June 13, 2016

Federal-lands ranching: A half-century of decline

How grazing fell from its Western pedestal — and fueled Sagebrush Rebellion.


Tay Wiles and Brooke Warren
High Country News


One of the prime drivers of the 45-year-old Sagebrush Rebellion, the movement to take control of public lands from the federal government, is the sense that rural Western ranchers are bullied by forces beyond their control. That narrative remains compelling, in part because it’s true. Since the 1950s, the ranching industry has been battered by market consolidation, rising operational costs, drought and climate change. Meanwhile, the amount of grazing allowed on federal lands has dramatically fallen. Bureau of Land Management livestock authorizations dropped from over 18 million animal unit months in 1953 to about 8 million in 2014.

Political rhetoric often blames the decline entirely on environmental regulation. But while the 1970s legislative changes have had an impact, there’s a more complex set of forces at work. The market for materials like lamb and wool fell after World War II, for example. Urban development became a factor as the feds sold off land to private buyers. Feedlots proliferated, squeezing smaller ranchers out of the market, and grazing fees rose. Then the advent of range science — which aims to use a coherent scientific method to determine how much grazing the land can sustain — changed everything.

Since then, drought has forced ranchers to sell off animals that their allotments can no longer support. What was then the costliest drought in the nation’s history hit Montana, Idaho and Wyoming particularly hard in the late 1980s, causing $39 billion in damages altogether. The 2002 dry spell, which sparked what was, at the time, one of the biggest fire seasons in Western history, pushed more cattle off the land. The current dry spell has also reduced livestock numbers, particularly in California and Nevada. The effects of drought can linger for years, as ranchers labor to restock, and replacement livestock from other regions struggle, sometimes unsuccessfully, to adapt to a new landscape. And once grazing levels are down, federal agencies historically have “made a habit of not letting them go back up,” says Leisl Carr-Childers, an American West and environmental historian.

BLM and USFS early stocking rates were difficult to measure accurately, as federal policies gave ranchers the incentive to report no more and no fewer animals than they were officially permitted. Read on for a look at 50 years of grazing data, from decades of U.S. Forest Service and BLM reports.



Notes on sourcing and methodology:
  • This data originated from BLM and USFS annual reports.
  • BLM and USFS early stocking rates were difficult to measure accurately, as federal policies gave ranchers the incentive to report no more and no fewer animals than they were officially permitted, which may have differed from actual cattle on the range.
  • Agencies first measured “actually grazed” territory in the ’50s and ’60s by trudging onto rangelands and counting cattle; because of the method’s difficulty, they later began measuring based on billed AUMs.
  • Before 1977, the Forest Service measured by animal-month, so those numbers have been converted to be consistent with animal-unit-month. We followed the agency’s recommendations and multiplied the early numbers by a factor of 1.2. However, this is not an exact conversion.
  • The average weight of a cow has increased since the early 20th century, which means each AUM may have a potentially higher environmental impact.
  • Forest Service data for 1992 and 1999 are unavailable.
This reporting was done with support from Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West.

June 7, 2016

Forget it, Jake: It's Cadiz

The entrance to the Cadiz property | Photo: Chris Clarke

Emily Green
KCET.com


Commentary: Just when it seems that a water grab with the shorthand name of “Cadiz” can’t get any stranger, it can. In May, an appellate court in Orange County affirmed that a suburban water company in Orange County is the rightful municipal steward for a privately run groundwater mining operation 200 miles away in the Mojave, and that its central purpose of exporting desert water for sale to Southern California cities qualifies as “conservation.”

The court might as well have told us that, yes, it's checked, the wolf in the bonnet is our grandmother.

If there is good news in the down-is-up and up-is-down world of what is now known as the "Cadiz Valley Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project," it’s that late last year, public land managers rejected the speculators’ claim to exemption from federal environmental review. Adding to this, an edgy blog run by hedge fund managers argues the company is on the brink of collapse. Those bloggers say they’re “shorting” Cadiz, market speak for betting on its collapse. In the course of what is now Cadiz’s 22-year-bid for water, not a drop has been exported from the desert, but millions of dollars raised by the company still flowed back to the founder — who can now be found running the racetrack at Santa Anita Park.

My, what sharp teeth he has.

It's fitting, somehow, that for many years the public face of Cadiz was a British bon vivant with a history of hoarding politicians so compulsively that House of Cards might reject the script for a Cadiz episode as too improbable. Various accounts in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and London Guardian have Keith Brackpool arriving in the US while still in his twenties in 1988 or '89, as head of the North American operations of a British food multinational Albert Fisher PLC. Big title, short tenure. Brackpool quit in 1992 after it was discovered that he had what the Guardian described as a multi-million dollar share in a direct competitor. It wasn't just any competitor, either, but a subsidiary of Polly Peck, Britain's answer to Enron.

It was all completely innocent according to representatives for Fisher, but the CEO who sent Brackpool to the US soon lost his job and the company that had once been a profitable if modest British greengrocery firm became the very poster company for 80s overexpansion. As Fisher reversed trajectory into a decade-long plummet toward bankruptcy, its share price reportedly dropping from roughly $2 to 4 cents, Brackpool turned west, toward California, lured by rumors of an ocean of untapped groundwater roughly 180 miles east of Los Angeles in California’s Mojave Desert. What one of his company's annual reports would soon describe as a mother lode of water lying in a 1,400-square-mile "horseshoe-shaped mountainous catchment area known as the Cadiz Valley" had already attracted speculators, but no one with Brackpool's brio and recklessness.

Sure enough, NASA satellite images did suggest that water briefly pooled in the Cadiz Valley during scant winter rains. Moreover, as was long understood by hydrologists and pretty much anyone familiar with the place, the ground underneath the Mojave can indeed be full of water. Only pressure from desert aquifers keeps the Mojave's seeps and springs flowing. And these startling fonts of water in such a dry place support such an astonishing array of plants and animals that in the early 1990s, almost simultaneously as Brackpool began buying acres in the Cadiz Valley, Senator Dianne Feinstein shepherded the California Desert Protection Act through Congress and to Bill Clinton’s desk. This act created the Mojave National Preserve, granting greater legal protection to the plants and animals very near Brackpool's horseshoe.

Wait a second. He was growing grapes for the prince?

Cadiz's water right was agricultural, so Brackpool’s young company began leasing a small patch of its holdings in the Mojave to citrus and table grape operation. Then, to the amazement of onlookers, it bought up the biggest ag operation in Riverside County. The New York Times described Cadiz's purchase of Sun World International farms and packing operations as a “mouse-swallowing-the-elephant sort of deal.”

The acquisition gave him such unlikely ag-cred that, in 1999, Brackpool was in talks with a Saudi royal, Alwaleed Bin Talal, about Cadiz running a grape farm in Egypt’s Nile delta. Behind lavish showmanship, however, nothing had changed from 1996, when, after the New York Times observed that Cadiz's farm side lost money, Brackpool replied, “The real long-term play is water."

Only the location of the Cadiz Valley, 40 miles from the Colorado River Aqueduct, made a "long play" plausible. To get his water to the canal operated by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and carrying Southern California's municipal water supply from the Colorado River to cities such as Los Angeles, Brackpool needed two key things: A pipeline to carry water from his wells and clearance to blend that water with the rest of the water in the aqueduct.

By 2000, environmental impact reviews were in process for what had evolved on the drawing board into plans for The Cadiz Valley Groundwater Storage Project. The pump-and-dump logic of getting water out of the ground and into the So Cal municipal supply was still the heart of the project, but the scope had come to include a savings bank side. Under this, Metropolitan could wheel in any surplus it might have from the Colorado, infiltrate it into Cadiz ground where it would be safe from evaporation, then pull it out when needed. This “aquifer storage and recovery” side was intensely fashionable at the time, and would give the project a high conservation-value sheen as it approached environmental review.

Because Cadiz’s pipeline would cross Department of Interior land, the project triggered not only state but also federal scrutiny. Metropolitan would be the lead agency for the state review, the Bureau of Land Management lead for the federal environmental impact statement. Federal participation meant Cadiz sustainability claims would be reviewed by the best desert hydrologists in the country, the US Geological Survey.

The local water might kill you and there's not enough of it.

Among the USGS observations about Cadiz’s storage and export project as proposed to Metropolitan: Mojave groundwater is prone to high levels of the carcinogen Chromium VI. Beyond a now "Erin Brockovich"-sized question suddenly hanging over the idea that a Cadiz Valley was a good place to store drinking water, the USGS suspected that it could take 15 times longer than Cadiz claimed for desert rains to replenish the groundwater the company pumped.

Pumping too much groundwater too fast might dry out the springs of what, since 1994, had become part of America's revered National Park system. The USGS proffered a pumping plan that would protect the Mojave National Preserve, but this time Metropolitan balked. What if damage from pumping was detected before it had even paid off the tens of millions it would cost to build Brackpool’s pipeline?

This is the juncture when friends with influence should have helped Keith Brackpool. Nobody greased more palms than Cadiz. Gray Davis received hundreds of thousands of dollars and rides in airplanes. Former speaker of the Assembly Antonio Villaraigosa got tens of thousands, and Cadiz never neglected the bottomless wants of San Bernardino County Supervisors. But when Cadiz needed their clout the most, there was the LA Times giving over its premier slot, the Sunday Report, to diagramming his generosity.

In 2002, Metropolitan left Cadiz at the altar.

Cadiz scrambled for new financing as Sun World went bankrupt. So much for growing grapes for the prince. As if to reassure shareholders, Cadiz filed a breach of promise suit against Metropolitan that would cost the water district’s ratepayers another $1 million. A pincer movement attempt to take over Met from within by seating an ally as general manager failed. The “long play” looked played out when up popped Susan Kennedy, a former Public Utilities Commissioner whom Cadiz had paid $10,000 a month for “consulting” the previous year.

Behold Arnold Schwarzenegger's new chief of staff.

With Kennedy’s help and ex-officio endorsements of the project from the governor, Cadiz stock roared back on the NASDAQ.


"I miss that English guy."
-- KPCC radio host Larry Mantle, after interviewing Keith Brackpool's replacement, lawyer Scott Slater, for the first time.

Bruised by yet more LA Times articles dwelling on his cash trails to politicians and even a guilty plea for security trading fraud back in London, Brackpool became a silent chairman. Late in 2008, a disarmingly boyish-looking water lawyer named Scott Slater stepped forward as the face of Cadiz 2.0.

The new, Slater-era strategy: don't argue with the USGS about safe yield estimates. Rather, lock them out. Then repeat unchallenged rent-a-science that Cadiz had paid private consultants to put on charts and graphs. This went, roughly, Cadiz pumps will not harm the basin. Nay, they’ll be good for it, yes good for it! Cadiz will capture water that would otherwise just evaporate!

Moreover, this time around, the company would be running a pipeline to the aqueduct along a railroad easement held by the Arizona & California Railroad and would not need a federal right of way, or to waste taxpayer money on a federal environmental review. Rather than frame it as Cadiz ducking the best expert scrutiny, the company emphasized efficiency. Think of all the money that Cadiz could save the taxpayer by eliminating US Geological Survey review! As for a new state environmental review, there was no getting around it. Cadiz needed a new lead public agency for to get its water into municipal infrastructure. Replacing the former “lead agency” Metropolitan would be tough. If the largest water wholesaler outside of Reclamation thought the project too expensive and fraught, who could replace it?

San Bernardino County was the obvious lead agency. It’s home to the Cadiz Valley and its supervisors were already well lubed with campaign donations by the company. A Cadiz press release even flirted with the notion. Only Slater knows if he passed on the County because he sensed a coming public corruption scandal that would embroil the county assessor and two supes and put a stink over all of California east of Interstate 5. For whatever reason, Slater kept looking.

Huntington Beach-based environment lawyer Debbie Cook thinks she knows how Cadiz ultimately lighted on Santa Margarita Water District, a south Orange County water company serving 150,000 people compared to Metropolitan’s 19 million. It was led by one of Slater’s cronies, she argued in a scathing Voice of OC commentary. With generous help from Slater’s team, the Santa Margarita Water District conducted a new environmental impact report, reviewed the report, then certified the report. And so it became lead agency of a water project 200 miles away with no other qualification to tackle a project of this scope other than its general manager knew Scott Slater. As icing, an Orange County judge affirmed the water district’s standing as lead agency in May.

Put my 401K on No Regrets in the third.

Slater and Cadiz were on a roll until April 2015, when a little known hedge fund blog called Seeking Alpha argued that federal review was inevitable and put a “strong sell” on Cadiz. So began a shareholder lawsuit against Cadiz. Call it ankle biting by a pseudonymous blogger, or insight by the rare, sharp financial analyst who does his or her homework. Either way, six months later, Seeking Alpha was proved right about one thing: The Bureau of Land Management wrote Cadiz rejecting the railroad gambit. The Santa Margarita self-certification under state review would not be enough. The project would have to undergo a federal review if Cadiz wanted to run a pipeline across federal land. Then, last February, the screws tightened yet again when the president declared yet more land around Cadiz to be part of a new Mojave Trails National Monument.

After issuing an indignant barrage of tweets condemning the BLM decision, then marshaling a stage army of outraged congressional reps, Slater is currently circling in protest mode. Time will tell if he can muster some kind of congressional exemption or if he’ll sue the federal government. Whatever he does, again it’s hail Mary time for Cadiz as Seeking Alpha doubled down on its junk rating, calling the company “worth $0 intrinsically.”

If Cadiz goes bankrupt, the shareholders already made poorer by repeated stock dilutions may be hit hard. (Cue to check where any mutual funds might have parked your 401K). But, as far as the directors stand, going bust could scarcely happen to a bunch of richer, better remunerated players. Seeking Alpha calculates that over the years more than $47 million of hundreds of millions raised for the company went to compensating insiders. Brackpool came out of the shadows after parlaying a 2009 appointment by Schwarzenegger to California Horse Racing Board into part ownership and a management post at Santa Anita Park in LA County. He’s now most often found in the sports pages commenting, say, on a recent redesign of the “Chandelier Room.”

One of the major companies buying up Cadiz debt is a Wall Street investment firm Water Asset Management. A ProPublica profile earlier this year found it systematically buying up agricultural water rights around the West to redirect the flows to cities. This is chastening for anyone who imagines that a Cadiz bankruptcy alone would protect the Mojave National Preserve from dewatering by the project, or keep the Cadiz Valley’s Chromium VI out of public drinking water.

“Let's say Cadiz does go bankrupt,” said one of three analysts interviewed on the condition of anonymity for this piece. “What’s to stop Water Asset Management from hiring Scott Slater? Or what's to stop President Trump from appointing Scott Slater Secretary of the Interior?”

Forget it, Jake. It’s Cadiz.

June 6, 2016

Infamous water heist -- and hubris -- reap poison whirlwind

Winds whip dust off the dry 110-square mile Owens Lake bed during a March 2010 storm. The lake, the site of Los Angeles’ infamous water grab at the turn of the 20th century, was home to the country’s worst particle air pollution until extensive control measures were installed. Photo courtesy of Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District.

Jeremy P. Jacobs
Greenwire


INYO COUNTY, Calif. -- America's first water war was fought here in the early 1900s, sparked by a Los Angeles sneak attack on the Owens River.

When it ended, the booming metropolis had slurped up the water, Owens Lake was a poisoned salt flat and Owens Valley residents were choking in thick clouds of toxic dust.

The Owens Lake story is a cautionary tale for the West, where cities, farms and endangered fish are battling over water supplies threatened by a warming climate and historic drought. There are at least a half-dozen salt lakes -- including Utah's iconic Great Salt Lake -- being strangled by arid conditions and rising demands for fresh water.

Scientists call the lakes "terminal" because they are found at the end of river systems, but the term could also be a diagnosis.

The lakes are dying.

"They are all threatened in one way or another," said David Herbst, a biologist with the University of California's Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory. "It's well taken that climate change and drought -- their coupling -- is going to have a large effect. But diversions for agriculture, for urban uses -- that's the reason that water is taken away."

What's left after the fresh water vanishes is deadly to people and wildlife. Rivers sweep into the lakes sodium and chloride and farm contaminants -- selenium, pesticides, mercury and arsenic. So when fresh water stops flowing, the existing water evaporates, leaving behind salty plains of toxic dust. For public health, the impacts are severe. Imagine dust bowls where you can't see 20 feet in front of you and need a respirator to breathe.

Some of these lakes, like Winnemucca in Nevada and Sevier in Utah, are already gone. Others are in grave danger.

The Great Salt Lake is fouling the air near Utah population centers, yet the state is weighing a new diversion project that would reduce freshwater flows, exposing more of its lake bed and likely increasing toxic dust, local experts say.

The Salton Sea, California's largest lake, will see water flows drop dramatically in the next year under a complicated state-backed agreement that transferred water from the farms near the lake to San Diego. Without dust controls, scientists say, a public health catastrophe looms for 600,000 people who live near the lake -- and for people as far away as Los Angeles or Phoenix who might find themselves in poison dust clouds.

Even Mono Lake, the focus of a landmark California Supreme Court case and one of the West's most protected lakes, appears headed toward crisis.

Michael Rosen of the U.S. Geological Survey said the destruction of the lakes was a blatant disregard of nature.

"Once the water gets there, it is no longer useful for humans," Rosen said. "So if we can divert the water before it becomes unusable, that's a beneficial thing. That's the way it was historically looked at."

Put another way, allowing water to flow into these lakes has not been considered "reasonable and beneficial," a mandate that appears in the state constitutions in the West. There is no law or clear regulatory framework to protect the lakes. Instead, there are a variety of competing interests, industries, agencies, municipalities and states all vying for their increasingly depleted inflows.

By the 1920s, Owens Lake -- which once sprawled over 110 square miles and teemed with wildlife -- had become a dangerous source of air pollution. Winds whipping through the valley at up to 60 miles an hour stirred up dense clouds of cancer-causing dust and salt.

Los Angeles has been forced to spend some $2 billion to engineer a dramatic pollution fix deemed by some here one of the great engineering fixes of the 21st century. The hardscrabble project is a patchwork of dust-smothering techniques, including gravel, flooded ponds and rows of planted vegetation that cover nearly 50 square miles -- an area more than twice the size of Manhattan.

"I think Owens Lake may someday be the ninth Wonder of the World," said Phillip Kiddoo, the head of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, which enforces federal air pollution regulations. "Everyone said it can't be done, it's too big a problem. But we're proving everyone wrong."

Owens Lake brings into sharp relief the ramifications of letting lakes go dry. It also underscores what it takes to fix a lake's air pollution problems, and managers from lakes around the world are looking to Owens Lake for solutions.

Without greater protections, Herbst said, these lakes are "screwed."

'Moses'

Owens Lake, a remnant of a much larger water body that formed during the last ice age, is nestled between the Sierra Nevada and the Inyo Mountains.

With peaks reaching more than 14,000 feet, the mountain ranges form the Owens Valley -- 75 miles long and 10 to 20 miles wide.

The lake is fed by the Owens River, the only major river east of the Sierra Nevada. The Owens begins near Yosemite in Mono County, then heads south more than 100 miles to the lake. In high-water years, the river carries hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or around enough for a family of four for a year in Los Angeles.

As the 20th century dawned, the new Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, DWP, led by Chief Engineer William Mulholland discovered the lake.

William Mulholland. - Wikipedia.
Mulholland -- a smart, brash and arrogant Irish immigrant -- had his eyes fixed on using that water to build an empire.

By 1904, DWP concluded it lacked enough water to serve a population that was doubling every four years and was gripped by drought.

What followed was a plot to pipe the Owens River to Los Angeles -- even though the two were separated by more than 200 miles, a mountain range and a desert.

Mulholland would not be deterred.

His department used tricks like flushing all the water from Los Angeles reservoirs into the ocean at night in order to make the drought appear more severe and garner support for a bond measure to fund the project. And his agents shielded their identities, posing as farmers looking to buy land.

The caper became the basis of Roman Polanski's celebrated 1974 film, "Chinatown," and was described in colorful detail in Marc Reisner's 1986 account of Western water management, "Cadillac Desert."

"Los Angeles employed chicanery, subterfuge, spies, bribery, a campaign of divide-and-conquer, and a strategy of lies to get the water it needed," Reisner wrote. "In the end, it mined the valley bone-dry, impoverishing it, while the water made a number of prominent Los Angeleans very, very rich. There are those who would argue that if all of this was legal, then something is the matter with the law."

Mulholland's department bought nearly the entire valley -- more than 300,000 acres -- for groundwater and water rights. By 1913, it had captured all the streams of the Owens River. And within a few years, Owens Lake had dried up.

The aqueduct and pipeline to transport the water to Los Angeles took six years to build across the Mojave Desert. At 223 miles, including more than 50 miles of tunnels, it was the world's longest aqueduct and the largest single water project on Earth.

Owens Valley farmers fought fiercely, using dynamite to blow up large swaths of Mulholland's aqueduct several times in the 1920s.

But by the 1930s, DWP owned about 95 percent of the farmland in the valley and 85 percent of town property.

And still Los Angeles needed more water. By 1970, a second aqueduct was constructed that the city used to begin pumping groundwater, which further dried up the land and water that fed Owens Lake.

Mulholland became a legend.

"[I]nstead of leading his people through the waters to the promised land, he would cleave the desert and lead the promised waters to them," Reisner wrote. "To a thirsty city, he was Moses."

Raining lawsuits

Ted Schade came to Owens Valley to clean up Mulholland's mess.

Schade (pronounced "shady"), a 58-year-old civil engineer with short gray hair, blue eyes and a love of motorcycles, grew up in Southern California and frequently camped in the eastern Sierra as a child.

After a trip in the Owens Valley with his wife, he picked up a local newspaper with a job ad seeking an engineer to study "fugitive dust."

"I thought fugitive dust was the dust that escaped convicts made," Schade joked.

The posting was the beginning of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District's attempt to tackle the nation's worst dust pollution. Since the lake bed dried up in the 1920s, nothing had been done to control salt and other coarse particles that are picked up by the valley's strong winds -- despite numerous complaints from locals suffering from respiratory ailments.

The tide began turning in Owens Valley's favor in the late 1970s when the military got involved, Schade said.

Just south of Owens Lake, the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake is the Navy's largest test facility for missiles and other weapons. Tests there require specialized cameras -- and clear views. So the Navy had grown weary of canceling tests in frequent dust storms.

And then Congress acted. In 1987 and 1990, lawmakers amended the Clean Air Act to address dust. The landmark 1990 amendments classified coarse particles as a hazardous air pollutant, specifically citing pollution at Owens Lake.

That, Schade said, "gave us our marching orders."

The air district prepared a state implementation plan for U.S. EPA that required DWP to control the dust by 2001.

DWP refused. The department is a formidable foe -- the nation's largest water and power utility, with 8,800 employees and serving more than 3.9 million people in an area of nearly 470 square miles. It sells $1.1 billion per year in water and another $3.3 billion in electricity.

The politically connected and well-heeled department flexed its legal muscle.

Schade's first break came because DWP was headed in the late 1990s by S. David Freeman, an engineer who helped establish EPA under President Nixon and led the Tennessee Valley Authority under President Carter and who remains generally held in high regard by the environmental community.

Freeman, Schade said, recognized DWP was responsible for the dust that in 1998 -- when EPA ordered the department to control the pollution -- was more than 100 times beyond the federal standard for coarse particulates.

So DWP agreed to invest in fixing the lake bed, but Freeman insisted the air district would not order how to do it, or mandate that huge swaths of the lake be cleaned up at once. It was hard to tell how much of the lake was emitting dust, he said, so by installing dust controls piece by piece, DWP could control the dust without having to cover the entire lake bed.

From the beginning, the air district believed it would take dust controls on about 45 square miles of the lake bed -- nearly half the lake bottom. But it gave DWP three options for dust control: apply water, gravel or plant vegetation. In 2001, the air district began flooding 10 square miles in the northeast part of the former lake.

The effort failed to bring the area into attainment with federal standards, so Schade ordered more gravel coverage. He then ordered more. And still more.

In 2011, the last additional requirement was ordered, but DWP balked and drew a line in the dust.

Then the lawsuits began.

"They pulled out all the stops," Schade said. "They sued us on everything they could sue us on."

At one point, there were at least a dozen lawsuits flying.

Burying the hatchet

How did an air district that operates with a skeleton staff working out of an abandoned motel afford to fight all the lawsuits and public relations assaults, while simultaneously monitoring one of the most complicated air pollution problems in the country?

Politics.

The political pendulum had begun to swing away from DWP and toward the air cleanup.

In 1983, the California Legislature passed Senate Bill 270, which forced DWP to pay all "reasonable" costs for mitigating the dust at Owens Lake. The language was part of a compromise in which the air district could not require DWP to put water on the lake, affect its water rights or cut off all water flowing to Los Angeles.

As the district took more aggressive steps to tackle pollution -- there are now some 200 air monitors of some sort on the lake -- DWP had to foot the bill.

Then, in 1998, a court applied the same principle to attorneys' fees. The air district hired the best environmental lawyers in the state, and a court held that was "reasonable" under S.B. 270 because DWP also had a top-notch legal team.

So the water department was forced to fund both sides of its legal war.

"We just sent them the bill and they had to pay us," Schade said.

In 2013, DWP's will began to crack when Eric Garcetti (D) was elected Los Angeles mayor and Michael Feuer (D) was elected city attorney. Both had strong environmental credentials, and Garcetti appointed commissioners to DWP's board with environmental backgrounds, including former U.S. Rep. Mel Levine (D) and attorney William Funderburk. They all expressed an interest in getting past the contentious litigation.

The district reached a settlement with Schade in October 2014 that required dust controls on 48.6 square miles, an area that is largely already in place today. There is also another 10 percent of the area -- 4.8 square miles -- set aside as a contingency that the air district can order and DWP can't dispute.

Schade said it appears the 48.6 square miles is going to be enough to bring the lake into Clean Air Act attainment. The dust is more than 90 percent controlled, and DWP will continue to divert large amounts of water to Owens Valley in the future. It is planning to keep 158,400 acre-feet of Owens River water in the valley in the next year, including 65,000 acre-feet specifically for dust mitigation and another 8,000 acre-feet for recreation and wildlife.

Those commitments to the valley are locked into law. DWP will likely keep more water in the valley in the next year than it will export to Los Angeles, 114,000 acre-feet -- more than San Francisco uses in a year. During the height of the drought last year, all the water flowing down the aqueduct at one point was diverted to Owens Lake; none went on to Los Angeles.

Schade retired last year after the settlement was put into place.

"When the bad guys are vanquished, the sheriff gets on the train and rides out of town," Schade said, half joking.

Last November, Schade gathered with DWP and air district officials on the lake bed. They dug a hole and buried legal documents and mementos from the 25-year fight, including, of course, a hatchet.

For the birds

Spend some time at Owens Lake and you'll hear people talk about "unintended consequences."

Along with the original dust pollution, there were unexpected problems when DWP in 2001 began flooding miles of the lake bed in response to the air district's first mitigation order.

Owens Lake dust control areas.
DWP chose flooding because it was simple and the most cost-effective. It was a matter of building a large earthen berm and turning on the water, which the department already owned.

Almost immediately, the birds that had abandoned Owens Lake when it dried up returned. Because the lake bed itself is state-owned and protected by California's public trust laws for wildlife, DWP was required to safeguard birds landing in an enormous construction zone. Some of the birds were rare species, like the snowy plover.

"We've created all this habitat, and it was completely inadvertent," said Jeff Nordin, a DWP watershed resources supervisor, on a recent lake tour. "It was, 'Let's control dust the quickest and easiest way. Let's put water out there.'"

Nordin, 36, grew up in the Los Angeles area and now leads DWP's mitigation efforts from a biological and ecological perspective.

The Audubon Society also swooped in and began working with Nordin to create a master plan for how to turn the lake's mitigation tracts -- called "cells" or "dust control areas" -- into habitat for a variety of bird species.

"We didn't want this place to be paved over," Audubon's Andrea Jones said.

The process could take another 10 years, and DWP may spend another billion dollars on it. The goals are to conserve water, maintain dust control and build bird habitat. That includes increasing public access to the lake for bird-watchers and making the lake more visually appealing.

To that end, last month DWP unveiled a series of trails sought to entice visitors and, in particular, birders. The main attraction is a gazebo-type kiosk with wings reminiscent of a snowy plover's and landscape architecture meant to evoke the white caps of waves. It can be reached by turning off the highway visitors would traverse driving from Death Valley to Yosemite. DWP spent $4.6 million on the project.

Nordin said the goal is to gradually convert the dust control areas that don't provide good habitat into ones that attract birds. That includes varied ponds with islands and other vegetation.

Herbst, the University of California biologist, said the new plan provides an interesting opportunity.

Because of the control DWP has over these different cells -- their shape, salinity level, depth, etc. -- it can create a "mosaic of different habitats," he said. "All these different types of habitats for all different kinds of birds."

That can include deepwater ponds for some bird species, as well as shallow ponds for others that are ideal for growing the algae at the bottom of the ecosystem's food chain.

Herbst said he is skeptical that DWP can accomplish these goals while still cutting back on water use, as it plans to do, but the potential is there to create an important foraging ground for a wide variety of birds.

"It will just draw in birds because of the food if the salinity is at the right level," Herbst said.

'Scared to death'

But controversies aren't over. The Paiute tribe, whose reservation is just north of the lake, is critical of the trails and mitigation projects along the shoreline that are near ancient burial sites and other cultural artifacts.

Kathy Bancroft, 61, a Paiute community leader who has suffered breathing problems her entire life, said she is primarily concerned about preserving their sacred grounds around the lake.

She criticized DWP's projects for their "highly engineered" feel. Nothing looks natural or as it looked for her ancestors, she said, and she referred to each dust control area as another "Band-Aid." She said there are more natural ways to control dust.

"It's not like you would have to continually fill it up," she said. "You'd fill it up and then the vegetation would start growing on the sides. Then if you gradually drained it down, the vegetation would follow it. Things like that. But nobody thinks like that. They are just putting these Band-Aids on."

But DWP's Nordin said he's optimistic that since the settlement in 2014, the local animosity will shrivel. He said the master plan, which will take 10 years to implement, is a new phase for the lake.

"There's been a lot of ideas that DWP caused this mess, and there are some punitive aspects to it," Nordin said. "We are trying to get to where we are moving forward with all stakeholders collaboratively to meet all of their goals."

DWP will be working at Owens Lake in perpetuity, managing wildlife habitat and dust controls.

Officials overseeing water management in the West are looking to Owens Lake in anticipation of what they'll face in their own areas. Schade, the former air district control officer, however, warns that the Owens Lake cleanup was probably easier than others -- notably, the Salton Sea in Southern California near Palm Desert.

More people live near the Salton Sea, which is more than three times the size of Owens Lake -- nearly 350 square miles.

The Salton is already shrinking, and the amount of water reaching the lake will slow dramatically in the next year. By some estimates, 26,000 acres of the Salton Sea's lake bed will be exposed by 2020. At this point, there are only 2,000 acres of planned dust-control and habitat projects scheduled to be completed by that year.

Schade, who visited the Salton Sea while he was working on Owens Lake, sees trouble ahead.

"I took a look at it, and I said, 'Oh, my God.' Looking down at the soil between my feet, it looked exactly like Owens Lake. And I know what happened when Owens Lake disappeared," Schade said.

"I'm scared to death."

May 18, 2016

Lake Mead hits new record low

The levels of Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, have declined in recent years and are approaching critical shortage levels. (Photo: Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

By HENRY BREAN
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL


For the next two months, the news from Lake Mead could sound like a broken record.

The nation’s largest man-made reservoir slipped to a new record low sometime after 7 p.m. Wednesday, and forecasters from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation expect see its surface drop another 2 feet through the end of June.

The latest dip into record-low territory comes as officials in Nevada, Arizona and California consider a new deal to prop up the declining lake by giving up some of their Colorado River water.

But some river advocates argue that those voluntary cuts could be rendered meaningless by proposed water developments that will further sap the overdrawn and drought-stricken river before it ever reaches Lake Mead.

Gary Wockner is executive director of Save the Colorado, a nonprofit conservation group based in Fort Collins, Colorado. He said the first round of cuts proposed by Nevada and Arizona would leave an extra 200,000 acre-feet of water in the lake, while the river system as a whole stands to lose approximately 250,000 acre-feet under new diversion projects being planned in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.

“At the same time the agencies in the lower basin are discussing cuts, the agencies in the upper basin are working to suck more water out of the river,” Wockner said. “It’s a zero-sum game.”

Others see reason for hope.

Colby Pellegrino, Colorado River programs manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said the “silver lining of this cloud” is the cooperative work among water managers, regulators and policymakers across the river basin. She said some of those collaborations have already made a tangible difference at Lake Mead, where the water would be even lower than it is now without some of the banking agreements and conservation efforts agreed upon by the states.

The voluntary reductions being discussed are designed to stave off deeper, mandatory cuts for Arizona and Nevada if the lake sinks below levels outlined in a 2007 agreement.

Nevada would leave 8,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead each year under the first round of voluntary cuts, while Arizona would give up 192,000 of its 2.8 million acre-foot Colorado River allocation to benefit the reservoir.

One acre-foot of water is enough to supply two average Las Vegas Valley homes for just over a year.

The annual reductions would increase to 10,000 acre-feet for Nevada and 240,000 acre-feet for Arizona should Lake Mead drop another 30 feet to 1,045 feet above sea level.

Elevation 1,045 is also where California would see its first voluntary cuts, which start at 200,000 acre-feet a year and increase by 50,000 with every additional 5-foot drop in Lake Mead. Under existing law, California is not required to give up any of its 4.4 million acre-foot river allocation, which is the largest among the seven states that share the Colorado.

Lake Mead’s new record low will erase the old mark of 1,074.71 feet above sea level set just over a year ago on June 26.

Federal forecasters expect the lake to finish this June at elevation 1,070.98. The last time Lake Mead had so little water in it was May 1937, the month of the Hindenburg disaster, when the reservoir was filling for the first time behind a newly completely Hoover Dam.

Record-low water levels present more of an access problem than a supply problem for the Las Vegas Valley, which depends on the lake for 90 percent of its water.

Southern Nevada Water Authority officials insist Nevada’s comparatively small 300,000 acre-foot share of the Colorado River can be stretched enough through reuse and conservation to serve the growing community for decades to come. But to keep that water flowing from the shrinking lake, the agency is spending almost $1.5 billion on a new deep-water intake and pumping station.

Wherever this year’s low-water mark eventually lands, the record is not expected to stand for long. The current forecast calls for Lake Mead to start 2017 about 4 feet higher than it is now, then dip downward again into record territory in April. The reservoir should bottom out near elevation 1,063 sometime in June 2017.

May 10, 2016

The Little Pool Hidden In The Desert Has Apparently Been Destroyed

Social Pool, in the beginning (Photo via Alfredo Barsuglia)

BY JULIET BENNETT RYLAH
LAist


Social Pool, the little pool hidden in the middle of the desert, has completed its extended experiment, meeting its end at the hands of some jerks.

In the summer of 2014, artist Alfredo Barsuglia announced that he had hidden a small pool—eleven by five feet wide—in the middle of the desert. If you wanted to get there by his suggested means, you had to first stop by the MAK Center for Art in West Hollywood and pick up a key. You were then provided with coordinates that led you east of Los Angeles, to San Bernardino County. It required a small amount of hiking to get to the pool, unless you had a car that didn't easily get stuck in sand.

We were, as far as I could tell, the second group of people to find it. I went with two friends on a Sunday in June of that year, and the pool was in pristine condition. We didn't see any other humans—only a few hares, a couple lizards and a trio of broken down RVs that reminded everyone of Breaking Bad. The pool had a solar-powered filter, and guests were asked to bring a gallon of water to pour into the small pool to replace any water that evaporated or splashed out while they used it. You were also asked to return the key within 24 hours. We followed Barsuglia's rules, and so did many others that came after us. The pool officially closed on September 30, 2014.

Barsuglia's artist statement discussed what lengths people would go to for a luxury. That could mean picking up the key and driving all the way out to the desert, enjoying the pool and then caring for it so that it could remain clean for others.

On the other hand, there was nothing stopping you from copying the key before you returned it, tossing in a bucket of sand and leaving it open and unlocked. There was also nothing preventing you from accessing the pool via other means.

"I don't think that someone takes the effort to visit the pool to destroy it. Yes, I trust the participants, but as I mentioned before, if someone comes to destroy the work, it's sad but part of the project—of letting the project develop by itself, without my or anybody's influence. To sit in the pool and watch the scenery is outstanding. I think it's so nice that nobody would conceive the idea to damage it, but to prevent it for the next visitor. But you never know… we will see," Barsuglia told us the day after we visited the pool.

While we never shared the coordinates and I removed geotags from our photos, we did post a photo of the key. Numerous commenters tried to assert that someone would actually take the time to copy the key using a photo, and then use the key to somehow find and destroy the pool. Why this hypothetical vandal wouldn't just break the lid for their nefarious purposes was unclear, but at any rate, I did not take the photo of the key down. Several other people ended up making it to the pool via the set rules without incident—until this past month.

Tony Bruno, who owns property out by the pool, sent me a Facebook message over the weekend to let me know that someone, sometime in the last month, stole the solar panel and the pump. He sent the following photo as well, taken prior to the theft.

(Photo by Tony Bruno)

"The pool is in poor shape and the lid is not working well," he wrote. "Just thought I would tell you. It's a shame that people do this to things."

Though the pool had at some point been left unlocked, Bruno said the pool was still usable up until the last month or so.
I decided to get in touch with Barsuglia again, as we'd just been talking about his upcoming book Rosa. I sent him one of Bruno's photos.

He wrote back, telling me that Wikipedia had posted the coordinates to the pool on a page about the piece, which enabled anyone who so desired to find it for themselves—with or without a key. Many were inspired to visit, he said, simply out of curiosity.

You won't believe, but I still receive frequent emails and phone calls concerning the Social Pool. People send me photos of the pool's current condition and ask for its reopening. Others ask to use the site for a music video or a (horror) movie, or for a dinner party or whatever.

There was at least one short film shot at the pool. BUTTERFLY depicts "two futuristic motorcycle-riding nymphs [who] find an aquatic portal and pass through it to another universe," according to the video's Vimeo page.



In order for the pool to be a permanent installation, Barsuglia said an individual or institution would need to be able to care for the visitors and the maintenance of the pool. Barsuglia lives in Austria and cannot care for it himself. The MAK Center has a small, three-person team, and Barsuglia said they would likely need a fourth person who could maintain the pool.
"The project was meant to be permanent, but its huge success and the many people who wanted to see the site brought it to an end after the first season," he said.

Barsuglia, in the meantime, has other projects in the works, which we'll be excited to see come to fruition.

It's interesting to see how the experiment played out for different personalities. For instance, after us, another group visited the pool via conventional means, and poured in the requisite gallon.



Another woman who found the pool with two friends wrote about her time there for Huffington Post. When they arrived, a group of people was standing around the pool, but left when she and her friends walked up. She and her pals decided to camp there, and were interrupted by two men after the sun set who said a friend had "leaked" the key. The HuffPo writer and her friends were creeped out by them, though the men eventually left them alone. The group stayed overnight and in the morning, got their car's wheels stuck in the sand. They ended up having to pay $375 to get towed back to the main road.

Those two guys from the night before were probably not weird at all. It turned out to be blogger/adventurer Rich Mayfield and his friend, according to Mayfield's own blog post. They were the only people, to our knowledge, who were successfully able to cut their own key using our photo. Mayfield also found geotags from other visitors' photos and used tax records to verify that Barsuglia bought a 10-acre parcel in the desert (it cost $2,500, apparently). As for the other group, Mayfield wrote that he was prepared to share his snacks and beer with them, and would have even helped them out of the sand, but feeling his presence was unwanted, the two men camped out elsewhere until the trio left the pool. Mayfield did not destroy the pool, but rather cared for it and cleaned up trash from the area around the pool.

In terms of a social experiment, the pool was a success. People found it, by conventional means and via detective work. People cared for it for many months, and ultimately people chose to ruin it.

This California desert town is experiencing a marijuana boom


by Paloma Esquivel
Los Angeles Times


Carlos Bravo, the owner of a tow company here, was at work late last year when a real estate agent came to him offering half a million dollars for 5 acres of undeveloped, brush-pocked desert — five times what he'd paid for the land six months earlier.

"I thought he was joking," Bravo said.

The man came back the next day, making it clear he was not.

A few days after he had signed the paperwork, Bravo said, another man offered him $1 million.

As the first city in Southern California to legalize large-scale medical marijuana cultivation, Desert Hot Springs has been inundated by marijuana growers and developers. They are buying up dusty desert land — some with no utilities or roads — in hopes of cashing in as California's marijuana growers come into the open under new state regulations.

"It's pretty chaotic," said Coachella Valley real estate broker Marc Robinson. "I'm getting tons of calls from all over the world, all over the United States. My newest clients flew over from Germany."

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Despite a sizable need for new infrastructure to support the indoor growing projects, the rush has officials in this downtrodden town dreaming of new income.

"I can only imagine what we can do with the tax revenue," Mayor Scott Matas said. "We're in need of parks, our roads are dilapidated. All around — our sidewalks, curbs, gutters."

The city is pushing hard to help developers get their projects up and running as it increasingly faces competition from a number of desert cities also eager to bring growers to town.

::

Desert Hot Springs' foray into marijuana stemmed from financial need, officials said.

The city has long tried to position itself as a Coachella Valley tourist destination alongside its resort-town neighbors south of Interstate 10, but it's never managed to attract the same level of development. Median household income here is $33,500 — far below the state median.

The town's destinations simply aren't enough "for it to become a vibrant and viable city instead of just a dusty little town north of the I-10," said Heather Coladonato, president of the Desert Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce, which is working closely with growers.

In 2014, after the city declared a fiscal emergency, the council voted to legalize dispensaries and cultivation. Zones where growing was permitted were established, including on a stretch of barren desert dotted with a couple of churches and auto repair shops.

Since the ordinance passed, officials have approved applications for at least 11 businesses with plans for more than 1.7 million square feet of cultivation operations.

Each year, the city will tax growers $25 per square foot of cultivation space for the first 3,000 square feet and $10 per square foot after that. At least eight other projects are in the approval process.

Police Chief Dale Mondary said he had strong reservations about the city's move toward cultivation.

"Just from a law enforcement standpoint, obviously we're philosophically opposed," he said. "I took the stance: 'I can either pout about it or get on board and at least have my voice heard.'"

The businesses have agreed to hire 24-hour armed security guards and install cameras that police can access remotely, Mondary said. They're also planting what he called "hostile landscaping" — cactus and other plants that could be difficult for intruders to pass.

No cultivators are up and running yet, though a small number could be growing by this summer, officials said.

Growers, many of whom have been quietly practicing their trade in garages and other underground spaces for years, are eager to "come out of the shadows," said Jason Elsasser, who is planning a 2-acre project in town.

The rush to set up shop in cities that permit cultivation was pushed forward by state legislation signed into law late last year. Growers will be able to apply for state licenses by 2018, but they will have to show they have local licensing before they can get a state permit, said Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

The crush of developers in Desert Hot Springs led to a tripling of land prices in the area, real estate brokers said.

But there are signs that the projects — which require intensive lighting and air conditioning — could face long infrastructure delays. In recent weeks, owners learned it could take years just to get sufficient electricity to some of the businesses.

Southern California Edison spokesman Robert Laffoon-Villegas said the utility expects that some growers' power needs could be so large that "it would be like adding a small city to the system."

"In order to do that safely it does require significant study … and it may require significant infrastructure," he said.

Meda Thompson, a real estate broker who advertises on fliers decorated with marijuana leaves, said the issue has caused some properties to fall out of escrow.

To help address the concerns, the city manager is now preparing to hire a project manager who would oversee infrastructure issues for growers.

In the meantime, the city is facing increasing competition.

In nearby Cathedral City, officials recently began accepting applications from growers and dispensaries. So far, they have received about 20, said Community Development Director Pat Milos.

In San Bernardino County, Adelanto began accepting applications from growers late last year.

That city, which has been on the brink of insolvency in recent years, has asked applicants to sign a statement acknowledging its financial hardship and agreeing to "support, and not oppose, any initiative that the city or the voters of the city initiate to raise business taxes and business license fees."

So far, it has approved at least 30 applicants who have proposed operating more than 1.2 million square feet of cultivation space. Some, like in Desert Hot Springs, would be in now-vacant desert plots.

The city of Coachella, meanwhile, has opened an area to growers previously zoned for auto wreckage yards.

Mayor Steven Hernandez said he expected the businesses to bring better-paying jobs to the city's low-income residents, particularly migrant farmworkers.

"I've got a lot of people working in the fields every day," he said. "If I can get those guys into the middle income … they can buy themselves a nice house in Coachella and maybe not have to work so much."

::

Calabasas attorney Bob Selan is leading an effort by several dispensaries to build a 380,000-square-foot cultivation business park in Desert Hot Springs.

The challenges of building from the ground up in the desert have been great, he said.

"The way you have to design these things for climate control and conserving water and conserving energy, it's very hard to do it, and it's very expensive," he said. "We have consultants, engineers, architects, lawyers, accountants, you name it … on top of that we have all the cannabis experts."

Though the scramble to establish large-scale facilities has been influenced by the possibility that Californians may legalize recreational use of marijuana this year, Selan said his facility would do fine even without such a law.

"The demand for medical products was so high, this was just to fill the need for that," he said.

Elsasser, who is planning the 2-acre project, had a successful real estate company in Yucca Valley until the housing crash. The downturn left him with several vacant homes, in which he used to grow marijuana.

"Cannabis cultivation kind of saved me," he said.

On a recent weekday, he walked through an empty steel-shell building on Little Morongo Road that he plans to soon begin converting into a cultivation facility.

"This is going to be all built out into a high-tech, 40-light grow right here," Elsasser said, using the number of overhead lights the facility will contain to indicate its size.

Pointing to a chain-link fence surrounded by brush, he added, "Back there is going to be all greenhouses."

Then Elsasser gestured toward a handful of buildings down the road that were owned by other growers and developers.

"Those are all going to be cultivation," he said.

Little Morongo Road will eventually be the backbone of a bustling warehouse zone, packed to the brim with growers, Elsasser said.

"This property is right on Park Avenue," he said, waving toward the desert brush and dusty road and imagining the swanky New York thoroughfare. "It may not look like it. But it is."

The Drought Goes On: As Lake Mead Sinks, States Agree to More Drastic Water Cuts

Lake Mead, the West's largest reservoir, is dropping at a rapid rate.

Written by Sarah Tory
Coachella Valley Independent


Three years ago, state hydrologists in the Colorado River Basin began to do some modeling to see what the future of Lake Mead—the West’s largest reservoir—might look like. If the dry conditions continued, hydrologists believed, elevations in Lake Mead—which is fed by the Colorado River—could drop much faster than previous models predicted.

For decades, the West’s big reservoirs were like a security blanket, says Anne Castle, the former assistant secretary for water and science at the Interior Department. But the blanket is wearing thin. Under normal conditions, Lake Mead loses 1.2 million acre-feet of water every year to evaporation and deliveries to the Lower Basin states plus Mexico; that all amounts to a 12-foot drop. Previously, extra deliveries of water from Lake Powell offset that deficit, but after 16 years of drought and increased water use in the Upper Basin, those extra deliveries are no longer a safe bet.

“There’s a growing recognition that even these huge reservoirs aren’t sufficient to keep the water supply sustainable anymore,” says Castle.

For the three Lower Basin states—California, Arizona and Nevada—that rely heavily on Lake Mead, the situation is particularly urgent. For the last several years, Mead has hovered around 1,075 feet above sea level, the point at which harsh water-rationing measures kicks in. And if conditions in the reservoir continue to worsen, the Interior Department could even take control of water allocation from Lake Mead.

So with the threat of a federal takeover looming, water policy leaders in the Lower Basin states, along with the Bureau of Reclamation, the reservoir’s operator, began meeting last summer to discuss ways they can jointly boost water levels in Lake Mead. Some of the details are now available and indicate that all three states are now willing to accept additional water cuts from the reservoir on top of the cuts that they previously agreed to make in 2007.

Those measures follow a set of federal guidelines adopted nine years ago to manage water deliveries from Lake Mead, given the likelihood of future shortages. The guidelines established a series of thresholds for the reservoir’s water levels that would trigger increasingly severe cutbacks for the Lower Basin states. At the time they were negotiated, few people anticipated that the drought would last as long as it has, but as Lake Mead inched closer to the critical 1,075 mark, water managers in the Lower Basin realized the existing guidelines were not enough to prevent an eventual shortage.

While the terms of the new agreement between California, Arizona and Nevada are still being negotiated, a few details have emerged. For starters, the Bureau of Reclamation has pledged to cut 100,000 acre-feet annually through efficiency measures such as lining irrigation canals to prevent seepage, or possibly by re-opening the long-shuttered Yuma Desalting Plant.

The three states’ willingness to collectively ration their water use would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago, when states fought each other in court to win as much water from the Colorado River. The cooperation is a nod to how new climate realities are re-shaping old water politics in the West. Take California, for instance. Legally, the state could hold on to every drop until Lake Mead is nearly down to mud, since the 1968 law that authorized the Central Arizona Project’s construction gave California the highest priority water rights to the Colorado River. But at that point, says Castle, they’re just as impacted as everyone else.

Other collaborative agreements to reduce the strain on the Colorado River include a 2014 Memorandum of Understanding between the big water providers in the Lower Basin states, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Central Arizona Project, pledging “best efforts” to conserve 40,000 acre feet in Lake Mead. In 2014, major municipal water providers in Arizona, California, Nevada and Colorado also agreed to fund new water conservation projects through a pilot initiative called the Colorado River System Conservation program.

For the Lower Basin especially, the negotiations are necessary to avoid the potential federal takeover, says Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Although the secretary of the interior, Sally Jewell, has not voiced any immediate plans to that effect, in the past, she has made public statements on the matter.

For Buschatzke, the threat is clear: “She’ll take action if we don’t collaborate,” he says.

Here are the cuts states could face:

Arizona would lose 512,000 acre-feet of its total 2.8 million acre-feet per year allotment if Lake Mead dips below the 1,075 feet threshold. That’s 192,000 acre-feet more than the 320,000 acre-feet it had previously agreed to cut under the 2007 guidelines. Further cuts occur if the reservoir continues to drop. In another unprecedented move, Arizona water officials are talking about trying to spread cuts across all sectors of the state’s economy that rely on CAP water for drinking and irrigation—cities, farms, industries, Indian tribes and others—instead of letting only farmers take the brunt of the cuts, as dictated by their junior water rights.

California: Thanks to the 1968 law that authorized CAP’s construction, California’s 4.4 million acre feet allotment is shielded from most of the cuts should a shortage on Lake Mead be declared. But as part of the new negotiations, the state has volunteered to cut its water use from Lake Mead by 200,000 acre feet if the reservoir’s levels fall below 1,045 feet, and up to 350,000 acre-feet if levels sink to 1,030 feet.

Nevada: The state with the smallest allotment of Colorado River water, Nevada would take a much smaller share of the cuts—8,000 acre-feet if Mead drops below 1,045 feet, and 10,000 acre-feet after that—because it has the rights to only 300,000 acre-feet.

According to Buschatzke, the three states anticipate finalizing the agreement by early this fall, at which point negotiators will begin working the new measures into law. Those changes in law will likely not happen before 2017.

For Castle, the discussions are part of a new era in water politics—one that looks increasingly collaborative.

“We haven’t seen states versus state or state versus feds for a long time,” she says. “There’s a recognition that litigation is failure—that we need to come together and make things work.”

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for High Country News, where this story originally appeared.

May 7, 2016

A lost gem? New Mojave Trails monument rules appear to bar rock hunting

Norbert Bernhardt, 61, of Santa Ana, holds a specimen of agate he collected at what is now Mojave Trails National Monument. (Louis Sahagun / Los Angeles TImes)

Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times

President Obama's proclamation of a new national monument he designated in California's Mojave Desert has rockhounds worried they are no longer welcome on public lands with a reputation for prime gem and mineral specimens.

The proclamation ensures public access for utilities, cattle ranching, hiking, camping, backpacking, hunting, fishing, rock climbing, bicycling, bird watching and other outdoor recreational activities in Mojave Trails National Monument, which encompasses 1.6 million acres of federal land along a 105-mile stretch of old Route 66 between Ludlow and Needles.

The one thing visitors apparently can't do in mineral hot spots, including Afton Canyon, the Cady Mountains and Lavic, is take a rock a home.

That's because the proclamation does not include "rock hunting" as a desired use, and ends with an admonition: "Warning is hereby given to all unauthorized persons not to appropriate, injure, destroy, or remove any feature of the monument and not to locate or settle upon any of the lands thereof."

Now, members of California's relatively small and aging gem and mineral community fret that the loss of access to hunting grounds within a few hours' drive of Los Angeles could hasten the demise of hobbyists who for generations have ventured out into the desert with shovels, picks and hammers to collect agate, jasper, opal, chalcedony and quartz crystals for noncommercial purposes.

"It's an outrage and unfair that the only activity forbidden in this new national monument is our hobby," said Kim Erbe, a member of the board of directors of the California Federation of Mineralogical Societies Inc. "People have been collecting rocks and minerals in that area for over a century."

"It's a mess," said John Martin, webmaster at the American Lands Access Association, Inc., a nonprofit representing the rockhounding interests of 325 gem & mineral clubs and societies across the nation. "We're seeking clarification on this matter, and we want it in writing."

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which operates the new monument, and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who spent two decades campaigning for the creation of Mojave Trails and two adjacent monuments, have sent out conflicting signals about the proclamation's intent.

Maria Thi Mai, a spokeswoman for the land management bureau in Sacramento, said her agency "appreciates the rock hunters' passion and concern, but we wouldn't be in the public service business if we said it was OK to ignore the president's proclamation."

"So, we're asking for their patience," she added, "as we develop a formal management plan that will finalize what is allowed and what the limitations will be in the new national monument."

Mike Ahrens, a field manager for the bureau's office in Needles, Calif., agreed, up to a point. "We recognize that there is a problem for rock hunters with regard to the language in the proclamation," he said. "I'm pushing for some kind of an interim action that would allow rock hunting to continue until a management plan is worked out."

Developing a management plan will require the bureau to mediate compromises among all those who want access to the land while also planning a balanced and sustainable future for it — a contentious process expected to take at least 18 months to complete.

Feinstein's office has added to the confusion by insisting that the proclamation's warning against removal of "any feature of this monument" refers to cultural and historic items, not rocks.

Steve Duncan, a longtime member of the Searchers Gem & Mineral Society, is among those trying to make sense of it all.

"Before President Obama designated the new monument, Sen. Feinstein told me personally that she would ensure that rock collecting would be allowed in them," he said. "After the designation, when I asked her office why we'd been left out of the proclamation, they responded with a form letter."

Designation of Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains National Monuments was requested by Feinstein. Unable to gain momentum on her California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act last year, Feinstein asked Obama to act unilaterally to create the monuments overlapping biological zones between roughly Palm Springs and the Nevada border.

The designations, which did not come with funding, were supported by groups including the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Assn., the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Mojave Desert Land Trust.

On Thursday, hundreds of people from those groups and others gathered in a scenic desert canyon, about 15 miles northwest of Palm Springs, to celebrate the monuments and their access to public activities such as hunting, camping and hiking.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the keynote speaker, said in an interview that she was unaware of the controversy over whether rocks can be removed from Mojave Trails. However, "we are thinking more these days about the long-term preservation of the assets in public lands," she said.

That kind of talk worries people who find joy in lugging a few bucketfuls of rocks home to be cut and polished with lapidary equipment. Some are turned into pendants, bolo ties, rings, bookends and colorful spheres. Others wind up in glass display cases, or in schoolrooms.

Take Jim Peterson, 82, and Norbert Bernhardt, 61, both of Santa Ana, whose fascination with rock specimens is reflected in their homes. Boxes of rocks are piled high, and drawers and shelves overflow with collections drawn on decades of journeys to remote corners of the Mojave.

Immediately after Obama's designation, Peterson and Bernhardt headed out to the Cady Mountains in a pickup truck loaded with hammers, aluminum ladders and plastic buckets.

Their destination was a cliff face lined with a feature Bernhardt described as "a nice vein of gorgeous agate."

"We figured we had little to lose before that place would be closed to rock collecting," Bernhardt recalled with a sheepish smile. "So, we went out there and filled a few buckets with red, green, pink, blue, white and clear specimens."

Bernhardt triumphantly held up a silver-dollar sized rock encrusted with tiny blue crystals and said, "This is what I'm talking about."

April 18, 2016

Researchers map springs across the Mojave Desert

Study of 300 desert springs will provide 'baseline' to track impact of climate change

Hydrogeologist Andy Zdon (left) and Amargosa Conservancy Executive Director Patrick Donnelly measure the water flow and collect other data at a spring in the Mojave Desert. (Photo: Marilyn Chung/The Desert Sun)

Story by Ian James
The Desert Sun


Bouncing down a rocky road in a pickup, two researchers neared their destination: an oasis of palm trees in the desert.

When the unpaved road ended in an impassible collapsed section, they stepped out and continued on foot. Andy Zdon said the approach to this spring was relatively easy. Over five months, he has often had to trek to remote spots while carrying out an exhaustive study of the natural springs across the entire Mojave Desert — an undertaking that has never before been done on this scale.

“I have been living and breathing the desert since September,” Zdon said with a smile. “I’ve done about 300 miles of walking to these springs. We’ve had to do a lot of walking.”

At each spring, Zdon, a hydrogeologist, has collected data about how much water is flowing from the ground and has analyzed the dissolved oxygen content and other properties of the water. The results will enable scientists to monitor changes in the springs, which are critical for wildlife, and document influences such as declines in groundwater levels due to pumping, shifts in flows due to weather cycles, and the drying of springs as a result of climate change.

“If you’re going to try to understand the effects of climate on a system, you need a starting point. You need a baseline, and that’s what this is doing,” Zdon said.

“You can’t even begin to understand whether you’re seeing the effects of climate change if you don’t know what the conditions were before you started looking for it, and that’s really the crux of it,” Zdon said. “You can’t manage or identify an impact if you don’t know what your starting point is.”

His study is funded through the Transition Habitat Conservancy, a nonprofit group that obtained a $190,000 grant from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to carry out surveys of springs across the Mojave Desert.

Working alongside Zdon was Patrick Donnelly, a biologist and executive director of the Amargosa Conservancy, who was helping to take notes. He walked around the spring and rattled off a list of the plants he found: California fan palm (42 of them), honey mesquite, oleander, date palm and willows, among others.

Zdon spotted birds including a black-throated sparrow, house finches and white-crowned sparrow. They took down all of those details in their notes.

“The springs in the desert are really the beating heart of the desert,” Donnelly said.

Animals ranging from bighorn sheep to hummingbirds depend on the water holes. Zdon has also seen signs of other animals including mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes and badgers.

If some of the isolated springs and wetlands dry up as the climate heats up, the animals that depend on those water sources could disappear.

Data on desert springs has been collected sporadically over the years, but not in a systematic way.

“So this is really meant to be a baseline for the entire desert,” Donnelly said, “to understand the water in this desert and how we can protect it.”

During their outing in February, the two visited springs in California’s Amargosa Basin, an area rich in wildlife east of Death Valley National Park and a short drive from the Nevada border. Zdon was nearing the end of his study, which covers a total of 312 springs.

“This is number 296 since September,” Zdon said as he began his work at Chappo Spring.

Around the lush vegetation stood the ruins of a homestead abandoned years ago, an old chicken coop and the rusty skeletons of cars. Zdon said that decades ago, people grew crops and raised livestock at the spring.

Many of the springs he has surveyed are on federal lands, and his research will provide the Bureau of Land Management with information that can be used to make decisions about how different areas are managed.

Zdon walked into the thicket of palm trees to get closer to a pool of water. He pulled out an instrument to test the water, and he read off the pH, temperature and total dissolved solids while Donnelly took notes.

“Wow, this is the best water we’ve seen,” Donnelly said.

“Yeah, it’s pretty good water,” Zdon replied.

But Zdon said the spring’s flow has declined dramatically from 1928, when a U.S. Geological Survey report stated that it was flowing at about 80 gallons a minute. Zdon said he had measured the flow a couple of months earlier and found the spring was discharging about 8 gallons a minute.

“Now it’s essentially just a freestanding puddle and we can’t even see flow,” Zdon said. He noted his observations about the spring on a form for the BLM: “functional, at risk, with a downward trend.”

Some springs have completely dried up elsewhere in the California desert. And while it’s challenging for researchers to differentiate between the effects of climate change, groundwater pumping and natural drought cycles, all of those influences are likely affecting springs.

“No two springs are alike,” Zdon said. At this spring, he said, the decline in flow might be related to decades of overpumping the aquifer around the nearby town of Pahrump, Nevada, as well as years of drier conditions in the area.

Zdon has been compiling the results of his research for a report that will be released later this year.

Near another spring, Donnelly pointed out ancient grinding holes in the rock, apparently left behind centuries ago by Southern Paiute Indians who depended on the spring.

He said some of the locals in the area have said there used to be a creek flowing from the spring. Now it’s a small water hole next to a cottonwood tree and a thicket of mesquite.

“I’m going to take a water sample here,” Zdon said. He collected the water in a small glass bottle and put a label on it. The sample, he said, will be sent to a lab for isotope analysis, which can indicate whether the spring water fell as rain or snow and in which area the water seeped down into the ground.

Nearby, he pointed out a pipe sticking out of the ground: a monitoring well that was installed to keep track of water levels.

The data Zdon has collected at the springs could also help conservation groups such as the Transition Habitat Conservancy target areas to protect. The Nature Conservancy also provided funding to support the research.

As he walked around one of the springs, Zdon said excitedly: “That’s a long-eared owl!” It soared off a tree branch and disappeared. Moments later, Zdon stopped to listen to a squeaky chitter. “That’s a hummingbird!”

“This is one of my favorite places on Earth,” Donnelly said. “When I need a break from the world, I come out here and put a chair underneath that cottonwood.”

Donnelly said the huge effort involved in surveying the springs will pay off by producing valuable information about the conditions on the ground today, which will in turn help people spot the influences that will affect the springs in the years to come.

“These springs are very important because they’re very much indicators of the health of our aquifer,” he said. “Because we’re dealing with such an understudied resource, you know, we’re really developing those baselines as we speak.”

April 8, 2016

Trying to Get Water to California but Torpedoed by Regulators

The Obama administration and Dianne Feinstein keep blocking a private project to aid the still-parched state.


Well water bubbles into a pilot pool in Cadiz, Calif, in 2002. (AP)

By ALLYSIA FINLEY
Wall Street Journal


Although El NiƱo has increased the snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas, the Golden State’s historic drought isn’t over. Yet the Obama administration has decided to block a privately financed project that could supply water to 400,000 Californians, even though the project has been approved by an alphabet soup of state and local agencies. The result will be to trap vast amounts of a precious resource beneath the Mojave Desert. Is water the new fossil fuel?

This tale of political and regulatory obstructionism begins in 1998, when Cadiz Inc., a Los Angeles-based company, developed plans for a groundwater bank and well-field on 70 square miles of private land overlying the base of the Mojave’s massive Fenner Valley and Orange Blossom Wash watersheds. Over centuries the aquifers there have amassed as much as 34 million acre feet of water, enough to sustain all of California’s households for several years.

However, tens of thousands of acre feet percolate into salty dry lakes and evaporate each year. Cadiz proposed capturing and exporting the groundwater to Southern California residents. The Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project could also help store occasional excess flows from the Colorado River that would otherwise drain to the Pacific Ocean.

Water experts such as those at the Public Policy Institute of California have recommended using groundwater banks to recharge aquifers during wet years and expand the state’s storage capacity. Relative to dams, storing water underground reduces evaporation and environmental harm.

None of this mattered to various green lobbies and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who complained that the water project would deplete mountain springs and harm wildlife. But environmental reviews by hydrogeologists confirm that the nearest spring—located 11 miles away and 1,000 feet above the aquifer—would not be affected. Nor would fauna, which don’t rely on groundwater. After an exhaustive review, the U.S. Interior Department approved the project in 2002, but Sen. Feinstein maintained her opposition.

Cadiz sought to assuage her in 2008 by reducing the planned annual water exports to 50,000 acre-feet from 150,000. It also negotiated to use the Arizona & California Railroad’s (ARZC) right of way to build a 43-mile underground pipeline to the Colorado River Aqueduct (which feeds water to Southern California). But a few days after Cadiz announced its agreement with ARZC, Ms. Feinstein launched another attack, demanding that the Interior Department “conduct a detailed analysis” of “permissible uses” of railroad rights of way.

The department’s long-standing policy allowed railroads without federal permitting to run power, telephone and fiber optic lines on their rights of way, streamlining environmental review for public works, including wind and solar farms. But in 2011, Interior revised its policy to limit railroad rights of way that were granted in 1875—such as ARZC’s—to “activities that derive from or further a railroad purpose.”

Curiously, the new rules apply only to projects like the Cadiz pipeline. Telephone wires and fiber optic lines, maintenance yards and “related improvements,” could be permitted “on a case-by-case basis” if they helped the railroad operate.

Cadiz would go on to spend $12 million on capital improvements to benefit the railroad, such as a maintenance access road, turbines to power safety equipment and information systems, as well as state-of-the-art automated fire suppression. No matter. Last October the Bureau of Land Management ruled that the Cadiz pipeline “does not derive from or further a railroad purpose.” The innovative fire-suppression system “is an uncommon industry practice,” the agency caviled, and the “origin of the access road is to support the non-railroad purpose of water conveyance.” Building the pipeline without authorization, it warned, “could result in the BLM instituting trespass proceedings.”

The BLM added that its ruling cannot be appealed because “it is not a final agency decision.” A final decision would require a formal regulatory review. But Ms. Feinstein has attached riders to every Interior Department spending bill since 2008 that bar the agency from reviewing Cadiz.

Amid this regulatory hustle, a California state appellate court last month heard six challenges to the project, all of which had been rejected by a trial court two years ago. In 2012, the Santa Margarita Water District’s final environmental impact report noted that the project’s only significant effects would be temporary dust from construction and the hazard of population and employment growth from a larger water supply, which has driven opposition from green groups. While trumpeting the BLM’s decision in October, the Center for Biological Diversity complained that the Cadiz project would “increase urban sprawl in coastal Southern California.”

So the water storage project, long overdue, remains stuck in regulatory purgatory. Without a Hail Mary attempt by Congress to unplug the Obama water blockage, thirsty Californians can only pray for a Republican president who views economic development as a blessing rather than curse.

April 5, 2016

Feds approve controversial remote desert solar plant near Baker

A bighorn sheep climbs the terrain of the Mojave National Preserve, about a mile northeast of the proposed site for the Soda Mountain Solar project on Tuesday, July 21 2015 near Baker. (Stan Lim)

By Jim Steinberg
The San Bernardino Sun


Over objections of environmentalists, the Obama administration on Tuesday approved a 287-megawatt solar energy plant for a remote part of the Mojave Desert.

The 1,767-acre project being developed by Bechtel Corp. is located on land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, about six miles southwest of Baker.

“Soda Mountain is another step forward toward diversifying our nation’s energy portfolio and meeting the state of California’s growing demand for renewable energy,” said BLM Director Neil Kornze.

The project is consistent with BLM’s landscape approach for the California desert, which supports careful development of renewable energy while protecting the resources and places that make the desert special, Kornze said in a statement.

“The approval of Soda Mountain Solar is a stark contradiction by the Obama administration,” Theresa Pierno, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement.

“Less than two months ago, we lauded the administration as conservation heroes after they designated national monuments in the desert to protect and connect important landscapes,” she said.

Allowing the Soda Mountain project to proceed “inhibits national park wildlife from migrating and adapting to a changing climate,” Pierno added.

The project will provide enough power for more than 86,000 homes and help toward meeting Obama’s Climate Action Plan goal of 20,000 megawatts of power derived from renewable energy project on public lands by 2020, the BLM statement said.

The agency said it spent more than three years consulting and working with a variety of federal and state partners, members of the public and others to develop a “comprehensive environmental analysis” of the Soda Mountain project area and devise a project design that preserves scenic vistas, reduces potential impacts to wildlife in the area and protects groundwater.

The agency said its approved design removes an array of solar panels originally approved north of the 15 Freeway, eliminating most of the visual effects of the project within the Mojave National Preserve.

Last year, the project was reduced from the originally proposed 2,222 acres.

The agency also said its decision ensures the project will not block future efforts to re-establish bighorn sheep movement across the interstate highway.

But Ileene Anderson, Los Angeles-based senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the massive solar array would block the “last, best linkage” for desert bighorn sheep between the Mojave National Preserve and the Soda Mountain Wilderness Study Area.

Renewable-energy generation “has to be done right,” she said.

The smaller, revised project is located in an area of disturbed lands including an active utility corridor for oil and gas pipelines, electricity transmission and communication lines and facilities, BLM said.

However, the National Parks Conservation Association says the project is in the “undeveloped” South Soda Mountain region immediately adjacent to Mojave National Preserve.

Francis Canavan, a Bechtel spokesman, acknowledged that the company doesn’t yet have an agreement to sell the electricity from the project, but he added that talks are underway with potential buyers.

Bechtel also does not have a signed agreement to use the power lines that run past the project site, which are owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Getting permission to use Los Angeles’ power lines, however, “shouldn’t be a problem,” Canavan said.