areas west of Searchlight. Wright guessed there could 100 to 200 feral cows still out there.

He figures it would cost the state as much as $200,000 to try to collect that many animals. The Department of Agriculture has been "trying to get this deal cleaned up for a number of years," but it never seems to have the money or the resources, he said.

The animals are now being rounded up by Sun J Livestock, a ranching operation from Vernal, Utah. Wright said the ranchers aren't being paid directly, but they have plenty of incentive to do a thorough job.

"They get to keep the livestock," he said. "They'll get every cow they can."

Weekend warriors fear Washington land grab could take off-roading off the board

A group of off-roaders and others are attempting to fight a proposed designation of three national monuments in the California desert under the Antiquities Act. (

By Perry Chiaramonte

California outdoors enthusiasts fear Washington is poised to put up roadblocks on some of the Golden State's most treasured trails by designating three desert destinations totaling more than 1 million acres national landmarks.

The Obama administration is considering using the federal Antiquities Act to bypass the legislative process at the request of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whose efforts to have the Mojave Trails and Castle Mountain, both in the Mojave Desert, and a section of the Sonoran Desert named federal sites were repeatedly blocked by Republicans. A White House move could put the land under federal control, which critics say could cut funding for upkeep or even restrict access.

“Bypassing the legislative process using the Antiquities Act would be as disastrous as it is undemocratic, creating winners and losers with the stroke of a pen,” said Rep. Paul Cook, R-Calif., who has sponsored a bill that bears some similarities to Feinstein's, but would ensure off-roading and mining could continue on the land. Cook’s bill would also allow the state to create water projects for wildlife conservation.

“Any time you take away the consensus of the local community they are left with something they did not ask for." - Amy Granat, California Off-Road Vehicle Association

The Mojave Trails lie in the desert of the same name in eastern California and are part of a 140-mile road that stretches from the Colorado River to Mojave River. The Sand to Snow Monument would cover 135,000 acres from the Sonoran Desert floor in Coachella Valley to the peak of Mount San Gorgonio, in the San Bernardino Mountain range. The Castle Mountains lie on the Border of Nevada and California near the famed Joshua Tree region and reach an elevation of 5,543 feet.

While the Obama administration has not said publicly if the Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountain national monuments will be designated, Feinstein asked the president in August to take the action. The Antiquities Act was signed into law in 1906 by Theodore Roosevelt, and gives the president authority to create national monuments from public lands to protect significant natural, cultural or scientific features. It has been used more than 100 times, including for such landmarks as the Grand Canyon, Mount St. Helen's and a stretch of the Underground Railroad in Maryland. Given that President Obama has invoked the Antiquities Act to name 19 sites national monuments since 2009 and as recently as July, Cook and other critics have reason to believe the White House could do so again, especially at the invitation of a powerful Democratic ally.

"We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Amy Granat, managing director of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, which has been fighting the legislative proposals for two years. "More and more of the desert is being taken away from the people. If you look at the entirety of the desert, there has always been a no-win when the Antiquities Act has been put in place.”

Cook supports the designation, but through legislation and on terms that allow current uses to continue. He said a White House decree based on the Antiquities Act “sets in motion a Washington-based management plan" that will ultimately leave the recreational area unfunded - and unkempt.

“ ... the roads and facilities will be left to degrade to a point where public use is unsafe or impossible,” he said. “Anyone who’s read the recent reporting on the newly-created San Gabriel National Monument’s dire situation can attest to this. Use of the Antiquities Act will create more “orphan” monuments like San Gabriel, this time in the heart of the California desert.”

One example of the Antiquities Act not helping to improve an area can be seen at the San Gabriel Mountains, range of mountains located across Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties and separates the City of Angels and the Mojave. It has been just over a year since the White House designated the mountainous region as a National monument but the area has still not received any federal funding. The 970-square-mile region badly needed the funding to combat growing blight in the area, but is still plagued by garbage and vandalism. And with no federal funding in sight, the National Park Service does not have the means for proper upkeep.

Feinstein is not without support in her home state. An Antiquities Act designation for the three landmarks could actually bolster recreational activities, according to the Campaign for the California Desert.

“The point that Rep. Cook and other opponents of the monument designation are missing is that when our shared public lands are protected, it’s for the continued use and benefit of all Americans," the group said in a statement. "It is only when our public lands are sold off or leased by a developer does the public’s access to our public lands becomes restricted.”

October 16, 2015

Government takes family's land near Area 51

Historic Groom Mine overlooking Area 51
By Glen Meek and Kyle Zuelke
Las Vegas Now

LAS VEGAS -- Private land overlooking the secret base at Area 51 has officially been taken from the owners and transferred to the United States Air Force.

Last month, the U.S. Air Force condemned the Groom Mine property when the family who owns it rejected a government buyout they felt was unjust.

The I-Team broke the story of the family's fight with the government.

The Sheahan family, which until now owned the mine, knew they faced an uphill fight. They also expected the government would probably take the land through eminent domain even though the Sheahan's owned it since Abe Lincoln was in the White House.

Now -- literally with the stroke of a pen -- a federal judge has turned the land over to the U.S. Air Force. The only part of the fight left for the Sheahan family now is compensation and what will happen to the equipment, buildings, even human remains, still at the site.

In the remote central Nevada desert, the Groom mine has been an island of private property surrounded by a vast government buffer zone. The buffer zone is patrolled by security troops to prevent people from getting a look at the secret test base at Groom Lake -- better known as Area 51.

The family who owns the mine overlooking Area 51 has been at odds with the air force, which condemned the property last month, after the family declined a $5.2 million buyout.

"I have a geologist friend who I took out there, who's just a buff, and he said it is literally almost priceless," said Barbara Sheahan, Groom Mine heir. "There is so much there, not only the ore which is in the ground that can be mined, but in all the intrinsic value of what's on the land."

What's on the land includes buildings, mining equipment and the remains of kin who worked the mine since the family acquired it in the 1870s.

There's also the question of indignities suffered by the family from nearby government testing including buildings strafed by military planes and radiation drifting downwind from above ground nuclear shots in 50s and 60s.

"This has been like I said a 60-plus year nothing short of criminal activity on the part of the federal government, the AEC, Black Ops, CIA and you can go on and on," said Joe Sheahan, Groom Mine heir.

On Sept. 16, federal Judge Miranda Du signed the order in the condemnation case giving possession of the Groom Mine property to the United States government. The Sheahan's have asked for a jury trial, but the issues will be limited to how much the air force must pay for the land and the disposition of the equipment and personal property left on the site.

"There's nothing fair, there's nothing anything remotely close to that involved in this process," said Joe Sheahan.

"But there never has been either, so it's nothing new. But we would like to change it at least to get our stuff out and be paid the value," Barbara Sheahan said.

The air force made its final, $5 million offer to the Sheahan family after concluding that the security and safety of defense testing in that area made private land ownership impossible.

It the condemnation case, the air force values the land at only $1.5 million.

The Sheahan's say it's worth much more than that considering the value of the minerals in the mine, the abuses the family has suffered over decades and the land' s historical significance.

October 11, 2015

Cadiz chief to tackle desert water transfer project roadblock

Scott Slater, president and CEO of Cadiz Inc. explains the company's position that they believe the groundwater they would harvest would be lost to evaporation if left to its natural processes. (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

By Jim Steinberg
San Bernardino Sun

LOS ANGELES – The CEO for embattled Cadiz Inc. has a plan to keep alive a controversial project to transfer ancient groundwater in a remote part of San Bernardino County’s Mojave Desert to parts of Orange County and other locations, where it could serve as many as 400,000 people.

In an interview late last week, Cadiz CEO Scott Slater said he would be seeking a review of the decision by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to reject Cadiz’s proposed use of an 1875 railway right-of-way to build a critical 43-mile pipeline from the Fenner Valley — about 40 miles northeast of Twentynine Palms — to the Colorado River Aqueduct, where it could be delivered to future customers.

If that fails, he will take his battle to court, he said.

“This is pure politics,” said Slater, who is considered by many to be an expert in groundwater law and water policy.

According to a letter from the BLM, the proposed use of the railroad right-of-way for the pipeline is outside the scope of the Arizona and California Railroad’s use of right-of-way grants held under the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of March 3, 1875.

The letter to Cadiz warns that “proceeding with new activities or continued activities ... without authorization from the BLM could result in the BLM instituting trespass proceedings.”

The ARZC, as the short-line railroad is called, has agreed to let Cadiz use its right-of-way. The railroad moves primarily petroleum across its 190 miles of track.

As part of its water project, Cadiz planned to build fire-suppression and power-generation capabilities for the railroad.

“BLM has determined that the project does not derive or further a railroad purpose,” said the letter signed by James Kenna, California BLM director, who has since retired.

For that reason, in order for the pipeline to proceed along the right-of-way, the BLM must approve that use. And for that to happen, a full federal environmental review must be completed.

Slater called the BLM’s decision an “outrage” that ignores key precedent set forth in a memorandum written in November 2011 by the top attorney for the Department of Interior, which liberalizes the definition of railroad purpose to mean that BLM permission is not needed if the purpose benefits the railroad in some way.

“Every American should be infuriated” at the way the BLM has deliberately ignored the evolution, determined by a top federal lawyer, of a law written more than 100 years before, said Slater, who is author of “California Water Law and Policy,” a two-volume treatise, and has taught law and graduate classes at Pepperdine University, UC Santa Barbara and the University of Western Australia, He also revised the water code for Western Australia.

On the other hand, David Lamfrom, director of the California Desert and Wildlife Program for the National Parks Conservation Service, said: “The Bureau of Land Management’s decision is supported law, policy and common sense and prevents a clear attempt by Cadiz Inc. to create a loophole to avoid federal review.

“The BLM has a responsibility to all Americans to fully understand the impacts this project proposes on public lands, including impacts on our water resources and national parks. This decision opens the door for good science and objective decision-makers to participate.”

Also agreeing with the BLM decision is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

“I remain concerned the Cadiz project could damage the Mojave Desert beyond repair,” she said in a statement, “and believe the BLM decision to deny the right-of-way is the right one.”

“We need to use water more responsibly, not less, and the Cadiz project is a bad idea,” said Feinstein, who is attempting to include the Cadiz Valley in her proposed Mojave Trails National Monument, one of three proposed for the region.

Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, said, “I have looked at the Cadiz Water Project carefully and I believe it has merit. ... I have concerns about what kind of precedent this sets for railroads across the country and the ability of an agency to deny historically protected property rights.”

Calvert is chairman of the House Interior and Environmental Appropriations Subcommittee.

The project has been approved by the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.

When asked about the BLM decision, 1st District Supervisor Robert A. Lovingood said, “The BLM decision will be a roadblock for the project. But this is a matter between the BLM and the company. ...”

For the past eight years, Feinstein has attached a rider to the legislation that funds the Department of the Interior, the umbrella agency for the BLM, that effectively blocks the Cadiz Valley aquifer from being drained, her office said.

Last week, Cadiz said it found out about the BLM decision through a third party.

Before the decision, Cadiz had been saying it and its public agency partner, the Santa Margarita Water District in Orange County, were on track to begin construction of the pipeline this year or early next year.

October 5, 2015

BLM decision sets back Cadiz plan to sell Mojave groundwater

The Fenner Basin, about half of which lies in the Mojave National Preserve. Cadiz Inc. hopes to sell groundwater from the Mojave Desert to Southern California users. (Katie Falkenberg)

Bettina Boxall
Los Angeles Times

Cadiz Inc.'s plans to sell Mojave Desert groundwater to Southern California communities have hit a major federal roadblock.

In a long-awaited decision, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management says Cadiz cannot use an existing railroad right-of-way for a new water pipeline that would carry supplies from the project's proposed well field to the Colorado River Aqueduct.

By using the railroad right-of-way, Cadiz had hoped to escape federal environmental review of the 43-mile pipeline, one of the project's most expensive components.

But in a letter to Cadiz on Friday, BLM's California director informed the company that it needs U.S. approval for a separate pipeline right-of-way over federal land. That would trigger review under federal environmental law, a potentially lengthy and costly process that could impose new conditions on the project.

Cadiz has acknowledged that over the long term, the project will extract more groundwater than is replenished by nature. And federal scientists have expressed concern that the operation could dry up springs vital to wildlife on the nearby Mojave National Preserve and other public lands.

"The BLM has the responsibility to objectively apply the law using the best available information to determine what rights were conveyed to the railroad under a 19th century law," BLM State Director Jim Kenna said in a statement. "Because the proposed pipeline is not within the rights conveyed to the railroad, a separate BLM authorization is necessary."

In a further complication for Cadiz, project opponent Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has for years added a rider to the federal budget barring the BLM from spending money on anything related to the groundwater project. A spokesman for Feinstein said the provision "will be in there again." As long as the rider is in effect, the BLM won't have the funds to review a pipeline application.

"I remain concerned the Cadiz project could damage the Mojave Desert beyond repair and believe the BLM decision to deny the right-of-way is the right one," Feinstein said in a statement. "I'll continue to work through the Appropriations Committee to block any additional attempts to draw down this aquifer. We need to use water more responsibly, not less, and the Cadiz project is a bad idea."

In a response sent to the BLM director in Washington, Cadiz President Scott Slater on Monday argued that the agency was misinterpreting an Interior Department solicitor's opinion and should rescind the determination.

"We're disappointed the BLM decided to take a political path," Slater said in an interview. "They wholly ignore the solicitor's opinion."

The decision is technically an "administrative determination" that cannot be appealed. But Slater, a well-known water attorney, said the company would "consider all legal remedies," including a federal lawsuit. "We'll press on," he added.

Cadiz, founded by Keith Brackpool, wants to pump enough groundwater from beneath its land in the Mojave Desert to supply 100,000 homes a year and sell it to urban California at prices that could, over the project's 50-year-life, reap $1 billion to $2 billion in revenue.

The project was approved by San Bernardino County and the company has so far prevailed in environmental lawsuits challenging the proposal under state law. But opponents are appealing those rulings. And desert advocates complain the project will profit by mining groundwater that flows from beneath adjacent public lands.

"The company was trying to exploit what amounts to a loophole to avoid having to go through a more rigorous environmental review," said David Lamfrom, California desert program director for the National Parks Conservation Assn., one of a number of conservation groups fighting the project.

The BLM decision was years in the making. It hinges on a 2011 opinion by the Interior Department solicitor that railroads cannot authorize activities in their federal right-of-ways "that bear no relationship to the construction or operation of a railroad."

Cadiz argued that the water pipeline would further the purpose of the Arizona and California Railroad by providing water for fighting trestle fires and for a planned tourist steam train, as well as create additional access to the rail line.

The BLM found otherwise. "Conveyance of water for public consumption is not a railroad purpose because the activity itself is not necessary for the construction or operation of a railroad, and the origin of the activity itself is a non-railroad purpose," the agency stated in a summary document.

August 31, 2015

At Burning Man, pretty much anything goes

Burning Man participants visit the site's temple, which will eventually be set on fire. Visitors leave notes inside and in the walls of the structure, hoping the cleansing fire will set them free.
(Photo: Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY)

Trevor Hughes

BLACK ROCK CITY, Nev. – A young woman stepped into the dusty glare of my headlights, and I realized she was topless. And pantsless.

The only thing she was wearing was a playing card strapped on by a clear rubber band around her waist.

And a giant smile.

"Welcome home!" she said. "Is this your first time?"

Yes. Yes, it is.

I'm spending the week embedded in the annual Burning Man festival, reporting on the newest tech trends, the dust storms and the luxury camps that drew criticism last year. The temporary city we've created is called Black Rock City, and for this week it will be the third-largest place in Nevada.

First-timers like me are pulled from their vehicles to celebrate. In my case, the young woman ordered me to remove my shirt and make dust angels as lights flashed and music drifted on the wind. I banged a bell as my greeters yelled "not a virgin" to mark my transition in the encampment.

Burning Man draws 70,000 people annually to the Nevada desert (God forbid you pronounce it Nevaaaaaada, by the way) for an almost-anything-goes event. A sign at the entrance warns arrivals that all laws apply, but there's a lot of people and not a lot of cops.

That's kind of the point: Organizers create and encourage a freewheeling experience in which many people take illegal drugs, and casual sex is not only common but widely condoned. Many of the themed camps seem intended to confront and then contort societal norms. But norms are reserved for the outside world, the Default World.

Here, creativity is everywhere. Elaborate sculptures reach toward the sky. Others blast flames. Endless electronic dance music pumps across the encampment as neon-lit vehicles circle. Strangers hug you without warning.

And the outfits. The outfits! This is a place for extreme personal expression in a way that might make many Americans feel uncomfortable. Here, lots of people go shirtless, and there's a fair few wearing even less than my greeter.

Media access is tightly controlled, and the organizers use copyright law to enforce the rules –-- photographers must sign a contract agreeing not to exploit people's images for personal gain. The last thing Burning Man organizers want is to see participants' images used to sell stuff.

And while it took me a whole day to notice, now I can't stop marveling at the complete lack of stuff being sold or marketed. Corporate logos on rental trucks are usually covered up or altered, and there's no one hawking, well, anything.

It's a welcome relief from the constant pressure of consumerism we face every day. Gone are the messages to buy buy buy. Instead, we're asked to simply be. (There's no official Internet provider, and mobile phone coverage is iffy.)

Don't get me wrong. Virtually everyone has spent a lot of money to be here, and spending a week requires lots of logistics. I watched as participants stocked up on cheap plastic junk in Reno, pouring millions of dollars into that city's economy while allowing Burning Man to maintain its reputation as the world's largest Leave No Trace event.

Here, the entire economy is based on the concept of gifting. People give you things out of the kindness of their heartsAND, with "gifts" ranging from the sculptures to free booze and Tantric massages.

Sunday, a young woman handed me a beaded bracelet she'd made, with each colored bead a piece of Morse code.

Unfurled, if you know how to read it, the bracelet quotes Shakespeare: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."

And for the next week, this remote Nevada desert is the biggest stage of all.

August 25, 2015

New Sheriff Overseeing Burning Man to Crack Down on Naked Rule-Breakers

The weeklong event in Nevada draws thousands of people — and their drugs

Participants walk through dust at the annual Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert of Gerlach, Nev., on Aug. 29, 2014.

Jack Linshi

A new Nevada sheriff tasked with overseeing the upcoming Burning Man festival plans to crack down on the annual desert debauchery.

Jerry Allen, 39, who was elected Pershing County Sheriff in January, said he plans to tighten law enforcement for the tens of thousands of festival-goers journeying to the remote Black Rock Desert next week for the annual event, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported on Tuesday.

In recent years, many attendees at the week long event — where nudity is the norm, drugs flow as if on tap and orgies litter the desert — have not been charged for crimes like marijuana possession, according to federal reports on the event, but the new sheriff in town said he has a tougher police protocol in mind.

“We don’t have the personnel to issue citations to 70,000 naked people on the playa, but we will be upholding the law to the best of our ability,” Allen said. He added that Burning Man “brings nothing … except for heartache” to the conservative, rural county.

Burning Man organizers said they remain optimistic because the low number of arrests in years past suggest more festival-goers are abiding by the law.

“We’ve been working with [Allen] since his election, and he’s been involved with all of the large coordination efforts,” said Burning Man spokesman Jim Graham. “It’s an ongoing process on education, but he hasn’t been out there for a few years, so he hasn’t seen the progress we’ve made in recent years.”

Burning Man will take place from Aug. 30 to Sept. 7.

August 5, 2015

Ghost Town Emerges As Drought Makes Nevada's Lake Mead Disappear

Many of the buildings used to lie 60 feet below the lake surface

A sign showing the trail to the ghost town of St. Thomas in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada in August 2015.

Nick Visser
The Huffington Post

Lest anyone forget, the drought in California and across the Southwest is still raging on. And one of the places where its effects can be observed most clearly is Nevada's Lake Mead.

The nation's largest reservoir has hit a series of troubling milestones over the past year, sinking to a record low in late June. Now, in the latest benchmark for the new Lake Mead, a town that flooded shortly after the completion of the Hoover Dam in 1938 has literally risen from the depths.

The ghost town -- once called St. Thomas, Nevada -- was founded as a Mormon settlement in 1865 and had six bustling businesses by 1918, according to But for nearly a century, it's been uninhabited and uninhabitable, existing mostly as an underwater curiosity.

Captured by two Getty photographers, the photos [at the link] below show the shell of the former settlement. St. Thomas has appeared under similarly dire drought conditions several times in the past decades.

The National Park Service has opened up a pathway from a parking area down to the ruins, which you'll be able to visit for the foreseeable future. Take a look here.

The ruins of a school in Mormon pioneer town Saint Thomas, flooded 70 years ago by the rising waters of the Colorado River when it was dammed to create Lake Mead.

July 18, 2015

Shrinking Colorado River is a growing concern for Yuma farmers — and millions of water users

Los Angeles Times

The Colorado River begins as snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains and ends 1,450 miles south in Mexico after making a final sacrifice to the United States: water for the farm fields in this powerhouse of American produce.

Throughout the winter, perfect heads of romaine, red-and-green lettuce, spinach and broccoli are whisked from the warm desert soil here onto refrigerated trucks that deliver them to grocery stores across the continent. If you eat a green salad between Thanksgiving and April, whether in Minnesota, Montreal or Modesto, odds are good that some of it was grown in or around Yuma.

The summer freshness on all of those winter plates reflects the marvel of engineering the Colorado has become — and why managing the river in the Southwest's changing landscape seems so daunting.

The Colorado is suffering from a historic drought that has exposed the region's dependence on a single, vulnerable resource. Nearly 40 million people in seven states depend on the river, a population some forecasts say could nearly double in the next 50 years.

The drought, now in its 16th year, has made one fact brutally clear: The Colorado cannot continue to meet the current urban, agricultural, hydroelectric and recreational demands on it — and the point at which the river will fall short could come sooner than anyone thought.

That is true even after an unusually wet spring in the Rocky Mountains, where runoff feeds the Colorado and its tributaries.

In the decades to come, federal officials say, significant shortages are likely to force water-supply cutbacks in parts of the basin, the first in the more than 90 years that the river has been managed under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

They would not apply evenly. In Arizona, which would take the steepest cuts, officials are warning that the elaborate conservation measures and infrastructure put in place in the 1980s to guard against shortages will probably not be sufficient. As the drought continues, serious shortages and more severe cutbacks have become more likely.

Farmers who grow cattle feed and cotton in central Arizona could be forced to let fields lie fallow, maybe for good, and cities like Phoenix might have to begin reusing wastewater and even capping urban growth, the region's economic engine.

Here in Yuma, though, there may be no cuts at all. Thanks to the seemingly endless idiosyncrasies of the rules governing the Colorado, much of metropolitan Phoenix could theoretically become a ghost town while Yuma keeps planting lettuce in the desert.

The looming shortages have opened a contentious new conversation here in Arizona, with increasing calls for rethinking the way the state divides the water it also shares with six other states, including California. Some experts say that a recalibration is in order — that while it may not make sense for millions of people to live in the arid West, people should take precedence over growing leafy greens on an industrial scale.

In a 2013 study, the Bureau of Reclamation suggested transferring about a million acre-feet of water from farms. Academics say it is only a matter of time before agriculture is forced to yield some of its supply — and that farmers could benefit financially from such transfers.

That kind of talk is rattling farmers in Yuma. They know they have water priority but not necessarily political priority.

"They believe there's a target on their backs," said Tom Buschatzke, who leads the Arizona Department of Water Resources. "I believe they're right."

Farmers here do not intend to go quietly. Some come from families that were here when the big cities of the modern Southwest were little more than crossroads.

"We have a legal right to this," said Mark Smith, who farms about 500 acres in Yuma and leads one of six irrigation districts in the area. "The guys who say this is an easy fix — it's not an easy fix. We're growing vital crops."

"This is a national debate," Smith added, "because we're supplying the entire nation."


Few rivers are asked to work as hard at the Colorado. Ranchers in western Colorado use the river to water pastures for beef cattle, while Denver and its suburbs channel it east across the mountains to enable city living. Las Vegas and other southern Nevada communities draw up to 90% of their water from the Colorado. Hoover Dam and others convert its flow into power. After Arizona and California take their share, the river exits — evaporates, really — through the dry remnants of a delta leading to the Gulf of California.

If a shortage is declared, California is one state that would not face any immediate cutbacks, thanks to an agreement reached with Arizona in 1968. That pact allowed Arizona to build one of the nation's most ambitious water-supply systems, the Central Arizona Project, but it also ensured that much of Arizona would take steep cuts if a shortage is declared.

Yuma is an exception.

Wedged into a wrinkle of borderland between California and Mexico, farms here have been drawing water from the Colorado since the late 19th century. Their early presence here earned the area the most-senior water rights in Arizona and some of the most-senior in the basin. Of the approximately 15 million acre-feet of water allocated for use each year across the entire basin, about 1 million acre-feet — nearly 7% of all of the water — goes to just 150,000 acres of farmland here.

By comparison, the 5 million water users in Phoenix and Tucson share about 1.5 million acre-feet. California has rights to the largest share, 4.4 million acre-feet, and even under the most dire scenarios it is virtually certain to always receive it. The law of the river says so.

Yet even as parties in the basin are often wary of one another — and not equal partners — most emphasize the need to work together under the current rules. The alternative, some fear, is that the federal government will intervene.

"There are many who have advocated for years that you have to change it significantly," said Wade Noble, a lawyer for the Yuma County Agricultural Water Coalition. "We, of course, resist that because with our priority we benefit from the [current] law the most."

In February, Noble helped draft a report by the coalition intended as a preemptive strike against anyone eyeing Yuma water. In it, Yuma leaders argue that the region has become more productive and profitable while also reducing its water use as it has shifted its focus to winter vegetables over the last four decades.

Yet the region still uses an extraordinary amount of water. High soil salinity has led farmers to flood fields in an attempt to wash salt away from fragile roots, then provide more water for irrigation. And in an era seeing the rise of seasonal, locally grown foods, Yuma strikes some as emblematic of old ways of thinking about what people should eat and when.

Then again, farmers in Yuma say cities have been allowed to grow with little concern for the water required to sustain them. They note, too, that most of their crops align with a growing emphasis on healthful eating.

"They are doing a lot of things right," said Robert Glennon, a law professor at the University of Arizona who specializes in water issues.

But Glennon has also warned that Yuma farmers and others in the arid West may have only so much control over their fate — a lesson farmers in parts of California, dependent on other rivers, are learning during the historic drought there. He has encouraged farmers to reduce production so they can sell or lease a portion of their water rights to cities. Research shows that a cut of just 4% in certain agricultural areas could increase the water supply by 50% for some cities, he said.

Farmers here say the entire region was settled on an ethic of national service. The Bureau of Reclamation began building canals feeding off the Colorado in the first years of the 20th century.

Edward C. Cuming arrived in the summer of 1902, an Irishman who had first migrated to Alberta, Canada, before moving south. Cuming homesteaded 160 acres just south of Yuma, irrigating them with the new canals. The Depression forced him to sell 40 acres but also led to a new era of government support for the area.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, expanded and improved irrigation canals across the Yuma area. One of those channels, stamped "CCC 1940," is known as the Cuming Canal. It runs directly in front of fields now owned by Edward Cuming's grandson, Jim Cuming.

"When we had an abundant supply of water, the farmer was doing a great job," said Cuming, 77, sitting on a concrete culvert above the Cuming Canal while cloudy Colorado River water surged beneath him.

"Now all of a sudden he's a villain because he uses too much to produce your fruit and fiber."

This story was prepared under a grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists' Fund for Environmental Journalism.

July 13, 2015

The Mojave River: A source of water battles and innovation

Postcard view of the old automobile bridge at the upper narrows of the Mojave River, circa 1930. The Mojave River flows above ground year-round through the narrows. The railroad follows the Mojave River through much of the High Desert. (From the collection of Mark Landis)

By Mark Landis
San Bernardino County Sun

Even in drought-stricken Southern California, the Mojave River could easily be described as one of the most unspectacular waterways in the Southwest. However, the historic significance of this strange desert paradox is hard to understate.

Through much of its 120-mile course, the Mojave River appears to be an irrelevant ribbon of sand. But in spite of its innocuous appearance, the river has provided the life blood for a broad stretch of the Mojave Desert since ancient times. It has also generated some of the West’s most ingenious water projects, and hard-fought legal battles.

The river flows above ground near its mountain sources, and through a few areas like the Mojave Narrows, and Afton Canyon, where the bedrock forces the water to the surface.

Indians were able to survive in the desert along the river where it flows above ground year-round, and provides an oasis of shade and food sources.

Early explorers and settlers counted on the river’s sections of dependable above-ground flow to get them across long, barren stretches of desert. The Mojave Road, The Mormon Trail, and The Old Spanish Trail, were the primary Indian and migrant trails into Southern California. These crucial routes all followed sections of the Mojave River through some of the driest stretches of the desert.

The Mojave River begins in the northern slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains, and flows northward under a dry bed of sand for much of its course. The east and west forks of the river merge just upstream of the present-day Mojave River Dam, in southeast Hesperia.

The eastern fork is known as Deep Creek, and its watershed begins in the mountains around and to the east of Lake Arrowhead. The watershed for the West Fork of the Mojave River begins in the mountains above, and to the west of Silverwood Lake. The river ends in Soda and Silver Dry Lakes, near the community of Baker.

One of the earliest settlers on the Mojave River was Captain Aaron Lane, a rancher who operated a trading post on the river. In 1858, Lane acquired a prime piece of Mojave River land near the present-day Turner Ranch, in Victorville and started a successful farm and cattle ranch.

Word of the successful agriculture effort on the Mojave River spread quickly, and sections of the river with regular flow, blossomed into a lush ribbon of farms and ranches.

A long-awaited railroad from San Bernardino, through the Cajon Pass, to Barstow was completed in 1885. Fred Perris of the California Southern Railroad chose a route through the High Desert that closely followed the grade of the Mojave River.

With a new railroad and a water source, land agents quickly began to promote the high desert as a prime region for new settlements. Beginning in the late 1800s, the High Desert communities of Hesperia, Apple Valley, Victorville, Oro Grande, Barstow, and Daggett, sprang up along the banks of the Mojave River.

In 1887, Judge Robert M. Widney and a group of investors incorporated the Hesperia Land and Water Company. The company purchased 35,000 acres on the high desert mesa that would later become the town of Hesperia. The company also began filing claims on water from the east fork of the Mojave River (Deep Creek), to irrigate the new colony.

The key to the success of the Hesperia Colony was an irrigation project to bring water from Deep Creek. Touted as a “marvel of engineering skill,” the project known as the “Hesperia Ditch” included a water channel blasted through solid rock, a ditch, and piping, that brought the water to a reservoir near the present-day Lime Street Park.

Challenges to Widney’s water rights began even before a spade was turned to dig the Hesperia Ditch. Land owners downstream in Victor and Oro Grande voiced loud opposition to the taking of their water, but Widney continued, and completed the canal in 1888.

A new high desert colony named Minneola was laid out in 1893, about 7 miles east of Daggett. A subsurface dam was built to divert the underground flow of the Mojave River into the “Mineola Ditch,” and an 11-mile irrigation channel was constructed to bring water to the townsite. The big dreams soon went bust, and in spite of the canal, the desert metropolis never materialized.

The largest single water project on the Mojave River was conceived in 1889, by Adolph Koebig, a San Bernardino city engineer. Koebig proposed a project to dam the upper portion of Deep Creek, and divert the Mojave River water south, into the San Bernardino Valley for irrigation.

The huge irrigation project to create the Little Bear Reservoir (later renamed Lake Arrowhead) began construction despite harsh objections and legal challenges from the downstream Mojave River water users. By the time the dam was finally completed in 1922, the Mojave River water users had successfully used the courts to block diversion of the water to San Bernardino.

The Little Bear Reservoir project was re-purposed from an irrigation project, to a recreational lake, and the precious Deep Creek water continues to flow into the Mojave River today.

By the early 1960s, population growth in the High Desert communities began to seriously overdraft the Mojave River Basin. Plans were made to bring State Water Project water into the Mojave River Basin, but delivery didn’t begin until 1991.

The State Water Project now supplies water from Northern California to recharge stations located along the Mojave River that stretch from Hesperia to Daggett. The recharge water percolates into the soil, where it is stored in the groundwater basins, and then pumped out for use by local water agencies.

Today, just as in the pioneer days, innovative irrigation projects continue to make the Mojave River the lifeblood of the high desert communities.

July 12, 2015

Lost in the Desert: Proposed Mojave Trails National Monument Remains In Limbo

Route 66, America's "Mother Road," runs through the heart of the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument, but is in dire need of maintenance. Getting funding to pay for fixing washed-out bridges along Route 66 is lacking. (San Bernardino County)

By Alfred Runte
National Parks Traveler

If California's senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, has her way, Congress will finally vote on a new national monument encompassing 965,000 acres in the Mojave Desert. Other preservation measures are also planned. Lying roughly between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park, this particular monument would in effect round out the California Desert Protection Act of 1994.

To be called Mojave Trails, its heart would be a 105-mile segment of former U.S. Route 66. Now a county highway west of Needles, California, the critical segment ends approaching Barstow. No two-lane, paved highway in America is more significant; after all, this is America’s Mother Road. Beginning in the 1920s, millions resettling to California followed it west, as have millions of tourists ever since.

This is to explain the problem with Senator Feinstein’s proposal.

These days, historic Route 66 (also called the National Trails Highway) is indeed little better than a “trail.” Ever since losing its federal status, it has received only minimal, sporadic repairs. Finally, a series of washouts early last September tore several key bridges apart. Whole sections of the road were further covered with mud and debris. Initially pegged at $1.5 million, the repairs were expected to take two months. The work then ground to a halt on the insistence that three of the bridges needed to be replaced. Consequently, that half of the road—essentially midway between Needles and Barstow—remains closed.

“You’re kidding,” I said to myself, hoping to drive the entire segment in mid-June. But there it was—an imposing barricade, allowing access just for local residents. “They’ll fine you $600 if they catch you going around the barricade,” one bystander warned me.

Still, I decided to take the risk. Typical of desert washouts, a bulldozer had carved a temporary bypass. So much for a deliberative environmental study, allegedly a primary reason for the delayed repairs.

I then asked for an opinion about the repairs from the attendant at Roy’s Motel and CafĂ©, a popular tourist spot down the road at Amboy.

“They just keep making excuses,” he replied. “You know what I think? They’ve decided to abandon the road entirely.”

Fortunately for Roy’s, it further straddles the north/south route linking Interstate 40 and Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base. Business between both is always brisk. He meant the east/west highway—the public’s favorite—historic Route 66.

“Probably the county is broke and waiting for Senator Feinstein to come up with the money to make the repairs,” I said.

Indeed, when later I checked, the county’s website confirmed that it needs federal dollars, some of which allegedly have been obtained.

That would be San Bernardino County, the nation’s largest county by area, in which all of the new monument would lie. The problem is: Rebuilding the bridges has not even started yet; no one knows when the road will fully reopen.

“That’s nuts,” I thought. “Given the tourist dollars the highway generates, it should have been reopened as originally planned—two months tops.”

Meanwhile, tourists have no choice but to take Interstate 40. However, sightseeing on the Interstate is risky business, lest you be run down by a line of trucks. Either that or a truck will force you onto the shoulder while swinging out to pass a slower rig. Trucks do that in California—leapfrog into the left lane the moment you start to pass. On top of the trucks, California drivers have a bad habit of tailgating. I personally consider Interstate 40 a deathtrap and try avoiding it like the plague.

Besides, the scenery and history are on Route 66. It is also parallel to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, today’s successor to the legendary Santa Fe Railway that developed the South Rim of Grand Canyon. Trains now up to two miles in length zip across the desert floor at 65 mph plus. They’re as much fun to watch as the changing light patterns playing off the mountains near and far.

The point is that drivers are fascinated by both the scenery and the history, including hundreds of thousands of tourists from abroad. Germany appears to send the most. Certainly, the Germans I have met absolutely love the road, which is so unlike crowded Europe. Whole clubs have formed around antique cars and motorcycles meant to recreate American life in the 1960s. Club members fly to the United States after shipping their vehicles to some East or West Coast port. After reuniting with their precious cargo on the docks, everyone heads straight for historic Route 66.

Senator Feinstein is right. The desert landscape alone is of national park-caliber, and should have been included in the original California Desert Protection Act 21 years ago. However, the congressman representing the district was opposed. It was amazing that Congress preserved as much as it did. Equally amazing, the National Park Service gained control over Kelso Depot, the elegant wayside of the Union Pacific Railroad running through the Mojave National Preserve to the north.

Long before the depot’s restoration in 2006, my wife Christine and I were regular visitors, then to wonder whether the depot would survive—and how. Now we wonder the same about Route 66. The longer it remains closed the more the bureaucrats can say it is no longer needed. Tourists can take Interstate 40 and play bumper tag with the trucks.

San Bernardino County insists that is not the case. Rather history is partly to blame—along with those confounded environmental impact statements everyone these days is “forced” to write.

“These bridges are timber and were constructed in the 1930s,” notes Brendon Biggs, deputy director of public works.

Fine; we all get it. The replacement bridges should be historically and environmentally compatible. But how is that any excuse to delay fixing the road for months—and now possibly even years?

The county had to know washouts would happen at some point; serious thunderstorms occur every summer. Why couldn’t county officials have been ready to make a permanent repair—up to and including a historically compatible design—the minute a bridge washed out?

One suspects the answer to that—as with every government agency these days—is money. The funds needed went somewhere else. For that matter, not only is the county broke; the state and federal government are also broke. In the past, powerful U.S. senators got their way—and most certainly got their way on rebuilding roads. Now it would appear that everyone—including Senator Feinstein—is waiting for the monument to be approved.

But will it be approved? If not, she insists she will ask President Barack Obama to intervene using his executive powers under the Antiquities Act. That would work for the land, but what about the road? Tourists are still coming with or without the monument. Is this to be the new America—plead poverty and keep pointing fingers until our entire infrastructure just falls apart?

If the repairs seem expensive today, how does Senator Feinstein expect to afford them later? Perhaps hoping to bypass the Park Service’s alleged $11.5 billion backlog, Mojave Trails would go to BLM. In that case, it is likely Route 66 would stay with San Bernardino County, and what is more, add to the confusion of what is the difference between a national park and a national monument.

Why indeed BLM, when immediately north and south of Mojave Trails the land manager is the NPS? Well do I remember this. BLM did absolutely nothing to protect and/or restore Kelso Depot. Only when the Park Service acquired the station was it meticulously studied and ultimately saved. Will BLM protect Route 66? If there is even a shred of doubt, I say the Park Service should have Mojave Trails—or at least that portion of the national monument requiring preservation of the highway.

Meanwhile, the road is still split in two. If this were Germany or Switzerland, I kept telling myself last month, it would have been up and running within a week. But then, Europe makes no excuses when its roads (and railroads) go down. There (sans Greece, perhaps), people still expect discipline from government. Only America makes the frivolous argument that the “environment” stands in the way (forget the bulldozers carving bypasses), when what really stands in the way is a bureaucracy eating up all the funds with “studies” and “consultants.”

Senator Feinstein needs to clear the air. Although her monument is a worthy project, the ifs here are doubly worrisome. If the Park Service cannot afford it, how is it any different at BLM? If BLM is not committed to historic preservation, how will that ever change in this monument? Especially here, access to the monument is everything. Route 66 needs to be a priority, not just an afterthought. Along with side roads and other historical alignments, its renovation is long overdue.

San Bernardino County admits it can never do that without a significant infusion of federal funds. Why not just give those funds to the Park Service and be done with it? Probably San Bernardino County would stand up and cheer. Yes, you take care of the road.

As for BLM, they don’t do parks very well. One day, the nation will have to decide. If indeed a national monument is actually a national park in waiting, why wait to have it managed by the NPS?

All I know is that I wanted to drive the road last month, and no one seemed to be in charge. You fix the road. No, you fix it. But yes, perhaps we should do another study. Does that sound like the country we grew up in?

Rather, when I was in high school and college, Californians were proud to say that as we go, so goes the nation. In that case, Route 66 is an even bigger wakeup call. When every level of government fails a public treasure like the Mother Road, it is reasonable, however painful, to admit that the nation is finally out of gas.