February 27, 2009

New Green Path North proposal would avoid sensitive desert areas

The Press-Enterprise

A new route proposed for a controversial power line would sidestep sensitive Mojave Desert land by running towers parallel to existing lines along Interstate 10 and through San Timoteo Canyon to Lytle Creek.

The seventh and latest potential route for the Green Path North project to carry renewable energy to Los Angeles was confirmed Thursday by city Department of Water and Power officials.

It won cautious praise from desert preservationists who have been fighting to keep high-voltage transmission towers off of public land and wilderness areas near Joshua Tree National Park.

"If they continue to work on the I-10, that's the appropriate place for it. But we're not there yet," said April Sall, founder of the California Desert Coalition.

She said a San Timoteo route is of concern and urged DWP to instead share the I-10 corridor with Southern California Edison.

The new proposal avoids widespread condemnation of private properties that would be necessary under one of the other proposed routes to bring power from geothermal, wind and solar projects in from the desert.

An earlier suggested route from the utility would run towers along I-10 as far west as Interstate 15 and cross 3,500 properties.

The route that drew the most criticism from groups like Sall's involved cutting across sensitive desert areas, including the privately owned Pipes Canyon Wilderness near Pioneertown in San Bernardino County.

The most recent proposal, known as Route A3, would establish additional rights of way near existing utility paths along I-10 from north of Palm Springs to Beaumont.

The route then would cut north through the historic San Timoteo Canyon, to Loma Linda, Colton, Rialto and San Bernardino, said Joseph Ramallo, a DWP spokesman.

The new path would end at the utility's transmission lines at Lytle Creek north of Fontana. From there, electricity could be routed to Los Angeles, he said.

"It involves 10 cities and is by no means an easy route," Ramallo said. "Just as there were opponents who expressed concerns about the route through Morongo and Yucca valleys, we expect there will be concerns raised about A3."

Sherli Leonard, executive director of The Redlands Conservancy, was upset Thursday to learn about the latest potential route.

Her group is a nonprofit land trust that maintains a hiking trail along San Timoteo Creek.

Eventually, the group plans a linear park along the entire 17-mile canyon that stretches from Redlands to Moreno Valley.

The existing Edison lines on hilltops and in the canyon "are pretty ugly," said Leonard, adding that construction of more lines would be "devastating to wildlife habitat and corridors."

If the DWP project affects the canyon, "The Redlands Conservancy will take an active role in objecting to it," she said.

The utility proposes to acquire additional rights of way parallel to those used by Edison and Union Pacific railroad, Ramallo said.

A Union Pacific spokeswoman said DWP had not approached the railroad.

David Nahai, DWP general manager, said the proposed towers have been reduced from 500 kilovolts to 230 kilovolts, which means the towers would be equally tall but require about 200 feet of width instead of 330 feet.


The lower voltage would allow the lines to be buried for up to 15 miles of the 80-mile route to protect sensitive areas and preserve views.

Sandi Blain, manager of transmission project licensing for Edison, said DWP contacted Edison about two weeks ago to set up new discussions.

Route A3 would involve about 300 private properties, Ramallo said.

The plan has not been publicly announced and was only pitched to desert stakeholders in a private meeting at DWP offices last week.

Joan Taylor, California-Nevada desert energy chairwoman for the Sierra Club, said she was told at the meeting that the route would affect 30 permanent structures and seven mobile homes.

Many of those with an interest in the latest alternative haven't heard about it, including the cities of Redlands and Loma Linda.

San Bernardino County Supervisor Neil Derry, whose district includes most of the affected cities, said he welcomed a less intrusive project than the controversial desert route.

"The fact that they are being flexible is always a good thing," he said. "But my opposition remains until we see solid information that they're willing to share with the public."

Dennis Halloway, Loma Linda city manager, said his city wouldn't have a problem with Route A3 if it uses existing Edison routes through the Loma Linda Preserve, 1,700 city-owned acres in the hills south of town.

DWP officials said they cannot release detailed information or maps because it is too early in the process.

"All of these routes are conceptual," Nahai said. "It's possible as we go through the process that new routes will suggest themselves and the ones we have may get altered."

The first step in the environmental review process is expected within the next six weeks with a notice of intent that includes right-of-way and permit applications to the federal government, Nahai said.

Public meetings and environmental analysis will follow. DWP hopes to complete Green Path North by 2014.

The project will help Los Angeles meet state-mandated renewable energy goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

About 11 percent of DWP's electricity comes from renewable sources. By 2020, it will need to be 35 percent.

February 26, 2009

Art Show Features Celebrated Desert Painters

City News
City of Palm Desert

Verbena and dune artwork by Sally Ward.

See wind sculpted sand, shadow stained mountains, and verbena blooming in a profusion of color, all captured on canvass by three living legends of desert art during the first Historical Society of Palm Desert Art Show, on display March 6 through 14, at the Historical Society.

Desert landscapes by Carl Bray, Sally Ward, and Bill Bender will be available for purchase throughout the event, which kicks off on Friday, March 6, from 3 to 6 p.m. with a public open house where guests can meet the nonagenarian artists.

Bray, 91, famous for his skill at painting the wispy, gray green smoke tree, will be on hand along with Bender, 90, who is creating a desert landscape specifically for this show. Ward, who is 99, is unable to attend. Her daughter, Sue Ward, will be at the reception to answer questions about her mother’s work.

Admission is free. A portion of the proceeds from sales will benefit the Historical Society of Palm Desert, which is located at 72-861 El Paseo. For more information, please call 346-6588.

Las Vegas Running Out of Water Means Dimming Los Angeles Lights

A boat is marooned at what used to be Lake Mead Marina in Nevada. If the level of the Lake Mead reservoir keeps dropping, Las Vegas may lose 40 percent of its water by 2012. Photographer: Andy Freeberg/Bloomberg Markets via Bloomberg News

By John Lippert and Jim Efstathiou Jr.

Feb. 26 (Bloomberg) -- On a cloudless December day in the Nevada desert, workers in white hard hats descend into a 30- foot-wide shaft next to Lake Mead.

As they’ve been doing since June, they’ll blast and dig straight down into the limestone surrounding the reservoir that supplies 90 percent of Las Vegas’s water. In September, when they hit 600 feet, they’ll turn and burrow for 3 miles, laying a new pipe as they go.

The crew is in a hurry. They’re battling the worst 10-year drought in recorded history along the Colorado River, which feeds the 110-mile-long reservoir. Since 1999, Lake Mead has dropped about 1 percent a year. By 2012, the lake’s surface could fall below the existing pipe that delivers 40 percent of the city’s water.

As Las Vegas’s economy worsens, the workers are also racing against a recession that threatens the ability to sell $500 million in bonds so they can complete the job.

Patricia Mulroy, manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, is the general in this region’s war to stem a water emergency that’s playing out worldwide. It’s the biggest battle of her 31-year career.

‘We’ve Tried Everything’

“We’ve tried everything,” says Mulroy, 56, who made no secret of her desire to become secretary of the U.S. Interior Department before President Barack Obama picked U.S. Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado in December.

“The way you look at water has to fundamentally change,” adds Mulroy, who, after 20 years of running the authority, said in January she’s ready to start thinking about looking for a new job, declining to say where.

Across the planet, people like Mulroy are struggling to solve the next global crisis.

From 2500 B.C., when King Urlama of Lagash diverted water in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley in a border dispute with nearby Umma, to 1924, when Owens Valley, California, farmers blew up part of the aqueduct that served a parched Los Angeles, societies have bargained, fought and rearranged geographies to get the water they need.

Mulroy started her push with conservation. She’s paying homeowners $1.50 a square foot (0.09 square meter) to replace lawns with gravel and asking golf courses to dig up turf. That helped cut Las Vegas’s water use by 19.4 percent in the seven years ended in 2008, even as the metropolitan area added 482,000 people, bringing the total to 2 million. It wasn’t enough.

Paul Bunyan

So she’s planning a $3.5 billion, 327-mile (525-kilometer) underground pipeline to tap aquifers beneath cattle-raising valleys northeast of the city. She’s even suggested refashioning the plumbing of the entire continent, Paul Bunyan style, by diverting floodwaters from the Mississippi River west toward the Rocky Mountains.

If Mulroy’s ideas are extreme, one reason is that the planet’s most essential resource doesn’t work like other commodities.

There’s no global marketplace for water. Deals for property, wells and water rights, such as the ones Mulroy must negotiate to build the pipeline, are done piecemeal. As the world grows needier, neither governments nor companies nor investors have figured out an effective and sustainable response.

“We have 19th-century ways of utilizing water and 21st- century needs,” says Brad Udall, director of Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Unyielding Pressure

Water upheavals are intensifying because the population is growing fastest in places where fresh water is either scarce or polluted. Dry areas are becoming drier and wet areas wetter as the oceans and atmosphere warm. Economic roadblocks, such as the global credit crunch and its effects on Mulroy’s attempts to sell bonds, multiply during a recession.

Yet local governments that control water face unyielding pressure from constituents to keep the price low, regardless of cost. Agricultural interests, commercial developers and the housing industry clash over dwindling supplies. Companies, burdened by slowing profits, will be forced to move from dry areas such as the American Southwest, Udall says.

“Water is going to be more important than oil in the next 20 years,” says Dipak Jain, dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who studies why corporations locate where they do.

No Cheap Water

Even before the now decade-long drought began punishing Las Vegas, people used more than 75 percent of the water in northern Africa and western Asia that they could get their hands on in 2000, according to the United Nations.

In 2002, 8 percent of the world suffered chronic shortages. By 2050, 40 percent of the projected world population, or about 4 billion people, will lack adequate water as entire regions turn dry, the UN predicts.

“We can no longer assume that cheap water is available,” says Peter Gleick, editor of The World’s Water 2008-2009 (Island Press, 2009). “We have to start living within our means.”

Over the Sierra Mountains from Las Vegas, Shasta Lake, California’s biggest reservoir, is less than a third full because melting snow that fed it for six decades is dwindling. A winter as dry as the previous two may mean rationing for 18 million people in Southern California this year, says Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District.

Across the Pacific Ocean, wildfires fueled by a 10-year drought and fanned by 60-mile-per-hour winds around Melbourne killed more than 200 people in February.

Developing Giants

In Asia, developing giants are battling pollution as their populations grow. China, home to 21 percent of the world’s people last year, has just 7 percent of the water. Nine in 10 Chinese-city groundwater systems are fouled by industrial toxins, pesticides and human waste, says Maude Barlow, the first senior adviser on water to the UN and author of “Blue Covenant” (New Press, 2007).

In India, with 1.2 billion people, three-quarters of the surface water is contaminated, that country’s government said in September.

In the Mideast, where the Dead Sea is dropping 3 feet (1 meter) a year, Israel, Jordan and Syria are diverting water upstream from the Jordan River. That’s adding another source of discord to an already volatile region.

‘Gambling, Gluttony and Girls’

“There’s a growing risk of conflict over water shared by nations, ethnic groups or economic interests,” Gleick says.

Las Vegas, an adult-entertainment haven carved into the Mojave Desert, may not draw much sympathy as a poster child for water emergencies.

For decades, new residents imported their cravings for lawns, sprinklers, pools and golf courses to a region that receives 4 inches (10 centimeters) of rain a year, about 1/10 of what Chicago enjoys. Casinos and hotels with water slides and river rides sucked up limited groundwater.

Until the real estate meltdown, Nevada was the fastest- growing U.S. market, with a 33 percent surge in new homes from 2000 to ‘07.

Now the city is getting a dose of reality, says Cecil Garland, a rancher in neighboring Utah who opposes Mulroy’s groundwater pipeline.

“Las Vegas is a place of gambling, gluttony and girls,” Garland, 83, says.

He says there’s no extra water along the proposed route, which travels through valleys green with 3-foot-tall shrubs called greasewood. If pumping kills the greasewood, dust storms that plague his town of Callao would soar 5,000 feet into the sky, he says.

‘Driest Areas’

“We live in one of the driest areas of the driest part of the U.S.,” Garland says. “How in the world can anybody with reason or common sense think they can pump water in the amount they’re talking about and leave the integrity of the valley in place?”

Mulroy says Nevada’s resorts use 3 percent of the state’s water compared with 90 percent going for farms and ranches.

For the past two decades, Mulroy, a lifelong government employee whose business attire tends toward pantsuits with the collar of her blouses pointed up behind her neck, has wrestled with the competing truths that dog all water managers: There’s only so much to go around, somebody has already claimed most of it, and citizens and companies keep demanding more.

“People view water as a human right and expect it to be virtually free,” says Michael LoCascio at Boston-based Lux Research Inc., which analyzes water issues. “Governments respond to that, and you end up with inefficiency.”

Without price-setting markets, water that cost 33 cents a cubic meter for the first 15 cubic meters delivered to homes in Memphis, Tennessee, in June 2007 was $3.01 in Atlanta and 57 cents in Las Vegas.

That’s cheap compared with Copenhagen, where the same amount that month was $7.71 per cubic meter, Gleick says.

Human Survival

Robert Glennon, a University of Arizona law professor, says governments must provide enough water for human survival. Beyond that, only freely functioning markets can allot it to people who need it most, he says.

Fast-growing cities should buy from farmers who use water on marginal land, says Glennon, author of “Unquenchable” (Island Press, 2009). That would cut inefficiency caused by irrigating deserts, such as those around Las Vegas, to raise alfalfa or beef, he says.

Worldwide, about 60 percent of fresh water goes to irrigate crops through flooding, losing 70 percent of the moisture to evaporation, Lux Research says.

Rudimentary Markets

The rudiments of water markets are cropping up across the American West.

In 2005, after 19 years of negotiations, Los Angeles’s Metropolitan Water District signed a 35-year “dry year option” with the Palo Verde Irrigation District south of Las Vegas in California. Los Angeles pays 7,000 farmers to leave land fallow during droughts and ship their water to city residents. The city gives a one-time payment of $3,170 an acre (0.4 hectare) to farmers who sign up and then $630 per year for every acre not farmed.

Companies and investors that see moneymaking opportunities in strategies to quench the world’s thirst may draw lessons from corporations that have tried.

In October, General Electric Co. named the third head of its water unit in three years. GE had paid $3.8 billion to buy several treatment and filtration companies, including Watertown, Massachusetts-based Ionics Inc., which makes reverse-osmosis membranes for purifying salt water.

Big Deals

Last year, GE opened a $250 million desalination plant, Africa’s largest, with state-owned Algerian Energy Co. GE had hoped to profit from its newly acquired water technologies with the backing of its General Electric Capital Corp. financing arm, says Jeffrey Fulgham, chief marketing officer for the Trevose, Pennsylvania-based unit. Instead, GE wound up footing a lot of the building work for the plant, he says.

“At the end of these big hardware deals, there isn’t much profit,” says Fulgham, who adds that GE now focuses on water technology and avoids construction.

Pure Cycle Corp., which buys and transports water for housing developments near Denver, seemed to have scored a windfall. Starting in 1976, it paid $110 million for water rights valued at $4 billion last year, Chief Executive Officer Mark Harding says. Yet shares in the Thornton, Colorado, company tumbled by 47 percent during the six months ended on Feb. 25. to trade at $3.25 apiece.

The real estate slowdown convinced investors that profits from water rights may be years away, Harding says.

Just financing water for municipal use is getting harder in the global recession.

$8.3 Billion

The southern Nevada authority is about halfway through a 30-year, $8.3 billion construction campaign. Last year, 57 percent of the money for it came from a $6,310 fee to hook up new homes. The Las Vegas real estate slump is so severe that total hookup collections dropped to $61.5 million last year from $188.4 million in 2006. Mulroy says the authority actually lost money on hookups in January because of refunds to developers who abandoned construction projects.

As a result, reserves in the construction fund dropped 6 percent in the first six weeks of 2009, to $480 million. Without those reserves, Mulroy says, she couldn’t assure investors the authority would be able to repay the $500 million in bonds she plans to start selling by early fall to complete the Lake Mead project. The authority had $3.9 billion in liabilities on June 30.

‘Rub Two Sticks Together’

The authority also gets money from water deliveries, property taxes and fees from federal land sales. If she has to protect the reserves, Mulroy says, she’ll raise water rates, which total about $21 a month for a single-family home.

She’s asked fellow Nevadan Harry Reid, the U.S. Senate majority leader, for a federal guarantee on the bonds. Reid is exploring how to help big municipal water systems, including Mulroy’s, get easier access to credit, spokesman Jon Summers says.

In February, Mulroy presented such a dire description of the authority’s finances to the Nevada legislature that Jerry Claborn, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, told her, “You’ll have to do like you did years ago: rub two sticks together.”

Mulroy said afterward she wanted to quash any notion that cash-strapped legislators could appropriate her reserves for some other purpose.

To Richard Bunker, who hired her as an administrative assistant when he managed Clark County, Nevada, in 1978, Mulroy’s hardball tactics are a delight.

“She walks into a room with guys who’ve been on the river 50 and 60 years and they just cringe,” he says with a smile.

‘Pay Me Enough’

One thing Mulroy has ruled out, even in the economic meltdown, is using water as an excuse to limit Las Vegas’s growth.

“During the next 50 years, this country’s population is expected to explode by another 140 million,” she says, citing U.S. Census projections. “I always ask, ‘Where do you want the people to go?’”

Mulroy also opposes the idea of privatizing water, or giving investors power to set prices.

“You’d be telling people, ‘Pay me enough or I withhold it,’” she says, her voice rising, in the cafeteria of Clark County’s terra cotta-colored municipal headquarters. “It’s like you’re telling me I can live.”

Mulroy’s unflagging commitment to keeping Las Vegas green and growing gets the blessing of casino owner Stephen Wynn.

“Pat is the best public servant I’ve met in my 40 years on the Strip,” says Wynn, who credits her with teaching him to save money by using treated groundwater for the lagoons surrounding the artificial volcano at the Mirage hotel, now owned by MGM Mirage.

Lake Mead

Finding the water for casinos is one reason crews are working around the clock at Lake Mead.

In 2002 alone, lack of rainfall lowered the deep-blue waters by 24.6 feet, leaving white bathtub-ring-like marks on the brown cliffs and stranding docks half a mile from shore.

Today, the lake is 1,112 feet above sea level. Should it fall to 1,075 feet, the federal government would cut the water to seven states that depend on the Colorado River, according to an agreement they all signed in 2007. If that happens, the states would likely renegotiate a 1922 pact that divided up the river’s water rights in the first place, Mulroy says. Mexico’s allocation under a 1944 treaty could also change.

If the drought persists and more water is diverted from the Colorado, the lake could drop to 1,050 feet. That would prevent water from flowing into the intake pipe and cut 40 percent of Las Vegas’s supply -- the disaster Mulroy is trying to head off. Hoover Dam, completed in 1935 to regulate the river and form Lake Mead, wouldn’t be able to produce electricity for the 750,000 people it supplies in Los Angeles.

No More Water

At 1,000 feet, the remaining intakes and the rest of the Lake Mead water would go. Because of climate change and population growth, chances of this are as great as 50 percent by 2026, the University of Colorado’s Udall says.

When Mulroy, a daughter of a civilian employee of the U.S. Air Force, arrived in Las Vegas in 1974, the city had yet to be consumed by a water quest. Until the 1940s, parts of downtown had freely flowing springs.

Mulroy, a native of Germany, studied German literature; got her master’s degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and went to work for Bunker at Clark County. A Mormon bishop, he later ran the state’s Gaming Control Board and the Nevada Resort Association.


Bunker supported her promotion to administrator for the county justice court, which was storing records in shoeboxes when she took over. In 1989, he backed her as general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, which the state legislature had formed four decades earlier. Mulroy helped create the seven- community Southern Nevada Water Authority two years later.

“Absent her being here, I don’t know where we’d be,” Bunker says.

Around the time Mulroy became water czar, Wynn unleashed the era of Wall Street-financed megaresorts with his 30-story Mirage. He tinted the hotel’s windows with real gold.

Mulroy raced to boost water deliveries throughout the city by as much as 20 percent a year. With Bunker’s help, she started planning the pipeline to tap melting snow under Wheeler Peak, Nevada’s second-highest mountain.

The pipeline’s planned path runs northeast out of Las Vegas, enters Lincoln County and passes through the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, where, in December, gold leaves of cottonwoods shimmer and migratory birds swoop onto lakes fed by artesian springs. Farther north, hilltops are dotted with abandoned mining towns and bands of wild horses.

‘Already Spoken For’

As Mulroy marched north to secure land and permits, she ran headfirst into what Gleick says is a fundamental truth about water across the U.S. and other parts of the world.

“Nearly every drop is already spoken for, often more than once,” he says.

Determined to get what she required, Mulroy went into horse-trading mode.

“You need a large amount of money and some very powerful people to make water projects happen,” says Greg James, a California water rights attorney and a consultant for pipeline opponents.

She struck a deal with Harvey Whittemore, then Nevada’s top gambling lobbyist. Members of Whittemore’s law firm include Rory Reid, Harry Reid’s son. The younger Reid later served as the water authority’s vice chairman, from 2003 to ‘08.

120,000 New Homes

Whittemore, 56, is also a developer who’s planning a new suburb called Coyote Springs, 55 miles north of the Las Vegas Strip. Even with the real estate crash, Coyote Springs will have 120,000 homes and a dozen golf courses when it’s finished in four or five decades, he says.

Whittemore’s land included one of the most productive wells ever drilled in southern Nevada. He sold 9,000 acre-feet of groundwater that he wasn’t using to Mulroy for $30.1 million. (One acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons, or 1,240 kiloliters, enough for two average U.S. homes for a year.) That led to what Mulroy describes as a partnership in which Whittemore will help pay for the pipeline and use it to ship water to Coyote Springs.

In 2003, Mulroy bargained with reluctant officials in neighboring Lincoln County, persuading them to drop opposition to the project by ceding back to them some of the water rights that she held.

In 2006, farther up the route, she learned how tough the water business can be. She paid $22 million for a ranch that had cost $4.5 million six years earlier. The seller, Carson City, Nevada-based Vidler Water Co., a unit of PICO Holdings Inc., based the price on similar purchases Whittemore had made, Vidler President Dorothy Timian-Palmer says.

Fight Over Greasewood

Last year, Mulroy got into a fight over greasewood with Tim Durbin, a hydrologist who’d once been a consultant for her. Durbin disputed Mulroy’s assessment that the pipeline would avoid major damage to the shrub. In his rebuttal, Durbin described a scene that still touches an open wound in the psyche of the American West.

In 1913, William Mulholland built a 223-mile aqueduct from Owens Valley in California’s Sierras to Los Angeles, where he was water superintendent. The aqueduct drained a 40-foot-deep lake, exposing the valley floor and unleashing dust storms that plagued Los Angeles throughout the 20th century. The aqueduct also inspired the 1974 movie “Chinatown.” In 1970, Los Angeles built a second aqueduct.

‘A Model’

Today, the valley’s 75-mile-long expanse looks like it did a millennium ago. The water diverted to Los Angeles makes economic development in the valley impossible.

“Because of groundwater pumping, vegetation was disappearing in the Owens Valley,” says Durbin, who was chief hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey in California and Nevada before becoming a private consultant in 1984. “It’s a model for what one would expect in eastern Nevada.”

Because of such memories, Mulroy hasn’t won many friends among eastern Nevada’s old-timers.

Rancher Dean Baker fears Mulroy’s pipeline would drain the water that’s let him survive in Snake Valley, in the shadow of Wheeler Peak, for more than half a century.

Baker, 69, remembers when people staked uranium claims only to realize their Geiger counters were clicking because of residue from atomic tests outside Las Vegas. He recalls flying solo in a Piper J-3 Cub before he could drive.

Most of all, Baker remembers water. He rose at dawn to deliver it to cattle 50 miles away. He culled his herd and watched greasewood wither during droughts. It took 20 years for him to afford a backhoe with a jackhammer that could break rocks that covered a spring on his ranch.

Legacy of Dust

“Water is the limiting factor in everything we do,” Baker says. “The legacy of this pipeline will be dust.”

Baker says people who want to move to Las Vegas should look instead to Mississippi and Louisiana. “People should go where there’s water,” he says.

Mulroy says her job is to bring water to the people. Last year, she said she thought the proposed pipeline could begin transporting water in 2015. Now, because of the recession, she doesn’t know when she’ll have the money to build it.

She says she’ll wait for the economy to recover to decide -- unless Lake Mead drops even more and forces her to act.

Mulroy’s struggle to get water to a growing desert population wouldn’t have surprised John Wesley Powell, the first known explorer to pass through the entire Grand Canyon 130 miles east of Las Vegas.

“You are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over the water rights,” he told the International Irrigation Congress in Los Angeles in 1893. “There is no sufficient water to supply the land.”

‘Little Bubbles’

Four generations later, Mulroy is a veteran of these age- old conflicts. She says the region’s water emergency is becoming more dangerous because of climate change and population growth. The crisis is too big to be solved one river or one continent at a time, she says.

“We’ve managed water in such small, incremental units,” she says. “We won’t be able to survive in our little bubbles.”

Even people who agree with Mulroy’s warning won’t have an easy time acting on it. As she has, they’ll discover the effort it will take to quench the world’s thirst and realize that the time and money to do so -- like water itself -- are running short.

February 25, 2009

The Dispute Over Johnson Valley

Johnson Valley Map. Look closely. One of off-roading's most beloved places could be lost. Photography by Kevin Blumer.

By Kevin Blumer
Off-Road Magazine

As off-roaders, we're used to getting closed out, locked out, and legislated off of the lands we dearly love to recreate on. Anyone who remembers the California Desert Protection Act will recall how millions of acres of the Mojave Desert were systematically removed from vehicular access with the help of the Sierra Club, the late Senator Alan Cranston, and Senator Dianne Feinstein. Off-roaders had little say in the matter even though we were directly affected by this legislative juggernaut. Senator Feinstein, a longtime ally of pro-Wilderness, anti-OHV special interests, turned a deaf ear to our cries. This time, it's different.

For those who haven't heard, the U.S. Marine Corps base in Twentynine Palms, California, is looking to expand and is considering the acquisition of the Johnson Valley OHV area. The new expansion area will be used for live-fire exercises as Marines train for combat.

Those who think this means only the loss of the infamous Hammer rock-crawling trails, which directly abut the western border of the Twentynine Palms Marine base, need to think again. The Marines might end up taking the whole Johnson Valley OHV area. This means we'll also lose access to the areas off of Camp Rock Road, Bessemer Mine Road, and Boone Road. This isn't just a threat to rock crawlers. This is a threat to truck and buggy racers, prerunner enthusiasts, dirt-bike riders, quad riders, and side-by-side UTV drivers. As off-roaders, we're all lumped into this together.

As U.S. residents, we depend on the Marines to keep us safe in the world. We deeply appreciate the service they provide and the freedom we enjoy. On an individual level, many Marines are avid off-roaders and appreciate the need for open land on which to recreate.

The Johnson Valley OHV area is to the west of the Twentynine Palms Marine base. But the Corps is also considering expanding eastward for training and war games. The off-road community needs to respectfully request the Marines' planning commission look elsewhere for new training grounds. We need to encourage eastward expansion, and discourage any westward movement.

A Chance To Speak Up

Why is it different this time? It's different because off-roaders have a listening ear in the Marine Corps. "We want to expand our base of operations in the way that will do the most good and will negatively impact the fewest people,"said Dr. Jim Cassidy of the Marines during an Open House Scoping Meeting in Ontario, California. His colleague, public-affairs specialist Captain Amy Malugani, concurred: "As we've held these meetings, we've heard lots of anecdotal evidence about how much the off-road community loves Johnson Valley. People have shared lots of emotion about their connections to Johnson Valley. While we appreciate the anecdotes and the emotion, we need quantification and hard facts in order to make our decision."

What does quantification mean in this instance? Cassidy shed some light: "We need to know how many people use Johnson Valley for recreation. We need to know how much money they've invested in their recreational equipment. We need to know where they're from and how long they've been going to Johnson Valley. Recently, a couple told us that they use off-road trips to Johnson Valley as a reward to their grandkids for being good. That example means that Johnson Valley has inter-generational significance. These are the types of quantification we're after."

How The Process Works

There are seven milestones along the way, three of which include opportunities for public comment. These are opportunities to make our voices heard.

Pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, federal agencies must analyze the environmental impacts of their proposed activities, producing an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS.

Here Are The Milestones:

1. Notice of Intent to Prepare an EIS. This milestone was passed on October 30, 2008, and was an official public announcement of the military's intent to expand the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base.

2. Scoping Period. The Marines "scope" around for the public's input and presents a range of alternatives for the proposed expansion. There are six alternatives being presented. The Scoping Period began October 30, 2008, and ended January 31, 2009. It's December 15, 2008, as this is being written, and our lead time doesn't allow us to get this news in print any sooner. For this reason, we put this same information on our website, www.off-roadweb.com, during December '08. Even though the period for public comment ended on January 31, there are still two more opportunities for public comments down the line.

3. The Draft EIS is prepared. The Draft EIS will be prepared beginning February 1, 2009, and be finished by Spring 2010. No public comments are taken during this time.

4. Notice of EIS availability, followed by public meetings and comment period. Here's when we get to speak up. A federal register will notify the public that the Draft EIS is available. This will happen during Spring 2010. After the Draft EIS is available, there will be a 90-day period for public meetings and public comment.

5. The Final EIS will be written, taking public comments into account, during Winter 2010.

6. The Final EIS will be available for public comment for 30 days, and the public will be informed of its availability. This is another chance to voice opinions and state facts from our point of view.

7. A final decision will be made and announced during Spring 2011.

How To Take Action

Speak up! This means writing letters, sending emails, and making phone calls. You don't have to go through your Congressional representative. You can go directly to the Marines. When the next public comment period comes around in Spring 2010, be ready with your comments.

Our basic message to the Corps: The off-road community wants the Marines to expand the Twentynine Palms base to the East.

We need to tell the Marines how much we love playing in Johnson Valley, and we need to tell them how many people we bring with us and for how many years, and we need to tell them how much money we've invested in off-roading. The Marines recognize emotion, but they need the hard facts, too.

The Marine Corps has set up a website for this project. The site includes maps, links, and other information pertinent to this proposed expansion.

The website: www.29palms.usmc.mil/las

February 24, 2009

Supreme Court to hear Mojave cross case

Justices will decide whether the monument can stand in a national preserve to honor fallen soldiers. It will be the Roberts court's first chance to rule on separation of church and state.

The Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether an eight-foot-tall cross in the Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino County can stand in a national preserve to honor fallen soldiers. Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times / File

By David G. Savage
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington -- In a case that could reshape the doctrine of separation of church and state, the Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether a cross to honor fallen soldiers can stand in a national preserve in California.

The case will give the Roberts court its first chance to rule directly on the 1st Amendment's ban on "an establishment of religion."

In the last two decades, the justices have been closely divided on whether religious symbols, such as the Ten Commandments or a depiction of Christ's birth, can be displayed on public property.

Four years ago, then-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor cast a fifth and deciding vote against the display of the Ten Commandments in a Kentucky courthouse. She said such a public display of a religious message violated the 1st Amendment because it amounted to a government endorsement of religion.

In dissent, the court's conservatives said religious displays on public land generally do not violate the 1st Amendment, since no one is forced to listen to a religious message or participate in a religious event.

A year later, O'Connor retired and was replaced by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., President Bush's second appointee, who could form a new majority on religion.

At issue is an eight-foot-tall cross in the Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino County. A smaller wooden cross was first erected by the Veterans of Foreign Wars in 1934 and was originally maintained as a war memorial by the National Park Service.

The American Civil Liberties Union objected to the cross and filed a suit on behalf of Frank Buono, a Catholic and former Park Service employee. The suit noted that the government had denied a request to have a Buddhist shrine erected near the cross.

Two years ago, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the ACLU and declared the cross an "impermissible governmental endorsement of religion."

Congress had intervened to save the cross. It ordered the Interior Department to transfer to the VFW one acre of land where the cross stood. The 9th Circuit judges were unswayed, however.

Bush administration lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court last fall and said the "seriously misguided decision" would require the government "to tear down a cross that has stood without incident for 70 years as a memorial to fallen service members."

The government also questioned Buono's standing to challenge the cross, since he lives in Oregon and suffers no obvious harm because of the Mojave cross.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, the VFW, American Legion and other veterans groups said the 9th Circuit's ruling, if allowed to stand, could trigger legal challenges to the display of crosses at Arlington National Cemetery and elsewhere.

The court said it had voted to hear the case, now relabeled Salazar vs. Buono. Arguments will be heard in October, and Obama administration lawyers will be in charge of defending the presence of the cross.

Monday saw the return of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She had surgery for pancreatic cancer on Feb. 5, but as promised, she was back on the bench when the court resumed hearing oral arguments. Lab tests said her cancer was in a very early stage and had not spread.

February 22, 2009

Collect a rock, lose your car


Ominous forfeiture provisions in new bill restrict use of federal land


This souvenir could land you in hot water under the provisions of pending legislation. (DanielCD)

WASHINGTON – A land management bill that swept through the U.S. Senate last month and is headed for a House vote this week punishes rock collectors and paleontologists with arrest and expropriation of their cars and other equipment for even unknowingly disturbing fossils on public land, say critics.

In the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, a "forfeiture" provision would let the government confiscate "all vehicles and equipment of any person" who digs up or removes a rock or a bone from federal land that meets the bill's broad definition of "paleontological resource," says a report by Jon Berlau of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

"The seizures could take place even before a person and even if the person didn't know they were taking or digging up a 'paleontological resource," writes Berlau. "And the bill specifically allows the 'transfer of seized resources' to 'federal or non-federal' institutions, giving the government and some private actors great incentive to egg on the takings."

Tracie Bennitt, president of the Association of Applied Paleontological Sciences, is protesting the bill's vague language and severe penalties.

"We can visualize now a group of students unknowingly crossing over an invisible line and ending up handcuffed and prosecuted," she wrote to members of Congress.

Subtitle D of the bill called the "Paleontological Resources Preservation Act" would make it illegal to "excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface or attempt to excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface any paleontological resources located on Federal land" without special permission from the government.

"Paleontological resource" is defined in the bill as "any fossilized remains, traces, or imprints of organisms, preserved in or on the earth's crust, that are of paleontological interest and that provide information about the history of life on earth." Penalties for violations include up to five years in jail.

Berlau believes picking up rocks could be interpreted as a violation of the law since most would fit the broad definition under the law.

The forfeiture provision is effective before a trial and conviction, making the defendant guilty until proven innocent, Berlau suggests.

Berlau believes the House will take up a vote on the bill this week. He is urging Americans to contact representatives before the bill, known both as S. 22 and the "Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009" is approved, as expected, and heads to the White House for President Obama's signature.

Touch a rock and get mugged by the feds

by J.D. Tuccille

A few years ago, I was backpacking in an Arizona canyon where the sun didn't reach our camp until well after we'd rolled out of our sleeping bags. Desperate to get warm, a friend and I decided to scale the canyon wall to find a patch of warm sunlight and see the view. We soon discovered that the rocks were speckled with fossils -- mementos of long-gone life. Somewhere, I have a souvenir from that climb -- a keepsake that, under new legislation, could could get my truck and camping gear confiscated even without a trial, and my friend and I imprisoned for five years with one.

The new legislation is the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act, passed in the Senate as Subtitle D of S.22, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, and pending in the House. Under the new law, "A person may not excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface or attempt to excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface any paleontological resources located on Federal land" without jumping through hoops created by the federal government. Do so, and you could face up to five years in federal prison.

Strictly speaking, that souvenir of mine might not be illegal under the new bill. The act does allow for "the collecting of a reasonable amount of common invertebrate and plant paleontological resources for non-commercial personal use." But that reasonable amount "shall be determined by the Secretary." Just hope the current officeholder's hemorrhoids aren't acting up the day he or she decides what you can tuck in your pocket during the course of a hike without facing the wrath of the federal government.

"Our government does not need to put scientists in jail and confiscate University vans. We can visualize now a group of students unknowingly crossing over an invisible line and ending up handcuffed and prosecuted."
And do hope for leniency. Because that five years in prison may not be the worst of it. At least a criminal conviction requires a trial before a jury that's occasionally unimpressed by arbitrary and intrusive federal laws. If the feds don't want to bother proving their case in court, they can just steal your car, truck, camping eqipment and any other gear you may have.


Section 6308 says:

(b) Forfeiture- All paleontological resources with respect to which a violation under section 6306 or 6307 occurred and which are in the possession of any person, and all vehicles and equipment of any person that were used in connection with the violation, shall be subject to civil forfeiture, or upon conviction, to criminal forfeiture.
You noticed that "subject to civil forfeiture, or upon conviction, to criminal forfeiture" didn't you? That's a example of a notorious practice called "civil asset forfeiture," which means the government gets to steal your stuff without proving a case against you, and you have to sue to get it back. Oh, and the law also says the government gets to keep or dispose of the stolen goods as it wishes, so there's an incentive to steal as much and as often as possible.

Civil asset forfeiture has a disturbing history of abuse for the benefit of government agencies, including actual highway robbery. Some law-enforcement agencies have become notorious for stopping cars, seizing cash and goods without ever even pretending to bring criminal charges, and returning the loot only if the folks passing through bring suit and win a court order. The situation got so bad a decade ago that it culminated in a bipartisan piece of legislation, the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 (PDF). Compromise that it was, the bill softened some of the worst abuses of forfeiture, but left the practice in place.


Tracie Bennitt, president of the Association of Applied Paleontological Sciences, points out that the bill also threatens prison time for any person who might "make or submit any false record, account, or label for, or any false identification of, any paleontological resource excavated or removed from Federal land."

That's a problem, says Bennitt, because "[w]hat you find and label in the field may not be what you find as preparation is undertaken in the lab. Penalties for misidentification of fossils will place every museum in jeopardy. There is not one museum that is free from labeling errors on specimens on exhibit or in collections."

Ultimately, says Bennitt, "Our government does not need to put scientists in jail and confiscate University vans. We can visualize now a group of students unknowingly crossing over an invisible line and ending up handcuffed and prosecuted. An honest mistake is just that and should be treated accordingly."

Yes, "honest mistakes" should be treated as such, but so should simple rock gathering and poking in the dirt. If the feds want to target real pirates who are going after fossils on public lands with front-end loaders, they need to do so with weapons that don't threaten hikers, scientists and hobbyists.

And they need to entirely abandon the monstrous practice of civil asset forfeiture.

Oh, and if the feds want that souvenir back, they should feel free to send somebody around to collect it. Just have him stand back about 90 feet. That's the distance from home plate to first base. I can throw that far.

February 17, 2009

OHV enthusiasts rally at the Capitol

Emery County Progress

More than 400 off-road-vehicle enthusiasts gathered on the steps of the Utah Capitol Feb. 6 in support of the state's stance on the multiple use of public lands - both state and federal - within its boundaries.

"This shows a great grass-roots effort," Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert said of the gathering. "Let your voice be heard. Energize coalitions, and understand the policies governing the land. We are supportive of public use, a balanced use, including agriculture, natural resources and recreation. No one should be excluded."

Herbert said, people opposed to multiple use are demanding good science be used in determining the state's policy on land use. "Sound science counts in my opinion," he said. "And this science shows that we can be good stewards and still use the public lands." Herbert said there is a high demand for off-road-vehicle use but that access is shrinking.

"We have got to find a way to work with the new administration," he said. "United voices can make things happen. We have to find solutions and make multiple use a win-win situation. We want to be engaged in the process."

Most of those attending the rally were supportive of off-road recreation in the state. One enthusiast suggested that if the governor wanted to be involved in the process maybe he should take a trail ride with someone from the assembled group rather than with members of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

SUWA supports initiatives to permanently protect the Colorado Plateau wild places advocating wilderness preservation. They claim to be the only independent organization working full-time to defend America's redrock wilderness from oil and gas development, unnecessary road construction, rampant off-road vehicle use and other threats to Utah's wilderness-quality lands.

Several of the elected officials present at the rally spoke about the actions of Tim DeChristopher, the University of Utah student who monkey-wrenched the BLMs Dec. 19 oil-and-gas-lease auction. The student was quoted as saying he never had any intention to pay the lease money and encouraged civil disobedience by other environmental activists to further their cause.

DeChristopher's actions, they said, have had a negative affect on Utah's schools and health departments.

"This (leasing) is an important source of money for our kids," said Dennis Stowell, Sen-R, District 28. "We need leases, property access and a good multi-use land policy to make this work."

A letter drafted to the governor's office from the county commissioners in San Juan County was read calling for enforcing the rules of law when dealing with DeChristopher.

Bradley Last, Rep-R, District 71, told the group that lease money does impact education in Utah and that nobody loves Utah's public lands like Utahns. "We know the land, and we will take care of it so that we all can use it in the future," he said.

Officials from Kane County told the group they will continue their RS2477 road identification fight that benefits all Utahns concerning road ownership across federal lands.

David Clark, Rep-R, District 74, said he supports Kane County officials and that legislators need to plan the pathway to turn things around for the state's multiple use land policy.

"When rights are taken away, it impacts everyone," he said.

Kevin VanTassell, Sen-R, District 26, told the group the state receives $.51 per acre from the federal government to rent the federal lands in Utah. He said access to the state's school trust lands is crucial.

"If we can't access our lands and develop the resources there, our education budgets will be impacted negatively," he stated.

Ralph Okerlund, Sen-R, District 24, said Utahns can't speculate on the future.

"We need to ensure our future and that comes from having access to federal lands and responsibly developing the resources found there," said Okerlund.

Karl Malone, former Utah Jazz player, made a surprise appearance at the rally, and he received cheers when he showed his support for land use.

"No way will they kick us off what we own," Malone said. He also promised all the support he could give.

"The state's multi-use vision is a three-legged stool," Herbert said, speaking of using the land in Utah to support agriculture, natural resources and recreation.

"A united voice can make things happen so that solutions can be found."

Mike Noel, state representative from District 72 that represents Kane County, one of the areas that has been spearheading RS-2477 right-of-way fights was one of the leading speakers at the rally along with Mike Swenson from USA-ALL. He suggested that maybe the rural parts of the state need to go back to the 1970-80s in combating what has been going on with road closures.

"We have the right to these lands and we shouldn't be shut out of them," he stated. "In fact I am right now proclaiming that this is the beginning of Sagebrush Rebellion number two in Utah."

The Sagebrush Rebellion was a political movement that had its roots in the 1960s and continued up through the 1990s when interests for open land openly fought with environmentalists and government control of federal land.

A number of people from Eastern Utah attended the rally, with signs and calls for keeping multiple use lands, multiple use.

This year's rally was a far cry from the one USA-ALL tried to orchestrate last year when only about 25 people showed up. Riding and land use clubs from all over the state were represented at the rally.

February 15, 2009

Stimulus bill expected to restart mine cleanup

Seth Johnson, of Chloride, Ariz., checks out one of many abandoned mine shafts, this one with a partial protective fence between the shaft and the trail, along the Cherum Peak Trail in the Cerbat Mountains Sept. 3, 2007, in Chloride, Ariz.

Not far away two sisters fell into a 125-foot-deep abandoned mine shaft while driving their all-terrain vehicle late Saturday. Efforts to clean up one of the West's most enduring and dangerous legacies--tens of thousands of abandoned hardrock mines, many of them dating to the 19th century--are expected to get a boost from the economic stimulus package sought by President Barack Obama. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — When the Beal Mountain mine opened in 1988 near Butte, Mont., its owner promoted open-pit cyanide leaching for extracting gold from ore as modern and environmentally friendly.

Pegasus Gold Corp., a Canadian company, extracted nearly 460,000 ounces of gold over a decade before closing the mine and declaring bankruptcy in 1998.

It left behind a 70-acre, cyanide-contaminated leach pond with a leaky liner and tons of rubble that sends selenium-laced runoff into streams, threatening cutthroat trout and other fish. The $6.2 million reclamation bond posted by the company doesn't come close to covering the full cost to clean up the mine, which could total nearly $40 million.

"There is a real ticking time bomb up there," said Josh Vincent, president of a Trout Unlimited chapter near the mine, which sits on U.S. Forest Service land.

Efforts to clean up one of the West's most enduring and dangerous legacies — tens of thousands of abandoned hardrock mines, many dating to the 19th century — should get a boost from the economic stimulus bill awaiting President Barack Obama's signature.

The final bill, approved by the House and Senate on Friday, contains more than $1.5 billion for construction and maintenance projects in the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the Forest Service. That includes addressing pollution and safety hazards caused by abandoned mines on public lands.

The three agencies together spent about $25 million on mine cleanup in the budget year that ended last Sept. 30, according to the staff of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., one of the lawmakers who sought the money.

Projects ranging from repairing trails to replacing equipment also are eligible for the money, so there is no guarantee the money will be spent on mine cleanup. The bill says preference is supposed to go to projects that generate most jobs.

Advocates for cleaning up abandoned mines say the work is a strong job-generator.

"These much needed funds will create thousands of jobs, reduce water pollution, eliminate public safety threats, and restore fish and wildlife habitat in rural communities across the country," said Lauren Pagel, policy director for Earthworks, an environmental group focused on mining issues.

The Government Accountability Office estimates there are at least 161,000 abandoned hardrock mines in Alaska and 11 other western states, plus South Dakota. Open mine shafts and decaying structures pose safety hazards, contaminants are polluting streams and groundwater, and piles of tailings tinged with arsenic have been left behind.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates it could cost as much as $50 billion to clean up all the nation's abandoned hardrock mines.

Anti-tax groups questioned whether mine clean up merits funds at all, considering that the bill is intended to jump-start the economy. Cleanups are temporary and unlikely to have any lasting economic effect, said Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, which advocates for less government spending.

"It's not like anyone is going to dig in these mines ever again," he said.

A report last year by the Interior Department's inspector general said abandoned mines on BLM and National Park Service land are exposing people to dangerous contaminants such as arsenic, lead and mercury. Other dangers include deadly gases, collapsing mine walls and explosive chemicals.

Among the dangers outlined in the report: all-terrain vehicle riders falling into abandoned mine shafts.

In 2007, a 13-year-old girl was killed and her 10-year-old sister seriously injured when the all-terrain vehicle they were riding ran off a trail and fell into a 125-foot mine shaft a short distance from a BLM campground near Chloride, Ariz.

At the Mojave National Preserve in California, investigators found mine shafts along roads that were large enough to swallow cars.

"The potential for more deaths and injuries is ominous," the report said.

Environmental group opens office in Barstow

By ABBY SEWELL, staff writer
Desert Dispatch

BARSTOW • The newly opened office of the National Parks Conservation Association in Barstow is still almost bare, but staffer David Lamfrom has big plans for it.

The nonprofit organization, which was created in 1919 by the same people who founded the National Park Service, lobbies and provides public education and community outreach on issues centering around the national parks. Its office in Barstow opened Feb. 9.

In the coming months NPCA will give digital cameras to a dozen High Desert high school students and lead them on expeditions to the Mojave Desert, where they will photograph desert tortoises, their habitat, and threats to their survival. At the end of the 16-month program, the group will self-publish a photographic book focused on the tortoise.

In the process, Lamfrom — who worked as an environmental biologist and then as vice president of an environmental consulting firm before joining the NPCA as a field representative — hopes the kids will learn not only about the desert ecosystem but about critical thinking and expressing themselves through art.

“It’s a marriage of arts and sciences,” he said.

Aside from the desert tortoise project, the NPCA has also advocated on environmental issues like the siting of renewable energy projects.

Another focus of the nonprofit is on channeling the tourism to the national parks so that communities like Barstow see a positive economic impact, Lamfrom said. As one piece of that, the NPCA sits on the Barstow-Kelso Heritage Railroad committee, which hopes to run a tour train from the Harvey House in Barstow to the historic Kelso Depot, traveling through roadless regions of the desert in between.

“Ultimately the long-term goal of this office is to help Barstow embrace being the gateway to the Mojave National Preserve,” Lamfrom said.

The group has already begun working with some other local partners, like the Desert Discovery Center and its Discovery Trails educational program, and the Mojave Environmental Education Consortium, a public-private partnership that provides teachers with environmental education materials and provides grants that allow teachers to take students on environmentally-focused field trips.

Jane Laraman-Brockhurst, artistic coordinator for Discovery Trails and president of local nonprofit Main Street Murals, said the NPCA will add a welcome new piece to the Desert Discovery Center Partnership, which previously included the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Barstow Community College, Barstow Unified School District, the Mojave River Valley Museum and Main Street Murals. NPCA will be leading some workshops and assisting with a field trip to Death Valley as part of Main Street Murals’ Discovery Trails educational program on the Ice Age.

“It’s really important that the public experience the public lands we have, and that’s David (Lamfrom’s) role, is as an enabler to get the public to really experience public lands,” she said.

In the future Lamfrom said he also hopes to partner with the city of Barstow in bringing more national-park related economic development to town.

Could green kill the desert?


If we're not careful, our rush to produce green energy could do irrevocable damage to some fragile California ecosystems

By Bruce M. Pavlik
Los Angeles Times

California's desert lands are in some ways a perfect fit with the renewable energy industries necessary to combat climate change. There's sun. There's wind. There's space.

But without careful planning and regulation, these "climate solutions" could irrevocably damage the planet they are intended to protect.

The biologically rich but arid desert ecosystems are remarkably fragile. Once topsoil and plant life have been disrupted for the placement of solar arrays, wind farms, power plants, transmission lines and CO2 scrubbers, restoration would be cost-prohibitive, if not technically impossible. And widespread desert construction -- even of projects aimed at environmental mitigation -- would devastate the very organisms and ecosystems best able to adjust to a warming world.

Nevertheless, there is a public land rush underway. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is processing more than 180 permit applications from private companies to build solar and wind projects in the California deserts.

One such venture, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, will begin construction this year in a beautiful valley near the California-Nevada border in San Bernardino County. It will occupy 3,400 acres, and that doesn't include the land needed for transmission lines.

Most projects are even larger, averaging 8,000 acres, with a few exceeding 20,000 acres. The total public land under consideration for alternative energy production exceeds 1.45 million acres in this state alone.

The scale of some proposals borders on fantasy. One Columbia University scientist, Wallace Broecker, has proposed installing 60 million CO2 scrubbers, each a 50-foot-tall tower, throughout the world's deserts -- 17 million of them in the United States -- for the purpose of capturing greenhouse gases.

One appeal of locating projects in remote regions is that there isn't as much NIMBYism in those areas, so approvals can be easier to get. But there is another way. Why not install scrubbers in parking garages, skyscrapers, transit tunnels and other existing structures? Existing commercial and residential rooftops, landfills, marginal agricultural lands and mine sites could readily accommodate these green technologies, and we would be creating energy closer to where it is needed.

At this point in the evolution of our ecological psychology, we need to acknowledge the true costs of any energy development. When a dam is built, a river is lost. But people who turn on their tap and draw that water rarely think about the river that was destroyed to produce it. Similarly, if we choose to place our "ugly" industrial technologies in the wilderness, there will be less awareness of the damage, less incentive to conserve.

The out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach to solving such problems exacerbates parochial thinking and reduces the obligation of each citizen to contribute by consuming less, or by allowing solar panels to be installed on rooftops.

Besides, haven't we learned these lessons from the destruction of other valuable ecosystems? We now spend billions of dollars every year to repair levees and restore wetlands that never should have been "reclaimed" in the name of land development.

Although the government should be encouraging alternative energy, the cumulative effects of projects need to be analyzed across the entire desert landscape. Many are within or adjacent to designated wilderness, desert tortoise habitats, archaeological sites and the BLM's areas of critical environmental concern. Roads, rails and aqueducts already harm desert bighorn sheep and other sensitive species while spreading weeds, increasing fire frequency and degrading the life-giving qualities of the native vegetation.

Such large-scale effects cannot be addressed on a project-by-project basis, as is done through the existing environmental review process. We need effective, desert-wide planning that engages the major public and private stakeholders that determine the fate of California desert land.

The costs of industrializing the biologically rich California deserts will be measured in terms of species extinction, ecosystem degradation and the perpetuation of human self-deception.

We know better than to rush. A cautious, informed and integrated approach will secure sustainable, clean energy without sacrificing the future of these precious lands.

Bruce M. Pavlik is a professor of biology at Mills College, Oakland, and the author of "The California Deserts: An Ecological Rediscovery."

February 13, 2009

Tortoises threaten town's economy

Pahrump Valley Times

Once again the desert tortoise raises its leathery head and aims its beady little eyes toward Pahrump, threatening to stop all building and development, according to Al Balloqui, economic development director for the town.

It's incredible that such a docile, cautious creature can create chaos by taking a single tenuous step over an imaginary boundary line in the desert.

However, Balloqui told town board members Tuesday evening if the permitting process to protect the desert tortoise isn't completed, it is within the power of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to shut down all development projects.

"We have to comply with federal law," said Balloqui, who admitted to the board members and those gathered at the community center he is not a big fan of the desert tortoise.

In an interview before the meeting, he explained, "We received a $700,000 HUD grant to fund the fairground project. That money could be in jeopardy if the county and FWS do not come to an agreement."

Reportedly, FWS could not only quash the town's aggressive plans to find sponsors and financing to construct a new fairground complex, but also stop the planned expansion of the county courthouse.

Additionally, not going forward with adopting a townwide plan to protect the habitat of the desert tortoise would further complicate the arcane processes that have already stopped many businesses from investing in Pahrump. It would also add substantially to the fees companies must pay to expand or build any type of facility.

Even private property owners can be charged with a felony misdemeanor, accompanied by a $25,000 fine, for disturbing an acre or more of land without a conservation plan in place.

Balloqui asked the town board to write a letter to the county commission urging it to move forward by having the most recently completed draft of a habitat conservation plan for the desert tortoise presented to the FWS by Julene Haworth, who completed the draft at no cost.

Haworth's is the third such plan completed for the county over the past few years. The first plan was paid for with a $250,000 grant. The second plan cost $45,000. Neither was adopted.

According to Balloqui, the commissioners approved Haworth's draft of the plan on July 15, 2008, but balked at paying her a fee to complete the project, which would cost the county from $30,000 to $40,000.

The draft written by Haworth was approved for the entire Pahrump Regional Planning District. If adopted, individual property owners would not be saddled with responsibility for developing their own federally mandated habitat conservation plans and paying the associated fees.

Balloqui told the board Haworth would be the most logical person to present the plan to FWS, as she could answer questions on every facet of it.

Town board member Vicky Parker said she was not comfortable requesting the commissioners select a certain contractor, although she did support the plan. The board argreed with Parker, voting 4-1 to write a letter of support without mentioning Haworth. Member Mike Darby voted nay.

Under penalty of law, all properties and land measuring one acre or more must be surveyed by a desert tortoise biologist approved by the FWS within 30 days prior to land clearance for development. There are many other processes that must be followed and fees required under the Endangered Species Act.

"We just have to get this done so we can move on," said Balloqui.

Lawsuit Inc. strikes again

With the dawn, cackling come the crows and the lawyers

Las Vegas Review-Journal

It's too early for the crow or even the mockingbird to put in an appearance, but mourning doves greet the gray first light as a family of Gambel's quail stirs in the ground cover. The eastern sky shows faint yellow and pink as, down near the mission, the homeless guys emerge from their bedrolls -- men who once made a decent living in the construction trades, back when Nevada was still a "can-do" kind of state.

Over at the courthouse, the first environmental attorneys show up with their carry-out coffee cups, just ahead of the crows, waiting for the windows to open so they can file their latest actions, banning any further attempts at human progress in Southern Nevada. First in line today are the grim reapers of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, suing agents of the federal government for allowing plans to proceed for the development of homes and a golf course at Coyote Springs, in northeastern Clark County.

The federal agencies should never have allowed owners of the property to make plans to use their own water rights by digging wells on their own lands, the lawyers will argue in court, because such "groundwater withdrawals" could destroy habitat crucial to the Mojave Desert tortoise and the Moapa dace, a finger-length minnow found only in the headwaters of the Muddy River, 60 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

And the aggressors can't lose -- that's the beauty of it.

Oh, this lawsuit may be tossed, eventually. But by then there will be scores of others. And the smug and spike-haired plaintiffs will still be reimbursed for their time and trouble, paid off with tax dollars by the very agencies they're suing.

No federal judge has ever ruled, "You're wrong; the minnows won't be harmed; furthermore, I find no evidence that you really care one whit about these minnows -- you never visit or feed them -- that instead you've brought this action for no purpose other than causing expense and inconvenience to others, and therefore I'm charging you with all court costs and defendants' attorney fees -- personally."

As predictable as the sunrise itself, another morning, and another progress-destroying shakedown lawsuit have come to Nevada.

"It is our contention that they are putting the Moapa dace at greater risk of extinction," explains Rob Mrowka, who once worked for Clark County but is now billed as "Nevada conservation advocate" for the Center for Biological Diversity.

The federally protected desert tortoise also faces habitat loss in Clark and Lincoln counties as a result of large-scale groundwater pumping and the residential development it would sustain, Mr. Mrowka argues.

The group on Tuesday sent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management 60-day notice of its intent to sue. Such notice is required for lawsuits brought under the Endangered Species Act.

As part of its multibillion-dollar plan to pipe groundwater to Las Vegas from as far as 250 miles away in White Pine County, the Southern Nevada Water Authority wants to tap water beneath the Coyote Springs Valley and in the Muddy River.

Separate from that effort is the 43,000-acre Coyote Springs development along U.S. Highway 93, about 55 miles north of Las Vegas.

At the moment, the development includes only a few basic roads and a golf course that opened last spring. Eventually, though, developer Harvey Whittemore hopes to turn his property straddling the line between Clark and Lincoln counties into Nevada's newest city, complete with several hotel-casinos and as many as 160,000 homes.

Build-out is expected to take decades, but home construction could begin in 2010.

When the Center for Biological Diversity files its lawsuit 60 days from now, it will seek an injunction to halt groundwater development in the area until the case can be argued, Mr. Mrowka says.

Anyone hoping to build anything useful to mankind knows that such lawsuits have become inevitable -- almost as though the green extreme can't imagine how anything beneficial to the human species could possibly take place without irrevocably harming "nature," in some way.

So far, the Center for Biological Diversity has not sued any of our local maternity wards, arguing that by allowing more human beings to be brought onto the planet, they "put the Moapa dace at greater risk of extinction."

But give them time. All great extremist movements have to start somewhere.

February 11, 2009

Highway 95 solar projects on hold

Studies will be conducted prior to any development

Pahrump Valley Times

A map of the solar energy projects filed for Southern Nye County. The checkerboards indicate overlapping applications for the same land.

There's been an almost daily spiel of propaganda about the need for renewable energy and reducing our dependence of foreign oil emanating from politicians ranging from U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., to Gov. Jim Gibbons.

But it may be a few years yet before projects actually start being developed in Southern Nevada, at least on public land.

That was the verdict after a field tour by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management Resource Advisory Council last Thursday of solar energy sites in Amargosa Valley.

BLM Pahrump Field Office Manager Patrick Putnam said there have been approximately 35 applications for solar energy projects comprising 250,000 acres just in the southern BLM district.

BLM Realty Specialist Wendy Seley said of 21 to 24 applications for land just in the Amargosa Valley, about 14 applicants have started the initial process, paying the BLM for the cost recovery process, which pays for all the consultants and is a first step for requesting BLM right-of-way.

The BLM decided against issuing a moratorium on applications for solar energy projects throughout the western states last summer, while a programmatic environmental impact statement is prepared. Work on the statement began last May, a draft is expected this summer, and a final EIS by summer 2010.

After the moratorium was lifted, numerous companies submitted applications for solar energy projects, some competing for the same piece of land, Seley said.

Some applications are being withdrawn as companies learn about the costs and requirements, she said, There were 71 applications submitted for solar projects statewide, which has since dropped to 68, she said.

The right-of-way application includes stipulations on road construction, removal of vegetation, disturbing biological and cultural resources, as well as site reclamation. A plan of development for construction and operation of a solar facility must be completed within 90 days of receiving the cost recovery application, Seley said.

Right now, six plans of development have been forwarded to the state BLM office in Reno for an engineering review.

The BLM is asking for a rental fee for the public lands calculating the highest and best use of the land. Seley said they're using the agricultural value of the acreage as a guide.

A bond will be required, similar to what's required for mining companies, for land reclamation once the project is over. It will include removing solar collectors as well as reclaiming access roads.

"A lot of companies are asking for a lot of acreage. This is something new to the BLM," Seley said.

The right-of-way is only going to be issued for the footprint of the actual solar facilities, she said.

"If they want 30,000 acres, one thing they've got to remember -- they're going to be paying rent on those 30,000 acres," Seley said.

BLM Natural Resource Specialist Jayson Barangan said companies will also be paying desert tortoise mitigation fees of $753 per acre.

Realty specialist Mark Chandler said a company like Cogentrix Solar Services, which had requested 30,000 acres of right-of-way, has scaled back that request to 3,000 acres due to the cost. Chandler said companies like to locate a site next to existing infrastructure like gas lines, power lines and telephone lines.

"You can't just hold 30,000 acres in reserve. You have to develop it," Chandler said.

Seley said companies will also have to apply for an interconnection agreement to sell power on the market and a power purchase agreement with companies like NV Energy and Valley Electric Association. Seley said from discussions she had with the power industry on the California side, it could take two to five years to execute those power purchase agreements.

Those agreements are also not cheap. Chandler said an interconnection agreement can cost a company $250,000 all by itself.

An application to install a 500-kilovolt power line 347 miles long that will connect Northern and Southern Nevada from Yerington to Jean is being protested in court by environmental groups, BLM's Resource Advisory Council was told. That power line could be tapped into for solar energy projects in the Amargosa Valley area.

Putnam said the majority of solar projects up for engineering review now use wet-cooled technology, which uses more water to cool the turbines. The use of wet-cooled technology could be a limiting factor to how many projects get off the ground, he said.

The more water efficient process, the dry cooling technology, requires a larger footprint, Chandler said.

Seley said companies would have to show they have water rights, and will drill a well or pipe the water to the site.

"With 250,000 acres, how are you going to deal with cumulative impacts?" RAC Chairman John Hiatt asked.

"I think that is going to be a crucial issue," Putnam replied. He referred to all the applications filed in a row along Highway 95 from Lathrop Wells to Beatty, except for the US Ecology site.

Seley said the BLM can issue a right-of-way for up to 30 years.

Archeologist Kathleen Sprowl said the BLM hasn't conducted many archeological surveys in Nye County except for proposed power lines and off-road races.

"The solar projects are covering massive acres in Amargosa Valley, and up to this point in time not much has been done in the Pahrump district culturally because there haven't been many developments out here," Sprowl said. "We will have a large area inventoried to know what kind of historic or prehistoric activities were happening out here. For each solar project, we are going to be requiring that the entire area they ask to be leased is inventoried."

Sprowl said there are two historic railroad systems that may go through some lease sites, like the Las Vegas and Tonopah Railroad and the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad. Most stagecoach roads have already lost their integrity, she said.

BLM natural resource specialist Jayson Barangan outlined the unique situation at Big Dune, in the western Amargosa Valley, which is surrounded by applications for solar power. An area of critical environmental concern has been designated for 2,000 acres around Big Dune, mostly targeting the periphery around the dune which is home to four species of beetle found nowhere else, he said.

Barangan said the BLM is developing a resource recreation area management plan to address the environmental concerns and the popular off-highway use around the dune.

Barangan said the EIS will have to examine whether solar energy projects planned around Big Dune will affect the biological resources.

So how come Acciona Energy was able to build a solar power plant so quickly in El Dorado Canyon near Boulder City and another system went up already on Nellis Air Force Base?

Hiatt said Acciona Energy is using property belonging to the town of Boulder City. The Nellis project was built on military land.

February 10, 2009

Conservation group plans to sue feds over Nevada water project

Coyote Springs called habitat threat to tortoise, small fish


An endangered Moapa dace swims in a spring-fed stream on the Moapa National Wildlife Refuge, 60 miles north of Las Vegas. Between the refuge and nearby property recently acquired by the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the dace's entire natural habitat is now in the hands of groups committed to its protection. Photo by John Locher

A national conservation group has announced plans to sue the federal government for failing to protect endangered fish and desert tortoises that could be harmed by groundwater development plans in northern Clark County.

The lawsuit promised by the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity targets the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management over agreements those agencies struck with the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the developers of Coyote Springs.

Officials for the environmental group insist groundwater withdrawals by the Coyote Springs development and the water authority could destroy crucial habitat for the endangered Moapa dace, a finger-length fish only found at the headwaters of the Muddy River, 60 miles north of Las Vegas.

“It is our contention that they are putting the Moapa Dace at greater risk of extinction,” said Rob Mrowska, Nevada conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.

The federally protected desert tortoise also faces habitat loss in Clark and Lincoln counties as a result of large-scale groundwater pumping and the residential development it would sustain, Mrowska said.

The environmental group today sent the two federal agencies a 60-day notice of its intent to sue. Such notice is required for lawsuits brought under the Endangered Species Act.

This is the center’s first lawsuit taking aim at the water authority’s plans to tap groundwater across eastern Nevada, but Mrowska hinted it might not be the last.

“This is possibly a precedent-setting action,” he said.

Kirsten Cannon, spokeswoman for the BLM in Southern Nevada, said the agency had not received the center’s notice of intent as of this afternoon. She declined further comment.

Bob Williams, state supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service, declined to address the specifics of the center’s claims, but he said he stands by his agency’s efforts to protect the Moapa dace and desert tortoise.

“I take issue that our opinions were not based on the best science available,” Williams said.

Water authority spokesman J.C. Davis defended the work being done to protect the Moapa dace — efforts he said are only occurring because of that soon-to-be-challenged agreement among the authority, federal agencies and others.

“While we welcome constructive input from those interested in protecting and recovering the Moapa dace, it would be a shame to see all of this good work jeopardized by a misguided lawsuit,” Davis said.

As part of its multibillion-dollar plan to pipe groundwater to Las Vegas from as far as 250 miles away in White Pine County, the water authority wants to tap water beneath the Coyote Springs Valley and in the Muddy River.

Separate from that effort is the 43,000-acre Coyote Springs development along U.S. Highway 93 about 55 miles north of Las Vegas.

At the moment, the development includes only a few basic roads and a golf course that opened last spring. Eventually, though, developer Harvey Whittemore hopes to turn his property straddling the line between Clark and Lincoln counties into Nevada’s newest city, complete with several hotel-casinos and as many as 160,000 homes.

Build-out is expected to take decades, but the first home lots are scheduled to go on sale at the end of next year. Home construction could begin in 2010.

When the Center for Biological Diversity files its lawsuit 60 days from now, it will seek an injunction to halt groundwater development in the area until the case can be argued, Mrowka said.

February 8, 2009

Continued Arizona Strip access urged by Board

Kingman Daily Miner

KINGMAN - The Mohave County Board of Supervisors met Thursday afternoon and approved a resolution urging the 111th Congress to reject House Resolution 644 and continue to allow access to uranium and other mineral reserves in the Arizona Strip.

The strip is an area of land in the northwestern section of Mohave County between the Grand Canyon and the Utah border. The area has been known to have a rich reserve of minerals, including uranium.

HR 644 would close 1,068,908 acres of federal land in the area of Kanab Creek and House Rock Valley from all forms of entry, appropriation, and disposal by the federal government. It would also prevent the location, entry and operating of any new mines in the area.

Supporters of HR 644 say it will protect important natural resources and the groundwater for generations to come.

The Board and the National Association of Counties argue that the uranium reserves in the Arizona Strip area could provide a significant source of alternative domestic energy for the country and important jobs for the county.

According to the resolution the Board sent to Congress, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates 375 million pounds of uranium oxide may exist within the Arizona Strip area, nearly 40 percent of the nation's uranium reserves.

The Board and the NAC state in the resolution that threats to the watershed are unfounded. The Colorado River already contains trace amounts of uranium at levels far below safe drinking water standards and the deepest mine ever drilled in the Arizona Strip area was 1,000 feet.

February 7, 2009

Public input sought on relocating desert tortoises for military training center project

An analysis says coyotes caused most of the deaths of desert tortoises during a relocation effort. Frank Bellino / The Press-Enterprise

The Press-Enterprise

The federal government is asking for the public's help in deciding how best to relocate desert tortoises to make way for expansion of Fort Irwin Army training center near Barstow.

The effort to move the tortoises to new territory was suspended last fall when at least 90 of the 556 tortoises died after they were relocated. Most of those were killed by coyotes. Of those that survived, some returned to their home range on military property.

Now the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Fort Irwin National Training Center have announced a "scoping period" ending Feb. 18 to hear the public's suggestions on what issues should be addressed before tortoises are again moved from Fort Irwin expansion areas.

A new relocation plan is expected to be done by spring, an ideal time to relocate tortoises, according to a BLM news release.

A recent analysis by Nevada-based biologists for the U.S. Geological Survey found that coyotes were killing tortoises at several locations in California and Nevada because drought had left little other prey available, said Roy C. Averill-Murray, desert tortoise recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The tortoise deaths last year near Fort Irwin "absolutely had nothing to do with the relocation," Averill-Murray said in a telephone interview from his office in Reno.

The U.S. Geological Survey analysis of tortoise deaths is expected to be presented at a symposium in Nevada later this month. The researchers who did the study could not be reached Thursday.

Ileene Anderson, a Los Angeles-based biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental organization, said she wants to learn more about the U.S. Geological Survey analysis but added that relocated tortoises were easy targets for coyotes.

Tortoises have natural homing instincts, she said, and many tried to head back to the military property after they were moved. As they traveled, the tortoises had no burrows in which to find refuge from coyotes, she said.

Another concern is disease. The Center for Biological Diversity and Desert Survivors, another environmental group, sued the BLM and the Army last year, saying relocated tortoises were exposed to diseased animals and placed in inferior habitat.

Nearly 2,000 tortoises have been targeted for removal from land that Fort Irwin is taking over for military exercises. The species is listed as threatened with extinction.

An environmental analysis, expected to be published early next month, is being developed by the U.S. Geological Survey with input from the California Department of Fish and Game, BLM, U.S. Army and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Moving Tortoises

What: Public comments and suggestions are being sought on plans to relocate desert tortoises from military property to public land in the desert.

How: Send written comments to BLM Barstow Field Office, Attention: Mickey Quillman, 2601 Barstow Road, Barstow, CA 92311. Comments also can be faxed to 760-252-6099 or e-mailed to mquillma@ca.blm.gov.