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 Café, 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.

July 5, 2015

Las Vegas completing last straw to draw Lake Mead water

A worker stands near the end of a tunnel still under construction beneath Lake Mead near Boulder City, Nev. When operational, the three-mile-long tunnel and intake will allow the Southern Nevada Water Authority to draw water from Lake Mead even if its water level falls below the two current intakes. (AP Photo/John Locher)


LAS VEGAS (AP) — It took $817 million, two starts, more than six years and one worker's life to drill a so-called "Third Straw" to make sure glittery casinos and sprawling suburbs of Las Vegas can keep getting drinking water from near the bottom of drought-stricken Lake Mead.

The pipeline, however, won't drain the largest Colorado River reservoir any faster. It's designed to ensure that Las Vegas can still get water if the lake surface drops below two existing supply intakes.

"You turn on the tap, you don't think about it," said Noah Hoefs, a pipeline project manager for the Las Vegas-based Southern Nevada Water Authority. "These are the things being done in order to live the lifestyle we want in the places we want to live."

It's the latest example of ways the parched West is scrambling to deal with 15 years of unprecedented drought.

California is encouraging homeowners to rip out thirsty lawns and asking farmers to turn off spigots. And in New Mexico, a $550 million pipeline project would supply drinking water to several communities that run the risk of having wells go dry within a decade.

Las Vegas started in 1999 to conserve, reuse and replenish supplies. When Lake Mead water levels plummeted in 2002, regional water officials began drawing up plans for the pipeline.

"Unlike California and our other partners on the river, we are almost entirely reliant on Lake Mead," said John Entsminger, water authority general manager. "We couldn't afford to wait."

Sin City gets about 90 percent of its drinking water from the lake behind Hoover Dam, itself an engineering marvel that cost the lives of about 100 workers during five years of construction before it was completed in 1936.

The need for the new pipeline can be seen in the wide white mineral band marking rock canyon walls where lake water has receded and the sun-bleached docks at abandoned marinas, left high and dry.

The water level has dropped almost the equivalent of a 20-story building since Lake Mead last topped the dam's spillways in 1983.

The pipeline resembles a subway tunnel 55 stories below Lake Mead's Saddle Island, reinforced with more than 2,400 6-foot jigsaw sections of concrete. A $25 million drilling rig the length of two football fields ground nearly 3 miles through solid rock to reach the intake structure a minute before noon last Dec. 10.

Jim Nickerson, project manager for Vegas Tunnel Constructors, a subsidiary of Italy-based Impregilo, peered during a recent tour into the circular intake, which is designed somewhat like a big bathtub drain. The 100-foot structure was lowered in March 2012 into what once was a Colorado River canyon and cemented into place with the equivalent of 1,200 truckloads of concrete.

Its dome roof was capped by a 1,900-pound stainless steel ball.

A steel cap on top of a water intake riser holds back the water of Lake Mead in a tunnel still under construction near Boulder City, Nev. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Above that was about 300 feet of water. The lake is about 37 percent of capacity, but still contains trillions of gallons of water — mostly snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

When the intake is flooded, water pressure in the tunnel will approximate water pressure in the lake. Nickerson said the ball plug will become buoyant enough for a crane on a barge to lift it.

"End of the year, we're done," he said.

Pumping will mark completion of a perilous project.

The tunnel flooded in July 2010, when a drilling machine hit a geologic fault, and flooded again five months later. Project engineers abandoned and capped the first tunnel and started a new one in a different direction.

In June 2012, tunnel worker Thomas Albert Turner died. He was a married, 44-year-old father of two from Henderson whose brother also worked on the pipeline.

Pulling the plug won't hasten creation of the "bathtub ring" around the lake. Blame drought for that — and exponential growth in a desert area that averages just over 4 inches of rain per year.

Las Vegas had about 126,000 residents when it began drawing water from Lake Mead in 1971. It now has 2 million residents and 40 million tourists a year.

The top of the new intake structure is at 860 feet. That's 40 feet below so-called "dead pool" at which Hoover Dam electricity turbines would be idled and no water would flow downstream.

Water managers let the Lake Mead level fall to a new record low late Tuesday, at 1,074.98 feet. They say the lake level will rise by the end of the year to about 1,081 feet. That's 6 feet above the trigger point that would require a percentage cut in water supplies to Arizona and Nevada.

Officials are currently giving Lake Mead a nearly 50-50 chance of ending 2016 below the 1,075-foot trigger point — unless the drought is broken.

BLM’s Burning Man requests outrageous


Strip VIP hosts are breathing sighs of relief from Wynn Las Vegas to Mandalay Bay. They might have their hands full satisfying all kinds of requests from their guests this holiday weekend, but they know they could be stuck with far more outrageous demands. They could be dealing with the BLM.

If Nevadans needed any more proof that U.S. Bureau of Land Management leaders are arrogant, entitled and disconnected, they need only read a tremendous series of stories recently published by the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Rugged outdoorsmen need not apply to the Interior Department. As reported by the newspaper’s Jenny Kane, the BLM asked the organizers of the upcoming Burning Man counterculture festival to build a million-dollar luxury compound — supplied with a ridiculous list of snacks, food and amenities at the festival’s expense — to accommodate the federal employees charged with staffing Black Rock City later this summer. The request, which would raise the festival’s land use costs to roughly $5 million, has become a stumbling block for organizers, who need a permit from the BLM to stage their event in northwestern Nevada.

Burning Man is famous for extreme conditions and the self-reliance of its attendees — two things BLM employees want no part of. The implication of the request was clear: The permit for the already sold-out festival, which will attract up to 80,000 people to the desert the week leading up to Labor Day, could be denied if the BLM’s VIPs aren’t provided with flushing toilets, showers, hot water, refrigerators, couches, washers, dryers, Choco Tacos, M&Ms, licorice, Chobani Greek Yogurt, steaks and 24-hour access to ice cream.

What, no bottle service or spa treatments?

In an interview with the Gazette-Journal, Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., whose district includes the Black Rock Desert, questioned the origin of the request.

“I don’t think it was driven out of Nevada. I think it was driven out of Utah, or D.C., or both,” he said. “We have a big problem: 15 VIP accommodations and soft-serve ice cream 24 hours a day. With all due respect, those dots do not connect.”

That’s almost $67,000 per employee for a week in the sticks. Those are some awfully expensive manicures. (“Ethel, I said the clear nail polish!”)

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., also had a big problem with the extravagance. In a pointed letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Sen. Reid reminded her of the cultural benefits and economic boost Burning Man has brought to the state for the past 23 years, and reiterated the philosophy and logistics of the festival.

“While I agree that the BLM should take its permitting duties seriously and work with Burning Man to both guarantee the safety of its participants and the protection of the environment, providing outlandishly unnecessary facilities for the BLM and its guests should be beyond the scope of the permitting requirements,” he wrote. “Flush toilets and laundry facilities can be found about ten miles away in Gerlach, Nevada, if BLM’s employees need such amenities.”

The BLM’s request bordered on extortion: “You want your permit? Then give us our ice cream!” The fallout from the demands has compelled the BLM to reconsider its needs at Burning Man. Good.

The demands, while ridiculous, make perfect sense. The BLM can’t manage the land. It can’t manage wild horse herds. It can’t prevent wildfires. Its sheltered staffers know nothing about the land, so they couldn’t possibly be expected to rough it while monitoring a counterculture celebration that’s all about leaving civilization behind. They think the public’s land is their land, and they resent leaving the comforts of their offices and homes to protect it from the unwashed masses.

Here’s an idea for the BLM: provide some basic camping courses to your staff — in the outdoors, not at a five-star hotel — and hire fewer wimps.

July 1, 2015

Eagle Mountain hydropower plant takes big step forward

A massive iron ore mining pit at Eagle Mountain in the remote desert east of the Coachella Valley. The Eagle Mountain iron mine was built in 1948 and closed in 1982. Today, some conservationists believe the old mine should become part of Joshua Tree National Park, which surrounds it on three sides. Eagle Mountain is just miles from the 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight solar plant, which is set to come fully online in January, and the small town of Desert Center. (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

Sammy Roth
The Desert Sun

A controversial proposal to build a hydropower plant in the shadow of Joshua Tree National Park cleared a major hurdle Wednesday, in a surprising development that frustrated conservationists but encouraged some renewable energy advocates.

After two decades of trying to acquire the old Eagle Mountain iron mine — which was carved out of the southeast corner of Joshua Tree more than 60 years ago — the Eagle Crest Energy Company has finally succeeded. The Los Angeles-based firm announced Wednesday that it has purchased the site from the company formerly known as Kaiser Ventures, which built the long-dormant iron mine and for years refused to sell.

Eagle Crest's plan to build a 1,300-megawatt hydroelectric power plant — using billions of gallons of groundwater that would be drawn from an underground aquifer — still has to overcome several regulatory obstacles. But the proposal is now closer than ever to becoming a reality.

The project's backers say it would help California build more solar and wind power, a key priority as the state moves toward a 50 percent renewable energy mandate. The hydroelectric plant would work like a battery, storing excess energy generated by solar and wind farms when supply exceeds demand, and then releasing that energy when demand exceeds supply.

"As Riverside County continues to increase its role in delivering renewable power to the rest of California, we need to find ways to store energy for use at times when solar and wind are not generating power," county Supervisor John Benoit said in a statement released by Eagle Crest. "This project helps make renewable energy sources more viable, and in an environmentally sensitive manner."

But conservation groups and national parks advocates have slammed the proposal, saying it would waste water, harm several threatened species and use more energy than it generates. Many of them want to see Eagle Mountain added to Joshua Tree National Park, saying it has historic value as a well-preserved mining boomtown, in addition to conservation value.

"The costs significantly outweigh the benefits here," said David Lamfrom, California desert program director for the National Parks Conservation Association. "Whether you're looking at it from the angle of water or the angle of wildlife, this corporation wins and the public loses."

Nothing is simple when it comes to Eagle Mountain, which has been the subject of fiery debate in recent years.

Industrialist Henry Kaiser founded the iron mine and built the adjacent town in the 1950s, but the mine was shut down in the early 1980s as production of steel in the United States waned. For more than 25 years, the Kaiser subsidiary that still owned the site wanted to sell it to the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, which would have turned it into a massive garbage dump. But that plan got tied up in court, and eventually the agency backed off.

Even when that plan fell through, Kaiser officials insisted they wouldn't sell the site to Eagle Crest, saying they had received a great deal of interest from mining companies. Eagle Mountain still has millions of tons of iron ore.

The deal with Eagle Crest is something of a compromise, because Kaiser will retain the right to sell rock and iron ore tailings that already sit in plain view at Eagle Mountain. A Kaiser representative didn't respond to a request for comment Wednesday, but the company will presumably try to sell that right to another company, since it has been in bankruptcy for several years.

That deal will no doubt frustrate conservationists, who oppose the hydropower plant as well as further mining.

In order to fill the reservoirs of the hydroelectric plant, about nine billion gallons of groundwater would be pumped from the aquifer under the Chuckwalla Valley over a period of four years. Eagle Crest officials have argued that's a small fraction of the groundwater held in the aquifer, and equivalent to the annual consumption of two Coachella Valley golf courses.

Conservation groups, though, say that kind of water consumption is irresponsible, especially during a historic drought. Park officials also worry that drawing on the aquifer could harm threatened species in and around the park.

"The potential that we could substantially deplete all of the springs in these three basins terrifies me," David Smith, superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park, told The Desert Sun last year. "It has the potential for wiping out bighorn sheep populations from all those areas."

Local activists have also accused Kaiser of illegally conspiring with state mining officials to keep control of Eagle Mountain, arguing that the company should have been required to give the site back to the federal government after it stopped mining iron.

For renewable energy advocates, the question of how to ramp up intermittent renewables like solar and wind — which only generate electricity when the sun shines or the wind blows — has long been a major challenge. With Californian lawmakers likely to adopt a 50 percent renewable energy mandate in the next few months, that challenge has become more pressing.

Right now, utility companies generally turn to natural gas-fired power plants, which contribute to climate change, to help integrate more solar and wind onto the grid. Some renewable energy experts say "pumped storage" projects like Eagle Mountain can help reduce the need for natural gas.

That argument appealed to Benoit, a longtime renewable energy supporter. The Riverside County supervisor said that while more environmental review is needed, he's hopeful the project's benefits will outweigh its potential impacts on water and wildlife.

"Those are issues that will be evaluated thoroughly in the environmental process," he said in an interview. "My guess is, it will come in on the side of, 'Yes, it does make sense.'"

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted a license for the Eagle Mountain hydroelectric plant last year, but the proposal still needs to clear several legal hurdles, despite Eagle Crest now owning the land.

For one, the National Park Service petitioned the energy commission to reconsider its decision last August, and the agency has yet to respond to that request. Eagle Crest also still needs approval from the federal Bureau of Land Management to build transmission lines across public lands.

The biggest obstacle, though, could be pushback from local activists and national parks advocates, who could try to keep the hydroelectric plant tied up in court. Some have pointed out that parts of Eagle Mountain are designated for conservation under the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, an ongoing state-federal effort that would lay the ground rules for the next 25 years of clean energy development and conservation across the California desert.

Eagle Crest submitted comments to the Bureau of Land Management asking it to reverse those designations.

June 27, 2015

Endangered Amargosa voles return to Mojave Desert

University of California, Davis veterinary professor Janet Foley holds an Amargosa vole in Shoshone, Calif. Twelve endangered voles were set free at a spring-fed marsh near Tecopa, Calif. (Jeff Scheid/Las Vegas Review-Journal)


SHOSHONE, Calif. — The Davis Dozen is on the loose.

Shortly after sunrise Friday morning, 12 endangered Amargosa voles raised at the University of California in Davis were set free in the waist-high grass at a spring-fed marsh near the tiny town of Tecopa, about 90 miles west of Las Vegas.

It marked the first release of captive-bred voles into the wild since the rare rodent was added to the endangered species list more than 30 years ago.

A group of bleary-eyed members of the Amargosa Vole Team celebrated with coffee and a hard-earned nap.

Brian Croft is acting division chief for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in California’s Mojave Desert. He came out to observe the release and wound up as one of four people who camped out at the marsh with the voles Thursday night.

Croft said breeding the animals in captivity and releasing them into the wild has been part of the agency’s recovery plan since the 1990s, and now it’s finally happening.

“It’s really a momentous thing for us,” he said.


The operation began Wednesday in Davis, where team members loaded their test subjects into cages for the 500-mile-plus drive to a mobile home in Shoshone they would use as their bunkhouse and staging area.

On Thursday morning, the collection of veterinarians, biologists and graduate students gathered around the dining table to prep the voles — six males and six females, including four mated pairs, all roughly the size of a cardboard toilet paper tube and ranging in age from about 6 months to a year.

Each animal was placed in a zippered plastic bag and weighed before being injected with a small identification chip known as a PIT tag just under the skin behind its head.

“It’s the same thing you give dogs and cats and criminals, only smaller,” said UC Davis veterinary professor Janet Foley, co-leader of the species recovery project.

Eight of the test subjects also were injected with tiny doses of anesthetic to knock them out long enough to be fitted with radio tracking collars weighing less than a nickel.

The collars will allow the research team to track the voles’ movements until the batteries die in about three months — or the animal gets eaten.

Foley said “everything” preys on the dark-brown rodents, including coyotes, bobcats, owls, egrets, falcons, snakes, bullfrogs and even the occasional house cat.

But the biggest threat to the species is habitat loss. The Amargosa vole is only found in a handful of marshes east of Death Valley, where it survives on an exclusive diet of heat-loving bulrush that greens up as the temperature rises to 120 and beyond.

Over the past three years, drought and human disturbance led to the destruction of most of the rodent’s core habitat around Tecopa, prompting emergency collection of 20 juvenile voles in July amid concern the species could disappear in as little as a year.

Those voles have been breeding at UC Davis ever since, building a captive colony that now includes about 60 animals. Foley expects that number to double by year’s end, depending on the success of Friday’s operation and another pilot release planned later this summer.


One of the first voles prepped Thursday was a beefy 6-month-old male that topped the scales at well over 100 grams.

“He’s one of the largest males we’ve made,” said a proud Risa Pesapane, the UC Davis graduate student who runs the captive breeding program.

“He’s just a handsome specimen of voleness ready to go out and find a wife,” Foley added.

As she examined another animal a short time later, a smile spread across Foley’s face. “She’s pregnant,” the veterinarian said.

Doing some quick math in her head, Pesapane guessed this surprise litter would arrive within the next week or two, the first of many wild-born voles the team hopes to produce.

“I want this to be successful because I don’t really want to own a zoo of Amargosa voles,” Foley said later. “I want to see them recovered out here.”

At dusk Thursday the voles were transferred into wire cages placed in the marsh two months ago so they could spend the night getting used to the sights, sounds and smells while safe from predators.

Four members of the team camped out nearby to keep watch on the cages, sleeping in shifts so at least two people were on sentry duty at any one time. Foley said a few coyotes came around during the night but were chased away with a flood light.

At about 6:10 a.m. Friday the cage doors were opened so the voles could begin exploring their new home. Within a few hours, several of the animals had ventured into the surrounding marsh.

For four members of the Davis Dozen, the release was a homecoming. They were among the 20 juveniles hastily captured in July.

Since then, Pesapane said, the four “originals” have paired off and mated, producing three or four litters each. They are now back in the wild in a different, better-quality marsh than the one where they were born.

The team plans to document the voles’ movements for at least the next week and to return in a month. The animals will be tracked and trapped regularly for genetic and disease testing and to “check for babies,” Foley said.

“That’s the million-dollar question with one of these captive-bred voles,” said Deana Clifford, a California Department of Fish and Wildlife veterinarian and Foley’s co-lead on the recovery project. “Will it breed with a wild vole that’s already out there in that marsh?”


This is by no means the only vole work underway.

Foley said scientists at the University of California, Berkeley are performing genetic comparisons of the captive and wild populations, while a researcher at Purdue University assembles a detailed map of the species’ DNA.

“We’re going to have an Amargosa vole genome in a month,” she said.

Meanwhile, efforts are underway to restore and expand existing marshes in the area and to create new habitat on nearby public and private land. That work is being led by another UC Davis graduate student, Stephanie Castle, whose knowledge of bulrush and her success cultivating it has earned her the nickname “vole lunch lady.”

It’s literally a game of inches. On Thursday afternoon, Castle stopped to inspect the plants and water at what was once the area’s largest and lushest marsh. The sudden loss of this habitat is what prompted last year’s emergency capture of juvenile voles.

Castle hopes to restore the marsh to its former glory by slowly raising the water level an inch or two at a time to spur new growth without drowning voles still there.

Though the exact population is unknown, there might only be a few hundred Amargosa voles left in the wild.

They were first collected and described by naturalists in the late 1800s, but habitat destruction by early settlers led scientists to declare the animal extinct in the early 1900s.

The rodent was rediscovered in the late 1970s and listed as endangered by the state of California and the federal government in the early 1980s.

The Amargosa Vole Team originally planned to release 29 voles in April, all of them captive bred, but that operation ended in disaster when all but three died in their cages during the trip from Davis. Researchers later determined the voles probably were killed by a combination of heat, dehydration and stress.

The team took a host of precautions this time around, including transporting the voles in larger cages surrounded by circulating fans and temperature gauges. To avoid the daytime heat, they made the roughly 10-hour drive at night.

They arrived in Shoshone before dawn Thursday morning, exhausted but ready for a happy ending.

June 11, 2015

National monument becoming watershed moment

Local officials face off against environmentalists

Map courtesy of Grand Canyon Wildlands Council

Hubble Ray Smith
Kingman Daily Miner

KINGMAN - Anyone who has visited the Grand Canyon easily recognizes that it's one of the world's great natural wonders and must be protected.

But what about the vast stretches of forest and desert surrounding Grand Canyon National Park that contain some of the world's richest uranium deposits and provide grazing for cattle?

Mohave County elected officials and congressional representatives of Arizona are pushing back against the Sierra Club and other environmentalists who want to take down 1.7 million acres of federal land for the Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument.

They're opposed to forming the proposed national monument by presidential executive order, rather than by congressional action.

Creating a new and enormous national monument amounts to a "significant federal land grab," Mohave County Sheriff Jim McCabe said. It would add federal regulations to any use of the public land, including ranching, hunting, fishing and recreational activity.

"We're looking at this going from a wilderness area that allows all those things to a sanctuary that stops all those things," McCabe told the Daily Miner. "You're allowed to walk on it and that's it."

McCabe wants to know who's going to be responsible for fire protection, and what happens to Mohave County's water rights currently in place.

"It is just this sort of federal overreach that has led to proposals for states to assume control of huge areas of public land in the American West," McCabe said. "Creation of vast new national monuments not by congressional debate and action, but by presidential executive order, even while lawful, would contribute further to distrust of the federal action."

A national monument is a permanent designation for public land that can be established either by Congress or directly by the president. The Antiquities Act, signed into law in 1906, gives the president the authority to protect valuable public lands for conservation purposes by designating them as national monuments.

The proposed Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument includes the North Kaibab and Tusayan districts of the Kaibab National Forest, as well as public lands in the Arizona Strip, all managed by the U.S. Forest Service and BLM.

"The monument designation will include only public lands, so there is no land grab," said Sandy Bahr, director of Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter. "Private and state trust lands will not be part of the proposed monument."

Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both R-Ariz., have written letters to President Barack Obama opposing the monument designation. They say it would restrict land managers and private property owners from forest thinning, which could increase fire danger. It would also ban hunting, making wildlife management difficult.

Bahr countered that previous monument declarations by the president included language that makes it clear that the state retains its authority to manage wildlife. They do not limit hunting and fishing, she said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, along with McCain and Flake, introduced a bill in May to prevent the president from changing federal water-rights designation of lands declared to be national monuments.

Monumental support

Proponents of the watershed say it remains at risk from threats such as toxic uranium mining and the logging of old-growth forest.

Bahr of the Sierra Club said the watershed covers some "spectacular" public lands, including portions of the Kaibab National Forest, House Rock Valley and the Kaibab-Paunsagunt Wildlife Corridor, a key wildlife habitat the Kaibab squirrel, the northern goshawk, the Kaibab-Paunsagunt mule deer herd, mountain lion, and the endangered California condor.

The lands are distinguished by rugged cliffs, pine forests, deep canyons and grasslands, and they provide clean drinking water for millions of people downstream who depend on the Colorado River.

Geologists warn that uranium mining could deplete and contaminate aquifers that discharge into the Grand Canyon, and that cleaning them up would be next to impossible.

"Uranium is radioactive and toxic," Bahr said. "Uranium mining has a big impact, contaminating land and waters, including on the Navajo Nation and in Grand Canyon National Park itself."

The Orphan Mine, on the South Rim in Grand Canyon National Park, has contaminated Horn Creek and still leaches radioactive waste into the creek, she said. The National Park Service has spent more than $15 million of American taxpayers' dollars to pay for the cleanup, she noted. There are hundreds of abandoned uranium mines on Navajo lands that still need to be cleaned up.

Protecting the land from mining is a "non-issue" as the BLM has placed a 20-year moratorium on new claims, and there's very little logging taking place in the area, said Tom Britt, retired from Arizona Game and Fish in Flagstaff.

"It's about control over restoration and protection of the forest," Britt said. "What we need to do is look to see if it's a problem. No. The area is already adequately administered by the U.S. Forest Service and BLM. So all we're doing is ratcheting up administrative overhead in that area, which is not needed. What is the intent? To restrict activities?"

People can say hunting is not going to be restricted, but once the land is designated a national monument, there will be a management plan and "the devil will be in the details," Britt said.

A contingent of 36 Democratic state senators and representatives sent a letter to President Obama in March urging him to designate the Grand Canyon watershed as a national monument.

"Arizona has a rich history of presidents taking action to protect its natural wonders, including early on the protection of Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest by President Theodore Roosevelt," the letter stated. "We ask that you now look to Grand Canyon's watershed on the lands north and south of Grand Canyon National Park for a new national monument."

National monument designation does not affect private or state lands or private property rights. It provides for continued existing activities, including public access, rights-of-way, sightseeing, mountain biking, hiking, wildlife viewing, birding, hunting, fishing, and many other activities, including traditional tribal access.

As legislators pointed out in their letter, all of these cultural, economic and natural assets are at risk from "harmful" uranium mining.

Among other groups supporting the Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument are the Arizona Wilderness Coalition; Grand Canyon Wildlands Council; Grand Canyon River Guides; Environment Arizona; and Northern Arizona Audubon Society.

"Public lands belong to all of us, and as a consequence of that shared ownership and shared responsibility, we can't allow a handful of special interest groups with an agenda cloaked in economic recovery and jobs to dominate the conversation as to what happens to these special places," said U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.

Economic impact

The Grand Canyon attracts about 4.5 million visitors a year, and generates nearly $800 million for the state and local economies.

The U.S. Department of Interior's 2012 decision to ban more than 1 million acres of public lands from future uranium mining is detrimental to the growth of the local economy, Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson said. The decision was overturned in April in U.S. District Court.

Uranium mining would bring $29.4 billion to the local economy over more than 40 years, employing 1,078 workers with a $40 million annual payroll, according to a 2009 report from Tetra Tech of Golden, Colo. Local governments would receive $9.5 million in claims payments and fees.

"It's shutting down the use of our natural resources," Johnson said. "Uranium mining could kick off the economy for years to come, plus we need it for the security of the nation. They always bring up how it's ruining the Grand Canyon. Nothing is close to the Grand Canyon."

The uranium veins are not that large, more like "crop circles" in a small, localized area of the desert, Johnson noted. The footprint of disturbed land is small, and after reclamation efforts, you can't tell where it's been, he said.

Anti-mining forces have pushed the Department of Interior to change the rules on mining claims so that exploration would not be allowed unless a company could prove before the fact that economically-viable mineral resources exist.

"It depends on the price of uranium and the price to bring it out," Johnson said.

Existing mining claims would not be affected by the monument designation. However, lands currently under the BLM's 20-year moratorium would be permanently protected from mining.

"Our economy is not going to recover with traditional manufacturing jobs," Johnson said. "What we need to do is go back to our roots that led to Arizona being developed, and that is mining."

May 11, 2015

Colorado River and drought: Arizona's dam problem

Glen Canyon Dam, Arizona. (Ariane Middel/Flickr)

Jon Talton - Rogue Columnist
Tucson Sentinel

A photo hangs in my study showing my mother at Glen Canyon Dam, posing with officials of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Interior Department and Arizona State Senate. She is the only woman in the group and represents the Arizona Interstate Stream Commission, the quiet but powerful state agency fighting for the Central Arizona Project. The year is 1965 and the 710-foot-tall stark white (at the time) arched structure that impounds Colorado River water in Lake Powell will begin full operations a year later. She has the satisfied expression of a woman who never met a dam she didn't like (that would change later, as it would for many involved, when they realized the unintended consequences of what they had wrought). But she and some of her colleagues also knew they were pulling a kind of confidence game on California and the Upper Basin states. More about that later.

I've been studying that photo as Arizonans who are paying attention read about how persistent drought is reducing the water released from Lake Powell. A Bureau of Reclamation study says the drought is the worst in a century (it is actually worse than that, but such is the record keeping), and less water will be sent downstream to Arizona, Nevada and California than at any time since when Powell filled — when that photo was taken. The local-yokels say, it's no big deal. But they always say that.

It is a big deal.

Understanding why requires at least a cursory knowledge of Glen Canyon Dam and its history. I promise this won't hurt at all. Although it lacks the art deco majesty of Hoover Dam, Glen Canyon is still an amazing feat, the fourth tallest dam in the United States. But it was an accidental dam. When the Colorado River Compact was signed in 1922, the document divided the Father of Southwestern Waters among the seven states it drains. California already had its straw in the river, so to speak, creating the Imperial Valley, and the other states were desperate to avoid losing all the water to the Golden State. Arizona, small and lacking political power, was among them (and refused to sign the compact for another 24 years). But there was also concern among the Upper Basin states, those above the marker at Lee's Ferry, Ariz.: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. This only grew when Hoover Dam and Lake Mead were completed in 1936, primarily for the benefit of Los Angeles.

The Bureau of Reclamation — whose hammer was dams and every problem was a nail — wanted to build a major reservoir for the use of the Upper Basin in Echo Canyon. The Bureau did not like Glen Canyon, particularly because the Navajo sandstone of the walls was porous and potentially unreliable. The rock was the opposite of the granite to which Hoover was attached. But the Echo Canyon Dam would have inundated Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado.

The battle led to the birth of the modern Western environmental movement. The Sierra Club persuaded the Eisenhower administration and Congress to kill the Echo project and build at Glen Canyon instead. This was an endeavor only eclipsed by Hoover — the site was entirely isolated; Page didn't exist. Soon after the project was authorized, Sierra Club President David Brower toured the canyon for the first time and saw its singular beauty. Brower called the compromise he had led his "greatest sin."

Arizona, one of the three Lower Basin states, always supported Glen Canyon. It was moving on multiple fronts to get its full allotment of Colorado River water, which for decades California had been taking. By the late 1940s, it had two powerful senators, Ernest McFarland and Carl Hayden, working in Congress to secure the funds for the Central Arizona Project. In the 1950s, Mark Wilmer and Charlie Reed took over the landmark Arizona v. California, the longest case in Supreme Court history. Arizona won the suit, and the water, in 1963. Novel and clever legal tactics caused the court to remove the Gila River's water from Arizona's allotment. The state's plan was to get the Bureau of Reclamation to build dams at Marble Canyon and Bridge Canyon. The former would especially provide power to pump water in a canal to Phoenix and Tucson. The latter would be a reservoir, entirely in the state, from which CAP water could be drawn (the original plan was to send the water by gravity south, as opposed to the canal finally built from Lake Havasu). Glen Canyon was a useful hedge, storing water and gathering silt. It didn't matter that the water in Lake Powell primarily belonged to the Upper Basin. Those states lacked a canal to Lake Powell. The lake became the Upper Basin's water stock only insofar as it held water that could be measured off what was used upstream. By the Law of the River, a certain amount would have to be released down the river to the Lower Basin.

You know that when the 1922 Compact was drawn up, it used water measures from particularly wet seasons on a fickle river. You may not know that many experts understood this at the time. Later, it was used as testimony against allowing construction of the CAP. But Arizona was united in getting its legal allotment, damn the other states. Hence, the confidence game. Things started to go awry when environmentalists successfully defeated first Marble Canyon and then Bridge Canyon. Easterners, aghast at the prospect of turning part of the Grand Canyon into a reservoir, helped push back the Western Water interests. It was the Sierra Club's high mark and the end of the dam-building frenzy that had turned the Colorado River into a massive plumbing system.

The federal government funded the Central Arizona Project, which is ever more an essential prop of a state with 6.5 million people — not a rightful allotment for agriculture and 1 million people as it was sold. Arizona put its straw in behind Parker Dam, finished in 1938 to serve LA's Metropolitan Water District through the Colorado River Aqueduct. The 336-mile CAP canal is an engineering marvel. But it is far less efficient than the Bridge Canyon "gravity route."

It requires massive energy "inputs" (from the coal-belching Navajo Generating Station) to heave the water over the mountains and then on to Phoenix and up 2,000 feet to Tucson. Nor has the CAP really achieved its other promised goal: To stop the groundwater looting in Pinal and Pima counties. The canal also suffers huge evaporation — a growing problem at lakes Powell and Mead.

Now the troubles accumulate. Arizona's hard-won 2.8 million acre-feet per year is not guaranteed if the river falls to a certain level, which we are now reaching. California's allotment, however, is. The Gila River, which was once navigable by small craft all the way into New Mexico, is dry most of the year below Coolidge Dam. Its water, a big portion of which belongs to Indian tribes, was diverted over the decades to white farmers. Settling the tribal claims was a condition of the CAP. Now nine tribes have fully settled and four remain in adjudication. Many tribes may never get real justice, restitution for their stolen water. It may be many years, if ever, before all the tribes can utilize the water. But the Gila River Pimas are at least now in a powerful veto position. And their water will come from Arizona's allotment. Oh, Las Vegas: When the Compact was signed and amended, nobody ever imagined a major metropolitan area at the tip of Nevada, which is entitled to a tiny fraction of the river's bounty.

Local warming and climate change are the biggest danger, both to the Colorado and to the Salt River Project. This is real and happening now. As for Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, the water is going down, huge amounts also lost to evaporation, and Arizona's insurance policy is not guaranteed. Indeed, the Upper Basin will never allow itself to be swindled again. Although advanced techniques were used to secure the dam into the Navajo sandstone, Glen Canyon is the least stable of the major American dams. It is meant to move slightly. And it does. It also faces significant challenges with its spillways as silt accumulates. The heroic plumbing system that destroyed the Colorado River but allowed for millions to live in the Pacific Southwest — the dream of the Hohokam, who only lacked the technology — is breaking down. Lake Powell is only the most evident problem. The Colorado beneath the dam is dying. Removing or re-engineering the dam may be the only solution.

It has become a local cottage industry to produce articles shooting down "Phoenix is doomed" books and articles. I haven't seen the response to William Debuys' powerful reality check. Or the wider water problems in the American West. Almost all of these apologias can be discounted. Arizona's water situation is complicated. What is not open for serious debate is whether the state can continue to add population in the sprawl, single-family-house, "Sun Corridor" model. It may try. The Wall Street Boyz are buying houses, financing some new projects in the affluent suburbs of Phoenix. The local yokels take it for a recovery, an affirmation. Please, God, give me one more real-estate boom — with championship golf. No one in power is working on a sustainable future.

But the old game — all the old cons and hustles — is over. The only question is whether Phoenix (and the rest of Arizona) adjusts easy or hard. I fear it will be the latter, with horrific consequences for everything I love there.

The famous hypothesis of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross holds that someone facing death or another deep trauma goes through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Maybe. But it doesn't work that way collectively and Arizona is the prime example. Faced with an existential crisis, it is stuck in denial gear, sometimes slipping into anger, but nothing more. Think of your friend's old truck in high school where the clutch is finally, fatally, blown. Only you stay on the side of the road for decades claiming "everything's fine!"

One parting thought: It doesn't really matter whether the politicians and real-estate jocks — no leaders with vision and means to affect the argument are left — get the reality bearing down on Phoenix. Reality doesn't care. How often a smart person says to me, "Well, Phoenix (or Arizona) is running out of water." Americans are increasingly paying attention, with consequences that will go beyond tourism. Even dust storms that are common to the Sonoran Desert have become big national news, and not in an "everything's fine!" way.

Behind the scenes, an Arizona insider told me, "People are alarmed." Yet the "austerity" that so enamors the Kooks has captured what passes for the political "center" in the United States. The Haydens, McFarlands, Udalls and Rhodeses are gone. Jon Kyl, who led the Indian water settlement, has retired, leaving the state without a water expert in the Senate for the first time. So Arizona can't expect a federal bailout from this gathering (dust) storm. Indeed, the Tea Partiers who rolled in from the Midwest and thoughtlessly turn on their water taps in Surprise and Gilbert apparently think this magnificent audacious waterworks was created by Ayn Rand and Dagny Taggart. Or they think they think. Beneath the denial, all they have is attitude: "I got mine and whatever happens — hell, I'll be dead by then." After them, no deluge.

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan who runs the blog Rogue Columnist. He is a former op-ed and business columnist of the Arizona Republic and now is economics columnist of the Seattle Times.

May 8, 2015

Project pumping desert water for O.C. to begin next year

Cadiz Valley Water Project
Orange County Register

Construction for a project that will pump drinking water from a Mojave Desert aquifer and pipe it to south Orange County is slated to begin early next year.

Los Angeles-based Cadiz Inc. plans to install wells to capture water from the natural aquifer that lies beneath 70 square miles of remote valley east of Twentynine Palms. The private developer which owns the land would also build an underground 43-mile pipeline along railroad right-of-way to the Colorado River Aqueduct, which delivers water to Southern California residents.

Once built, Cadiz plans to lease the facilities to a joint powers authority created by the Santa Margarita Water District, which will oversee day-to-day operation of the well and pipeline.

Santa Margarita hopes the project will reduce the district’s reliance on the wholesaler Metropolitan Water District, from which Santa Margarita buys 85 percent of its water. The MWD has increased water prices over the last two decades.

The well would pump some 16 billion gallons of water a year, and Santa Margarita plans to purchase about 20 percent of its water supply from the project. The district serves 165,000 people in Coto de Caza, Ladera Ranch, Rancho Santa Margarita and parts of Mission Viejo and San Clemente.

However, the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project has met resistance from a coalition of environmental groups, who argue the project would dry up desert springs and hurt vegetation and wildlife habitat.

The groups filed lawsuits after the project was approved by Santa Margarita’s board and San Bernardino County supervisors in 2012.

The plaintiffs claimed that Santa Margarita, not in the area the project will affect, shouldn’t have been the lead agency to oversee environmental reviews for Cadiz. They also said San Bernardino County violated its desert groundwater ordinance by approving the project.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Gail Andler shot down the lawsuits last year, stating that the plaintiffs had failed to prove the project would violate state environmental laws.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society then appealed the decision to the state’s Fourth Appellate District in Santa Ana and filed their opening briefs in April.

“All cases were resoundingly denied in superior court, and we stand by that record and we think everything will be upheld by the court of appeals,” Cadiz spokeswoman Courtney Degener said.

The company is waiting for the MWD board to approve moving Cadiz water through its aqueduct later this summer and plans to start construction at the beginning of next year, she said. Cadiz is expected to spend $225 to $275 million on construction.

In addition to Santa Margarita, Cadiz has entered into agreements with the following water providers interested in buying water from the project, Degener said. They include: Three Valleys Municipal Water District, Jurupa Community Services District, Golden State Water Company, Suburban Water Systems, California Water Service Company, Lake Arrowhead Community Services District and San Luis Water District.

Suess named superintendent of Mojave National Preserve

Sup. Todd Suess (pronounced "cease")
San Bernardino Sun

Todd Suess, a veteran of federal land management agencies in the western U.S., has begun service as superintendent of Mojave National Preserve.

Suess (pronounced “cease”) had been acting superintendent of the preserve since mid-January, succeeding Stephanie Dubois, who retired last year.

He comes from Olympic National Park in Washington State, where he served as deputy superintendent, overseeing park operations involving administration, resource and visitor protection, resources management, interpretation and education, and facilities programs.

Suess has also worked for the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management at Joshua Tree National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument in South Dakota, Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming and Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota.

He earned a bachelor of science degree from the University of Minnesota College of Forestry in 1988. Suess, his wife, Jackie, and daughter Willow live in Barstow.

April 17, 2015

Utah Supreme Court request could have big implications for state's bid to claim roads on federal land

Road claims » Clarification of statute could shape counties’ ownership petitions

Rancher Chris Odekerken poses for a portrait along K2825 on his property on Glendale Bench Wednesday May 8, 2013. (Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The Salt Lake Tribune

Three federal judges are asking the Utah Supreme Court to clarify the meaning of a short section of Utah law that has big implications for counties' claims to roads criss-crossing federal lands.

Counties, joined by the state, have filed more than 20 federal lawsuits in recent years, trying to get control of more than 35,000 miles of roads or road segments under a Civil War-era statute known as RS2477.

On Friday, though, U.S. District Judges David Nuffer, Clark Waddoups and Robert J. Shelby sent an order to the Utah Supreme Court asking, essentially, whether Utah law bars the lawsuits.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, an intervenor in the federal cases, argues that the Utah Code has a seven-year "statute of repose" that means any lawsuits making a claim to the roads had to be filed by 1983, seven years after RS2477 was repealed in 1976.

The first of the lawsuits was not filed until 2011.

The federal judges write in their order that "If SUWA's assertion is correct, then the R.S. 2477 Road Cases pending before this court would be barred."

But if the code is interpreted as a "statute of limitations," the seven-year clock may not have begun ticking until the counties discovered they were injured by federal action to close the roads, according to case law cited in the order.

The federal judges ask the Utah Supreme Court to answer this question of law: "Are Utah Code 78B-2-201(1) and its predecessor statutes of limitations or statutes of repose?"

It's not clear how soon the Supreme Court will take up the question. In an apparent response to SUWA's challenge, the Utah Legislature this winter passed a bill, retroactive to 1972, specifying that the statute of limitations doesn't apply in cases involving claims against the federal government for real property. HB401 was sponsored by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab.

Last week, Waddoups took the unusual step of issuing a temporary restraining order to block a state judge from hearing a lawsuit involving Tooele County's RS2477 claims.Tooele County resident Michael Abdo and SUWA filed the lawsuit in 3rd District Court last summer.

Waddoups agreed with state attorneys that it was an "end run" around his jurisdiction in Tooele County's federal case, pending since 2012.

April 3, 2015

Desert off-road plan draws opposition from environmentalists

Map of the West Mojave (WEMO) Route Network Project and Plan Amendment. (BLM)

By Jim Steinberg
The San Bernardino Sun

VICTORVILLE — A federal Bureau of Land Management off-road travel plan for the Mojave Desert drew stiff resistance from environmental groups at a public hearing Thursday evening.

“It is unnecessary degradation of federal lands,” said Neil Nadler, a Lucerne Valley member of Alliance for Desert Preservation. “It is going to have a profound effect on the environment.”

“It’s shocking,” said Eileen Anderson, chief scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity.

The West Mojave Route Network Project is a travel management planning effort covering 9.2 million acres in the Western portion of the Mojave Desert, which includes parts of San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Kern and Inyo counties as well as a small portion of Riverside County.

Approximately 3.1 million acres in the planning area are public lands managed by BLM, and only BLM land covered by the proposal was discussed Thursday night.

Other public hearings are scheduled in Lone Pine on Tuesday and Yucca Valley on April 15.

The land area served by roads involves about 2.35 million acres, while roads are prohibited in wilderness areas and other special zones which total more than 700,000 acres.

The preferred alternative in the draft plan:

• Designates approximately 10,000 miles of routes for public motorized use.

• Designates approximately 130 miles of routes for non-motorized or non-mechanized (no bicycles) use.

• Closes approximately 4,400 miles of routes to motorized use.

• Reduces stopping, parking and camping outside of Desert Wildlife Management Areas from 300 feet to 100 feet and

• Maintains stopping, parking and camping restriction within the environmentally sensitive Desert Wildlife Management Areas to within 50 feet of the route center line.

• Opens three dry lake beds to unrestricted motorized use from the status of limited to designated routes: These are Cuddeback, Coyote and Chisholm Trail.

• Closes Koehn, a dry lake bed, which is now limited to designated routes.

“There are problems with sinkholes in that area,” said Jeffrey K. Childers, assistant field manager for the BLM’s Barstow Field Office.

“We don’t want people going in there,” he said.

The route plan will be in agreement with the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which involves 22.5 million acres of the California desert, Childers said.

Among those attending the public hearing Thursday was Howard Brown, a mineral exploration and mining geology consultant based in Apple Valley, who said that closing 4,400 miles of routes to motorized vehicles was disappointing.

“The number of people in California is only going to grow. And more people are going to want outdoor recreation,” he said.

“And there is (in the proposal) less access available, he said.

The proposed route network project is the first sophisticated effort to catalogue every road in the BLM study area, Childers said in an interview.

Some of the 10,000 miles of unpaved roads are motorcycle trails only inches wide, he said.

“I was shocked when I first heard about the 10,000 miles,” Anderson said in an interview. “I was flabbergasted. It is unacceptable.”

Anderson said the opening up of that many routes so far off the beaten path makes enforcement an impossibility.

“Once they (off-highway vehicles) are back there, there will be no effective way to keep them on designated routes,” she said.

Tom Budlong, a Los Angeles resident who said he enjoys the solitude of the Mojave Desert, said that the unenforceablilty of the plan will doom it to failure.

This is the second go-around for a BLM route management plan. Another proposal, advanced in 2006, was the focus of a lawsuit by Anderson’s Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.

A 2009 court order did not find issue with particular routes, which then covered 5,000 miles, and did not call for any additional route closures, but the court order did fault the methods used to designate those off-road routes.

The court found that the BLM violated regulations spun off from executive orders issued by Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter regarding efforts to minimize impacts regarding natural, esthetic, scenic or other values, said Lisa Belenky, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Anderson said she believes that aspects of the 10,000 miles of routes still violate those regulations.

Both Anderson and Nadler asked for a 90-day extension on the comment period which ends June 4.

And both criticized the route plan for ignoring the importance — and scientific research — about the vital role that land links between designated wilderness or other undeveloped areas play in species survival.

Both said the road density, in certain areas, was so intense that it would inhibit necessary migration of mountain sheep, desert tortoise and other protected species.

Nadler said that heavy route concentration would significantly “degregate” public lands near large population areas, like the Juniper Flats area on BLM land south of Apple Valley and north of San Bernardino National Forrest.

And he called the 130 miles of routes for non-motorized and non-mechanized travel “a joke” because it is such a small number.