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)


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)


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)

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.

March 31, 2016

Tortoise a road block for Marines

Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center expansion area in Lucerne Valley.


An adult desert tortoise weighs about 12 pounds and can take days to travel a mile, yet the reptiles have managed to get one of most formidable forces on earth – the United States Marine Corps – to reconsider a large training mission.

The Marines plan to conduct live ammunition training in August, using tanks and other heavy weaponry at their Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms.

To prevent harming about 1,400 tortoises living in this stretch of the Mojave Desert, the military now plans to limit operations in its combat center expansion area in the Johnson Valley northwest of Landers.

The Marines had hoped to airlift the reptiles this spring to federally managed habitat land near Barstow to get them safely out of the way.

But military officials and federal land mangers recently announced that the relocation can’t proceed until they analyze how the move would affect tortoises and other wildlife already living in the recipient areas.

The spring move was canceled shortly after an environmental group, the Center for Biological Diversity, filed a legal challenge to it. Desert Tortoises are protected by the Endangered Species Act because they are listed as threatened with extinction.

Marine Capt. Justin E. Smith, a spokesman for Twentynine Palms, said by email that the extend of the use of 88,000-acre Johnson Valley expansion has not been determined, but training “will not negatively impact the desert tortoise species.”

The Marines “will comply with all environmental management requirements.”

Brian Croft, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, said he expects to talk with the Marines about how to avoid harming tortoises. The Marines, for example, may keep tanks and other motorized vehicles on designated roadways when traveling through tortoise areas.

The August training will be a large-scale, live-ammunition operation involving three battalions operating in extreme desert heat in real world warfare conditions, said Smith’s email. Last year’s exercises included troops from Canada and the United Kingdom.

The Johnson Valley has traditionally been an off-road-vehicle recreation area managed by the federal Bureau of Land Manage. But in late 2013, Congress added the valley to the Air Ground Combat Center.

Marine and BLM officials will hold a public meeting to discuss the Johnson Valley situation from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, April 2, at the Lucerne Valley Community Center in Lucerne.

March 29, 2016

House Republicans open probe of new California national monuments

By Carolyn Lochhead
SF Gate

WASHINGTON — House Republicans opened an investigation Tuesday into President Obama’s designation of three new national monuments in the California desert that protect more than 1.8 million acres of public land, along with six other monuments Obama has designated since January 2015.

The California desert monuments almost doubled the amount of land that Obama has set aside under the 1906 Antiquities Act, setting a new record for presidential land designations, three committee chairmen wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

“The broad and frequent application of the Antiquities Act raises questions about the lack of transparency and consultation with local stakeholders,” wrote Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee; Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee; and Hal Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Request for documents

The letters request “all documents and communications referring to or relating to the selection or designation of national monuments under the Antiquities Act” from January 2009 to the present, the letter said, setting a deadline of 5 p.m. April 12. Neither the Oversight Committee nor the White House responded to a request for comment.

The Antiquities Act gives the president power to create national monuments on public lands. Republican President Herbert Hoover used the law to establish Death Valley as a monument in 1933 just before he left office, and his successor, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, designated Joshua Tree as a monument under the act in 1936.

Obama invoked the Antiquities Act on Feb. 7 to declare the Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains national monuments in the California desert, acting at the direct behest of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a longtime champion of the Mojave Desert.

The monuments link wildlife corridors and preserve the last open stretch of historic Route 66, which was under threat of solar and wind development in 2008 until Feinstein stepped in with proposed legislation to protect the areas. The Bureau of Land Management allows mining, grazing, energy and other development on the federal lands under its jurisdiction; the monument designations prohibit such uses.

Feinstein made the request after more than six years of work on a desert conservation bill that Republicans refused to entertain.

The Democrat defended the monuments, saying she and her staff “held hundreds of hours of meetings with the full range of desert stakeholders,” including “environmental groups, local and state government officials, off-highway recreation enthusiasts, cattle ranchers, mining interests, the Defense Department, wind- and solar-energy companies, public utilities, Native American tribes, local residents and many others.”

Feinstein said the Antiquities Act “allows the president to protect ‘historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.’ Anyone who has been to the California desert knows that it has all these things and is certainly qualified for protection under the law.”

Activists frustrated

The GOP charges of lack of transparency and local consultation flabbergasted desert activists who helped Feinstein draw the boundaries of her legislation, which Obama then borrowed.

“I put probably 20,000 miles on my car — just my car — going around the desert for the last 10 years” talking with people about protecting the lands, said Jim Conkle, a retired Marine who championed the inclusion of Route 66. Conkle said the letters from Chaffetz and Bishop, who represent districts in Utah, and Rogers, from Kentucky, suggest that “we were land grabbers, but we didn’t take any more land than was already under the stewardship of BLM anyway.”

David Lamfrom, California desert program director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said he “worked on the ground building support (for the monuments) for at least the last seven years.”

“I really think it was a nonpartisan effort, and there was general agreement throughout the desert that this was the appropriate response,” he said.

David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, the California nonprofit that was instrumental in protecting the monument lands from real estate speculators, said he thinks the investigation is mainly intended as a warning shot from Utah Republicans to the White House over a potential designation of a 1.9-million-acre Bears Ears national monument in southern Utah.

“There isn’t a monument in U.S. history that has had more participation from the private sector,” Myers said.

March 28, 2016

Human bones found near Fenner


Bones found by a surveyor near Essex Road near Fenner on Friday afternoon were identified as human on Saturday, March 26, according to a San Bernardino County Coroner news release.

Homicide detectives then took over the investigation and found more bones in the same area on Saturday.
Fenner is about 40 miles west of Needles on I-40.

Anyone with information is asked to call detectives at 909-387-3589 or the anonymous We-Tip Hotline at 800-782-7463, or to visit the We-Tip website at

March 16, 2016

Military's tortoise relocation plan in jeopardy

The Marines were gearing up to move the reptiles to Bureau of Land Management habitat areas near Barstow to protect them from live-fire exercises

Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center expansion area in Lucerne Valley.


The military has scrapped plans to move more than 1,400 protected desert tortoises from an expansion area at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms to BLM-managed habitat land this spring.

The Marines were gearing up to move the reptiles to Bureau of Land Management habitat territory near Barstow, so that the 88,000-acre Johnson Valley expansion area could be used this summer for live ammunition training.

A base spokesman said in an email Wednesday, March 16, that he is still trying to determine how the decision will affect the training plans.

The plan called for the tortoises to be moved as early as this month. To reduce stress on the animals, they were to be flown by helicopter to the Ord-Rodman Critical Habitat Unit, an area managed by the BLM southeast of Barstow. But the manager of the BLM’s Barstow Field Office, and Marines both sent emails Wednesday confirming that the move won’t be this spring.

The emails did not explain why the move was canceled.

But the postponement comes a week after environmentalists with the Center for Biological Diversity filed a legal challenge to the planned move. And it comes a day after a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official said the agency had not yet approved a required relocation plan.

Meanwhile, time was running out to get the tortoises moved before the military exercises – if they do end up being held. The animals are threatened with extinction.

Marine Corps officials had said they wanted to relocate the desert tortoises while the weather was cooler.
Hotter temperature puts more stress on them, making them less likely to survive the move, officials have previously said.

Last week, the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent to sue the BLM, contending that the agency had failed to fully examine how the move might harm desert tortoises and other wildlife.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the center, said in an email that she’s pleased the tortoises will stay put, at least for now, allowing more time for analysis.

“BLM is wise to do a full analysis of the impacts of having desert tortoises from the Marine base moved onto the public lands that they manage,” her email said.

She said she was concerned that the moves could spread a respiratory disease that afflicts tortoises.

On Tuesday, March 15, Brian Croft, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the agency was still working on a relocation plan and a revised biological opinion about the move. The service must approve both documents before the move can occur.

“There are still some big hurdles to go over,” Croft said.

Also on Tuesday, Marine Corps Capt. Justin E. Smith said a date for the move will be announced once the relocation plan is finalized. The military also plans to study how the animals adapt to their new environment.

This research “will aid in gaining more information in the efforts to recover the population of the desert tortoise,” Smith said in an email.

“We remain steadfast in keeping with our obligation to serve as good stewards of the environment,” he said.

March 10, 2016

Gold finally being produced at Mojave's Golden Queen Mine

Precious metal extracted from the Golden Queen Mine formed into an ingot contains both gold and silver, called dore [daw-rey]. (TBC Media)

By Jill Barnes Nelson
Tehachapi News

MOJAVE — It's taken more than three-quarters of a century, but gold is finally being produced at Golden Queen Mine.

For the first time since the 1930s, the Golden Queen Mine had its “first pour” of gold about two weeks ago. Gold mined from the facility in an elaborate process — with all types of environmental stipulations — was processed into the first gold ingot. Because of security issues, the exact amount of the mold was not disclosed, according a statement from mine officials.

"The first gold pour is a remarkable milestone signifying the company's transition to a gold producer," Thomas M. Clay, Golden Queen Mining Co. chairman and interim chief executive officer, said in an announcement from the firm's headquarters in British Columbia, Canada. "We are proud of what we have accomplished and are excited to move closer to entering full production as a gold company in California."

Golden Queen Mine, located along Soledad Mountain in Mojave, first produced both gold and silver from the mine before World War II. Mining ceased after the war because of low prices for the precious metals.

When prices began to rise, Golden Queen Mine began a renewed effort to extract the gold. It began applying for permits and began the long process of mining the gold in 2012.

Some 100 employees are employed full-time at the mine, where excavation began last spring and the chemical process to remove gold and silver started in early February. Company officials did not disclose potential production rates but said initial flow rates in what is called the "leach pile" have been very good.

Mining is done a lot differently at Golden Queen than what viewers might see on the show “Gold Rush,” where gold is done with a sluicing method.

Construction on the mine's infrastructure started more than a year ago. Rock ore material that holds gold is crushed and a century-old chemical separation technique called the Merrill-Crowe process is used by which gold and silver is removed from a cyanide solution that trickles through piles of ore. Drilling and blasting is used to free the rock, which is then carried away with front-end loaders and mechanized shovels and loaded into trucks that can carry 100 tons each.

Rocks go through a three-stage crushing process to create progressively smaller pieces of ore, ending up with pieces measuring less than a half-inch. The crushed ore is then stacked on top of the leach pad in piles about 20 to 300 feet high.

In order to provide impermeable barriers between the pad and the ground beneath, a clay liner was built using old tailings from the mine, as well as a layer of plastic. Crushed rock is layered on top of that.

Gold and silver are filtered out of the solution using a process that introduces zinc powder to take the place of the precious metals in the solution. The gold extracted from the solution is then melted and poured into molds to form ingots.

March 8, 2016

Tortoise relocations challenged

Desert tortoises, such as this adult photographed near the Ivanpah Valley, are listed as threatened with extinction. The Marine Corps plans to move more than 1,100 of them from 88,000 acres in the Johnson Valley, northwest of Landers, to protect them from live fire exercises planned for this summer. (STAN LIM)


An environmental group filed a legal challenge Tuesday, March 8, to the military’s plans to move more than 1,400 protected desert tortoises out of an expansion area at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent to sue, contending that federal agencies have failed to fully examine how the move might harm the Mojave Desert tortoises as required under the Endangered Species Act. Such a notice is required before a lawsuit may be filed in federal court.

Tortoises are listed as threatened with extinction, but the Marines say they have to move them from 88,000 acres in the Johnson Valley to protect the reptiles from live ammunition training exercises planned for this summer.

The center argues that studies have shown that half of the tortoises will perish within three years of being moved in part because they haven’t found or dug underground burrows that give them shelter and protection from coyotes and other predators.

Military officials could not be reached Tuesday, but last week Walter J. Christensen, head of the training center’s conservation branch, and Marine Corps Lt. Col. Timothy B. Pochop, director of natural resources and environmental affairs at the training center, said the Marines are taking great care and expect most of the animals to survive.

Using helicopters will reduced stress from travel, and military officials are choosing release sites that are less likely to be prowled by coyotes, they said. And individuals from the same social groups will be placed near one another.

Most of the animals will be moved to federal land southeast of Barstow known as the Ord-Rodman Critical Habitat Unit, which is overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the center, said the group has seen no evidence that the military has analyzed impacts to tortoises and other wildlife already living in the critical habitat area, which has a limited amount of food, water and other resources.

Such an analysis is required under the National Environmental Policy Act, she said.

“This massive translocation proposal is being rushed through the process this spring without fully considering how it may affect the already declining tortoise population in the western Mojave,” said Anderson. “What we should be doing is recovering this population, not pushing it closer to extinction.”

The move has not yet been approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which still needs to sign off on the relocation plan and an analysis that showed that the move would not jeopardize the survival of the species, said Brian Croft, a biologist with the wildlife service.

Military officials want to start moving the tortoises as early as this month while the weather is still cool. The relocation is expected to take a team of about 100 biologists as long as two to four weeks to complete.

Croft said such a move should be done by mid-May – before it gets too hot for the reptiles to be above ground. The tortoises survive the desert’s harsh climate by spending the hottest and coldest months in their subterranean burrows.

The planned move stems from a 2013 decision by Congress to expand the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center to enhance live ammunition training operations deemed necessary for national security.

Taxpayers to shell out $50M for Marines to evacuate 1,200 Mojave tortoises

The tortoises are in the way of the Marines' planned expansion of a combat training grounds. (US Marine Corps)

Taxpayers will be forking over $50 million to have the Marines remove nearly 1,200 tortoises from future training grounds in the Mojave Desert, but similar efforts in the past have proven disastrous, say environmentalists.

The desert tortoises, already under stress from drought, disease and human interference, will be airlifted later this month from 130,000 acres surrounding the Corps' Air Ground Combat Center. The center is undergoing an expansion to facilitate live fire and maneuver training for full-scale Marine Expeditionary Brigade-sized elements.

"This spring, the Marine Corps will translocate approximately 1,180 desert tortoises in order to safeguard the animals coming from lands newly acquired through an NDAA-mandated (National Defense Authorization Act) land withdrawal that supports Marine Corps-mandated training requirements," base spokesman Capt. Justin Smith wrote in an e-mail to the Desert Sun.

The area slated for expansion is in prime tortoise habitat, and the number of breeding adults has dropped by about 50 percent over the last decade, according to a recent survey by federal biologists.

Some environmentalists are against the pricey effort to relocate the tortoises, which can stress the animals and leave them vulnerable to dehydration, predators and human interaction, they said.

"I wish the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would get some backbone and say it can't permit another tortoise translocation by the military," Glenn Stewart, a biologist and member of the board of directors of the Desert Tortoise Council conservation group, told the Los Angeles Times. "The situation makes us feel like we'll have to write off California's Mojave population."

In 2008, the Army moved 670 tortoises from its National Training Center near Barstow to new homes in the western Mojave. That $8.6 million effort proved disastrous when it was learned that a large percentage of them died within a year, many eaten by coyotes.

Brian Henen, a biologist and head of the Marine Corps' translocation effort, told the Times the project's ample budget and commitment to monitor the tortoises for 30 years "demonstrates how much we care about this species."

The plan, approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will utilize 100 biologists who will capture 900 adult tortoises and put transmitters on them before releasing them on nearby public lands. Another 235 hatchlings raised in pens at the base also will be relocated once they are strong enough to survive on their own. The project will take an estimated two to four weeks to complete, officials said.

The Combat Center raises the hatchlings in its 6-acre Tortoise Research and Captive Rearing Site, which is operated jointly with UCLA.

The desert tortoise is classified as a threatened species because its numbers have declined rapidly over the past few decades due to predators and disease. Soft shells leave young tortoises vulnerable to predators ranging from ants and ground squirrels to ravens and coyotes.

February 22, 2016

Death Valley Is Experiencing a Colorful ‘Superbloom’

The primary threads in the floral carpet are yellow — the most common flower is called Desert Gold, which looks like a yellow daisy. (National Park Service)

New York Times

Death Valley, one of the hottest places on Earth, is currently a riot of color: More than 20 different kinds of desert wildflowers are in bloom there after record-breaking rains last October.

It’s the best bloom there since 2005, according to Abby Wines, a spokeswoman for Death Valley National Park, and “it just keeps getting better and better.”

The flowers started poking up in November, but the particularly colorful display emerged late last month in the park, which is mainly in California but stretches across the Nevada border. On Twitter and Instagram, park visitors have taken to calling it a “superbloom.”

The park gets about two inches of rain annually, so it always sees some wildflowers, though not as many or as varied. But it doesn’t take much more rain than that to completely dye the desert, Ms. Wines said, making last fall’s unusually heavy rains particularly effective.

Over the past couple years, as much of California has been in a state of exceptional drought, in Death Valley, where dry is the norm, rainfall has hovered around the average, Ms. Wines said.

The primary threads in the floral carpet are yellow — the most common flower is called Desert Gold, which looks like a yellow daisy. But there are also strands of purple, pink and white. One of Ms. Wines’s favorites is the “Gravel Ghost,” a white flower that appears to float above the ground.

The flowers are expected to stick around until mid-March, unless it gets too hot or windy.

February 12, 2016

President designates 1.8 million acres of desert as national monuments

By Matthew Cabe
Desert Dispatch

Local reactions were mixed — if not negative — Friday in the wake of President Obama’s early-morning granting of national monument status to nearly 1.8 million acres of Southern California desert, including 1.6 million acres in the Mojave Desert.

Obama signed proclamations establishing the Mojave Trails, Castle Mountains — both in the Mojave Desert — and Sand to Snow in the Sonoran Desert as national monuments. The designations will nearly double the amount of public land that Obama has designated as national monument status since taking office, according to the White House.

Obama utilized the federal Antiquities Act — adopted in 1906 — which grants the president the authority to protect landmarks, structures, and objects of historic or scientific interest by designating them as National Monuments, according to the Associated Press.

Amid the action, numerous conservation, Christian and veteran groups’ positive responses were in line with the Joshua-Tree-based Mojave Desert Land Trust, and Executive Director Danielle Segura called the support truly inspiring.

“Our community has a deep appreciation and connection to our public lands that knows no boundaries,” Segura said in a statement. “We value that our nation’s newest national monuments preserve uninterrupted landscapes, ecosystems and opportunities for future enjoyment, discovery and adaptation to a changing biosphere.”

Accolades for Obama were in short supply elsewhere, however, as Rep. Paul Cook — who introduced his “California Minerals, Off-Road Recreation, and Conservation Act” last October — said Obama’s “unilateral designation” ignored the legislative process.

“I’m not opposed to national monuments,” Cook, R-Apple Valley, said in a statement. “I’m opposed to the president creating national monuments through unilateral executive action … I’ve never found people in Washington to know better than residents of San Bernardino County when it comes to local land issues. This time, special interest groups hijacked these monument designations and ignored the wishes of those who live closest and use the land most often.”

Cook’s comments were mirrored by 33rd District Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, who emphasized the importance of the legislative process Friday.

“This process exists to allow all of the affected stakeholders to have their voices heard and considered before impactful actions like the creation of these monuments become law,” Obernolte told the Daily Press. “Unfortunately they were not given that opportunity.”

Cook introduced his bill as an alternative to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s desert protections bill, and despite several similarities, Cook’s bill would have designated Mojave Trails as a special management area rather than a national monument.

That lower-rung designation was crucial to Cook because, unlike a national monument, special management areas allow for new mining operations.

Field representatives for Feinstein, D-CA, however, maintained at various council and legislative review meetings throughout the High Desert that national monument designations bolster tourism in areas with proximity to the monuments.

Addressing a crowd at Wildlands Conservancy's Whitewater Preserve last October, Feinstein said she would continue to push her California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act of 2015, according to a previous Daily Press report.

But amid that push for her bill, Feinstein also expressed a hope to have her proposed national monuments within the bill established by Obama through executive action.

That Feinstein’s hope became a reality Friday didn’t sit well with Hesperia Mayor Bill Holland.

“Once again the president has overstepped his authority and done something as a political favor,” Holland told the Daily Press. “It is ridiculous. It is despicable. Now all the work done by Cook — and Feinstein — is null and void. Now everybody loses because (Feinstein) didn’t get her way and took this route.”

By contrast, the White House focused its aim on preservation as local officials took issue with the bypassing of political processes.

"In addition to permanently protecting incredible natural resources, wildlife habitat and unique historic and cultural sites, and providing recreational opportunities for a burgeoning region, the monuments will support climate resiliency in the region," the White House said in a statement.

The designations also will connect those regions to other protected government land, including Joshua Tree National Park, the Mojave National Preserve and 15 other federal wilderness areas, according to the Associated Press.

The Mojave Trails National Monument, at 1.6 million acres, is by far the largest of the three designated by Obama Friday. It contains ancient lava flows, sand dunes, ancient Native American trading routes and World War II-era training camps.

The monument also contains the largest remaining undeveloped stretch of Route 66, which led many local Mother Road advocates to champion Feinstein’s bill prior to Obama’s designation.

Obama to designate new national monuments in the California desert

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post

President Obama has set aside more of America’s lands and waters for conservation protection than any of his predecessors, and he is preparing to do even more before he leaves office next year. The result may be one of the most expansive environmental and historic-preservation legacies in presidential history.

On Friday, Obama will designate more than 1.8 million acres of California desert for protection with the creation of three national monuments: Castle Mountains, Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow. The new monuments will connect three existing sites — Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks and the Mojave National Preserve — to create the second-largest desert preserve in the world.

Namib-Naukluft National Park in Namibia is the largest.

Obama has unilaterally protected more than 260 million acres of America’s lands and waters under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which gives the president wide latitude to safeguard at-risk federal lands that have cultural, historic or scientific value.

The act is among the most powerful tools at any president’s disposal. Franklin D. Roosevelt invoked the law more than any president in history; Harold L. Ickes, his interior secretary, kept a pile of potential national-monument declarations in a desk and pulled them out whenever Roosevelt was in a good mood.

Obama’s aides do not have a similar system, but they share those earlier aspirations.

“We have big, big ambitions this year, so let’s see what happens,” said Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, adding that the administration is focused on “local requests for action. It’s really been driven by activities on the ground.”

The big question: What next?

Other possible future designations include Bears Ears, a sacred site for several Native American tribes in southeastern Utah; Stonewall, the site of a 1969 inn riot by members of New York City’s gay community; the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts; the historic headquarters of the National Woman’s Party, Sewall-Belmont House in Washington, D.C.; and Nevada’s Gold Butte, an area where rancher Cliven Bundy and his supporters have defied federal authorities.

Officials are weighing these proposals amid protests out West, such as the armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which aimed to wrest control of federal lands from officials in Washington. The standoff may have hurt the prospects for increased protections around the state’s Owyhee Canyonlands, though the idea is not off the table entirely.

But Jim Messina, a close Obama adviser who worked on conservation issues when he served as White House deputy chief of staff in his first term, said the president is personally committed to the issue and is convinced that most Americans back the idea.

“Protecting public access is a huge political winner across the West. A bunch of extremists in Oregon can’t change it,” he said. “There’s no thought, or no reason, to back off on our agenda.”

Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who convinced Obama to declare a sizeable monument in Nevada’s Basin and Range Province last year, is still pressing for getting another one at Gold Butte, which is an hour’s drive from Las Vegas but has been degraded and largely unpoliced since Bundy and his armed followers confronted Bureau of Land Management officials there in 2014.

Republicans have been trying to curtail Obama’s powers to act, but in a year when several senators are up for reelection in swing states, they have fallen short. Last week, the Senate considered an amendment by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that would have reversed national-monument designations if Congress and lawmakers in the affected states did not explicitly approve them within three years of designation. Four Republicans — including Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.) — broke ranks and voted against it, and it was tabled by a one-vote margin.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said in an interview Wednesday that he was not surprised at the vote’s outcome. “

Most people do not understand what Antiquities does, or can do,” he said. “At some point, we have to realize this is a process that is out of control. Whether that actually occurs before Obama leaves is irrelevant.”

The Obama administration and Bishop have starkly different readings of the law, which runs just four paragraphs. It dictates that any monument designation “shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected,” but presidents have interpreted that broadly over the past century.

The White House has identified two main criteria for naming monuments this year, Goldfuss said: areas that help foster resilience to climate change or are “connected to people and communities that have not been historically represented” in national parks and other federal sites.

That explains new California desert designations, for which Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has been seeking protection for seven years. David Lamfrom, who directs the National Parks Conservation Association’s California desert and national wildlife programs, said connecting the ecosystem across nearly 10 million acres will help species with large ranges, such as bighorn sheep and mountain lions, as well as imperiled desert tortoises and ones that are taking refuge at higher altitudes where there is more moisture.

The idea is “to link together these large landscapes in perpetuity,” Lamfrom said, so species can migrate and have the best chance of survival in the face of human pressures.

Five members — the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, the Ute Indian Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Pueblo of Zuni — have created the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition to press for a monument on roughly 1.9 million acres in of Utah that were once inhabited by the Anasazi and, later, the Navajo.

Eric Descheenie, who co-chairs the coalition and serves as executive staff assistant to the Navajo Nation president, said: “We’ve had the looting and grave robbing and destruction of sacred sites,” even as several tribes have continued to gather medicinal herbs and berries, haul wood, hunt and conduct religious ceremonies there.

In some instances, Republican lawmakers have offered their own vision of how to protect these areas, but bipartisan agreements have proven elusive. Rep. Paul Cook (R-Calif.) has introduced a California desert bill that would put more than 1.2 million acres in the region off limits to development, but it would bar the use of the Antiquities Act, open up 100,000 acres of new mining in Mojave Trails and sanction off-road vehicle use in some areas.

It is less clear what Obama will do in federal waters, where nearly of the strict protections are in the central Pacific. There are a group of Hawaiians lobbying the president to expand Papahanaumokuakea — a monument George W. Bush created a decade ago, whose islands and atolls are home to 1,750 marine species found nowhere else on Earth — to the full extent under the law. That would make it 520,000 square miles, or nine times its current size.

“Some people here are working here to provide the president with a legacy opportunity,” said William Aila Jr., looking down from a rocky outcropping in Oahu as two endangered Hawaiian monk seals nestled below. “It would be the largest marine protected area for a long, long time. It would be almost impossible to top it.”