May 6, 2006

Desert water 'guzzlers' may return to preserve

Environmentalists may attempt to block plan

Desert Dispatch

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE -- The on-again, off-again plan to convert wells in the preserve to wildlife watering devices, called "guzzlers," is on again.

The move is a surprise to Chad Offutt of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). With the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), PEER sued the National Park Service (NPS), which oversees the preserve, in March of last year to stop the expansion of the guzzlers in the preserve. The groups contend the artificial watering harms native wildlife and violates Park Service policy.

The lawsuit alleges that guzzlers are "known to adversely affect desert tortoise by attracting predators such as ravens, and by acting as death traps for tortoises that approach the guzzlers to drink."

In September of 2004, the preserve had announced the guzzlers would be installed, according to Danette Woo, environmental compliance specialist at the preserve.

According to Offutt, the National Park Service reversed itself and rescinded the approval of the preserve guzzlers in April, 2005.

On June, 27, 2005, the National Park Service held a public scoping meeting in Barstow saying the preserve "has begun the development of the park's Environmental Assessment (EA) to convert wells into guzzlers," according to a preserve press release. The draft Environmental Assessment was due to be completed on Sept. 1, 2005.

Then, the guzzlers program was back on again. On April 27, 2006, the preserve sent out a press release stating the preserve "approves science-based alternative on managing water for wildlife." According to PEER, their lawsuit could be revived.

Under this plan, the wells will be converted into guzzlers to carry out research on the need for additional water sources for wildlife over a broad area in the preserve, and to determine if additional guzzlers are needed, said Woo.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, said that after the two groups filed suit against the guzzlers in the preserve, the preserve management withdrew the proposal to install guzzlers and the lawsuit was dismissed.

"I don't think they (the pre- serve) has done anything to prepare a proper environmental document or to cancel the guzzler program," he said, "and I think they are vulnerable to the same lawsuit again."

Ruch said that his group believes the preserve did not complete a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and needs to do so. Many topics have not been addressed that should be, he said, including the possibility that the guzzlers will increase the population of predators that kill desert tortoises, a threatened species that is found in the preserve.

An EA is a concise public document that a federal agency prepares under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to provide sufficient evidence and analysis to determine whether the proposed agency action would require preparation of an EIS or a finding of no significant impact.

An Environmental Impact Statement is a document required of federal agencies by the National Environmental Policy Act for major projects or legislative proposals significantly affecting the environment. A tool for decision-making, it describes the positive and negative effects of the undertaking and cites alternative actions, according to Entrix, an environmental consultant firm.

"We fully expected a full EIS," Ruch said, adding that by declaring a "no significant impact" decision, it seems to mean the preserve will not do any more study of the problem before installing the guzzlers.

The lack of a full EIS "doesn't appear to make sense in light of all the questions" people have about the wisdom of installing guzzlers, he said.

The California Department of Fish and Game (CF&G) originally proposed to convert the 12 wells to wildlife waterers and the NPS undertook an environmental assessment of the matter in November of last year.

Out of several proposed ways to manage the water, the NPS selected a science-based alternative and decided this plan would have no significant impact on the environment in the preserve, Woo said.

There are over 130 springs and seeps across the preserve and the NPS recently initiated a long-term monitoring project to deter mine how rainfall patterns affect the availability of water for wildlife, by surveying them during the driest part of the year, Woo said.

Over 75 percent of the sources had water during the last survey and there are six existing large-game guzzlers in the preserve, principally used by desert bighorn sheep and 119 small game guzzlers principally used by quail, chukar and other small wildlife, Woo said. There are also several dozen currently operating water units used in cattle ranching, she said.

According to the environmental assessment, installing guzzlers has a potential to lower the groundwater table.

The document states there is a potential dependence on the new guzzlers by wildlife populations and a potential for increases in wildlife population, plus potential negative impacts from increase foraging and trampling as wildlife populations and guzzler use increases.

There is potential for increased hunting activities and wildlife viewing activities, according to the document, which also states there may be more visitor encounters with wildlife.

According to the Guns Magazine June 2005 edition, a hunting club, Safari Club International (SCI), and the CF&G received permission from the persevere and the U. S. Department of the Interior to "convert four ranching well developments into wildlife guzzlers for mule deer" on preserve land.

The magazine identified wells as Eagle, Watson, Caruthers and Lecyr and said that the group has been working on restoring guzzlers in the preserve for "several years."

Woo said Friday that SCI is not directly involved in any of the planning the installation of guzzlers but is working with CF&G to provide some funding and volunteers for the program.

SCI states on its web site it is "serious about protecting hunting freedoms" and "in many ways, SCI is first in legislation, litigation and international advocacy for hunting."

Their web site has an appeal to "all interested parties" to provide NPS "with information about the need for these wells and that reactivation will not pose a detrimental impact to the resources of the preserve."

It goes on to say "SCI has informed the court that it will take whatever action necessary to prevent delays in providing water sources that could hard the preserve's wildlife."

"It's a harsh life out there for wildlife," said Bill Perreck who has worked to install guzzlers in the past but is not now affiliated with any group. He said there has been a long-term drought in the High Desert until the last couple of years and he believes many types of desert creatures were in danger from the lack of water.

The idea of desert guzzlers pretty much started in 1964, he said, for Bighorn Sheep.

"It's a good thing they did, to keep the sheep from completely disappearing," Perreck said.