December 28, 2008

Marine base targets off-road area for expansion

Joe Nelson, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

The Johnson Valley Off Highway Vehicle Area comprises about 188,000 acres of desert playground off Highway 247 and Camp Rock Road - about 55 miles southeast of Barstow and 25 miles east of Victorville.

It is an ideal spot for the off-road enthusiast, punctuated by steep, rocky mountains, open valleys, dry lake beds and sandy washes.

It's not a place one would typically associate with America's so-called "War on Terrorism," but the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center is pushing to expand its base onto the bulk of this shimmering desert landscape for live-fire and manuever training.

The military cites rapidly evolving defense requirements due to the "global war on terrorism," "new emerging threats" and the introduction of new weapons systems as the basis for neccessitating the Marine base expansion. An application for the withdrawal of public lands was submitted to the Bureau of Land Management by the Department of the Navy in August.

It's part of an ambitious plan by the military to acquire about 420,000 acres of BLM and non-federally owned lands to the west, south and east of the world's largest Marine base for military training purposes.

If the bulk of Johnson Valley is lost to the military (about 135,000 of about 188,000 acres), officials say it would kill the tourism dollars that pour into desert communities from off-road recreators.

What makes this situation unique is that those who oppose the base's expansion into Johnson Valley aren't necessarily opposed to the expansion plan as a whole. In fact, they support it, but would like to see the base expanded to the east and south.

"This is a very, very tough issue that we're facing, because the economy of Yucca Valley is affected by the Marine base, but it is also affected by the off-roaders," said Cheryl Nankervis, executive director for the Yucca Valley Chamber of Commerce.

One anticipated side effect of losing Johnson Valley would be an increase in illegal off-roading activity in and on the outskirts of established desert towns like Yucca Valley, Apple Valley and Lucerne Valley, officials said.

"We'll have more illegal off-roaders around town going onto private property. And that is a big concern as well," Nankervis said

At its Dec. 11 meeting, the Yucca Valley Town Council approved a resolution granting it stakeholder status in the base expansion project, meaning town officials will be kept in the loop with the latest updates on the project and its potential impacts on Yucca Valley.

Mike Kelliher, chairman for the business advocacy task force of the Yucca Valley Chamber of Commerce, told councilmembers at the meeting that the base's expansion into Johnson Valley would mean a loss in revenue from film productions, as well as profit losses for off-highway vehicle suppliers, hotels and motels, restaurants and gas stations.

He said grant money associated with off-highway vehicle enforcement would dwindle from $50,000 a year to $5,000 a year.

"If the base decides to move with the plan of taking the Johnson Valley OHV area, it will create a double-edge sword for our community and the enforcement of OHV's," Kelliher said.

Marine Capt. Carl Redding stresses that nothing is set in stone. The Marines have held a series of public scoping meetings this month and will continue to take public comment until Jan. 31 on the project.

"We're going to take all the comments into consideration and go from there," Redding said.

Once the public comment period closes, an environmental impact statement will be prepared.

First District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, a former Marine and Desert Storm veteran, doesn't want to see the towns he represents at the county level hurt financially from the base's westwar expansion. And while there are some serious issues that would need to be mitigated if the base were to expand to the east, he still prefers that option.

One reason is because the area to the east is not being used, and the other reason is because it could serve the military's need for training, as it did from 1942-1944 and again in 1964.

"It would certainly be preferrable to me because those lands are not being used right now and Johnson Valley is," Mitzelfelt said.

The primary issue with the base expanding to the east would be Amboy Road, a county-maintained road that connects the eastern Mojave Desert to the Morongo Basin. It would require some kind of mitigation, perhaps a realignment of the road so the public could still use it, Mitzelfelt said.

"It will be a multi-year effort, and it will be a challenge," he said. "I want to see the Marines get their needs taken care of, but I want to minimize the impacts on the public."

December 22, 2008

Weather lull allows rescuers in

A San Bernardino County sheriff's helicopter crew patrols the area around Pioneertown, where several people have been rescued in the past several days after being trapped in deep snow.

The Press-Enterprise

Skies may turn sunny today, but Christmas Eve may bring heavy rain and more snow that could last into Christmas morning, forecasters said.

A weak weather system brought showers to the valleys Monday and winds in mountain passes, but no serious problems.

San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies used the lull between storms to continue checking on and rescuing people stranded in remote desert cabins or stuck on snowy back roads.

Two women in their 70s trapped by snow in a Pioneertown-area cabin north of Yucca Valley were rescued by sheriff's helicopter crews, said Flight Officer Mike Ells.

The team was sent to check on two families and the first was fine, he said. The women, however, signaled that they needed help.

"We landed in about a foot of snow and walked about 50 to 100 yards to the house," Ells said.

The home had no heat, no water and broken windows, and the women had been sleeping in their car to keep warm, Ells said.

The team -- Ells, pilot Alex Kahn and Deputy Heather Moon from the Morongo Station -- was greeted by the women's 24 dogs.

"Probably 10 of them were not happy to see us," Ells said.

They decided the women needed to be seen by paramedics, but a medical team was unable to drive to the area. A paramedic was helicoptered in, and then a larger helicopter was summoned to take the women to a hospital, Ells said.

"With the weather, and a new storm coming in, we said, 'We need to get them to a hospital,' " Ells said.

There still is quite a bit of snow in the higher desert regions, he said.

"For the past three days, we've been going after people that were stuck out in the desert in the snow," he said.

Several were off-roaders who underestimated the depth of the snow and became confused about their locations. They were found in good shape, he said.

Monday's storm brought 0.15 of an inch of rain or less, said National Weather Service forecaster Noel Isla.

The next storm "is going to be a little bit stronger," Isla said.

Valleys could see more than an inch of rain and there could be another foot of snow in the mountains above 5,500 feet, forecasters said.

December 20, 2008

The omnibus lands bill would have squandered taxpayer dollars


Idaho Statesman

The recent editorial from The Times-News (reprinted in the Statesman's WestViews, Nov. 22) criticizing my opposition to the omnibus lands bill in Congress ignored key flaws in the legislation.

For instance, I would suspect many Idahoans don't want their tax dollars squandered on a plan to erect new barriers to energy exploration. One provision in the package takes 8.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 300 million barrels of oil out of production in Wyoming. The energy resources walled off by this act alone would match our domestic natural gas production for 15 years.

I would also suspect Idahoans don't want their money wasted on pork barrel projects outside of Idaho, such as $5 million on botanical gardens in Hawaii and Florida or $1 billion on a project in California designed to save 500 salmon.

I am not alone in my concerns. More than 100 organizations ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the National Wildlife Refuge Association oppose the bill.

Your readers also should consider that our nation is not suffering from a lack of wilderness areas. Our nation currently has more wilderness area (107 million acres) than developed land (106 million acres). What we are lacking, however, is fiscal discipline in Congress and a real debate about priorities.

One of the greatest threats to our long-term economic health is the culture of parochialism that pervades Congress and leads members to write lands bills loaded with wasteful earmarks and special interest provisions. Members defend one another's right to bring home the bacon even if that practice undermines the long-term economic health of not just Idaho or Oklahoma but the entire country.

Congress' parochialism and short-term politicking is a major reason why we are facing a $10 trillion national debt and an economic crisis.

The Times-News would better serve its readers by taking a critical look at this culture rather than blindly defending business as usual in Congress.

Tom A. Coburn, M.D., is a Republican U.S. senator from Oklahoma.

Utah oil drilling leases go fast -- fishily fast in some cases, authorities say

Two bidders, suspected of being environmental activists, are detained.

By DeeDee Correll
December 20, 2008

Reporting from Denver -- Bidders at a federal auction Friday snapped up oil and gas leases in Utah's red-rock country, despite a legal challenge that ultimately could prevent them from drilling there.

Companies paid $48 to $270 an acre, buying up leases on 88% of the offered parcels.

The auction, which netted $7.4 million, was briefly halted Friday afternoon when authorities grew suspicious of two bidders suspected of being environmental activists who had no intention of paying.

They outbid competitors for a number of leases before officials detained them.

Critics of the auction, including actor Robert Redford, have branded the sale as a last-ditch effort by the Bush administration to allow energy development on public lands before the president leaves office. Conservationists contend that some of the parcels are too close to national parks and that federal officials have not considered the effects drilling would have on air quality and other environmental factors.

Environmental groups filed suit this week to block the sale. But late Thursday, they struck an agreement with the Bureau of Land Management that allowed the auction to proceed as long as the leases were not issued for 30 days, giving a federal judge time to consider whether the leases should go forward.

The 30-day period ends Jan. 19 -- Bush's last full day in office.

The judge said he intended to rule before that date, said Stephen Bloch, conservation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which is a party to the lawsuit.

BLM officials have defended the sales as part of their obligation to open federal lands to energy development in an attempt to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

"And let's not forget what energy industry jobs mean to local economies," BLM's Utah Director Selma Sierra said in a written statement.

She noted that because "oil and gas exploration is costly and highly speculative," about 6% of leases actually result in drilling.

The bureau originally planned to lease 360,000 acres in southern and eastern Utah, but it reduced that number to 132,000 acres after weeks of criticism from environmental groups and the National Park Service. It withdrew some proposed leases next to Arches National Park, on a golf course in the town of Moab and beneath the rim of Nine-Mile Canyon, which is lined with ancient Native American rock art.

But environmentalists argue that the remaining leases are adjacent to sensitive areas and other national parks or in other regions that the federal government has declared "wilderness quality."

About 100 protesters marched Friday in the snow and wind outside the BLM's Salt Lake City office, hoisting signs that read "No drilling in Arches" and "Our home is not for sale," said Terry Shepherd, director of Red Rocks Forests, who joined in the demonstration.

Inside, one man drew attention as he repeatedly outbid his competitors for some of the more contested leases.

BLM officials did not say how many leases he acquired, but observers said he bought at least 10 in notably scenic areas.

The man, who was not identified, and a companion were not arrested. Federal prosecutors will review the case next week to determine whether they violated any federal laws, said Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Utah.

BLM spokeswoman Mary Wilson said Friday that the agency had not decided whether to reopen the bidding for those parcels.

One industry group suggested to the media that the bidders were in cahoots with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, but Bloch denied any involvement.

December 19, 2008

DWP sticks with Green Path North project, rejects Edison's offer to use power lines

The Press-Enterprise

Southern California Edison is offering an alternative to the Green Path North power line project that Los Angeles wants to build across San Bernardino County deserts and foothills.

Edison could add enough capacity on its power lines along Interstate 10 to carry electricity to Los Angeles from geothermal, wind and solar power projects planned in the desert, said Sandi Blain, manager of the transmission project licenses for Edison, an investor-owned utility.

However, officials with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power say they are not interested.

Any agreement with Edison would involve paying to use the power lines and could be suspended or terminated, leaving too much uncertainty for some 5 million Los Angeles-area customers, said David Nahai, DWP general manager.

"We cannot afford to be in a second position when it comes to transmission," Nahai said. "We have to have permanent and absolute transmission rights. ... Renting is not the option one prefers to have."

Los Angeles wants 800-megawatt power lines in place by 2013 or 2014 to tap geothermal energy at the Salton Sea as well as proposed desert-area wind and solar projects.

Imperial Irrigation District would build power lines from Salton Sea to a spot north of Palm Springs. From there, in several scenarios, the Los Angeles utility would build about 80 miles of transmission lines to Hesperia, linking to the network that would carry the electricity to Los Angeles through the Antelope Valley.

Los Angeles needs to tap renewable energy sources to meet state greenhouse-gas reduction requirements. About 11 percent of the utility's electricity comes from renewable sources. By 2020, that needs to be 35 percent, utility spokesman Joseph Ramallo said.


Edison's offer bolsters the position of Green Path opponents.

Some High Desert residents have fought the DWP Green Path North plan ever since they happened upon one of the utility's survey crews last year north of Yucca Valley.

They fear power lines, and the roads needed to build and maintain them, would damage undisturbed land in the desert and in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains. Opponents include property owners, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors and the cities of Desert Hot Springs and Twentynine Palms.

Los Angeles officials said they would need a path no more than 330 feet wide, but desert residents worry that Green Path power lines could help justify a federal utility corridor designation that might lead to pipelines and other utility projects.

The maintenance roads would invite off-roaders, causing more damage to the environment, said David Miller, a resident of Pioneertown northwest of Yucca Valley and a member of the California Desert Coalition, a group opposing the project.

"We need to first maximize the use of all existing (utility) corridors, including all of the I-10 capacity, before we start adding corridors," Miller said.

Nahai said DWP is considering ways to build the power lines with minimal damage to the environment. An option is to bury the lines in more sensitive areas, he said. One scenario would put a portion of the power lines parallel to Edison's lines along Interstate 10. Nahai said he is in talks with Edison.

Some Inland cities could benefit from Green Path. DWP would build the lines in partnership with the interagency Southern California Public Power Authority, whose members include the cities of Riverside, Colton and Banning. Members of the power authority that opt into a project are then entitled to some of the electricity.

Blain said if the Los Angeles utility used Edison lines along Interstate 10, it would have to schedule power deliveries through California Independent System Operator.

The ISO is a state entity created when the electricity industry was deregulated in the 1990s to allow open access to most of the power grid in California. The agency would also set the transmission fees that Edison could charge.


But Ramallo said Los Angeles prefers to own its transmission lines and power-generation sources as much as possible.

That allows the utility to offer lower rates than those offered by investor-owned, for-profit utilities, such as Edison.

Miller said DWP's motives go beyond tapping renewable energy. The utility would have the potential to bring in money by delivering power to others, he said.

The project greatly boosts the DWP's clout and financial position by establishing new power lines near future alternative-energy projects and between two transmission corridors along interstates 10 and 15, he said.

"There is a huge potential for revenue," Miller said.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is processing 171 applications seeking to develop solar and wind energy on public land in the desert from Ridgecrest to El Centro. Any electricity those projects generate would have to be linked to the power grid.

The Los Angeles area will need all the power Green Path can carry, DWP officials said.

Nahai said the agency's only purpose is to serve the public.

"It is almost perverse for anyone to suggest we would be building this line to make money," Nahai said.

Federal environmental review of the Green Path proposal is expected to start next year.

Desert power line gets OK

The ratepayer-funded electrical transmission project aims to boost the use of clean sources.

By Marc Lifsher
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento -- Regulators gave a San Diego utility the go-ahead Thursday to build a $1.9-billion transmission line that it says is needed to move nonpolluting geothermal, wind and solar power from inland deserts to energy-hungry coastal cities.

The California Public Utilities Commission, meeting in San Francisco, voted 4-1 to approve a proposed decision by President Michael Peevey to allow San Diego Gas & Electric Co. to use ratepayer funds to string 123 miles of new high-voltage lines. Massive steel towers would carry the electricity from Imperial County through environmentally sensitive areas of the San Diego County backcountry and the Cleveland National Forest.

The commission's lone dissenter, Dian Grueneich, couldn't persuade her colleagues to support an alternative decision. It would have authorized the line, known as the Sunrise Powerlink, but only if SDG&E, a unit of San Diego-based Sempra Energy, complied with strict requirements that it be filled with electrons from "green" sources.

Once operational, the line will play "a critical role in California's efforts to achieve energy independence" and help the state meet its goal to generate a third of its power from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2020, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said.

Developers, who want to invest millions of dollars in power plants to generate alternative energy, say they won't be able to secure financing without a commitment from the state that the line will be available to carry their electricity to market.

The Sunrise plan, which has been before the commission for three years, has solid backing from state, local and ethnic chambers of commerce, many San Diego County governments and labor unions. But it has garnered equally strong opposition from environmental groups, consumer advocates and rural communities that lie along the line's path, roughly paralleling the U.S.-Mexico border.

Opponents, who denounce Sunrise as too costly and unneeded, vow to file lawsuits challenging the Public Utility Commission's decision.

"The commissioners issued a $2-billion, politically driven decision today that disregarded the facts," said Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers Action Network. "It will be up to the appellate courts to force the PUC to face the facts that make the Sunrise project a whopping Christmas present for Sempra but a lump of coal for all of the state's ratepayers."

Other Sunrise foes said the commission's decision could have been worse for the environment if SDG&E's initial power line route had been approved. The utility originally wanted to run the line through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a vast preserve that spans portions of Riverside, San Diego and Imperial counties, considered a jewel of the California system.

In the face of criticism from the Sierra Club and the California Parks Foundation, SDG&E recently dropped the Anza-Borrego route and embraced a more costly path farther south.

In October, the utility came out on the losing end of an administrative law judge's proposed decision that the line wasn't needed to satisfy San Diego County's short-term power requirements.

Commissioner Grueneich, a veteran environmental activist, offered SDG&E a compromise: The company could build on the southern route if it could provide the PUC with a firm, legal commitment that the line's 1,000 megawatts of capacity would be filled completely with energy from renewable, nonpolluting sources.

Grueneich said she feared that the company would use Sunrise to carry electricity produced by coal or natural-gas-fired power plants in other states or nearby Baja California, Mexico.

Both SDG&E and Peevey, who authored his own, ultimately successful proposed decision, countered that Grueneich's conditions could prove too burdensome to the utility and its alternative energy suppliers.

The commission, Peevey said, would monitor SDG&E to make sure it lives up to a nonbinding promise to send no coal-based electricity through the Sunrise line. The company also said it would meet the state's 33% alternative energy goal by the 2020 deadline.

"I fully expect the company to follow through on its commitments," Peevey said.

But SDG&E's word wasn't good enough for Grueneich.

"We have an obligation to ensure that San Diego Gas & Electric's ratepayers and not just its shareholders see a return on their investment," she said.

"I am not willing to risk $2 billion in ratepayer money to the invisible hand of the market."

December 18, 2008

Unusual snowstorm closes three major Southern California freeways

Snow covers Joshua trees in the Antelope Valley desert Monday afternoon.

I-5, I-15 and the Antelope Valley Freeway are shut down, stranding thousands of motorists. Some try to catch Metrolink trains and others bed down in motels. The storm is blamed for at least one death.

By Alexandra Zavis and Jennifer Oldham
Los Angeles Times

An unusually strong arctic blast dumped snow over a large swath of Southern California mountains and high deserts Wednesday, shutting down some of the state's busiest freeways, stranding thousands of motorists and cutting off several communities.

The storm's combination of frigid air, powerful winds and heavy precipitation dropped the snow level to an unusually low 2,000 feet, with at least 20 inches of snow in Wrightwood, 5 inches in the hills above Malibu and 6 inches or more in Palmdale, where all major routes from Los Angeles were blocked.

Forecasters expect the cold temperatures to continue today as the storm moves out, and another storm is expected to hit the region Sunday night.

Snow and ice shut down three of the region's key north-south routes -- Interstate 5, Interstate 15 and the 14 Freeway -- along with numerous mountain roads and desert highways.

The closures caused traffic nightmares for drivers trying to get in or out of Southern California. The severity of the storm caught many by surprise, leaving them stranded on the side of freeways, at rest stops and trying to stay warm inside their cars along snow-packed roads around Big Bear.

It had already started to rain when Garcia Ignacio of Lancaster drove off early Wednesday with his wife, Hortencia, to a kitchen remodeling job in Woodland Hills. But he never expected the drops to turn into sheets of snow. The couple spent the rest of the day trying to find a way home as authorities shut down one freeway after another. They finally gave up and checked into a La Quinta Inn in Santa Clarita.

"My 20-year-old and my 16-year-old are stuck home in Lancaster, and my wife and I are stuck here in a hotel," said Ignacio, who owns Aaron's Construction in Lancaster. "But I'm not worried about them, though. I called them already, and they were playing in the snow."

The storms brought steady rain to many parts of the Los Angeles Basin, and major street flooding was reported in Palm Springs. The opening night of the 100th annual Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade was called off by organizers because of choppy seas caused by the storm.

Forecasters said the Las Vegas Strip could receive 3 inches of snow overnight. The weather caused some flight delays at the city's McCarren International Airport, which doesn't have snowplows.

The storm was blamed for at least one death, which occurred when a helicopter installing power lines crashed near Bouquet Canyon in Santa Clarita, killing a mechanic on the ground. The cause of the crash is under investigation, but it's believed a strong gust of wind hit the aircraft as it hovered just after liftoff, said Ian Gregor of the Federal Aviation Administration. The craft's tail broke off and a rotor blade struck the man on the ground, he said. The pilot suffered minor injuries but refused medical treatment, said Inspector Ron Haralson of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

By about 1:30 p.m., traffic had ground to a halt along the northbound 14 at Sand Canyon Road as frustrated motorists tried to exit the shuttered freeway or pull onto the shoulder. Palm trees were doubled over in the lashing winds, and drivers wrestled to keep their vehicles in lanes.

A cluster of nearby restaurants and gas stations was jammed with people trying to figure out whether to wait out the storm or abandon their vehicles in the parking lot and take a train home. Some fretted about pets left outside in the cold. Others said they could not understand why the roads were closed, when they had stayed open in worse storms in the past.

Littlerock resident Deborah Deckert left her job at Warner Bros. in Burbank at 9:30 a.m. hoping to beat the freeway closures. Sitting at a Bergie's steakhouse, where high desert residents stood watching weather reports on big-screen TVs, she said it took her three hours to travel several miles on the 14 between the Sand Canyon and Soledad Canyon Road exits. She tried back roads as well but was forced to turn around. By the time she got off the 14 and pulled up in front of the restaurant, she was almost out of gas.

"I drive a clutch," she said. "I kept thinking to myself, as I was stuck in my car, 'At least this is good for my calves.' "

Stranded commuters jammed train stations, trying to get home. Metrolink agreed to honor bus passes from the Antelope Valley and Santa Clarita through this morning. But trains were running up to an hour late because of snow on the lines and poor visibility that made signals hard to see from the Via Princessa station in Santa Clarita to Lancaster, said Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca.

Motorists searched in vain for a parking spot at the Via Princessa station as the northbound 4:30 p.m. train approached. Lines at the ticket machines were at least 50 deep, and dozens more waited in rows alongside the tracks.

"Santa and all the nurses had to leave the Christmas party early," joked Debbie Ramirez, a nurse at Facey Medical Center in Santa Clarita, as she stood next to a passenger in a Santa suit. She rarely takes the train and had to ask other passengers which direction it came from.

Some commuters told of waiting in the freezing rain for 2 1/2 hours to buy a train ticket and then enduring another hour wait on the platform because the train was late.

Others took the weather in stride. A steady fall of big, wet flakes in the Antelope Valley community of Quartz Hill meant one thing to Kevin Vogel: snow day. He called a buddy and they made plans to go four-by-fouring in the fresh-fallen snow.

"It will be like a little sleigh ride out there," Vogel said.

His only concern was for his 8- and 9-year-old children, staying with grandparents in Las Vegas, who could get stranded as they try to make their way home today. "I wish they were here," he said. "I want to make a snowman, and for once they are not here."

Some businesses saw opportunity in the lack of bus service caused by the snow. Keith Bastedo, owner of Palmdale's High Desert Taxi Transportation, said business was up 100%, largely from commuters stranded at bus and train stations. Workers at two Palmdale tow-truck companies said they were too busy even to talk on the phone.

The Hampton Inn and Suites in Palmdale was sold out by 2 p.m. "This is usually our slow week, because of the holidays next week," said assistant manager Melissa Magallenos, one of two hotel administrators on duty when the deluge of customers began about noon.

The rain caused accidents and slow traffic on freeways around Southern California. In Palm Springs, Whitewater Wash overflowed, sending the runoff into the streets. San Diego firefighters and lifeguards evacuated 21 people along the overflowing Tijuana River. About 50 horses were also evacuated, but three others drowned and one was euthanized after tripping on barbed wire.

Steven Van Horn, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard, said the combination of moisture swept in off the coast and cold temperatures made this storm unusually snowy.

"Moisture has been pumping into the Antelope Valley all day and the temperatures have been cold enough, so we are getting a lot of snow," he said. "This is a fairly unusual storm. We don't usually get a cold storm like this until January. But this is our cold, rainy season so every once in a while you can get a storm like this."

The snowfall is expected to ease overnight, but frigid temperatures are predicted into today.

Another storm could strike as soon as Sunday night or Monday morning, Van Horn said. But it is not expected to bring as much cold or snow.

Debate over Sunrise Powerlink may be near decision

Transmission lines near Boulevard in San Diego County. Many area residents have criticized a utility’s plan to erect what it calls a superhighway for green electricity as it tries to meet its renewable energy commitment.Sean Masterson / For The Times

The California Utilities Commission is scheduled to vote on the renewable energy transmission project, opposed by some environmentalists.

By Marla Dickerson and Marc Lifsher
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento and Calipatria, Calif. -- In the rural, arid flatlands near the Salton Sea, CalEnergy Generation is sitting on what California needs.

The Imperial County company taps steam heat from deep within the Earth's crust to generate clean electricity, enough to light 238,000 homes.

There's more where that came from. But whether further development of renewable energy ever happens at this Calipatria operation and dozens of proposed projects in California's hinterlands may depend on what goes on in San Francisco, maybe as soon as today.

The California Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to vote on a controversial transmission project known as the Sunrise Powerlink. The $1.9-billion high-voltage line would stretch more than 100 miles from Imperial County to San Diego, linking power plants in the desert to coastal cities hungry for their energy.

Billed by its developer, San Diego Gas & Electric Co., as a superhighway for green electricity, the project has drawn fierce opposition from environmental and community groups that don't want Godzilla-sized power towers marring the region's scenic wild areas.

The bruising four-year battle has exposed one of the dirty little secrets of clean energy: A lot of this new-age power requires old-school infrastructure to get to people's homes.

"You can't love renewables and hate transmission. They go together," said Jonathan Weisgall, a vice president of MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., which owns CalEnergy.

SDG&E, a unit of San Diego-based Sempra Energy, says it needs the line to meet tough state mandates to boost its use of green energy. Existing transmission, company executives contend, can't possibly accommodate all the wind, solar and geothermal projects needed in coming decades.

Opponents say clean power is a cover for SDG&E to use Sunrise to transport low-cost, polluting electricity from Mexico, where Sempra has invested heavily in natural gas and power-plant assets.

Activists also say Sunrise will fleece ratepayers, destroy sensitive desert habitat and increase the risk of deadly blazes in one of the state's most fire-prone areas. Far better, they say, to upgrade California's existing transmission network, encourage energy conservation and build clean generation closer to California's cities.

"This isn't about protecting the planet. It's about money," said Donna Tisdale, a rancher and community activist in eastern San Diego County. "This is the industrialization of rural America."

A creaky grid

California isn't alone in this power struggle.

Concern is rising about the inability of the antiquated U.S. power grid to keep pace with the nation's growing demand for electricity. Congestion -- essentially electricity traffic jams -- bedevils existing transmission corridors across the country. Renewable sources such as wind and utility-scale solar thermal plants are adding to the bottleneck.

The U.S. Department of Energy has identified Southern California and the New York-to-Washington corridor as the nation's most critically power-congested areas. Officials say more transmission should be built and warn of the increasing risk of blackouts if it isn't.

California is in a particularly tight spot. State law requires investor-owned utilities to procure 20% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010. That's set to increase to 33% by 2020, thanks to sweeping new rules that require California to slash its greenhouse gas emissions.

At present, less than 12% of the state's electricity comes from renewables. Utilities are counting on large-scale solar plants, wind farms and geothermal operations to help them meet their targets.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger actively supports these projects as well as new transmission to accompany them. He wrote utility regulators Tuesday endorsing the Sunrise line, saying, "This project is a vital link in California's renewable energy future and must be approved as soon as possible."

Critics say spending billions on distant power plants and hulking transmission lines is a throwback to another era, the equivalent of betting the farm on an Escalade instead of a Prius. The true promise of green electricity, said San Diego environmentalist Terry Weiner, lies not only in switching to clean sources but also in changing the way energy is delivered.

She said massive investment in rooftop solar panels in California's cities could bring hundreds of clean megawatts online quickly without damaging precious wilderness habitat.

"San Diego doesn't need to import sunshine from the desert," said Weiner, conservation coordinator for the San Diego-based Desert Protective Council.

Environmentalists have won some rounds. SDG&E had been pushing to build Sunrise through the heart of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a recreational jewel beloved by hikers and campers. That 150-mile route appears doomed after recent decisions by an administrative law judge and a utilities commission member.

Judge Jean Veith wants the commission to reject the Sunrise Powerlink because she has concluded it's too costly, too harmful to the environment and not needed for SDG&E to meet clean-energy mandates.

Commissioner Dian Grueneich favors an alternate 120-mile route along the Mexico border, provided that SDG&E agrees to deliver a "substantial" amount of clean energy on the line.

The utility objected, complaining that continued regulatory wrangling would slow construction and discourage the development of renewables. The company promised to allow no power from coal-fired generation on the line if the commission would give it a timely approval.

"I think it's ready for a decision," said Mike Niggli, SDG&E's chief operating officer. "There have been tens of thousands of pages of documents."

A need to plan

The likelihood of approval increased markedly a few weeks ago, when commission President Michael Peevey issued his own proposed alternative decision mandating the same route Grueneich did but without her restrictions. It would "clear the way for a new renewable energy superhighway, allowing us to tap into the Imperial Valley's rich renewable resources without delay or unnecessary barriers," Peevey said.

Whether Sunrise is greenlighted and with what conditions will send important signals to companies hoping to develop more geothermal, solar and wind energy in California's desert regions.

Building transmission gives renewable-energy companies the certainty they say they need to market electricity. Access to transmission allows them to sign long-term delivery contracts with utilities and line up financing to build new power plants.

But financial uncertainty could make it impossible to fulfill contracts with both SDG&E and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to supply up to 1,700 megawatts of power, said Steve Cowman, chief executive of Stirling Energy Systems Inc., a Phoenix solar power company.

Californians need to find a balance between protecting environmentally sensitive areas and building transmission lines, said Paul Thomsen, director of policy and business development for Ormat Technologies Inc., a Reno geothermal company.

"You really start to back yourself into a corner," Thomsen said, "if you don't want to live next to a power plant, and you don't want transmission and don't want fossil fuels."

December 17, 2008

Record snowfall slams Las Vegas

Snow blankets the Red Rock Canyon National Park 15 miles west of Las Vegas.

School district calls off classes for first time in 30 years, flights canceled

By Sun Staff
Las Vegas Sun

A rare snowstorm blanketed the Las Vegas Valley on Wednesday, delaying flights, causing widespread fender-benders and canceling events. As much as 8 inches of snow fell in parts of the valley, forecasters said this morning.

The rarities continued Wednesday night with the Clark County School District's announcement that students are getting a snow day today. It's the first snow day for Clark County students since 1979, when a storm dropped 9.9 inches of snow in January that year.

With ice and snow on the roads, and district buses responsible for transporting more than 80,000 students, closing school was the prudent move, Superintendent Walt Rulffes said.

Bus drivers, teachers and other classroom employees will also have the day off. Administrators, 12-month employees and office staff are expected to be at work, since some students might show up at school and require adult assistance, Rulffes explained in an e-mail to staff. In a statement this morning, the school district said all school-based food service personnel, food service truck drivers and warehouse employees are not to report for work. However, all other food service personnel shall report for work or contact their supervisor.

School Board President Mary Beth Scow said she planned to spend the day watching holiday movies and baking cookies with her grandchildren, who will have the day off from school. She said she didn't envy the teachers who will have a hard enough time keeping students' attention on Friday, the last day before the two-week winter break.

A makeup day might be scheduled later in the school year. Additional information on school closures will be posted on the district's Web site at

The National Weather Service finally lifted a winter storm warning at 6 a.m. today. The weather service said its Las Vegas office had reported 3.6 inches of snow by 9:50 p.m. Wednesday. And there was a report of 8 inches measured in Henderson shortly after 9 p.m. Wednesday.

The weather service said the main low pressure area was centered over northern Clark County at 3:30 a.m. today and was moving slowly east.

Heavy snow had already fallen over much of the warning area and another 2 to 4 inches would be possible above the 2,500-foot level elevations through early morning, the weather service said.

The weather service this morning urged travelers to take with them warm clothing, an extra flashlight, food and water in their vehicles in case of an emergency and to be alert for slippery spots on roads.

The warning area included Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Henderson and Boulder City. An advisory from the weather service Wednesday afternoon called the snow event "extremely rare."

The 3.6 inches of snow through late Wednesday at the weather service office two miles southwest of McCarran International Airport set a record for the most snow ever in the month of December in Las Vegas since the beginning of official records in 1937, the weather service said. The office is the official recording station for weather in the Las Vegas Valley.

Measurable snow has only fallen on four other occasions since 1937 in December, the weather service said: 2 inches on Dec. 15, 1967; 0.4 inches on Dec. 5, 1972; 1 inch on Dec. 6, 1998; and 1.3 inches on Dec. 30, 2003.

Not all areas of the Las Vegas Valley had snow accumulations because a mix of rain and snow fell much of the time. Also, warm ground temperatures kept the snow from sticking in some areas, the weather service said.

Downtown Las Vegas and the northern parts of the Strip saw snow, but little to no accumulation, the weather service said.

However, 1.7 inches of snow was measured on The Strip at the "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada" sign. Areas of heaviest snow measured between 3 to 6 inches, with local amounts of 8-plus inches in Henderson, the weather service said.

Flights at McCarran resume

The heavy snow caused numerous delays at McCarran International Airport on Wednesday, but airport officials announced this morning that arriving and departing flights operations resumed around 6 a.m.

While McCarran didn't close overnight, low visibility caused by the snow had stopped activity from late Wednesday afternoon until early this morning. The airport is the seventh busiest in the country.

Airport officials said the snow that accumulated overnight on McCarran's runways is melting under the morning sunlight and each of the airport's three runways is open for flight operations.

Because of the poor weather condition Wednesday, many airlines cancelled flights and the Federal Aviation Administration issued a national ground stop that temporarily kept most aircraft bound for Las Vegas from departing.

Travelers who want to fly out of the airport today should contact their air carrier to find out their flight status, airport officials said. Those expecting arriving passengers should also contact the appropriate airlines directly, officials said.

Flight information can also be obtained at

Texans stranded at airport

More than 100 residents of a tiny Texas town who flew to Las Vegas last week paid for by the Las Vegas Convention and Tourism Authority remained stranded at the airport Wednesday night.

Men in cowboy hats slept next to each other near the McCarran exits after finding out their 3 p.m. flight to Cranfills Gap, Texas, was postponed until 9 a.m. Thursday morning.

"We thought we would be able to get back to the Gap and enjoy the sunshine," said Laura Rose, a Cranfills Gap resident. "Didn't think that we'd end up in the desert in the snow."

The Las Vegas tourism group paid for nearly half of the town's 350 residents to visit Las Vegas for five days as part of a marketing campaign to promote the city.

Power outage

Along with the snow, NV Energy reported power outages Wednesday evening along Desert Inn Road, near Maryland Parkway, Mohave Avenue, Pecos Road, Eastern Avenue, Boulder Highway and Seneca Street; Rancho Drive and Valley View Boulevard, Rancho Drive and Washington Avenue; Lake Mead Parkway and Martin Luther King Boulevard; and Washington Avenue and Martin Luther King Blvd.

NV Energy said crews were working to fix the outages. It was unclear what caused the outages.

Police were directing traffic along Maryland Parkway to Pecos Road due to stoplight outages.

Traffic accidents numerous

Streets around the valley were becoming slick and slushy through the evening and into the morning.

Heavy traffic and snow-covered slick streets made the uphill climb troublesome on Eastern Avenue in Henderson, leading to heavy congestion Wednesday night.

The city of Henderson road crews were continuing today to focus efforts to clear snow off Eastern Avenue from Intestate 215 south to the Anthem community, according to Cindy Herman, Henderson's public information manager. Herman said residents are asked to remove abandoned vehicles to assist with the clean-up efforts.

"Commuters along Eastern Avenue should use caution as the weather, change in grade and abandoned vehicles are contributing to hazardous travel conditions. If possible, Anthem residents are asked to avoid the area and find alternate routes for morning commutes," Herman said in a statement released this morning.

The Nevada Department of Transportation announced this morning that Interstate 15 is still closed south of Las Vegas in each direction and is expected to open by noon between Primm and Baker.

The I-15 southbound lanes are closed at St. Rose Parkway because of a truck accident and diesel spill at mile post 27, according to Robert McKenzie, NDOT public information officer.

U.S. Highway 95's southbound lanes are closed at Railroad Pass to Nevada State Route 163 because of snow and icy conditions, McKenzie said. State routes 161, 164 and 165 are closed to traffic.

U.S. Highway 93's north and south lanes to Boulder City are now open again. State Routes 160 and 159 are open to traffic with no controls, McKenzie said.

He said chains, snow tires or four-wheel drive vehicle restrictions are in place for State Route 156 to Mount Charleston. State Route 157 to Mount Charleston is open only to residents until further notice, McKenzie said.

The Nevada Highway Patrol and Metro Police said there had been numerous fender-benders on wet roads, but no serious injuries through Wednesday evening.

As snow continued to pile up, so did the number of car crashes. Metro Police have been working several accidents since the snow began to fall.

One included a pickup truck that had rolled over about 7:15 p.m. in the southbound lane in the 2300 block of Green Valley Parkway outside of the Wild Horse Estate Apartments. The pickup truck knocked down two small trees before it came to a stop in front of the street light. The vehicle rolled once and was on its side, perpendicular to the traffic, blocking the lanes.

At 7:55 p.m., Metro officers were working 26 accidents with four injuries, a hit-and-run, nine other traffic accidents and 11 traffic problems, which range from a stalled car to traffic light outages. The number of traffic incidents decreased into the night as fewer cars were on the roads.

Metro updates its traffic site every 15 minutes with accidents and traffic problems officers are currently working. Officer Jay Rivera said the most common accident officers are seeing involve cars colliding into other vehicles from behind, mostly at traffic lights.

There had been no fatalities through Wednesday evening, he said.

“People are use to following at a certain distance in dry conditions and are following at that same distance in these wet conditions and then rear-ending other cars," Rivera said.

"People aren't used to the snow," Officer Barbara Morgan said. "You need to drive the way conditions dictate."

Metro Police reported 18 wrecks between 2:15 and 3:25 p.m., including two hit-and-runs.

"People are driving silly," Morgan said. "They need to just slow down."

The Nevada Highway Patrol reported two crashes in the Henderson area during the same time frame — one at U.S. 95 and Wagon Wheel Drive and another at U.S. 95 and Horizon Drive. Additionally, U.S. 95 to Searchlight was closed beginning at Railroad Pass.

Motorists traveling to California and outside the Las Vegas Valley were finding major delays on Interstate 15 and other highways.

The Nevada Department of Transportation reported the highway was closed in both direction between Primm and Baker, Calif., because of snowy weather. Officials also said U.S. 95 was closed from the California line to U.S. 93 because of a traffic accident, and State Road 163, State Road 164 and State Road 165 were closed.

NDOT will be deicing bridges and ramps on U.S. 95 and I-15 during the night.

Blue Diamond Highway (SR 160) was closed and motorists were advised to detour using U.S. 95 north to SR 160 south to access Pahrump. Chains, snow tires, or four-wheel drive vehicle restrictions are in place for Mountain Springs and Mount Charleston.

North Las Vegas officials were urging motorists to stay off the streets.

“Motorists should slow down and be aware of their surroundings to avoid slamming on the breaks or jerking the steering wheel on frozen roads,” public works director Qiong Liu said. “These actions could cause a vehicle to veer or slide out of control, posing a risk to the driver and other vehicles on the road.”

The Nevada Highway Patrol was preparing to close Interstate 515 southbound at Railroad Pass, blocking traffic into Boulder City for all but Boulder City residents, Police Chief Thomas Finn said. In addition, traffic along U.S. 93 from Hoover Dam into Boulder City was to be diverted, Finn said.

Traffic will be routed onto Lake Shore Road and through Henderson to get to the Las Vegas area, National Park Service spokesman Andrew Munoz said. Finn said Boulder City residents would be allowed through.

The Regional Transportation Commission has closed a portion of its 402 Route from Nevada State College to Boulder City, and officials cautioned that other bus routes that serve higher elevations may be detoured or delayed as well.

"It can't make it to Boulder City because of the road closures," spokesman Tracy Bower said.

A change of scenery

As Daniel Florez, a pharmacy employee at the CVS Pharmacy on Maryland Parkway and Silverado Ranch Boulevard, scraped a couple of inches of snow off the top of his car using a notebook, he said the snow was a nice change from the usual scenery.

"We were staring out the window all day saying 'I hope it sticks, I hope it sticks,'" he said.

He was, however, a little worried about the drive to his home in the Blue Diamond Road and Durango Road area that he would have to make at the end of his shift.

"It's a little scary out there," he said. "I don't know, Las Vegas people aren't used to this. I hope they can handle it."

J.T. Trainer, a Silverado-area resident who was leaving CVS as the snow piled up, said having grown up in Alaska and in Washington, where his dad used to take him out to do donuts on the snow-covered roads, he was not so much worried about himself, but was concerned about how other people were driving.

"I've seen three car accidents just on my way home from work," he said.

Two were on the freeway and another was when someone was trying to make a turn and slid into a pole, he said.

The weather prompted the city of Henderson to close city offices at 3 p.m. Wednesday. The city announced this morning that offices will resume regular operations today, however, recreation centers won't open until 8 a.m. The Henderson Safekey and Teen Scene sites are closed because of the Clark County school closures.

Outside the Summerlin Library on Dec. 17, Becker Middle School students Aaron Zambrano and Emre Keskintepe were holding up plastic bags collecting snowflakes.

The two 13-year-olds were just like thousands of other local residents taking in the rare snowstorm that struck the Las Vegas Valley.

“They’re pretty big flakes,” Aaron said. “We’re trying to have a snowball fight.”

Emre said he had seen snow before, but never like this in Summerlin.

“It’s weird to see snow covering the palm trees,” Emre said.

At the Boca Park shopping center near the corner of Rampart Boulevard and Charleston Boulevard, Casey Greenberg and her friend Thomas Jokerst watched the falling snow while having dinner at the Kona Grill.

“I think it’s amazing,” said Jokerst, a resident of San Francisco who was in town visiting friends. “I haven’t seen snow in like 15 years.”

“I’ve lived here for 17 years and this is freakish,” Greenberg said. “It snows every once in awhile, but only an inch or so. Nothing like this.”

Clark County has five daytime warming stations open through Friday. The locations are Catholic Charities (7 a.m. to 4 p.m.), 1501 N. Las Vegas Blvd.; Salvation Army (6 a.m. - 7 p.m.), 33 W. Owens Ave.; Cambridge Recreation Center (7 a.m. to 6 p.m.), 3930 Cambridge St.; Dula Gym (7 a.m. - 6 p.m.), 441 E. Bonanza Road; and Valley View Rec Center (7 a.m. - 6 p.m.), 500 Harris St. in Henderson. The area’s night shelters are Catholic Charities; the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, 480 W Bonanza Road; Salvation Army; and Shade Tree (for women only).

Forecast and snow reports

The snow is expected to end from west to east this morning and clouds will decrease this afternoon, according to the weather service's hazardous outlook this morning for Southern Nevada.

Another storm system will bring gusty winds into the area Friday and into Saturday but won't produce as much precipitation as the current storm, forecasters said.

Still another storm will arrive in the area on Monday or Tuesday, bringing another chance of precipitation and gusty winds.

Here is a summary of snow reports from Clark County from the weather service:

• 5:15 p.m., a weather service employee reported 0.1 inch of snow was sticking on the Strip on unpaved surfaces by the Circus Circus Casino.

• 5:15 p.m., 5 inches of snow was measured by a weather service employee near Wagon Wheel and U.S. Highway 95 about five miles west northwest of Boulder City.

• 5:30 p.m., around an inch of snow was sticking on the grass by the MGM Grand as well as on nonpaved surfaces by the Luxor, according to a weather service employee.

• 5:30 p.m., 11 inches of snow was measured at Mount Charleston by a co-op weather observer.

• 6:23 p.m., 3 inches of snow was measured in Henderson by the wife of a weather service employee.

• 6:40 p.m., 4 inches of snow was measured by a weather service employee in south Las Vegas.

• 8:34 p.m., 2.5 inches of snow was measured by a trained spotter near the Boulder Station Casino.

• 8:40 p.m., between 3 and 5 inches of snow was measured in Henderson near Heather and College by a spotter. The spotter also reported several separate vehicles crashed into walls along Interstate 215.

• 8:54 p.m., 7 inches of snow was measured in a residential neighborhood of Henderson near Black Mountain, around 2,700 feet in elevation.

• 8:58 p.m., 1.6 inches of snow was measured by a spotter near Desert Inn and Hollywood.

• 9:08 p.m., 8 inches of snow was measured in the far southeast part of Henderson by a weather service employee near Wagon Wheel and U.S. 95.

• 9:50 p.m., 3.6 inches of snow had fallen at the weather service office in Las Vegas on Dean Martin Road.

• 10 p.m., 6 inches was recorded by a trained weather spotter three miles south-southeast of Henderson.

• 10:30 p.m., 1.7 inches of snow was measured on the Strip at the "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada" Sign.

-- Sun and Home News staffers contributing to this report were Dave Clark, Amanda Finnegan, Jeff Pope, Cydney Cappello, Kyle Hansen, Cara McCoy, Jean Reid Norman, Mary Manning, Ryan Greene, Ashley Livingston, Cassie Tomlin, Ray Brewer, Steve Silver, Tim Thiele, Evelio Contreras, Emily Richmond, Jeff O’Brien, Steve Green, Tim Richardson and Dave Toplikar.

December 16, 2008

Obama picks Salazar as Interior secretary

Barack Obama plans to name Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) to lead the Interior Department.

The Colorado senator, an attorney with expertise in water law, has criticized the department for opening up his state's Roan Plateau to drilling.

By Jim Tankersley and Julie Cart
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington -- President-elect Barack Obama plans to name Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) to lead the Interior Department -- an appointment that could put the brakes on several controversial energy development projects across the West.

Two senior Democrats said Monday that Obama would name Salazar, a Latino, to the post, rounding out an energy and environmental policy team announced at a Chicago news conference.

If confirmed, Salazar would head a department with a broad portfolio, including managing the troubled Bureau of Indian Affairs. Salazar, 53, would also oversee the nation's national parks and other large swaths of public lands, making him the country's foremost landlord. And he would be responsible for the Bureau of Land Management, which sets policy for oil and gas drilling, mining and other resource extraction on public land.

Earlier this year, Salazar criticized the department for decisions to open Colorado's picturesque Roan Plateau for drilling. Salazar said the regulations to begin opening land for oil shale development would "sell Colorado short."

Salazar was not the first choice of some environmental groups, who had favored Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.). A coalition of 141 environmental groups, biologists and other scientists launched an e-mail and letter-writing campaign in support of Grijalva.

Grijalva last month compiled a scathing report on what he considered President Bush's environmental legacy on public lands. The list of Bush's missteps mirrored complaints from conservation groups that the administration -- through the Department of Interior -- was damaging the West's resources.

Karen Schambach, the California coordinator for the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, described Salazar as more of a centrist. Still, she expected he would be a "sympathetic soul" in a department that had offered a cold shoulder to the environmental community.

"The past eight years with the Bush administration have felt like a battle, then it became total despair," she said. "To have a battle, you have to feel like you were somewhat engaged. We were not."

Schambach said that even though she supported Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) to be the next Interior secretary, she is optimistic that Salazar, a Westerner, will understand the region's issues.

Salazar's family helped settle what is now New Mexico in the 1500s. He was raised on a ranch in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, and became an attorney with expertise in water law.

"In rural areas," Salazar said in an interview this summer, "they understand water as their lifeblood."

Colorado bears a special burden as the home to the headwaters of the Colorado River. The state has an obligation under the Colorado River Compact to ensure it sends the required amount of water to the downstream states, including California.

The state just completed an assessment of its water resources, with grim results. According to state officials, drought, explosive growth, agricultural use and intensifying energy development have overstressed the water supply.

Salazar was joined by Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. and the Denver Water Board in voicing concern about the fast-tracking of federal oil shale leasing in the state, citing unanswered questions about its effects on water quantity and quality.

Salazar led Colorado's Department of Natural Resources and served as the state's attorney general before winning a vacant Senate seat in 2004. He entered Congress in the same freshman class as Obama.

The senator campaigned vigorously for Obama in Colorado, a swing state, barnstorming rural areas in a recreational vehicle while preaching alternative-energy development and its potential to revitalize rural economies. After the election, Salazar publicly urged Obama to build his planned economic stimulus package around investments in energy infrastructure.

Salazar campaigned for the Senate as a centrist and was part of the Gang of 14, a group of moderate lawmakers who brokered a compromise on judicial nominations. He quietly made his mark on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee but occasionally stirred controversy on both sides of the aisle.

He outraged many religious conservatives when he called James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, "the antichrist" -- though he revised the comment to "un-Christian."

He upset liberals by introducing Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush's nominee for attorney general, at his Senate confirmation hearing. Salazar later called on Gonzales to resign over allegations of politically motivated firings of U.S. attorneys.

Ritter, a Democrat, professed "mixed emotions" Monday about a possible Salazar nomination.

"Ken Salazar has been an extremely effective U.S. senator for Colorado these past four years, particularly as a moderate and as a centrist," Ritter said.

"But if a nomination to join the Obama administration comes to pass, Sen. Salazar would make an equally outstanding Interior secretary for the country, for the West and for Colorado."

December 15, 2008

Not so dead on arrival

The unlikely success of the Clinton Roadless Rule

by Rob Inglis
High Country News

The Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which Bill Clinton signed into law eight days before he left office, protected 58.5 million acres of national forest land from logging and energy development. It was one of the boldest conservation measures in the history of federal land management, but it seemed doomed to a very short lifespan. Because it was only an administrative rule, it could be overturned by the next administration, which strongly opposed it.

But nearly eight years later, the Clinton Roadless Rule remains in effect for 35.6 million acres of national forest in seven Western states. Idaho has adopted, and Colorado is about to adopt, state-specific roadless regulations that fall short of the Clinton rule but still provide protection for large swaths of land. (Roadless lands in Wyoming and Utah are currently unprotected.) The Clinton rule's survival still hangs on the outcome of two ongoing court cases, but even if it were to succumb, it is likely that Democrats in Washington would replace it with either a new administrative rule or legislative protection for roadless areas. Thanks to the incompetence of the Bush administration and the tenacity of some never-say-die environmental lawyers, the long-shot maneuver might have worked.

The Forest Service first inventoried its roadless areas in the 1970s, after the 1964 Wilderness Act directed it to determine which of its lands were eligible for wilderness protection. Some of this land was preserved in a piecemeal fashion, through state-specific bills. But much of it stayed unprotected. The goal of the Clinton Roadless Rule was to systematically protect these remaining road-free lands without going through the arduous wilderness-designation process. More than 1.5 million people commented on the proposed rule, and over 95 percent of them were in favor.

The Bush administration at first thought it could get rid of the rule quietly, simply by not defending it against lawsuits from timber companies. "They didn't go about it very directly, at least not at the outset," says Mike Anderson of The Wilderness Society. "It was more of a subterranean strategy of trying to get the courts to take down the rule." It wasn't until 2005 that the administration launched a frontal assault, issuing a weaker replacement rule that required governors to petition the Forest Service to protect their states' roadless land. But the administration had done only a cursory environmental assessment of the new rule, leaving it vulnerable to legal challenge. In 2006, 9th Circuit District Court Judge Elizabeth LaPorte ruled that the administration had violated the National Environmental Policy Act in establishing the new rule. She overturned it and reinstated the original Roadless Rule. Her reinstatement stood until August of this year, when 10th Circuit District Court Judge Clarence Brimmer issued an injunction against the 2001 rule, saying, as he had in a previous injunction, that it also violated NEPA.

This left the nation's roadless areas in a curious legal position, with one judge saying that the 2001 rule was the law of the land and another judge of equal rank, but in a different judicial circuit, saying that it wasn't. To ease this tension, LaPorte has reduced the scope of her 2006 decision, limiting it to the 9th Circuit plus New Mexico until a randomly selected panel of three appeals judges rules on the validity of the decision. The three judges are all Republican appointees -- two of them appointed by George W. Bush -- so they may well reverse LaPorte's decision and reinstate the Bush rule. Even if LaPorte's 2006 decision withstands the appeal, Judge Brimmer's latest decision -- which is currently being appealed to the 10th Circuit -- could still undo the Roadless Rule.

But even if the Clinton Roadless Rule ultimately goes down in the courts, it has effectively protected the nation's roadless areas -- in which only seven miles of new roads have been constructed -- for the past eight years. "The Bush administration has basically blown it," says Craig Allin, professor of political science at Cornell College. "They have spent eight years trying to abolish the rule, and they have been so incompetent in their efforts that it's going to be left for the next administration."

Obama, who has expressed support for roadless preservation, could craft another administrative rule protecting most or all of the nation's roadless areas. The more difficult -- but more permanent -- way to protect roadless lands is through legislation. Even with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, however, any bill would have to deal with the threat of filibuster. "If there are 60 votes in the Senate, a statute like that might very well pass," says Allin. "Without sixty votes, its chances are poor."

If such a bill does pass, the Clinton Roadless Rule will be remembered not just for buying time but also for changing the terms of the roadless debate. "It's completely changed the context of how we talk about these undeveloped areas," says Franz Matzner of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Ten years ago, these places were just the places we were going to log next. Now, if someone wants to log a roadless area, they've got a fight on their hands, and they know it. People are recognizing that their forests have more to offer than just board feet."

Senator Raises Stink about Possible Tax on Livestock Flatulence

By U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan

In response to an Environmental Protection Agency report citing the amount of greenhouse gases produced by the belching and flatulence of cows and pigs, U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota introduced legislation, the Livestock Emissions Tax Ban Act, prohibiting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from initiating a fee on livestock owners for gaseous emissions under the Clean Air Act. Agricultural groups like the Farm Bureau have expressed concerns that the EPA's actions could eventually lead to taxes on ranchers' livestock.

"If you ever wonder why the American people view their government with distrust, just refer to this weekend's news about the deep thinking going on at the Environmental Protection Agency," said Dorgan. "In their pursuit to control global warming, somebody in the bowels of EPA's headquarters in Washington is examining greenhouse gases that come from the belching and flatulence coming from cows and pigs.

"We face a lot of serious challenges these days, but methane from cow and pig flatulence isn't among them," said Dorgan. "We expect these federal agencies to use some common sense as they develop public policy, and clearly there are much more important issues facing our nation than this one."

"So, just to clear the air (legislatively), I have introduced legislation that would prevent the EPA from implementing any scheme that would tax or otherwise charge farmers and ranchers for the methane emitted by their animals," he said. "The EPA, in response to the public disclosure of the recommendations, says that it is not proposing a tax. Maybe so. But I want to make sure they will never be able to implement a plan to charge farmers and ranchers for their animals' natural emissions."

Dreams dry up for homeowners in Lancaster's Westview Estates

Residents, who started occupying the new Lancaster community of Westview Estates in spring 2007, were excited to move into their dream homes. But the dream soon became a nightmare, when problems with the water system arose and the developer — K. Hovnanian Homes — walked away from the unfinished project.

Upset over water shortages and unfinished development, residents of the community are suing the developer for fraud, negligence and breach of contract.

By Ann M. Simmons
Los Angeles Times

The first sign of trouble came almost immediately after Kurt and Michelle Dahlin moved into Lancaster's new Westview Estates in March 2007.

The water slowed to a trickle midway through showering. The toilet tank took two hours to refill. The family often was forced to bathe at 4 a.m. -- before the neighbors awoke and the water flow became a dribble. Some days, there was no water at all.

Things only got worse as more homeowners moved into the gated community on the outskirts of Lancaster. Complaints to New Jersey-based developer K. Hovnanian Homes, Los Angeles County water officials and Lancaster city representatives were met with excuses and finger-pointing, residents said in interviews.

In September 2007, the developer halted construction after building only 35 of the 425 homes originally planned. Of those, just 23 were sold.

A fight immediately ensued over who was to blame for stopping the development.

The families who remain in Westview are angry. Residents said they thought they were buying into a luxury community in a coveted residential enclave. What they got was a suburban ghost town, with vacant homes and windblown tumbleweeds sweeping across empty lots.

The Dahlins were among the first families to move in, purchasing a 2,600-foot home for $388,000.

"We bought into the vision, hook, line and sinker, but we don't ever see that coming to fruition," said Kurt Dahlin, 38, a project manager for an Internet security software company. His wife, Michelle, who saw this as her dream home, is "devastated," she said.

The Dahlins and other Westview homeowners said they would like to sell but can't because of the real estate slump. Even worse, who would want to buy a home knowing there were problems with the water system?

"Our position is that these homes should never have been sold," said Jamie Duarte, an attorney representing the Westview homeowners in suing K. Hovnanian Homes for fraud, negligence and breach of contract. The lawsuit alleges the developer knew of the water deficiencies but failed to disclose them.

L.A. County, its Waterworks District 40 and the city of Lancaster are among other defendants named in the suit, which alleges that they failed to ensure that the developer installed a permanent water utility system and that it was fully functioning before issuing certificates of occupancy.

Responding in writing to queries, Joseph M. Manisco, vice president and chief legal officer of K. Hovnanian Companies of California Inc., said the allegations against the developer were unfounded. He said L.A. County's water district had committed to provide water service to 133 homes that his company intended to construct in the first phase of the project.

So the developer built 35 homes and installed a water distribution system to serve them, Manisco said. But after 23 of the homes were sold and occupancy permits granted, "the Water District abruptly, and without warning, withdrew its previous water service commitment, claiming that it had become unable to provide sufficient water pressure to the community," he wrote.

Even though the water pressure problem was resolved, according to Manisco, his company has been denied occupancy permits for the remaining 12 homes since September 2007.

In written remarks, Michael Moore, senior deputy county counsel for the L.A. County counsel's office, said the waterworks agency had informed the developer that before additional water meters could be issued, it would have to finish building "a groundwater well and facilities related to its operation."

County officials said the developer stopped construction of the well in March 2008.

Norm Hickling, Antelope Valley field deputy for Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, said his office initiated an investigation once it became aware of the problems.

When the water system failed to pass Fire Department tests, the county installed a backup generator, boosters and pressure sensors, said Duarte, the homeowners' attorney.

A small pump station also was erected about a quarter-mile away. Water pressure is stronger, but it's still inadequate, residents say. "It's hard to come home," said Michelle Dahlin. "Am I going to be able to wash dishes, flush my toilets . . . ?"

Many homeowners blame the county for approving what they think is a substandard water system. But they also think the developer concealed the water problems.

Excuses ran the gamut. Charles Dunn IV and his wife, Kelly, high-school teachers who moved into Westview in April 2007, were told that the water system was being tested. Miguel Mejia, a law enforcement official, and his family were told that the problem was ongoing construction. Ryan Idleman, a contractor who questioned why the spray function on the kitchen faucet was so weak during a walk-through of his new home, was assured that the water tank serving the community was still being filled up.

Failure to disclose the water deficiencies, particularly to those homeowners who bought properties long after the problems were known, is what irks Kathy Turner.

Turner bought a home on Mora Court, where today only five of 14 properties are occupied. At one stage, she and her two teenage daughters were forced to use bottled water to take sponge baths.

"It's been really disheartening," Turner said. "I've never felt settled because this has been hanging over us all the time."

Darren Parker thought he had bought "a piece of heaven in the desert," when he paid $450,000 for a 3,200-square-foot home on Mora Court. He spent an additional $130,000 on upgrades, including a 40-foot sun deck.

Today, a litter of puppies plays on the dry and barren patches of Parker's sprawling backyard. The extra sprinklers he installed could do little to save the lawn without adequate water. At one point, the family was using bottled water to flush the toilets.

"It's a day-to-day challenge," Parker said. "We're victims. No one wants to admit responsibility. They're trying to make us look like we're just looking for compensation. All we want is water."

On West Dale, where vacant model homes stand, a sign beckons: "A home that is right for you, right this way."

But these days only thieves seem to make the trip. An outdoor barbecue has been stolen from one model home, and the copper wiring snatched from the air-conditioning units of others. Only holes remain where nine fire hydrants once stood on undeveloped lots before vandals ripped them out.

Frustration prompted some homeowners to let their properties slip into foreclosure.

In July, Idleman and his wife, Christina, walked away from the four-bedroom, three-bathroom home they bought a year earlier.

"I'm a contractor," he said. "The economy is slowing down. I knew they weren't going to fix the water. I knew the tract wasn't going to get done. And I was paying $3,000 a month. . . I wasn't going to stay out here in this dud development."

Idleman paid nearly $400,000 for the house next door to the Parkers'. Duarte said the bank was asking $209,000 but would be lucky if it could sell the property at all.

Westview residents want L.A. County and Lancaster to revoke the certificates of occupancy issued to K. Hovnanian. This would compel the developer to refund homeowners' money, their attorney said.

"We consider ourselves prisoners in our homes," Kurt Dahlin said. "We can't sell [them]. We can't give them away."

December 14, 2008

Small earthquakes reported west of Death Valley

Today's temblors, in a series of at least 55 small quakes since Friday, are not cause for concern, a geophysicist says.

By Raja Abdulrahim
Los Angeles Times

A series of small earthquakes rumbled through an uninhabited area west of Death Valley today, following dozens of other small temblors in recent days, geologists said.

The United States Geological Survey has reported at least 55 earthquakes, ranging in magnitude from 1.1 to 4.0, since Friday in the desert area about 150 miles north of Los Angeles. The earthquakes have caused only weak shaking and no damage.

Three quakes today -- measuring 3.2, 3.3 and 3.4 -- followed a 4.0 quake Saturday morning.

USGS geophysicist Douglas Given said though the "swarm of [small] earthquakes" is an unusual pattern, it was not cause for concern about a bigger earthquake. More commonly, he said, a larger earthquake is followed by several smaller aftershocks.

The most likely outcome is that the earthquakes will taper off, Given said.

This same area of the desert experienced three 4.0-magnitude earthquakes in February, Given said. So many earthquakes in one area is more typical of places that are volcanic in nature, he said.

Mojave Desert historian keeps California's heritage alive

Dennis G. Casebier stands in front of the library in Goffs, Calif., that bears his name. The railroad depot replica holds the world's largest archive of Mojave Desert history. Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

Over the course of decades, Dennis G. Casebier has assembled the lost voices and hidden histories of a place largely washed clean of its past.

By David Kelly
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Goffs, Calif. — Out on the great swells of the eastern Mojave Desert, that vast sand sea lying between Barstow and the Colorado River, there is no crumb of history, no tall tale, no arcane bit of knowledge too small to escape Dennis Casebier's notice.

"I'm fascinated by who ate rabbits," he said, sitting inside a library that will soon hold his life's work. "Did they eat jack rabbits or cottontails? Did they fry them or roast them? Did they grind them up or make stew out of them?"

"You see, that's the level of history we get into here," he said.

The soft-spoken retired physicist is a legend in this harsh land, a sort of Willy Wonka of the desert who transformed 70 acres of rock and scrub into the Goffs Cultural Center, his personal Xanadu of history and imagination.

In this tiny hamlet of 23 on the barren edge of the Mojave National Preserve, he and a group of volunteers carved roads and towed in ore carts, a defunct wooden post office, a caboose, windmills and boxcars. He bought a collapsing 1914 schoolhouse and turned it into a museum. His own Tales of the Mojave Road Publishing Co. has produced 26 books, 16 of which he wrote.

Yet none of it compares to his masterwork, the recently opened $1-million Dennis G. Casebier Memorial Library. Housed in a replica of the old Goffs Railroad Depot, the two-story, climate-controlled collection of thousands of books, maps, photos and tapes is the exclamation point on his arid passions.

Steve Mongrain, president of the Mojave Desert Heritage & Cultural Association, a nonprofit group that has helped raise money for the project, calls it "the most extraordinary historical collection of Mojave Desert history and culture in existence."

"There is nothing like it in the world," Mongrain said. "Anything that pertains to the Mojave can be researched there. It is unprecedented."

The association's 800 members donated $250,000 for the library, and the California Cultural and Historical Endowment provided the rest in grants.

Casebier, 74, has assembled the lost voices and hidden histories of a place largely washed clean of its past. The homesteads are gone, the mines closed, the tiny towns swallowed by sand.

Freight trains, some 6,000 feet long, still lumber through to Needles and beyond, but they rarely stop anymore because there are so few towns to stop in.

A 1920s picture of Rock Springs Land and Cattle Co. cowboys is one of about 108,000 photographs Casebier has collected. The library also has thousands of maps, oral histories and biographical files. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Gone too are characters such as gunfighter Bill Hollimon, who, when he wasn't shooting rivals, liked to pour gasoline down anthills and set them alight.

"The history is just everywhere, yet nobody is here. It's empty," said Casebier, an especially polite man who speaks with great precision.

"The people have gone, their life ways ended somehow. We are gathering the history of this forgotten land, and we have done so with a vengeance."

On a recent morning, Casebier rattled around the library, dipping in and out of the new filing cabinets. Each one contained dozens of subject files filled with personal histories.

Harrison Doyle?

"He's the oldest guy I ever interviewed, 103 or 104," Casebier said. "He was walking the streets of Needles in the early 1900s."

Llewellyn Barrackman?

"Former headman of the Fort Mojave Indians."

Betty Ordway?

"She was like the Rosetta Stone," he said. "She came here in 1914 and knew everyone and remembered everything. She knew the gunfighters and the homesteaders and where the stills were. She was the belle of the valley."

Tucked away in library cabinets are 3,000 biographies, 1,000 taped oral histories, 108,000 photographs, 6,000 books and 6,000 maps, ready for perusal by those Casebier believes demonstrate "an advanced interest in the desert."

Jo Ann Casebier, right, and volunteer Carol Brown sort historical documents. Thousands of soldiers were stationed in the Mojave during World War II, and many of their personal accounts are on file in the library. (Irfan Kahn / Los Angeles Times)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., consulted Casebier and used information from his collection when writing "Searchlight: The Camp That Didn't Fail," a book about his hometown.

"This book is better because of Dennis," he wrote in the preface.

Students working on master's degrees have come to study the homestead period and the military history of the region. Thousands of soldiers were stationed in the Mojave during World War II. Many of their personal accounts are on file in the library.

Casebier's own history in the desert began in 1954, after he left his home state of Kansas and enlisted in the Marines. He was stationed in Twentynine Palms and spent his free time poking around what is now Joshua Tree National Park.

"It was love at first sight when I saw the desert," he said. "It's different for everybody, but for me it was the wide open spaces and maybe the simplicity."

He returned to Kansas in 1956, got a degree in physics from Washburn University in Topeka, and returned to California in 1960. He worked on guided missile systems for the Navy and lived in Corona.

Meanwhile, his passion for the desert led him into the eastern Mojave, where he was smitten by what he dubbed "the forgotten country" encircled by the Colorado River and the I-40 and I-15 freeways.

There, he found an awe-inspiring emptiness.

"All the people had moved away. The schools went away. Everything went away," he said. "You would think that people would be swarming all over this area looking for its past, but they weren't."

Casebier's Navy job often took him to Washington, D.C., where he spent evenings at the National Archives and the Library of Congress photocopying records and maps about the eastern Mojave.

At one point he found a defunct wagon trail stretching 131 miles from the Colorado River to Camp Cady, east of Barstow.

Casebier formed a volunteer group that turned the dirt track into the four-wheel-drive Mojave Road. Soon he was leading caravans down it.

Chris Ervin first toured the road in 1988.

"It was a really fun, educational and a socially uplifting experience," said the Orange County resident, who works on the archives as a volunteer. "Dennis single-handedly rediscovered the Mojave Road and got thousands of others involved. He is an inspiration and a visionary."

In 1990, after he retired, Casebier and his wife, Jo Ann, moved to Goffs and bought 113 acres that included the old Goffs Schoolhouse. Working with the Mojave heritage association, he set to work saving the school and building the cultural center, which he donated to the nonprofit.

At the same time, he traveled the country interviewing former desert residents for his oral histories, persuading many to part with photographs and personal papers.

His disarming approach put people at ease.

"I'd say, 'So, how did a nice girl like you end up in the desert?' "

Some subjects were duds, but others, he said, were "bell ringers." He interviewed Curtis Springer 54 times. In 1944, Springer founded a spa and resort in an area he named Zzyzx, just south of Baker. A road bearing the name still exists.

Betty Ordway was another bell ringer. Casebier, who found her in Auburn, Calif., was so impressed that he put her entire 155,000-word interview into two bound volumes.

"She had 500 photos and she cast light on the big things and the little things," he said. "We had gunfights out here between ranchers and homesteaders, who would help themselves to a cow once in a while. A 1925 shootout killed two gunfighters, and Betty knew both men."

And she liked her rabbit fried like chicken.

"You could see her salivate when she remembered," he said. "I just loved that. Maybe because I'm such a nut or maybe because I wish I lived back then."

With his research constantly expanding and scattered everywhere, Casebier came up with the idea of a central library.

The grants arrived in 2006 and the building was completed in July.

Archival material is still being moved in, and the rules on how people can use the library are still being worked out.

Casebier, who still does oral histories, said anyone interested in visiting must make arrangements first.

"We are targeting researchers of desert history, those who are writing books or papers or scholarly works," said Ervin, the library's project manager. "Our focus is how do we make sure this thing lasts longer than all of us? We are trying to get an endowment -- maybe $10 million -- to pay for and support all these wonderful materials in perpetuity."

Back in Goffs, Casebier hopped into a golf cart and motored down his complex's Boulevard of Dreams. He passed a Justice of the Peace office that once served the towns of Amboy and Ludlow, and pulled up in front of an old library built in 1927.

There are hundreds of books inside that have not been moved to the new library just up the road.

For desert aficionados it's a small, if dimly lit, slice of heaven. Books with titles such as "The Great California Deserts," "Our Desert Neighbors," "On Desert Trails" and "Desert Treasures" stand in dark wooden cabinets behind glass doors.

Casebier likes to sit in the back room and read. If he should ever get bored, which is highly unlikely, he could open the window and drink in unlimited blue sky.

He has spent the better part of his life studying the desert. For years people have asked him why.

"I want people to know the tremendous respect I have for the human beings who lived here and the tremendous respect I have for their self-reliance," he said.

"They were a special breed. I don't want that story to disappear."