November 29, 2011

Finding a fix for dying Salton Sea

After years of inaction by state, lawmaker wants to put regional group at helm

Pelicans fly to Mullet Island, one of the four Salton Buttes, small volcanoes on the southern San Andreas Fault, after sunset on July 2 near Calipatria. Scientists say Mullet Island, the only place for many thousands of island-nesting birds to breed at the Salton Sea, will become vulnerable to attacks by predators such as raccoons and coyotes if the water level drops just a couple more feet. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Marcel Honoré
The Desert Sun

NORTH SHORE — As state lawmakers held their first summit in more than four years on the looming death of the Salton Sea, Sonia Herbert gazed out the window at the North Shore Beach & Yacht Club marina, where squawking seabirds swooped across the glassy sea surface, fishing for tilapia.

Like most of the 60 people who attended Monday's hearing, Herbert, who has lived in Bombay Beach since the 1970s, fears the worst: that time is running out on efforts to repair the sea and sustain its wildlife, and that overwhelming public health and economic crises will follow.

“All we've seen is studies, studies, studies and nothing has been done,” a visibly frustrated Herbert told Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez and two Assembly budget committee members. “What's going to happen if we don't do something?”

The state remains broke, and its preferred $9 billion sea restoration plan has languished since 2007.

Sticker shock over the restoration cost has led to political paralysis, but Pérez, a Coachella Democrat whose district includes the sea, has called its restoration his top priority for the rest of his legislative tenure.

At the hearing, which Pérez's office organized, he listened to county supervisors, residents and environmental advocates call for the state to relinquish control and to let locals settle on the best plan to restore the sea and the best way to pay for it.

“The sea needs help and it needs it now. The answer isn't big brother riding to the rescue, because he's not coming. There is no rescue,” Imperial County Supervisor Gary Wyatt told Pérez and two other Assembly members, Republican Brian Jones of Santee and Democrat Richard Gordon of Menlo Park.

“We need to drive this train,” said Wyatt, quoting longtime Riverside County Supervisor Roy Wilson, who died in 2009.

Wyatt and others pushed public-private partnerships on new geothermal and solar energy projects at the sea as a realistic way to tap dollars for Salton Sea restoration.

Wyatt proposed taking a 7,000-acre former military test site at the sea's south shore, now controlled by the federal Bureau of Land Management, and converting it into a renewable energy depot that he said could provide 700 megawatts of power and produce at least $40 million a year in restoration funds.

Unlike redevelopment funds, that money would be exempt from state seizure, Wyatt said after the meeting.

“The interest is here, not there,” Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit said, referring to Sacramento. “What we need is the authority. If we fix this sea… the economic advantages to this area (are) nearly unlimited.”

Pérez said he hoped the hearing would help drum up support in the Legislature for his AB 939 bill, a proposal to switch the authority from the state's Salton Sea Restoration Council — a body that has never met — and place it in the hands of the local Salton Sea Authority, a joint-powers authority of the local counties and local water districts, along with some state presence.

“I'm optimistic that we can find a way if we work together and there's a political will from all levels of government including grassroots,” Pérez said. “Part of the reason why we have not been able to move forward is we're all moving in so many different directions. We need to find consensus to what the issues of the Salton Sea are.”

As runoff from irrigation and other water transfers evaporate, the Salton Sea's salinity has risen while its mass has shrunk. By the end of this decade, its retreat will be even more dramatic.

Created by flooding in 1905 and without a new source of water to replenish it, California's largest lake will grow uninhabitable to fish and the thousands of migratory birds that feed on them.

The exposed lakebed and the dust it generates could be disastrous in an area that already has one of the nation's highest rates for youth asthma, officials say. It also would damage agriculture and tourism.

State budget analysts at the hearing Monday reported that tens of millions of dollars in state bond funds from Propositions 50 and 84 have been spent on proposals for the sea's multi-billion-dollar fix, though exactly where the money went wasn't made clear.

“We've spent more than half our bond money … We don't have much to show for it, frankly,” said Kimberley Delfino, California program director of the national nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife.

“This is shameful and frightening,” Delfino said. “When you've lost 95 to 98 percent of the wetlands in California, the birds don't have any other place to go. The situation at the Salton Sea is grim and the stakes are high. We need a new governance structure, now. There isn't a lot of time left.”

As for the immediate next step, Pérez said he hopes for a meeting between Defenders of Wildlife, the Salton Sea Authority, the state's Legislative Analyst's Office, and other stakeholders.

“The sea still has its strong supporters, fighters and believers,” Wyatt said. “There are ways to make the revenues happen.”

November 23, 2011

Interior Reverses Course: No Shooting Restrictions

Paul Bedard
Washington Whispers

In a major victory for gun owners, hunters, and conservationists, the Interior Department today reversed course and junked its plan to tighten shooting restrictions on western lands, which could have put areas long used for target practice off limits.

Bowing to complaints from a special advisory committee made up of conservation and hunting groups like Ducks Unlimited, Cabela's, and the National Wildlife Foundation, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar today told the Bureau of Land Management, which manages 245 million acres of mostly wild western land, to stop drafting shooting rules.

"Based on feedback that members of the [advisory committee] have provided the BLM on the draft policy guidance, I am directing that the BLM take no further action to develop or implement the policy," wrote Salazar, himself a hunter and shooter and former Colorado senator and game official. [Check out new Debate Club about whether Congress needs to overhaul gun trafficking laws.]

Instead, he said in a letter to BLM, "The BLM shall continue to manage recreational shooting on public lands under the status quo in accordance with resource management and public safety considerations under existing authorities." Just the title alone of his letter made his point to BLM officials and the public: "Protecting Recreational Shooting Opportunities on Public Lands."

The issue of pushing shooters off some public lands where they have traditionally shot targets was a sensational one to gun rights groups and hunters. When Whispers first broke the story about the draft BLM plans, the story was headlined on the Drudge Report and Fox Nation. Officials conceded that the resulting pressure from gun owners who saw the Drudge and Fox report prompted them to clarify, and today end their efforts.

"BLM is not moving forward with the issue you wrote about," said an official. Instead, BLM land managers and not Washington will continue to use their existing authorities to work with communities and create land use plans where closure to shooting is a last resort. [Read about the subpoena issued as a result of Operation Fast and Furious.]

The issue of target practice put the BLM in the middle of traditional American gun rights and the rapid urbanization of once open public lands. Officials from BLM told Whispers that people moving in from more urban areas would "freak out" when walking in woods and hearing shots. Apparently, they also feared for their safety and BLM was working to draft a policy that soothed their concerns and also pleased hunters. Officials suggested that the end result would have been shooters being pushed a bit further away from urbanized areas near BLM lands, even provided with a guide to where they could shoot. They also assured hunters that access to public hunting lands would not be limited even under the draft rules.

But hunters and shooting groups saw it as a federal bid to clamp down on guns and shooting and they resisted. The advisory group, for example, assailed the draft policy.

In the end, they won. In his letter today, Salazar called hunting and shooting on public lands a national priority. He wrote: "It is a priority of the Department of the Interior to support opportunities for hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting on America's public lands. By facilitating access, multiple use, and safe activities on public lands, the Bureau of Land Management helps ensure that the vast majority of the 245 million acres it oversees are open and remain open to recreational shooting."

November 16, 2011

Cross shows up mysteriously, but briefly, on Mojave rock

By Henry Brean
Las Vegas Review-Journal

Mojave National Preserve - A white cross rose again this week over Sunrise Rock in California's Mojave National Preserve, briefly resurrecting a constitutional controversy over religious symbols on federal land.

It's unclear who put up the new cross, made of plastic pipe, or when, but the National Park Service removed it Tuesday from the rock 75 miles southwest of Las Vegas.

Linda Slater, spokeswoman for the preserve, said park personnel had no choice but to take it down.

"We're under a court order prohibiting us from displaying a cross at Sunrise Rock," she said.

The legal fight dates back a decade now. The original cross goes back considerably further than that -- clear back to 1934, when a group of World War I veterans mounted a welded steel symbol atop Sunrise Rock as a memorial to fallen soldiers.

For decades, it served as a site for Easter Sunday services and the occasional veterans event. A handful of volunteers maintained -- and occasionally replaced -- the cross, which was damaged from time to time by vandals and the desert wind.

The Mojave Memorial Cross, as it came to be known, was still there in 1994 when the federal government declared the 1.6 million acres surrounding it a national preserve.

And the cross was still there in 1997 when a retired park service employee lodged a complaint about it because he considered it a government endorsement of Christianity.

A pair of lawsuits ensued, and the cross was cast into darkness, spending several years covered by boards like a roadside sign with no writing on it.

One of the lawsuits made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in a 5-4 decision last year the justices ruled the symbol could stay while a lower court reconsidered the case.

Two weeks later, the original cross was stolen by still-unidentified vandals.

It was replaced days later by a replica cross, but the service quickly removed that one because the Supreme Court ruling applied only to the original disputed cross.

Wyn Hornbuckle, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, said the PVC pipe cross that showed up this week on Sunrise Rock was taken down for the same reason.

"The National Park Service removed the newly erected cross yesterday to comply with the court's existing injunction," he said in a statement.

Not everyone is satisfied with that answer.

Southern California resident William McDonald visits Mojave National Preserve several times a year and writes a blog about the desert under the name Morongo Bill.

He noticed the return of the cross on Monday and was watching from a distance as it was removed on Tuesday.

As far as he is concerned, this isn't about the separation of church and state; it's about the desecration of a war memorial that has been around for more than three quarters of a century.

"I'm a veteran, and I believe we don't know where we're going if we don't know where we've been," he said. "I feel so strongly about this (that) I think they should do an Occupy Sunrise Rock-type thing."

Hornbuckle said settlement talks are under way that could finally bring the legal fight over the cross to an end.

On Tuesday, the same day the latest replica cross was removed, a federal judge granted the parties involved in both lawsuits until Feb. 15 to hammer out a deal.

The most likely option is for the federal government to transfer ownership of Sunrise Rock to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in exchange for private land elsewhere in or around the preserve. Once the rock is in private hands, there would be nothing to prevent the placement of a memorial cross there.

As it now stands, erecting a cross or other religious symbol on Sunrise Rock is "technically illegal," Slater said.

Asked what would happen to the latest cross removed by the service, she said: "We'll put it in the evidence locker with the other one. What else would we do with it?"

November 12, 2011

County unveils new Route 66 historical markers

Route 66 Ambassador Terry Kafides, foreground applauds as 1st District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt unveils new San Bernardino County Route 66 signs along National Trails Highway. The county has the longest continuous paved stretch of the original highway in the country, and is beginning a project to post it with county highway signs. (JAMES QUIGG, DAILY PRESS)

Staff Reports
Victor Valley Daily Press

ORO GRANDE • In an effort to draw attention to the High Desert’s claim to the legendary Route 66, San Bernardino County is moving forward with a new historical sign marker program.

Friday marked the 85th anniversary of the storied thoroughfare, and 1st District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt used the occasion to unveil the first sign marker at a dedication ceremony on National Trails Highway in Oro Grande, just north of the Mojave River Bridge.

“Marking County Route 66 is one of several steps I am planning to celebrate, promote and protect this road and to make county highways more user-friendly,” Mitzelfelt said in a statement.

More than 250 miles of the iconic highway runs the length of San Bernardino County from Needles through Upland. More signs will be placed at various intervals along the route, starting with heading north of Oro Grande onto Main Street in Barstow. The sign program will then head east on Interstate 40, north on Nebo Street near Barstow, east on National Trails Highway and north on Goffs Road to its junction with Highway 95.

Cultural and historic sites along this alignment include the City of Barstow and the communities of Daggett, Newberry Springs, Ludlow, Amboy, Cadiz, Chambless, Essex and Goffs, as well as the Mojave National Preserve. This alignment can be expanded to include additional portions of or the entire Route 66 at a later date. The remainder of the signs on this first leg will be installed by the end of December.

Mitzelfelt is contributing $45,000 for the program through some of the last of his office’s discretionary funds, with that pot of money no longer unavailable to supervisors. Mitzelfelt said he initiated the marker program after seeing its effectiveness in other counties.

The county’s Route Marker Program is the first to be added in the state since 1983, according to Mitzelfelt’s office. The California County Route Marker Program was established in 1958 to mark county routes of major importance and public interest that are constructed and marked to sufficient safety standards. San Bernardino County is the 43rd of California’s 58 counties to participate in the program.

November 9, 2011

BLM testing camouflage to hide new energy structures

$90,000 design paid for with federal stimulus funds

A camoflage pattern that the BLM tested this fall, simulated on a natural gas compressor station near Parachute, Colorado. (Guy Cramer)

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

In an effort to reduce our reliance on non-renewable and foreign energy sources, the government wants the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to boost the amount of renewable energy development it permits on public lands. That means we’ll be seeing more wind turbines and solar panels as we ply the nation’s wide swaths of public lands, especially in the mountain west.

There’s not much that can be done to lessen the visual impact these energy generators will make on the landscape. But the BLM is trying to lessen the visual punch that the many maintenance buildings and other ancillary structures, used to support these power stations, will pack, reports High Country News.

Near Rifle, Colorado, the BLM recently completed a series of tests to gauge the effectiveness of different paint applications to camouflage these outbuildings. To help create the designs, the agency turned to landscape architects, an engineering and design firm and camouflage-design experts who usually help the Department of Defense conceal its soldiers and buildings.

The desired aesthetic isn’t a huge jump from the BLM’s existing color scheme of green grays and browns–well, except that the agency has to completely reverse its approach of using monotones and instead use a series of layered hues, applied through stenciling. The secret sauce is in blending the palette in a manner that blends into the surrounding fauna, which can actually range widely, from “mountain meadow, sub-alpine conifer woodland and sub-alpine aspen, to sagebrush steppe, scrub oak and piñon-juniper,” writes HCN’s Kimberly Hirai.

The trick to good camo, she writes, is not just visual, but also pshycologiocal [sic]. The patterns that the BLM tested combine large and smaller designs in differing hues. The design needs natural geometric shapes that echo those in the background in order to trick the eye. Our brains register these shapes in the background and have already “catalogued” them by the time the camouflage enters our field of vision.

Funding for the camo project — specifically the $90,000 needed to hire the design engineering firm — came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Reducing the scenic impact of buildings associated with renewable energy development on public lands is just one part of a larger mitigation effort to reduce the negative effects of such programs. And it’s also rather simple compared to trying to resolve issues such as solar panel farms harming desert tortoise populations or turbines linked to avian mortality.

November 7, 2011

Highway 395 promoted as Three Flags Highway

Historians work to revive 'Mother Road of the West'

Natasha Lindstrom
Victor Valley Daily Press

It's not nearly as famous as Route 66, but Highway 395 — sometimes called the "Mother Road of the West" — carries its own historical weight.

In the 1930s, Southern Californians dubbed the thoroughfare the Three Flags Highway for linking Mexico, the United States and Canada.

During World War II, Highway 395 provided military convoys with a safe alternative to coastal roads deemed vulnerable to attack.

Even today, the Three Flags Highway offers a scenic ride isolated from the heavy traffic clogging routes through Los Angeles.

The Historic Route 395 Association in Southern California is now trying to revive the Three Flags name as part of an effort to preserve the vintage motor courts, gas stations, restaurants and signs that still dot the old route, which once stretched from the San Diego Bay near the California-Mexico border to the Canadian border in Washington state.

“For the High Desert, it allowed the tourist industry to come up through the Cajon Pass and to explore the Eastern Sierras,” said Jeffrey Harmon, founding member of the 395 association, “and it also provided the only north-to-south route for commercial traffic on the eastern side of the Sierras.”

In June 2008, the California Legislature unanimously approved designating Highway 395 as a historic route from San Diego to the Oregon state line. But legislators left it up to cities and community organizations to pay for putting up historic markers and promoting the designation.

“Everything south of Hesperia has been reassigned to either city streets or completely disappeared all together,” Harmon said. “That history is important to preserve.”

Tracing the thorough fare’s pre-1948 route, the association has already installed about 100 signs in Riverside and San Diego counties, slowly making its way toward San Bernardino County and the Cajon Pass. The group is giving talks at community events to spread the word and accepting donations to put up more signs, which cost about $70 each.

“We’re doing what we can to get people to slow down, get off that interstate, just take a drive on Highway 395,” he said. “It’s just such a beautiful route.”

Meanwhile, locals continue to wait on a Highway 395 realignment that’s been in talks for decades and other improvements to make it safer to travel the local stretch of the 395.

November 6, 2011

Oasis or mirage? Company wants to tap Mojave water

Conservationists worry about the impact of mining the aquifer

Seth Shteir, a California Desert Field Representative for the National Parks Conservation Association, points out features in the Mojave National Preserve near Kelso, Calif., on Oct. 19. By tapping into an aquifer the size of Rhode Island under a 35,000-acre Cadiz ranch, proponents say they can supply 400,000 people with drinking water in only a few years. Conservationists, however, are concerned. (Chris Carlson / AP)

The Associated Press and MSNBC

CADIZ, Calif. — Off historic Route 66 in the heart of the California desert the barren landscape of dry scrub and rock abruptly gives way to an oasis of tall green trees heavy with lemons and grape vines awaiting next month's harvest.

Some believe this lush farm in the unlikeliest of places also sits atop a partial solution to Southern California's water woes.

By tapping into an aquifer the size of Rhode Island under the 35,000-acre Cadiz ranch, proponents say they can supply 400,000 people with drinking water in only a few years.

If the plan sounds familiar, it is. A decade ago, Los Angeles' Metropolitan Water District narrowly rejected it when it faced widespread environmental opposition. A scaled back version has resurfaced with a greener pitch, momentum from five water agencies and what the company claims is better science to win over skeptics.

"Do we need additional water supplies? Yes. Do we need groundwater storage? Yes," said Winston Hickox, a Cadiz board member who headed the California Environmental Protection Agency. "The question is 'OK, environmental community, what are your remaining concerns?' I don't know."

But conservationists including the Sierra Club remain worried. Critics say the company has misrepresented the size of the aquifer and that mining it could harm the threatened desert tortoise, bighorn sheep, as well as the nearby Mojave National Preserve which has some of the densest and oldest Joshua tree forests in the world. Concerns over rare desert species were also echoed by state Department of Fish and Game biologists in March.

Conservationists also worry tampering with an aquifer in a place where water is so scarce could cause dust storms.

"There's a lot of unknowns here but we think this project has the potential to adversely affect air quality, draw down water resources and alter the flow of groundwater beneath the Mojave Preserve," said Seth Shteir with the National Parks and Conservation Association, which plans to scrutinize an environmental review of the project, expected to be released this month.

Groundwater has long played a part in the West's age-old water wars, which are increasingly being waged underground. These large unseen reserves of underground water nourish a place that would appear to most observers as dead.

California has few regulations when it comes to groundwater pumping, according to Carolyn Remick, who heads the Berkeley Water Center at the University of California. Consequently it is often weaker local agencies that largely oversee such extraction, leading to a raft of problems ranging from groundwater contamination to over-pumping and ground sinking.

Last year a conservation group sued the state water board in an effort to force the agency to regulate groundwater pumping that has depleted Northern California's Scott River, threatening salmon populations. In arid Kern County, north of the Mojave Preserve, a local water utility filed suit against wealthy farming interests claiming their enormous withdrawals of water lowered the water table and caused service disruptions.

Cadiz officials say they are aware of the concerns and promise an extensive monitoring system. The water in question begins in springs high atop desert mountains and travels under the Cadiz ranch before it resurfaces in dusty lake beds dozens of miles away where it evaporates.

The plan could cost as much as $225 million to sink 34 wells into the desert and build a 44-mile pipeline along a railroad right-of-way that intersects with the Colorado River Aqueduct.

In dry years, water would be pumped to burgeoning communities in Southern California. During years with above-average rainfall, Colorado River water could be pumped to the aquifer for storage. Proponents say the water would offer a much-needed alternative to boost supplies in a region hard hit with water cutbacks during the state's recent three-year drought.

For years the project was led by a colorful British businessman, Los Angeles-based Cadiz founder Keith Brackpool, who has since taken a more behind-the-scenes role. Brackpool, who also heads the California Racing Board, has deep political connections, contributing to past gubernatorial candidates, serving as a water consultant to former Gov. Gray Davis and whose company once employed Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as a consultant.

Brackpool, however, became something of a distraction when it was revealed by the Los Angeles Times that years earlier he pleaded guilty in London to criminal charges that included dealing in securities without a license and that his expertise before becoming the governor's water consultant was overseeing a food company. His company reports having $145 million in assets, but generated revenue of just $1 million last year. It also is being investigated by shareholders unhappy with recent executive bonuses.

Brackpool, through a company spokesman, refused repeated requests for an interview with The Associated Press. Cadiz ranch is the company's only water project.

The Cadiz proposal was rejected in early 2000 by the Metropolitan Water District in part after conservationists raised concerns over possible environmental damage. A scaled-back version resurfaced in 2008 with a new spokesman, Scott Slater, a new greener pitch that they were conserving water that would otherwise evaporate and new studies that showed how much water they could safely pump.

"We're not taking water from anyone," Slater said. "It sincerely is depriving only the atmosphere of water that would actually evaporate."

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called the proposal "a path-breaking, new, sustainable groundwater conservation and storage project." But Sen. Dianne Feinstein called it a "serious threat to the desert" in a 2008 letter to the Department of the Interior, potentially depleting water supplies which plants and wildlife rely upon for survival

Since 2010, the Santa Margarita Water District, Three Valleys Water District, Golden State Water Company, Suburban Water Systems and Jurupa Community Services District entered into agreements with Cadiz to receive water. These agencies supply water to parts of Los Angeles County, Orange County, Riverside County and eastern San Gabriel Valley.

The company has invested $7 million in hiring top-flight consultants to study the science behind the project and in drilling wells. Cadiz also put together a panel of experts who reviewed the project and recently deemed it safe.

A comprehensive environmental report is expected to be released this month and if the project clears all required permits, the districts hope to get water within two years.

And if voters approve a $11 billion water bond measure intended to rebuild California's crumbling water system and fund new dams, water districts may apply for public funds available for new infrastructure to save up the precious resource for dry years. Schwarzenegger signed the bond bill in 2009, but it won't become law unless voters approve it a year from now next November.

John Schatz, Santa Margarita's general manager, calls the new vision a "conservation project," but he acknowledged potential hurdles in selling the greener pitch.

"We don't have any illusions that there may be some issues with environmental groups and what's happened in the past," he said.