January 30, 2009

Amargosa River bill will only affect California

Pahrump Valley Times

During very wet periods, the Amargosa River can flow at the surface, as it did in Death Valley during the wet winter of 2005.

The passage in the U.S. Senate of the Omnibus Public Lands Bill of 2009, including the designation of wild and scenic river status for the Amargosa River in California, was like a dream come true for the newly-formed Amargosa Conservancy.

Across the state line, however, Nevada District 36 Assemblyman Ed Goedhart, R-Amargosa Valley, who has seen the influence of environmental designations like Death Valley National Park and Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge on water rights applications in Amargosa Valley, sees a possible nightmare.

Goedhart said a "wild and scenic river" conjures up images of people rafting through white water rapids in scenic national parks. The segment of the Amargosa River under wild and scenic river protection extends from four miles north of the Tecopa Hot Springs road, south to just past the Dumont Dunes access road crossing.

"Any time you want to make wilderness, national monuments, wildlife refuges, wild and scenic rivers, it's like dropping a pebble on a pond. These ripples go a long ways," Goedhart said. "It's an expansion of locking people out of not only public lands but also being able to utilize their own property and water rights, such as people in Amargosa Valley."

The legislation reminded him of the Death Valley regional groundwater flow model, which places limits on application for water rights. Goedhart said the area affected by that flow model would measure 20,000 square miles.

Amargosa Valley is being eyed up for solar power projects by companies like Solar Millenium and Ausra NV.

"When Death Valley was changed from a national monument to a national park, that now gives the National Park Service a buffer area where they can protest things being done outside the park borders up to 50 miles away. These types of things, they get increasingly difficult for people to utilize their land and water rights to attract capital, create wealth, produce payroll and pay taxes," Goedhart said.

Brian Brown, a founding member of the Amargosa Conservancy, which was formed as a nonprofit organization in September 2005, thinks those fears are overblown. Brown doesn't see any impact of the legislation across the state line. Instead, he sees benefits to the economy in the Tecopa-Shoshone area.

"Those small businesses that are surviving are doing it on tourism, and what we have to offer is the desert itself. It's a unique area. There's a lot of endemic plants and animals, and this will go a long way toward protecting their water source in that river," Brown said.

The lands bill is expected to be introduced in the House within the next couple weeks. The wild and scenic river designation was one of 160 bills in the Omnibus Public Lands Act introduced by U.S. Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif.

Brown said he met with the California delegation during a trip to Washington, D.C., in September, along with other residents of Inyo County.

"It's difficult to examine the scenario where this wild and scenic section might affect something 90 miles away in Beatty. It seems like a stretch," Brown said. "States control their water. That's their job. So this is in California, it's not in Nevada. The people in our area are looking forward to it. We look on it as an asset that will bring more tourism and travel to our area."

Brown said the conservancy is working with the state of California to cut a recreational trail down to the Amargosa Canyon from the China Ranch Date Farm he owns. A 17-mile hiking trail from Shoshone, Calif., to Dumont Dunes, part of it using the rail bed from the old Tonopah and Tidewater railroad, has also been discussed over the last several years, with kiosks, watch towers and other facilities.

"This legislation only affects federal land. It does not affect any private landowners' rights to their land," Brown said. "There aren't a lot of places in the lower 48 where you can get the vistas and quiet solitude like we have here. That has value. The truth is there are other values than an economic one, and those have to weigh into decisions on public land."

Brown said the public lands bill is an attempt to wrap up conflicts over wilderness study areas, enacted by the Desert Protection Act of 1994, which designated the Mojave National Preserve in a wide swath of desert from Interstate 15 to Interstate 40.

McKeon's legislation includes designating 11,000 acres in the Sierra Nevadas as a snowmobile area as well as wild and scenic river designation for places like Cottonwood Creek, just south of Lone Pine, Calif.

Brown said the legislation is written so there are seven different locations where off-highway vehicles can cross the Amargosa River.

The bill will also allow the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to measure the stream flow to prevent large diversions upstream that would lessen the flow through the wild and scenic section.

But Brown said that shouldn't affect users upstream since the Amargosa River doesn't have a lot of water.

Bob Haueter, deputy chief of staff for Rep. McKeon, said the water flow isn't sufficient on the Amargosa River to affect potential users in either California or Nevada.

"It has no impact in Nevada. It doesn't reach Nevada," Haueter said. "There can be no impact outside the area affected."