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.

March 28, 2015

San Bernardino County’s national parks face huge repair backlog

"The potholes on the road in the (Mojave) National Preserve are so bad that people are getting flat tires."

Joshua Tree National Park saw more visitors in 2014 than any other year. (Staff file photo)

By Jim Steinberg
San Bernardino Sun

Going into the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service, the nation’s 59 national parks have $11.5 billion in deferred maintenance — a record amount.

Three areas run by the NPS that are in at least partially in San Bernardino County have a combined $351 million backlog, says a recent NPS report on its collective deferred maintenance.

“The last big influx of money into the National Parks was under the Mission 66 program under the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s and 1960s,” said David Smith, superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park, where the deferred maintenance budget is $83.2 million, primarily for roads, as is the case for the National Parks system as a whole.

Up and down California the deferred maintenance backlog has hit $1.7 billion, said John Gardner, director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association.

“The budget and appropriations system has broken down in recent years. ...We are unable to come to agreement to preserve one of America’s most prized assets,” he said.

“If Congress does not address the national parks’ infrastructure, they are going to fall into irreparable disrepair,” Gardner said.

At Joshua Tree National Park, which had a banner year last year with 1.6 million visitors, $70 million of the backlog is for roads.

Other deferred items:

• $3.8 million for trails.

• $3 million for building improvements.

• $1.5 million for campgrounds.

Death Valley has a backlog of $159 million, with $141 million for roads.

The Mojave National Preserve has a $109 million backlog, of which $103 million is for roads, Gardner said.

Every dollar invested in national parks generates $10 in economic activity, according to NPS research.

Yet the Park Service budget represents one-fifteenth of 1 percent of the federal budget, costing the average family roughly the same as a cup of coffee each year in tax dollars, according to the National Parks Conservation Service.

Ahead of the celebration of the NPS Centennial in 2016, NPS Director Jonathan B. Jarvis, told members of the House subcommittee on Interior that visitors to America’s national parks are “too often”... “greeted by facilities in disrepair instead of a seasoned ranger ready to answer their questions.”

“I’m particularly sensitive to the deferred maintenance backlog in our National Parks system,” said Rep Paul Cook, R-Apple Valley. “My district has a number of National Park Service areas, including the Mojave National Preserve, that have experienced a significant amount of infrastructure deterioration over the years. The public must have access to public lands and without adequate roads, this is nearly impossible.”

Said Gardner: “The potholes on the road in the (Mojave) National Preserve are so bad that people are getting flat tires.”

Since 2005, the total budget for the NPS has declined by nearly half a billion dollars, or 22 percent in today’s dollars, Gardner said.

“To address this growing problem,” Cook said Friday, “I’ve signed on to a letter with several of my colleagues in Congress calling on the Appropriations subcommittee on Interior to augment current maintenance funding levels in the 2016 budget. This is an important step towards ensuring the public’s ability to recreate in our National Park Service land for years to come.”

“Preserving and maintaining our National Parks is important to our community and regional identity,” Rep. Pete Aguilar, R-Rancho Cucamonga, said Friday in a statement . “The lack of adequate funding prevents members of the community from enjoying the beauty and character of the Inland Empire. I absolutely believe we need to do a better job maintaining our National Parks.”

March 13, 2015

Desert tortoise gets 7,400 acres

Biologist Jeff Valentine, working for BrightSource, walks back to his truck just outside the gates of the BrightSource solar project in 2011, after releasing a desert tortoise in the Ivanpah Valley. A large amount of desert tortoises have been displaced to make way for the companies large-scale solar project.


More than 11 square miles of private land and prime habitat in eastern San Bernardino County have been set aside for the desert tortoise - which is sliding toward extinction - to offset the impacts of future renewable energy projects and other development.

While environmentalists were pleased with the conservation, they accuse Cadiz Inc. of establishing the preserve to appear more environmentally sensitive and win favor for its widely opposed plan to pump groundwater from the Mojave Desert and pipe it to cities across Southern California.

Cadiz’s new “conservation bank,” on the southeastern edge of the Mojave National Preserve, is separate from its proposed water mining operation in a valley to the south, between the preserve and Joshua Tree National Park.

Critics of the pumping project, including Seth Shteir of the National Parks Conservation Association, say it would deplete the ancient aquifer and dry up seeps and springs for the desert tortoise and other creatures in the surrounding Fenner Valley. And that has cast a shadow on the newly declared preserve land.

The conservation bank “doesn’t alleviate or minimize or mitigate the damage that will be caused by the Cadiz water project,” said Shteir, senior program coordinator for the group, one of several that sued unsuccessfully to block the water project. “We feel that this recent effort is an attempt to greenwash that project.”

Los Angeles-based Cadiz established the 7,400-acre conservation bank earlier this month through the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. The concept is similar to cap and trade, with developers buying mitigation credits in the bank if their project affects the tortoise or its habitat, rather than having to search for property on their own.

The desert tortoise is a hardy species, able to live years without water and survive temperatures of 140 degrees Fahrenheit. But their numbers have dwindled since the 1950s as their habitat was swallowed up by development. They were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990.

Since then, the battle over their territory has grown even more heated as utilities hustle to meet a mandate that one-third of their energy come from renewable sources by 2020. Solar and wind energy projects have been approved for almost 48,000 acres of the California desert and applications on more than 70,000 acres are pending, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

The conservation land is made up of a dozen separate parcels around Interstate 40 and U.S. Route 95 west of Needles. It is part of the 70 square miles Cadiz has owned in the Mojave since 1993.

“This is a way we can harmonize our other land uses while providing land benefits,” said Scott Slater, the company’s president and CEO.

The conservation bank stands to be profitable for Cadiz.

With quality habitat and privately owned parcels hard to find, desert land that once sold for less than $1,000 an acre now sells for five times that, said Ileene Anderson, a biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, which also sued to block Cadiz’s water project.

“These lands would be hard to develop and this is one way they can make money off these lands and also look environmentally sensitive,” she said.

Slater denied any financial motives for setting up the Fenner Valley Desert Tortoise Conservation Bank.

The company doesn’t need the mitigation land for any of its projects, spokeswoman Courtney Degener said. Depending on where a project is located, the developer must acquire one to four acres of mitigation land for every one acre disturbed.



• A conservation or mitigation bank is privately or publicly owned land that protects threatened and endangered species habitat.

• Mitigation is required to compensate for a project's impact on threatened or endangered species or their habitat. Steps taken to minimize environmental impact can include setting aside habitat outside the project area or buying credits in a conservation bank.

• In exchange for permanently protecting, managing and monitoring the land, the bank operator is allowed to sell or transfer habitat credits to developers who need to satisfy legal requirements for mitigating the environmental impacts of projects.

• Conservation banks help consolidate small, fragmented mitigation lands into large, contiguous preserves, which have much higher wildlife habitat values.

• Agencies that approve and regulate conservation banks are the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service.

Source: California Department of Fish and Wildlife


Desert tortoise

STATUS: In the early 1900s, as many as 1,000 tortoises per square mile inhabited the Mojave Desert. As late as the 1950s, the population averaged at least 200 adults per square mile. More recent studies show the level is now five to 60 adults per square mile. In 1990, the tortoise was listed as threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act.

THREATS: Primarily human activities causing loss of habitat, including road construction, housing and energy developments, conversion of native habitats to agriculture, grazing and off-road vehicle use, as well as disease.

HABITAT AND RANGE: Creosote bush scrub at elevations ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level, although they are known to occur in suitable habitats up to about 5,000 feet in elevation. They occur over a relatively large region including the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of California, Nevada, Utah and portions of Arizona.

FEEDING: Vegetation, including annual wildflowers, grasses and new growth of selected shrubs, cacti and their flowers. Desert tortoises forage in the spring and again in the fall, and obtain most water from moist spring foods. During the late summer, they may emerge from their underground burrows to drink standing water after thunderstorms. They may go many years without drinking.

BEHAVIOR: Tortoises are able to live where ground temperatures may exceed 140 degrees farenheit by digging burrows 3 to 6 feet deep to escape the heat of summer and the cold of winter. The animals spend up to 98 percent of their time underground.

Source: Defenders of Wildlife

March 10, 2015

Desert plan shifts focus to public land

Federal and state officials put plans for privately owned land on the back burner.

Larry LaPre, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, describes the location of a solar energy development planned near the Mojave National Preserve.


A ballyhooed energy development and land conservation plan for California’s deserts will now focus just on public lands managed by the federal government, at least for the time being, state and federal officials announced Tuesday, March 10.

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan has been hailed by the Obama administration as an all-encompassing plan for the desert regions of seven counties, including Riverside and San Bernardino.

In the works since 2009, its goal was to get federal, state and local officials to agree on the best places to locate huge solar, wind and geothermal projects while also preserving the desert’s most important wildlife habitat, and archeological and recreational areas.

When the 8,000-page draft was released last fall, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell appeared in Palm Springs to promote it.

The draft called for directing alternative energy development to 2 million acres of mostly privately owned land that is expected to have little value as endangered-species habitat.

But after receiving 12,000 public comments on the plan, federal Bureau of Land Management and California Energy officials, in a conference call with reporters, appeared to reel back expectations, if not the plan itself.

With no certain time frame, the plan now is being broken into phases, the first of which will pertain only to public lands managed by the BLM, said Jim Kenna, the agency’s California director.

Planning for privately owned land will be delayed to give local officials in the seven counties more time to complete their own planning initiatives, he said.

The draft plan now calls for some 392,000 acres of public land for focused alternative-energy development, 4.9 million acres for conservation and 3.6 million for recreation, Kenna said.

Officials with Riverside and San Bernardino counties have expressed concerns that large-scale solar increases demand for county fire and sheriff’s services without providing the county additional property tax revenue.

San Bernardino County officials also are concerned that large-scale solar projects could be made obsolete by other technological advances.

“We don’t want obsolete solar projects on land that would have been good for other kinds of development,” said county spokesman David Wert.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said it was disconcerting that the focus now is on public land, because most of the already disturbed land most appropriate for development is privately owned.

“This was supposed to be a grand, coordinated plan,” she said.

Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan

What is it? A proposed land-use plan for California's deserts that strives to place big solar, wind and geothermal projects in place that do the least harm to wildlife habitat and cultural resources.

Where is it? Desert portions of Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties.

Who is doing it? The plan is a collabaration led by the Calfornia Energy Commission and U.S. Department of Interior.

What's is the Preferred Alternative?

A version of that calls for:

-- Renewable energy development focus on more than 2 million acres of public and private land, where environmental conflicts are expected to be minimal.

-- Conservation designations for 4.9 million acres of public land managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

-- Recreation designations on more than 3.6 million acres of BLM-managed lands.

-- More than 183,000 acres of land identified for future analysis.

Source: The California Energy Commission

The Desert Oracle Is Your New Favorite Guidebook

by Rick Paulas

The Desert Oracle is a new print quarterly, and it's amazing. I could try to come up with the perfect 100 words to sum up its contents, but I'll let its website speak for itself: "A pocket-sized field guide to the fascinating American deserts: strange tales, singing sand dunes, sagebrush trails, artists and authors and oddballs, ghost towns and modern legends, musicians and mystics, scorpions and saguaros!"

Despite having a website, the quarterly's contents are only available in an honest-to-goodness printed-out pamphlet form. It can be picked up in a handful of shops strewn throughout the desert, or you can purchase a one-year subscription for a measly $15. It's worth it.

I spoke to Ken Layne, the quarterly's creator, about the project.

Where did the idea come from?

Ken Layne:
I've been roaming the deserts for 30 years, and living in one godforsaken lizard-filled wasteland or another for probably a dozen years total. And desert people do get a little peculiar, after a while. You get used to the space and the quiet and the light and the silence. Get outside and away from the TV and life is full of small, strange moments, like finding a young rattlesnake bouncing over your dirt driveway while you're taking the beer bottles out to the recycling bin on a summer night, or the sudden realization that a lone coyote is tracking you down a desert canyon, or instantly knowing that's the International Space Station moving over your part of the sky at dusk.

I had to leave the desert for a while, and was having another existential crisis that no amount of salary or page views or retweets would ever fix. So I spent most of a year wandering around, back and forth across the Sierra, up and down the 395, and all over the Mojave and Great Basin. Since the early 1980s when I started writing for little Southern California papers and magazines, I knew I'd end up being the editor and publisher of some eccentric thing. It was just a matter of seeing the publication clearly before I ever started work on it. One day last summer, it appeared more or less fully formed, and then it was just a matter of figuring out how to make it exist.

What was behind the decision to go with a print version as opposed to a website?

I've been doing online writing and websites for 20 years now and it was a lot of fun for a long time. But it's a mature medium now, big companies and big numbers. And websites all look the same now, especially because most people view them through a Facebook or Twitter viewer on their phones.

The desert is a physical thing. People who love the desert physically miss it when they're away. The air is different, the space is generous, and I thought I might be able to capture some of that in a physical artifact -- something that comes by mail just four times a year, that you can read and enjoy in a personal and solitary way, no "sharing" required.

In the first issue, you have a piece about Art Bell's Coast to Coast show. To me, that voice and content encapsulate the tone of the desert for me. Why do you think that the show fit so well with the desert landscape?

Art Bell lives in the High Desert around Pahrump, not far from Area 51. That geography is in his voice and was always felt in his late-night radio show. It makes an ideal soundtrack for a late-night drive on a lonesome road. When his show was at its peak in the 1990s, it was really "community radio" for weirdos and desert rats.

Where are these going to be available besides getting a subscription?

I'm distributing the Oracle myself, so it's for sale at places I like in the kind of desert outposts I like: Joshua Tree, Amboy, Old Town Yucca Valley, beloved southwestern bookstores such as Back of Beyond Books in Moab and Antigone Books in Tucson. I'll find a few more places to put it with each issue, but for now here's a list of shops in four southwestern states where you can get a single copy.

What are you favorite SoCal hikes/campsites?

My most beloved hike was my daily walk when, for many years, I lived across from Black Rock Canyon Campground in Joshua Tree National Park. Out the door and west along the park boundary, connecting with the West Loop and the trails up to Warren Peak and Eureka Peak -- many spots where you can sit and stare out at the snowy peaks of San Jacinto and San Gorgonio. You can go all the way back to Black Rock Canyon spring and there's a huge flock of pinyon jays living there in the forest. This is prime Joshua tree woodland, with junipers and Mormon tea and all kinds of critters you will see on a regular basis: bobcats, black-tailed deer, my coyote-pack neighbors, gopher snakes and rattlers and rosy boas, tortoises, roadrunners, jackrabbits, antelope ground squirrels, families of ravens including a mysterious old albino raven that was seen around for many years, etc. I never saw the bighorn sheep, because they're shy and rise earlier than I do, but the evidence was everywhere. (One day I found the sawed-off, bloody horns of a mature ram dumped on the side of a dirt road just outside the park. The Fish & Game ranger came out and took a report.)

There's a place called "Section 6" and another called "Coyote Hole" not far from what we call "downtown Joshua Tree." Wonderful places, the latter with a real desert spring, and both are easy enough to find if you're interested. Boulders and chuckwallas, spring flowers and cactus blooms. You can camp in the rocks at the first place. (Please do clean up your mess, give a hoot, and don't act surprised when the locals pass by your remote campsite on their morning dog walks or bicycle rides.)

The wildest and most remote walks in urban Southern California are along the shore. A few years back, I walked the California Coastal Trail from Tijuana to San Francisco, and discovered some stunning wild shoreline here and there. There's a stretch between the very southernmost point of San Onofre State Beach, where there's a mile or more of parking-spot "campsites" on old Pacific Highway, and you walk down whatever canyon (always follow the surfers hiking down with a board under their arm), and you immediately forget Interstate 5 is about a thousand feet away, running parallel down the coastline. The canyon walls are full of chaparral, but also ferns and other fog-fed greenery. The spookiest part of this walk, headed north toward San Clemente, used to be walking over the nuclear plant's seawall -- which is part of the structure, so it hummed and vibrated as you walked across. And then you go through these 1940s-style Marine Corps beaches and cabins that are part of Camp Pendleton, palapa shade structures, woody wagons, it's a kind of time travel.

March 7, 2015

Water grab pits Las Vegas against Mormons

Spring Valley, which sits atop an aquifer 263 miles from the country clubs and casinos of Las Vegas, is the focus of a Nevada legal fight over water rights.

Bloomberg News

Las Vegas is seeking to quench its growing thirst by draining billions of gallons of water from under the feet of ranchers whose cattle help feed the Mormon church's poor.

A legal battle across 275 miles of treeless ridges and baked salt flats comes as the western U.S. faces unprecedented droughts linked to climate change.

The surface of Las Vegas's main source of water, Lake Mead, is more than 100 feet below Hoover Dam's spillways after reaching the lowest mark last summer since the dam was filled. As it seeks new sources, the city's water supplier is waging a court fight over plans to suck as much as 27 billion gallons a year from the valley that is home to the Mormon ranch and its 1,750-head herd, as well as three other rural valleys.

Casino resorts, five of which are Southern Nevada's largest commercial water users, labor unions and the developer of a 22,500-acre mini-city west of Las Vegas argue their future depends on the water supply that the church, Indian tribes and environmental groups say is needed by local communities.

The fight, likely to echo across the increasingly arid West, conjures up the Los Angeles water grab that turned the once prosperous Owens Valley into a dust bowl.

As cities including Denver and Phoenix look to secure water for growing populations and economies, the prospect of sustained droughts, more severe and sustained than any in the 20th century, looms over Nevada's court battle, with one pipeline opponent calling it the "poster child" for future showdowns.

The 7,000-acre Cleveland Ranch, established in Spring Valley in 1873 by Maine native Abner "Old Cleve" Cleveland and bought in 2000 by the Mormon church, sits atop an aquifer a dozen-plus miles to the north of Route 50, known from postcards as "America's Loneliest Highway."

The ranch, owned by the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is worked by a combination of paid employees, church missionaries and other volunteers, according to a history of the ranch. The calves, after they are weaned, are shipped to an Idaho feed lot and then to a processing plant, where some of the meat is frozen or canned as stew and beef chunks for distribution around the world.

If the Southern Nevada Water Authority wins in court, its proposed groundwater project may leave the valley to sage brush and coyotes, according to lawyers for the church and environmentalists.

"This is a huge project that raises fundamental questions," said Paul Hejmanowski, a lawyer for the church. "Can we sacrifice an ancient way of life for a growing metropolis?"

So far, the ranch and other project opponents have fended off Las Vegas, convincing a judge in 2013 that there was insufficient scientific evidence for the state engineer's decision to award the water rights.

The Nevada Resorts Association, the Nevada AFL-CIO, representing members of 120 unions, and developer Howard Hughes Corp. support the water authority's and state engineer's petitions to the state Supreme Court for help. A hearing before the court hasn't been scheduled.

"There are no other alternatives available, and it would increase the region's water security," said Virginia Valentine, president of the casino and resort trade group. "Our infrastructure needs to be there."

The five resorts - the Wynn Las Vegas, Mandalay Bay, Venetian, Bellagio and Caesars Palace - consumed 2.4 billion gallons in 2013, according to the water authority. Other large users include the golf and country clubs that surround Las Vegas, an area whose population has almost tripled since 1990 to 2 million.

The leisure and hospitality sector employs 28 percent of Nevada's workforce and the taxes it pays make up 47 percent of the state's general fund.

Those economics may doom Cleveland Ranch even if pipeline opponents have a good case, said Jeffrey Dintzer, a lawyer specializing in water-rights issues with Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP in Los Angeles who isn't involved in the dispute.

"Money talks," Dintzer said. "Nevada gets a huge amount of its revenue from gaming."

If the Nevada Supreme Court doesn't reverse the December 2013 decision by the state judge who second-guessed the state engineer, the Legislature and governor may step in to draft a compromise to ensure Las Vegas gets the water, Dintzer said.

That might not end the lawsuits. If the ranch and surrounding valleys are left dry, the state could face hundreds of millions of dollars in claims, he said.

"This will be one of many of these disputes I see coming in the future," said Ed Casey, a water-rights attorney with Alston & Bird LLP, who represented Los Angeles in litigation over air pollution at Owens Lake. "Water is a commonly shared commodity, and as it becomes scarce, we have to face the question who gets priority."

Ranchers, farmers and other so-called senior water rights holders may lose their place at the pump to growing cities, Casey said.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority is pursuing unassigned groundwater rights to reduce its reliance on the Colorado River, which accounts for about 90 percent of its supply and is subject to new upstream diversions as drought conditions worsen.

With Lake Mead - the largest man-made reservoir in the U.S. - at 43 percent of its capacity, the agency already has increased its use of recycled water and cut its per-capita use by 40 percent since 2002, said Bronson Mack, a spokesman for the authority. Still, the agency expects to need new sources by about 2060, based on current estimates, or as soon as 2035 if population growth exceeds forecasts, Mack said.

The agency's groundwater project calls for 263 miles of pipelines connecting Las Vegas with four valleys. U.S. approval of the pipeline is subject to a separate legal challenge in federal court.

As far back as 1989, the Las Vegas Valley Water District, now part of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, applied for unappropriated water in Cave Valley, Dry Lake, Delamar Valley and Spring Valley. The state engineer didn't rule on those applications until 2007, leading to the first round of litigation, which voided the approvals.

In 2012, the state engineer again approved most of the water authority's applications, leading to a new round of court battles.

The Nevada case may set a precedent for urban water districts in arid and semi-arid regions looking for groundwater to sustain development, said Simeon Herskovits, a lawyer for counties, water agencies, environmental groups and businesses opposed to the project.

"This is kind of a poster child case for pro-development interests in urban centers trying to take water away from rural areas through a large infrastructure project by arguing, based on bad science, that vast amounts of water are available for extraction and export," Herskovits said.

A defeat for the project may force water agencies in the West to find other alternatives, he said.

If Las Vegas builds the pipeline, an area the size of New England could face the same environmental and socio-economic devastation as California's Owens Valley after completion of the 200-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913, he said.

Cleveland Ranch and other opponents persuaded Senior District Judge Robert Este in Ely, the only city within 100 miles of Spring Valley, that it was premature to approve large-scale pumping before its effects were fully known. He directed the state engineer to further develop mitigation protocols for any "unreasonable" effects of the project.

While the church declined to discuss Cleveland Ranch, its lawyer provided a copy of a DVD about the ranch that details its operations and makes the case that an abundant water supply is essential to raising healthy calves. The DVD was submitted as evidence in the court fight.

The Nevada Supreme Court on Feb. 6 dismissed the water authority's appeal of Este's decision, saying it wasn't ripe for review because the judge sent the case back to the state engineer without issuing a final judgment.

In a second bid, the water authority and the engineer asked the state's seven-member Supreme Court to use a procedure called a writ, which doesn't require a final judgment in the underlying case, to overturn Este's decision. They contend the judge acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" by substituting his judgment for that of the state engineer, an expert in hydrology.

"The worsening drought conditions in the West generally, and the Colorado River Basin in particular, do not afford the luxury of time," the water authority said in a Dec. 12 court filing. "This court should hear this petition, and resolve these issues, now."

February 27, 2015

As the River Runs Dry: The Southwest's water crisis


Evening and water levels fall at Hoover Dam and Lake Mead.
Brandon Loomis and Mark Henle
The Republic | azcentral.com

LAS VEGAS – The patroller stopped his water district truck and grabbed his camcorder.

"Here we go," he said, sliding from the cab and pointing his lens at the fine spray of water and rainbow rising from pop-up sprinklers on the lawn of a low-slung ranch home.

"Thursday," he spoke, recording the day as evidence. No watering allowed on Thursdays.

Welcome to the future, where every drop of Colorado River water is guarded and squeezed. Only here, in the city that gets 90 percent of its water from the fickle and fading river, the future is now.

The vast and highly urbanized Southwest, built on the promise of a bountiful river propped up by monumental dams, is up against its limits. Already tapped beyond its supply, the river is now threatened by a warming climate that shrinks its alpine source.

To support fast-growing urban populations in a time of dwindling supply, the Southwest is due for rapid and revolutionary changes.

A region that uses two-thirds of its water outdoors, and mostly for agriculture, will have to find ways of sharing and boosting efficiency — a shift that many experts believe will mean city dwellers paying to upgrade rural irrigation systems.

Cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas, which have reduced their per-person water usage through better landscaping and appliances, will have to do better. They lag behind Los Angeles, whose growing population, by necessity, uses no more water than it did 40 years ago.

Water suppliers from Denver to San Diego will spend billions of dollars to squeeze more out of each drop, and to clean and use wastewater and salt water. It means a future of higher water bills, further promoting conservation.

Problem can't be deferred

"We're in a drought," water patroller Robert Kern said after hanging a warning notice on the home's doorknob. Two more violations and the water district will fine the owner $80.

"Everyone has to do their part."

Residents in this part of town — known as Zone C to the Las Vegas Valley Water District — may only water on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from fall through spring. They're freer to soak their grass at will in summer, when the withering heat demands it.

The cooler months are for austerity, to give the plummeting water levels behind Hoover Dam a break. The river's massive storage tub, Lake Mead, is draining.

The Colorado isn't all that we thought it would be when we divvied up the rights in the Roaring '20s. Most years, it gives less than it once did, and there are more users taking from it.

A 2012 government study of supply and demand predicted a 2060 annual shortfall of nearly a trillion gallons — enough to cover the sprawling city of Phoenix 9 feet deep or to supply 6 million Southwestern households for a year.

How the Southwest's leaders, farmers and lawn waterers respond will help decide how many millions of people this drying corner of the continent can sustain in the next century.

Throughout this year, The Arizona Republic will examine the twin stresses of climate change and population growth, and ways to ensure reliable water for the next generation of Southwesterners.

"This is not one of the problems you can defer and let your grandkids deal with," said Doug Kenney, a University of Colorado law professor.

Last year, the Arizona Department of Water Resources published a "strategic vision" for the coming century. The department stopped short of calling the state's current situation a "crisis," but said Arizona is at a "crossroads" and needs to decide on actions to secure new water.

Many potentially costly steps for metro Phoenix were included: conservation, treated water recycling, watershed forest thinning, cloud seeding and seawater desalination among them.

Kenney chairs the newly formed Colorado River Research Group, an independent group of 10 river and climate experts from regional universities. This winter, they made a simple recommendation that would have sounded outlandish in the past century.

Use no more water.

Cities will have to grow within their means, through conservation and by paying farmers to save and transfer water, he said. When the river already falls short of supplying everyone who has a legal right to it, there's no sensible way of taking more from it.

"If everyone takes what they're legally entitled to," Kenney said, "the system crashes."

That's true even if the wetter 20th century hydrology repeats. But that's not what the big water suppliers are expecting.

"In my opinion, the future of the Colorado Basin is a future where we have less water than we have right now," said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

"The future of the Colorado Basin also has less grass."

But it won't be just the urban lawns that attract scrutiny. Farmers from Wyoming to Mexico — by far the biggest users of the river — will have to back off on hay production

They'll also have to embrace expensive but efficient drip irrigation, Entsminger said. Urban water users will help pay for that through higher rates.

"Everybody's going to have to figure out how to do the same or more with less water."

More than river can give

At Lake Mead, America's most voluminous water impoundment when it was full and a lifeline to everyone from Phoenix to San Diego, the crisis has already arrived.

Desiccated palm trees flap over the cracked and peeling shell of a resort hotel at Echo Bay Marina at the northern end of the lake, the tattered banners of a man-made oasis now drained and vacant. Dormant boat docks lie stacked against each other.

To nearby innkeeper Chris Wiggins, it's a sign of government mismanagement.

"Climate change?" he scoffed. "That's the biggest joke."

You don't have to believe in a climate connection to recognize the risks in doling out on paper more water than a river can give.

"In the lower basin, we use more water than in a normal year we receive," said Chuck Cullom, Colorado River program manager for the Central Arizona Project, whose canal pumps water to Phoenix and Tucson.

"Even absent the drought we would still be facing a declining Lake Mead."

A sustained regional drought that started in the late 20th century shrank the reservoir to its record low by last summer. Federal officials say there's a 1-in-4 chance it will sink low enough — to 1,075 feet above sea level — by next year that Arizona will have to cut back substantially on what it takes from the river.

After that, the government projects, the odds are better than even — about 60 percent — for a declared shortage and restrictions in 2017.

The reservoir has fallen by more than 100 feet since 2000. Its stored water, paired with upriver sister reservoir Lake Powell, is at about half-capacity.

The water's retreat is a slow-blooming crisis that many have seen coming for years. Some communities have used the time to curb their thirst.

Los Angeles residents use 129 gallons a day each. That's stingier than the 160-gallon average in Phoenix, whose use rate has nonetheless plummeted in recent years.

Now, though, even conservation-minded Los Angeles is following the unlikely lead of a gaudy, electrified billboard for sustainability. Still ridiculed in some corners as a wasteful and whimsical boomtown in the desert, metro Las Vegas has nonetheless turned its precarious relationship with the river into a powerful incentive to cut back.

Southern Nevadans use 212 gallons a day, which is more than their counterparts in either Los Angeles or Phoenix. But they also return almost 40 percent of that to the river as treated and reusable wastewater, making their net usage rate 124 gallons.

They have slashed usage steeply and deeply, by more than 100 gallons in about a decade.

Las Vegas has cut use of the river by nearly a third in a 12-year period that saw its metro population grow by 25 percent.

Vegas did it by regulating outdoor watering, and by paying $205 million — up to $2 a square foot — to entice people to remove lawns and "embrace living in the Mojave Desert," Entsminger said.

That was crucial, because in 2002, Nevada was using more than its legal entitlement to the river.

Now Los Angeles is following, paying homeowners even more money to strip lawns.

Time of reckoning

For decades, the Colorado River hasn't typically flowed as high as it did about a century ago, when Congress authorized impounding it at what would become Hoover Dam.

Climate scientists say there's a strong chance it never — or rarely — will again. Yet unlike in those pioneering days of last century, more than 30 million people and several billion dollars in farm production are now counting on a river that is so tapped that in most years it no longer reaches the sea.

What's left after the U.S. uses most of the water is diverted to farmers in Mexico.

"The Colorado River Compact appears to have been negotiated during an unusually wet period," said Connie Woodhouse, a University of Arizona geosciences professor who has studied historic flows on the river. "I don't think anyone would argue with that."

Hoover Dam: Before and after

Hold and drag the slider in the middle of the image to show the difference between a photo taken at Hoover Dam in 1983 compared with one taken in 2009.

The 1922 agreement split the river's flow between upper- and lower-basin states, with the divide just upstream of Grand Canyon, at Lees Ferry. In the first few decades of the 20th century, an average approaching 17 million acre-feet — each acre-foot gushing 326,000 gallons, 51/2 trillion gallons in all — flowed past Lees Ferry every year.

For most of the past 90 years, though, the average flows have sagged below even the 15 million acre-feet that the states legally share, let alone the 1.5 million owed to Mexico by treaty.

The enormous but shrinking reservoirs at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, capturing spikes in runoff during occasional wet years, have forestalled shortages. The flow was 20 million acre-feet in 2011, and just half that in 2013.

That Colorado, Wyoming and Utah weren't using their full shares also postponed a reckoning.

Until now.

Increased flow less likely

The drought that started in 2000 and sent the reservoir holdings plunging is a preview of expected dry spells unprecedented in recent centuries, Woodhouse said. Temperatures are higher than those of the last century's droughts, compounding the intensity.

"The (rising) temperatures are only going to exacerbate conditions that we would normally expect under natural conditions," she said.

There are lots of reasons to think the droughts of coming decades will be worse than anything we've ever experienced — regardless of whether there's any change in precipitation.

The first is that as the region warms, the trees and plants using the snowmelt will need and tap more of it before it ever reaches the river or pipes.

The next and arguably bigger threat is that the warmth will melt snow faster or even make it fall instead as rain. Either change will lead to more evaporation and less seepage into the soils that, in turn, release water to streams feeding the river.

Four years ago, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — the Southwest's federal water managers — crunched all of the climate model projections for the Colorado River watershed and determined the average outlook was for a river pumping 9 percent less water through the region by 2050.

There is always a chance that monstrous snowstorms and winter rains will bring enough new winter precipitation to offset the warming's worst effects, said Jeff Lukas, climate scientist with the University of Colorado's Western Water Assessment team.

"Increasing flow isn't precluded," he added. "It just appears to be less likely."

Past warm spells, etched as living history in the West's tree rings and lake beds, indicate that where there's heat there's often stinging drought, according to Woodhouse's work.

She co-authored a 2010 study using regional tree rings from an unusually long and hot medieval drought to project that each increase of a degree Celsius results in a decrease in Colorado River flows of between 2 percent and 8 percent.

Most of the region already has warmed by more than a degree on average in the past quarter-century, according to last year's U.S. National Climate Assessment. Further warming of at least a couple of degrees in a few decades and up to 5 degrees by 2100 is expected even if global carbon emissions are substantially reduced.

The medieval drought, in its worst decade, baked the river down to about two-thirds of what the U.S. and Mexico draw out of it today.

The drought lasted 60 years, but it was not as hot as today. So it seems the next time there's a repeat of whatever natural phenomena conspired back then to produce such a long, dry spell, the river will be even drier.

Since Woodhouse's study, a team of 14 university and government researchers has conducted what Woodhouse calls the "best synthesis" of existing climate and flow models — with jaw-dropping, if imprecise, predictions.

The river's flow probably will drop between 5 percent and 35 percent in response to warming by midcentury, according to that team, which published a January 2014 report in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

Lukas' University of Colorado colleague, snow researcher Jeffrey Deems, said there's reason to believe the bureau's predicted 9 percent reduction in flow is optimistic.

Already, the Rocky Mountain snowpack is melting three to six weeks earlier than before American settlement of the region, Deems' studies have found, because dust drifting up from grazing lands and other disturbances collects solar heat on the snow's surface. Today's snowmelt is measured by direct observation and compared with computer models of older trends.

Without emissions curbs, Deems said, his modeling and others project flows slashed by about a fifth on average by midcentury.

"Even if it's only 9 percent," he said, in a nod to the Bureau of Reclamation study, "that's a huge shock to any overallocated system."

A 9 percent reduction would roughly equal the 1.5 million acre-feet that Arizona is allowed to pump through CAP's 336-mile canal every year.

But that's a midcentury outlook with lots of climate variables. What about the near-term effects of the existing drought?

Must act now

If the government declares a Lake Mead shortage because the water drops below the mandated trigger elevation of 1,075 feet — the 58 percent probability that managers have projected by 2017 — then Arizona would lose 320,000 acre-feet every year that the water is so low.

An acre-foot of water is about the amount two Southwest families use each year. So the loss would be about three times the potable water that Tucson Water pumps to customers each year. But it's not the cities and their residents who will suffer first or most.

CAP was built largely to fuel growth in metropolitan areas of Arizona. The farmers who have used what until now was excess water have the lowest legal priority. Some of them will voluntarily cut back on watering hay and other crops this year, in an effort to help keep Lake Mead from falling.

In December, CAP signed an agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation and water providers for Southern California and Nevada to save 740,000 acre-feet over the next three years, and to keep it in Lake Mead. Each of those organizations would sacrifice water or improve efficiency.

Arizona, with the most to lose from a shortage, is responsible for the largest share: 345,000 acre-feet.

Of that, the deepest cuts — nearly half — will come out of farm irrigation districts. But CAP will pay those farmers $5 million.

"It could actually protect us (from shortage) for a couple of years, and that would more than repay our efforts." said Cullom, CAP's Colorado River program manager.

But in the same agreement, the states predicted that these savings might be only half the job of restoring reliable water by 2019. So they also will join Denver Water in sponsoring $11 million in pilot programs that other customers can use to suppress their needs — some of it perhaps for farm upgrades such as drip irrigation or laser field leveling.

If Lake Mead drops another 25 feet after the first shortage, central Arizona would lose nearly a third of what it draws off the Colorado. Farmers there would get nothing from the river, and cities such as Phoenix, Mesa and Scottsdale could start to lose some of the canal water they're now leasing from Indian tribes.

Best to act now, Cullom said, and reload Lake Mead.

"It's like a scene from 'Jaws,' when one of the characters says, 'We need a bigger boat,' " he said. "We're trying to find ways to get a bigger boat."

Solution can't be imported

Some water managers and politicians have mused about importing the solution, from the Great Lakes or the Mississippi River Basin by pipe, or even from Alaska by ship. But the U.S. Interior Department effectively called those schemes pipe dreams, in a study of options for the Southwest.

For one thing, other states may guard their resources as jealously as Arizona would covet them in a water-strapped future. The Great Lakes states even have a compact prohibiting export, and it is being invoked to prevent a Wisconsin county that touches on the drainage from piping water over the line.

Also, the costs, both environmental and financial, caused the Obama administration to reject the idea. Pumping water from the Missouri River to Denver would cost 21/2 times the predicted price to conserve the same amount within the Southwest.

Conservation probably can provide only a third of the new water needed in 50 years.

Environmentalists generally have recommended starting there, though, and then adding treatment plants to clean salt from used irrigation water and return it to the river. Utility managers are also looking to add costlier, more energy-intensive seawater desalination, which could reduce coastal cities' reliance on the river.

The biggest sponge out there, though, is agriculture. Its use of two-thirds of the Colorado's bounty offers future urban residents a tantalizing buffer for growth — or a water grab — if it can be reallocated.

About a third of the Colorado River's annual flow goes just to alfalfa, pasture and other forage for livestock, according to a 2013 analysis of farming in the 256,000-square-mile watershed, conducted by the Pacific Institute.

Much of that grass is flood-irrigated, putting to work water that farmers earned through settlement claims under a "use it or lose it" system that predates the West's urban population explosion.

The institute modeled other options for ranchers — modern irrigation equipment and a more judicious schedule for watering — and projected a potential savings of 1 million acre-feet a year.

Farmers won't give up water if they think it means losing their rights to it, and to the income it can bring them, said Kenney, the University of Colorado law professor. But states are free to change the laws, to ditch "use it or lose it." They can ensure that farmers and rural areas are compensated.

Kenney expects change to come, and city dwellers to pay up, as the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District is doing in an experimental program that gives 33 farmers $750 per acre per year for three years to cut and fallow some citrus orchards.

"Scarcity drives innovation," he said.

Awareness crucial

Back in Las Vegas, water patroller Robert Kern spotted a wet sidewalk near the first violator he nabbed. It wasn't a sprinkler, though. What grass the lawn had was yellowed and crisp.

"I had to mow her lawn the other day because I was afraid there'd be a fire," said a neighbor, Danny Hinchcliffe, standing on his own dewy grass.

Kern climbed from the truck, knelt to find moss growing in a slight but steady stream of water flowing from a broken underground pipe. He attached another warning to her doorknob.

Hinchcliffe said his own yard used to be rock, but he switched to grass because it helped cool his home and keep down the electric bill.

Reminded that his grass blades shouldn't be glistening with water on a day when sprinkling is banned, he said his landscaper likely hadn't had a chance to adjust his timer for the season.

But he didn't get a citation.

Kern can't issue a warning or a ticket unless he actually sees the water spraying.

"Our biggest thing is education," he said. "Without the water, we're not going to be here.

"We're in the middle of a desert."

February 9, 2015

Bill would create two new Mojave Desert national monuments

Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduces legislation that aims to balance open space protections with off-highway vehicle use, energy development.


Sen. Dianne Feinstein re-introduced legislation Monday, Feb. 9, that would expand California desert protections by establishing two new national monuments in the Mojave, additional wilderness areas and permanent off-highway vehicle areas.

Feinstein’s California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act of 2015 amends the 1994 California Desert Protection Act that she also introduced. That earlier bill established the Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks and the Mojave National Preserve and protected more than 7.6 million acres of California desert wilderness.

“This piece of legislation is the final chapter in a long effort to preserve one of the most magnificent landscapes in the United States,” Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a written statement. “We must ensure that critical parts of the California desert – with its mountain vistas, bighorn sheep, mule deer, desert tortoises, Joshua trees, Native American petroglyphs and much more – will be protected for all time.”

This is the third introduction of the bill by Feinstein since 2009, after earlier attempts stagnated in Congress. Supporters of the bill said they aren’t sure it will pass the current Republican-led Congress but commended the legislator for collaborating with environmentalists, off-roaders, renewable energy developers, cattle ranchers, miners, utilities and the Department of Defense.

“I think they’ve done a really wonderful job of crafting a bill right up the middle. There’s something for everybody here,” said Randy Banis of Lancaster, a member of off-road groups and the Bureau of Land Management’s Desert Advisory Council.

The key piece of the bill, which was co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is creation of two national monuments that would connect critical wildlife corridors.

The Sand to Snow National Monument would encompass 135,000 acres, from the desert floor in the Coachella Valley to the peak of Mount San Gorgonio. It would connect to the western edge of Joshua Tree National Park and include Big Morongo Canyon Preserve and San Gorgonio Wilderness, eventually linking to the Whitewater Preserve.

David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, an Oak Glen-based nonprofit group that purchases land and opens it to the public, said Sand to Snow would be the most diverse of all national monuments because it includes two distinct deserts as well as pinyon pine forests, oak woodlands and coastal chaparral.

The larger proposed monument, Mojave Trails, is slated for 965,000 acres between the Mojave National Preserve and Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base. It would include about 200,000 acres that once belonged to the Catellus Development Corp., a former arm of the Santa Fe railway.

The Wildlands Conservancy paid $45 million in private funds to buy more than half a million acres of the unspoiled Catellus lands in 2004.

It involved 160-acre parcels laid out like a checkerboard along either side of the railroad tracks from Barstow to the Colorado River, the result of a grant from the government in the 1800s to spur development.

The conservancy donated the land to the government for protection and public use.

Included in the Mojave Trails National Monument would be “phenomenal landforms,” Myers said, including the Amboy Crater, Pisgah lava flows, Cady Mountains and Bigelow Cholla Garden Wilderness.

Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa in Pipes Canyon, northwest of Yucca Valley, also are slated for protection under the bill. In 2011, environmentalists vigorously fought a proposed industrial-scale wind farm on the buttes, which contain rare plants and Native American artifacts.

The bill proposes adding 4,500 acres to Joshua Tree National Park, 22,000 acres to the Mojave National Preserve and 39,000 acres to Death Valley National Park, and designates six new BLM wilderness areas covering 250,000 acres.

Feinstein’s bill also addresses other desert uses: off-road recreation and renewable energy development.

“With so many competing uses for this land, it is essential that we come together to build consensus,” she said.

The legislation designates five existing off-highway vehicle areas on 142,000 acres as permanent recreation areas. They include Dumont Dunes, El Mirage, Stoddard Valley, Rasor and Spangler Hills.

Banis, who worked with off-roaders to propose changes to an October draft of the bill, said 15 off-highway organizations supported it – up from just three letters of support from the industry for the last version of the bill.

Among the changes they proposed – and got in the final bill – were inclusion of Dumont Dunes to study possible expansions of El Mirage and Spangler Hills that eventually could complete some four-wheel-drive trails, he said.

The latest version also adds 80 miles of newly designated dirt roads that can be used by cars and off-road vehicles, he said.

Renewable energy development also was addressed in the bill.

None of the areas proposed for protection are included in the 150,000 acres previously identified by the Department of the Interior for potential solar development in the desert.

The bill encourages development in solar zones established by the federal government to avoid conflicts over conservation land.

It also allows for upgrades to transmission lines necessary to bring clean energy from new desert solar and wind farms to urban areas while still protecting pristine landscapes.

February 2, 2015

Storms repairs complete, Old Route 66 reopens

Inland News Today

LUDLOW – (INT) – National Trails Highway (Old Route 66) is back in business 5-months after last September’s monsoon storms sent flash floods coursing across the Mojave Desert.

The last segment between Ludlow and Amboy was reopened Friday.

It cost San Bernardino County $1.4 million dollars to repair forty bridges. Dry washes beneath each were cleared and widened and brought up to current standards.

December 31, 2014

Eagle Mountain legal battle settled after 15 years

A massive iron ore mining pit at Eagle Mountain in the remote desert just east of the Coachella Valley. (Jay Calderon, The Desert Sun)

Sammy Roth
The Desert Sun

A longstanding legal battle over land around the old Eagle Mountain iron mine has been settled in a deal that some activists hope could bring the mine one step closer to inclusion in Joshua Tree National Park.

The old mine has been the subject of fiery debate in recent years, with several groups fighting over its future. The owners have been trying to sell the land to another mining company, while a separate company has obtained federal approval to build a hydroelectric power plant at the site. Conservationists, meanwhile, want to see the area absorbed by Joshua Tree National Park, which surrounds it on three sides.

The legal settlements signed last month don’t directly address any of those possibilities. Rather, they require Kaiser Eagle Mountain, which owns the mine, to return to the federal government certain lands surrounding its property, which the company received as part of a land exchange 15 years ago.

Regulators say that Kaiser still has the right to mine those lands, and that the partial reversal of the land exchange is more of a technicality than anything. Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Dana Wilson said the land’s return to federal control “doesn’t in any way relate” to the possibility of the area becoming part of the national park.

“If the park service is interested in the future in pursuing that, then we’d need to cross that bridge when we get to it,” she said.

Conservationists, though, see last month’s settlements as a major step toward the land being incorporated into Joshua Tree National Park. They’ve argued that the old mine — and the ghost town next to it — have conservation and historic value, and would allow park visitors to learn about the history of mining and steelmaking.

Donna Charpied, a local activist who brought one of the lawsuits to undo the land exchange, said Kaiser giving up its ownership of some of the land removes “a monumental stumbling block” to the national park proposal.

“We just knocked one of the heads off the hydra,” she said. “Time to get that land back to the park now. There’s no reason not to.”

It’s unclear what prompted Kaiser to agree to the settlement, after years of fighting Charpied and the National Parks Conservation Association in court. Kaiser Eagle Mountain Vice President Terry Cook said the company could have demanded it get back the lands it gave up 15 years ago, but that it decided to be “magnanimous” by letting the federal government keep them.

Those lands are important because of their conservation value. The Bureau of Land Management said in a statement that they include critical habitat for threatened and endangered species, including the desert tortoise, the flat-tailed horned lizard and the Yuma clapper rail.

“We thought long and hard about it, and we decided we’d let the (Bureau of Land Management) retain the lands, even though we were entitled to receive them back,” Cook said. “We’re trying to do the right thing by people.”

It’s possible that Kaiser had other motives for agreeing to the settlements as well. David Lamfrom, who works for the National Parks Conservation Association, speculated that the company might be trying to ease a potential sale to another mining company.

“Having a longstanding lawsuit over the raincloud of any prospective buyer just makes things so much more complicated,” he said.

It’s also unclear what the settlements mean for the hydroelectric power plant proposed by the Eagle Crest Energy Company. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted a license for the plant earlier this year, but Kaiser has thus far refused to sell its land to Eagle Crest.

The possibility of a sale could be more remote now, since some of the land that Kaiser returned to the federal government could be needed for the hydroelectric plant. Cook, Lamfrom and Charpied all said they weren’t yet sure what the reversal of the land exchange means for Eagle Crest’s proposal.

Conservation groups and the National Park Service have vehemently opposed the hydroelectric project, saying the power plant would drain billions of gallons of groundwater from an aquifer adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park.

The Eagle Crest Energy Company first proposed the hydroelectric project two decades ago — a move that angered Kaiser executives, who at the time had endorsed a plan to build a massive garbage dump at Eagle Mountain. That plan, which fell through last year, would have involved Kaiser selling its land to the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, which would have built the landfill.

In preparation for that sale, Kaiser executed a land swap with the federal Bureau of Land Management in 1999. That land exchange was the source of the legal controversy that was finally settled last month.

As part of the original land exchange, Kaiser gave the federal government land it owned alongside the Eagle Mountain railroad, which stretches from the eastern shore of the Salton Sea to the mine site. In exchange, the company received federal land surrounding the mine, which would have been used for the landfill project.

But conservation groups have long criticized the exchange, saying that it was carried out illegally and that federal land managers got the worse end of the deal. They’ve also argued that the exchange is no longer necessary now that the landfill plan has been scrapped.

Now, those groups have succeeded in reversing part of the land exchange. The reversal may or may not have practical implications — Kaiser could still mine the exchanged lands — but Lamfrom sees the end of the long-running legal battle as critical to Eagle Mountain’s future.

“This is a milestone that I think gets us back to a place where we can start having reasonable discussions about what the future of this landscape is,” he said.

Lamfrom’s organization supports studying Eagle Mountain for inclusion in the national park, saying that setting aside the area would connect important fragments of wilderness.

National park officials have agreed that preserving the area would be beneficial. Such a step would require action by Congress or President Barack Obama’s administration.

Industrialist Henry Kaiser founded the iron mine in the 1950s, on land that was carved out of the southeastern corner of the Joshua Tree National Monument — the predecessor to the national park. But the mine was shut down in the early 1980s as production of steel in the United States waned.

Federal and state regulators maintain that Kaiser never gave up its mining rights at Eagle Mountain, although local activists have contested that claim. Charpied and others have accused Kaiser of conspiring with state regulators to keep control of the site, which still has millions of tons of valuable iron ore.

December 13, 2014

Arizona farmers take hit to stave off water crisis

Rock Island’s “bathtub ring” illustrates how the water level at Lake Mead has dropped. It is at 1,085 feet, 10 above a level that would trigger supply reductions. (Mark Henle/The Republic)

Brenna Goth
The Arizona Republic

All it takes is 10 feet of water to go from caution to crisis on the Colorado River.

That's why Arizona farmers like Dan Thelander support a new agreement that will help conserve the amount of water in Lake Mead even though it could mean short-term sacrifices for them.

The water level at Lake Mead is currently at about 1,085 feet above sea level, hovering near its lowest point since the dame was built in the 1930s. A drop of 10 more feet to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's official tipping point of 1,075 feet would trigger swift and significant supply reductions.

Arizona agriculture would be the first to take a hit.

Under a new multistate agreement signed this week, Colorado River water users will save a portion of their allotments to store in Lake Mead and boost the lake's levels. Arizona is committing to save the most water among the states, which means some deliveries and diversions will be reduced to keep water in the system.

Thelander grows alfalfa, barley, cotton and other crops on about 5,000 acres in Pinal County. His irrigation district is taking a voluntary cut, which may affect farmers' operations.

He said it's a small price to pay to postpone the more drastic reductions they would be hit with under a shortage.

"It's kind of a bogeyman that's out there," he said. "Farmers know about it."

Under the new agreement, Arizona agencies will work with Nevada, California and the federal government to store water in Lake Mead. Residential users in Arizona are not expected to be affected by the reductions.

No one knows exactly how a shortage would play out, but Arizona will be the first to face cuts based on its junior priority to California. Reductions would hit farmers before cities like Phoenix that depend on the Colorado River supply.

The agreement's proposed 740,000 acre-feet water savings aims to keep roughly an extra 10 feet in Lake Mead by 2017, buying time for water planners as they address a system dried from drought and drawing for farms and cities across the west. An acre-foot of water is enough to supply two or three families for a year, experts say.

"We're trying to stave off a crisis," said Chuck Cullom, Colorado River programs manager for the Central Arizona Project.

After more than 14 years of drought, a shortage could come as soon as 2016, Cullom said. Lake Mead is at about 40 percent of its capacity, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

CAP will take the largest share of the voluntary reductions, committing to saving 345,000 acre-feet of water between now and 2017. The agency manages Arizona's Colorado River water allotment for municipal and agricultural users in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties, using a 336-mile-long canal system.

The savings are a small portion of the water delivered or diverted for storage, but participating agencies said it's a start in addressing the imbalance between the river's supply and the demand on it.

Southern California's water district will aim to save 300,000 acre-feet, and the agency in southern Nevada will save 45,000 acre-feet. The Bureau of Reclamation's goal is 50,000 acre-feet.

Under the terms agreed to when the CAP began construction in the 1960s, Arizona's water rights are the first to go. California is guaranteed its supply, but the logistics would likely be a legal nightmare in the case of a shortage, officials said.

The lower the elevation of Lake Mead, the more severe the reductions. Under CAP's priority system, Arizona farmers are the first to lose their water, though the pinch would later apply to municipal users.

Under this week's agreement, Phoenix water customers are unlikely to notice a difference. Most of the voluntary cuts fall on irrigation districts providing water to farmers in the central part of the state.

Nine districts served by CAP will together conserve 161,000 acre-feet that they would otherwise receive from CAP before 2017 — nearly half of the agency's total savings.

For the water the districts do get, CAP is providing a discounted rate to incentivize temporary changes in farming techniques by their agricultural customers to reduce water use.

"Hopefully, economically, it's about a wash," said Paul Orme, a lawyer representing three of the participating districts.

The Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District, where Pinal County farmer Thelander is a board member, will take a voluntary 20,000 acre-feet cut in its CAP water supply next year.

Keeping more water in Lake Mead will avert a shortage declaration and give farmers more time to plan, said Brian Betcher, general manager of the district. Water is their most expensive input, and it's difficult to change crops with little notice, he added.

"We have to be on top of it and see things before they come at us," he said.

The district can likely compensate for this year's voluntary reduction by increasing groundwater pumping, Betcher said. The method could, however, increase rates in the future, depending on power and energy costs.

"We're looking at it as giving a little to hopefully save a lot," Betcher said.

A CAP fallowing program already in place in Yuma will also contribute to the Lake Mead savings. The remainder of the goal comes from yearly operational decisions, like storing excess water unused by customers, and a deal to replace some of Phoenix's CAP water with local supplies.

Phoenix water rates won't be affected by the deal, said Kathryn Sorensen, the city's water-services director.

Other states are still deciding how they will meet their Lake Mead storage goals.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California doesn't have a firm proposal but is in talks with agricultural agencies and other users, said Bill Hasencamp, manager of Colorado River Resources. California's part of the agreement provides extra flexibility for using its savings for short-term drought relief until conditions improve in the state.

"We just don't know where we'll be a year from now," Hasencamp said.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority approved the agreement in recent days, spokesman Scott Huntley said. He said he didn't have information on potential projects.

The agreement is a sign of the shifting dialogue about managing the Colorado River, said Dave White, an Arizona State University associate professor who focuses on water policy. The looming pressure of a shortage is fueling cooperation among states that have historically fended for themselves, he added.

While the West's water solutions for the past 100 years have relied on the engineering of dams and reservoirs, the next 100 years will depend on collaboration, said White, who works for ASU's School of Community Resources and Development and the Global Institute of Sustainability.

Recent agreements at the local and regional level may focus on small-scale pilot projects, but they are important because of the proactive thinking they show, White said. Any relief will give water managers time to plan — or to let nature do the work.

"Essentially what they're trying to do is buy time," White said. "This is a more sophisticated version of the 'pray for rain' strategy."

County Pushing Daggett, Yermo & Newberry Springs CSD Mergers

Map of existing Daggett (green), Yermo (blue), and Newberry (purple) Community Service Districts. (SBC LAFCO/ESRI)
San Bernardino Sentinel

The San Bernardino County Local Formation Commission has recommended that the Daggett Community Services District consolidate with two other nearby community service districts. This week the Local Agency Formation Commission reviewed a draft plan, the centerpiece of which is that the Daggett Community Service District, the Yermo Community Services District and the Newberry Community Services District be merged to form one district.

Under that recommendation, the services for all three communities would be provided in common and consolidated.

The Local Agency Formation Commission staff has formulated a so-called “plan for service” that would make for consistent service levels, allow for the free distribution of resources between the entities and communities, streamline governance and management and reduce overall costs. A five-year projection shows the newly-formed district would remain fiscally solvent for at least half a decade, with no diminution of service levels in any of the three communities.

Daggett encompasses 26 square miles and is home to 487 residents. Newberry Springs covers 117 square miles and has 2,288 inhabitants. Yermo, at 74 square miles, boasts a population of 1,629. Despite the size differences between the three communities, they have similar population densities. Daggett averages 18.7 people per square mile. Newberry Springs has 19.6 residents per square mile. Yermo has a per square mile density of 22.

Within its confines, Daggett contains its own water company, which services an area beyond its borders, including several businesses and a few residences as well as Silver Valley High School, all located in Yermo.

The Yermo Water Company has long been troubled. Formerly owned by Donald Walker, the Yermo Water Company fell into severe disrepair early last decade, a situation which was exacerbated by Walker’s departure to Florida, making it difficult for his company’s customers to contact him.

As the absentee owner, Walker did not have a licensed operator available to operate the system. During the summer of 2006, the primary water tank serving the Yermo community’s water system developed a leak and customers were without water for a week in the small community near Barstow, where temperatures exceeded 100 degrees every day. The California Department of Health and the California Public Utilities Commission initiated an investigation into the matter in 2007.

A decision to pursue the appointment of a receiver was issued in May of 2009. A community-based prospective buyer surfaced and the receivership was suspended while it appeared that a sale of the system was possible. But after more than two years of negotiations, Walker refused to inform the prospective buyer how much he owed in back taxes and fines to the California Department of Health. As a result, the sale fell through. The receivership arrangement that took place in November 2012 was contested by Walker’s family but was denied by the Superior Court on March 6, 2013. Beginning in November 2012, the Yermo Community Services District took over operation of the company’s assets and in December 2013, arrangement for the Apple Valley Ranchos Water Company to purchase the Yermo Water Company in its entirety began. Preparations for that takeover are yet ongoing, as repairs to the water system are being carried out.

In its 2012-13 report, the San Bernardino County Grand Jury identified numerous shortcomings in the governance, accounting and financial management, and internal controls of the Newberry Springs Community Services District. The Local Agency Formation Commission detailed its staff to look into those issues and others pertaining to Yermo and Daggett. The upshot was a finding that it would behoove all three districts to merge and settle on management and leadership for the collective that is competent and efficient. At the very least, according to commission staff, the Daggett Community Service District and Yermo Community Services District should come together to form one entity. Economies of scale, not to mention other advantages, make it logical that the Newberry Community Services District be brought in on the merger, according to the Local Agency Formation Commission.

There have been similar consolidation imperatives and consolidations carried out involving those communities in the past. In the 1960s Daggett’s school district was forced into a shotgun marriage with the Barstow Unified School District. In 1978, the Daggett School District was able to reassert its independence, breaking away. But in that departure, Daggett had to forego assets and resources local residents felt rightfully belonged to Daggett and not Barstow.

Daggett and Yermo resisted the Local Agency Formation Commission’s push for them to merge five years ago.
While few of the residents in the Daggett, Newberry or Yermo communities look upon the pressure to merge favorably, they are subject to the authority of the Local Agency Formation Commission, which is putting each district through its paces in having to respond to the merger concept. The Local Agency Formation Commission will lay out the options outlined by its staff and present them to the three communities and their residents. On January 21, the Local Agency Formation Commission will consider those plans/options.

For a significant number of residents, there is concern that the dictates from the county seat in San Bernardino some 70 miles away will impose on them a management and operation plan that will run roughshod over local control and in some cases, at least, result in services, including emergency services, being based at locations that will be more remote and not conducive to quick response or sensitive response.

December 5, 2014

Water Woes Among Topics For 8 Governors In Vegas

A view of the Colorado River from a scenic overlook at Glen Canyon on Nov. 22, 2004, in Page, Ariz. (Photo by Jeff Topping/Getty Images)

Ken Ritter
Associated Press

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Facing dwindling water supplies, Western states are struggling to capture every drop with dam and diversion projects that some think could erode regional cooperation crucial to managing the scarce resource.

Against that backdrop, eight Western governors meeting in Las Vegas this weekend will address regional water issues, and water managers from seven states arrive next week to work on ways to ensure 40 million people in the parched Colorado River basin don’t go thirsty.

Gary Wockner, a conservationist with the Denver-based advocacy group Save the Colorado, said there’s already jostling amid the fear of empty buckets. “Everyone is trying to get the last legal drop of water,” he said.

Colorado River Water Users Association representatives deny there’s discord at their table.

“Fifteen years of drought has tightened everything. But I don’t see this as people are getting ready to fight,” said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. That agency is dealing with a double-whammy — drought on the Colorado River and in the Sierra Nevada and Northern California.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval will host Western Governors’ Association counterparts from Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming this weekend to consider several issues, including water. Two days of drought workshops follow.

“The motto is: We save the system as a whole,” said Pat Mulroy, longtime general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority in Las Vegas and now a senior policy fellow with the Brookings Institution.

“If we get into, ‘I’m going to win,’ and, ‘You’re going to lose,’ there won’t be a winner,” Mulroy said.
But Wockner said Colorado, Wyoming and Utah are considering dams and diversions in the mountains to capture water they’re entitled to before it reaches the Colorado and flows to the deserts.

New Mexico has plans to divert and store water from the Gila River for cities and farms before it flows into the Colorado.

“Diversions extract water from the system,” said Jack Schmidt, professor of watershed sciences at Utah State University. He just completed three years studying the Grand Canyon for the U.S. Geological Survey. “More water use and more water retention in the upper basin means less water flowing through the Grand Canyon to the lower basin.”

Schmidt referred to the Colorado River Compact of 1922 and agreements with Mexico that promise about 16.5 million acre-feet of water annually from a river system that has historically taken in about 15 million acre-feet from rainfall and snowmelt. But that amount has diminished during almost 15 years of drought. One acre-foot of water is about enough to serve two average Las Vegas homes for a year.

“You could say that we decided how to divide the pie, but the pie is smaller than anybody thought,” Schmidt said. “With climate change, it is even smaller than that.”

In Las Vegas, which virtually relies on water from Lake Mead, officials are making plans to add a $650 million pumping facility to draw from the reservoir even if levels drop below 1,000 feet above sea level. That’s the line at which Hoover Dam’s hydroelectric turbines would be idled.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority already is drilling an $800 million tunnel to tap water from the bottom of the lake, at 860 feet above sea level.

At 900 feet — so-called “dead pool” — the river would end at Hoover Dam. Nothing would flow downstream.
The lake reached its high water mark in 1983 at 1,225 feet.

The Metropolitan Water District’s Kightlinger said the seven basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico upstream and California, Arizona and Nevada downstream — have a history of cooperating, and they have forged several landmark agreements.

A 2012 amendment to a 70-year-old treaty between the U.S. and Mexico has the river flowing south of the border again.

Last summer, water agencies in Denver, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix began an $11 million pilot program with the federal government to pay farmers, cities and industries to cut use of Colorado River water.

The goal is to prop up Lake Mead, which stood Friday at 1,084 feet above sea level — just 9 feet above the crucial 1,075 level that would trigger cuts to Arizona, Nevada and California.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation this week projected a better than 50 percent chance that it will declare such a shortage in January 2017.

The Central Arizona Project would face the first cutbacks, and farmers would be hit hardest, agency chief David Modeer said.

“Hoping for snowpack is not sufficient to solve this,” Modeer said. “It’s going to take cooperation and sacrifice among all of us to stave off disaster in the river.”

November 25, 2014

SMWD establishes agency to oversee Cadiz groundwater project

Orange County Register

A project that will pump drinking water from a Mojave Desert aquifer and pipe it to south Orange County has taken another step forward.

The Santa Margarita Water District board of directors recently approved establishing the Fenner Valley Water Authority to control and operate the delivery of the groundwater.

The district is moving forward with the plan after an Orange County Superior Court judge in May shot down lawsuits filed over the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project by environmental groups trying to stop the project.

District spokesman Jonathan Volzke said operating under the joint powers authority shields Santa Margarita and its customers from liabilities.

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.

Cadiz is estimated to spend $225 to $275 million for the construction, spokeswoman Courtney Degener said.

There’s no timeline for the beginning of construction, Degener said. The company needs to reach an agreement with the Metropolitan Water District of Los Angeles on moving water through its aqueduct, she said.

The opposition has so far filed appeals in four of the six lawsuits, but the project will continue moving forward regardless, Degener said.

The well would pump some 16 billion gallons of water a year, and Volzke said Santa Margarita plans to purchase at least 5,000 acre feet a year, or 20 percent of its water supply, from the Cadiz project. The district serves 165,000 people in Coto de Caza, Ladera Ranch, Rancho Santa Margarita and parts of Mission Viejo and San Clemente.

Santa Margarita buys 85 percent of its water from the Metropolitan Water District, which has increased water prices each year for the last two decades, Volzke said. The Cadiz project could reduce the district’s reliance on the Metropolitan Water District.

“It would give us more local control over the cost of water,” Volzke said.

Once built, Cadiz plans to lease the facilities to the Fenner Valley Water Authority, which will oversee day-to-day operation of the well and pipeline.

Cadiz is trying to reach an agreement with other water agencies that have shown interest in buying water from the project, Degener said. They include: Jurupa Community Services District, Golden State Water Company, Suburban Water Systems, California Water Service Company and Three Valleys Municipal Water District, San Luis Water District and Lake Arrowhead Community Services District.