December 28, 2012

BLM’s decision on Nevada-Utah pipeline called ‘pure folly’

Proposed pipline (Las Vegas Sun)

By Brian Maffly
The Salt Lake Tribune

Las Vegas’ plan to tap billions of gallons of groundwater lurched closer to reality this week after the Bureau of Land Management granted a right of way for a 263-mile pipeline connecting the fast-growing gambling destination with rural basins to the north near the Utah state line.

But excluded from this decision, which environmentalists and local ranchers will likely challenge in court, was the contentious matter of whether the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) will tap water from under the Snake Valley, the basin straddling the state line west of Delta. This is because Las Vegas has yet to secure rights to this groundwater, which remains in dispute between Utah and Nevada.

A proposed interstate agreement for dividing Snake Valley water awaits the signature of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. According to a spokesman on Friday, the governor and his advisers intend to review BLM’s move before deciding whether to sign off on the agreement, which has been favorably vetted by a panel of water-law experts.

Under this proposal, Nevada would be able to pull up to 36,000 acre-feet annually from Snake Valley for diversion to the Las Vegas metropolitan area, which is seeking water sources to supplement its reliance on the over-allocated Colorado River.

The new BLM decision focuses on proposed infrastructure that will move 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater from Cave, Dry Lake, Delamar and Spring valleys, and another 41,000 acre-feet secured through agreements with ranchers and Lincoln County. (An acre-foot, equal to 326,000 gallons, can meet the annual needs of up to four households.)

SNWA General Manager Patricia Mulroy called the new BLM decision a "huge milestone" for southern Nevada, while environmentalists called it "pure folly."

"The ability to draw upon a portion of our own state’s renewable groundwater supplies reduces our dependence on the drought-prone Colorado River and provides a critical safety net," she said in a statement.

But a network of conservation advocates and Nevada water users denounced the right-of-way approval as a shortsighted decision that will prove costly to both ratepayers and the environment.

"This decision defies common sense, and is pure folly and shortsightedness," said Abby Johnson, president of the Great Basin Water Network, in a news release. "The BLM’s own environmental impact statement, in thousands of pages of analysis and disclosures, confirms that, if implemented, the project would result in certain devastation for the environment, ranching families, Native-American people, and rural communities.

While Utah groundwater is not yet in play, those living downwind in the Beehive State have a lot to worry about if eastern Nevada basins are dried up to slake Las Vegas’ thirst, according to Salt Lake City activist Steve Erickson, a network board member.

"Over 30 million tons of new dust and particulate matter will be created each year as winds send aloft soil no longer secured by Great Basin vegetation such as sagebrush and greasewood," Erickson said. "In that dust are radionuclides, toxic heavy metals and soil-borne diseases which pose a real and serious danger to Utahans."

BLM authorized the right of way Thursday after several years of environmental review. The approval paves the way for construction, operation and maintenance of the main 84-inch-diameter pipeline across public land, as well as power lines, pump stations, regulating tanks, water treatment facility and other infrastructure associated with the multiphased project that critics say will cost more than $15 billion.

Actual construction and groundwater pumping will be subject to further environmental analyses, but opponents say "the die is cast" with this right-of-way decision.

"They will tier off this study for site-specific analyses in the future. This grants the big permission from which many little permissions will be granted," Erickson said. "This decision flouts their own science. We haven’t made any decision yet as a network, but I’ll bet the mortgage we’ll be seeing the BLM in court."

December 27, 2012

BLM approves Las Vegas water pipeline project

A planned pipeline would carry water from areas along the Nevada-Utah line into Las Vegas Valley. (JASON BEAN/LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL FILE PHOTO)

by Sandra Chereb
Associated Press
Las Vegas Review-Journal

CARSON CITY - The federal Bureau of Land Management signed off Thursday on a massive pipeline project to carry billions of gallons of water to Las Vegas from rural counties along the Nevada-Utah line.

The record of decision, signed by Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, authorizes the BLM to issue a right of way to the Southern Nevada Water Authority for the 263-mile pipeline that would stretch from the rural areas to the desert gambling metropolis that is home to some 2 million people and attracts 40 million visitors annually.

"This is a huge milestone for Southern Nevada," said Pat Mulroy, the water authority's general manager.

She said being able to "draw upon a portion of our own state's renewable groundwater supplies reduces our dependence on the drought-prone Colorado River and provides a critical safety net."

The Colorado River flows into Lake Mead, Southern Nevada's main water source. A recent study projected moderate to severe water shortages over the next several decades.

Lake Mead's surface level has dropped about 100 feet since 2000 because of ongoing drought and increasing demand from the seven states and more than 25 million people sharing Colorado River water rights.

"What the study really told us was that we must prepare for a much drier future and that we can't count on the Colorado River to sustain our community in the way it once did," Mulroy said.

Environmentalists decried the decision, which comes two decades after the concept began to take shape and after years of litigation. More lawsuits are expected to follow.

Nevada's state engineer, Jason King, granted the water authority permission in March to pump up to 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year from four rural valleys in Lincoln and White Pine counties. One acre-foot is the volume of water needed to cover an acre of land with water 12 inches deep - about 326,000 gallons. An acre-foot is enough to supply two Las Vegas homes for a year.

King's rulings are being challenged in state court.

Simeon Herskovits, an attorney in Taos, N.M., representing a coalition of ranchers, farmers, rural local governments and environmentalists, said the BLM decision was being reviewed but added that unless "serious deficiencies" in an earlier environmental study have been corrected, the decision to approve the pipeline cannot "be scientifically, economically or legally sound."

The BLM's decision follows findings made in November by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the project would not significantly affect about a dozen threatened or endangered species.

Environmentalists say otherwise.

"Some of Nevada's rarest, most unique species rely on wetlands and springs," said Rob Mrowka with the Center for Biological Diversity. "The Las Vegas water grab could undo all that and drive them extinct in the blink of any eye."

BLM spokeswoman JoLynn Worley said the decision authorizes the "main conveyance and support facilities" to be built on federally owned land. It's the last administrative ruling by the federal agency, and further challenges will be handled by the courts.

She said environmental studies will be required on specific aspects of the project as it is built.

But Herskovits said smaller environmental studies are no consolation after the project as a whole is given a green light.

"We don't feel that offers an adequate safeguard," he said.

Critics also said that the BLM relied on outdated or faulty data and that the project's price tag, once estimated around $3 billion, probably would approach $16 billion. That expense, they said, should have been addressed in the agency's environmental report to determine whether the project was financially feasible.

December 26, 2012

Heated debate surrounds fate of Baker's thermometer

Built to attract motorists heading to and from Las Vegas, the world's tallest thermometer in Baker, Calif., seen here in January 2000, has become an eyesore. (Mark J. Terrill/The Associated Press)

Las Vegas Review-Journal

BAKER, Calif. - A giant thermometer built to attract motorists headed to and from Las Vegas has become an eyesore, and residents in this Southern California desert town are divided about whether to take the landmark down.

Erected in 1991 and billed as the "World's Largest Thermometer," the 134-foot-high structure equipped with nearly 5,000 light bulbs was a Mojave Desert beacon. After changing ownership a few times, the current owner has kept the thermometer dark, saying the light bill was about $8,000 a month, according to the Los Angeles Times reports.

Le Hayes, general manager of the Baker Community Services District, says its demise is an embarrassment to the town. He plans to remove a picture of it from the welcome sign on Baker's water tower.

The tower's height was selected because of the 134-degree record set in nearby Death Valley in 1913. The thermometer was the brainchild of local businessman Willis Herron, who built the monolith next to his Bun Boy Restaurant.

Residents are unsure about the thermometer's future.

"I would kind of hate to see it go down because every time I see it I think of Willis, and Willis was a great guy," Hayes told the newspaper. "But if this guy isn't going to maintain it, it's like anything else that's been abandoned. He needs to take it down and get rid of it."

Baker, which considers itself the gateway to Death Valley and is known to travelers for its toasty temperatures, is located between Las Vegas and Los Angeles on Interstate 15. It is a frequent stopping point for travelers making the 280-mile trek, much of it across desert.

The town has been hit hard by the economic downturn. Two of its three motels are shut, and a chain link fence surrounds a Starbucks, which closed four years ago.

But Luis Ramallo, owner of Alien Fresh Jerky, one of the more popular stops on Baker's main road, believes the town can still attract tourists. He has plans to build a three-story, disc-shaped UFO hotel that would have 30-plus rooms. He believes the thermometer is no longer needed in Baker.

"I don't want them to fix the thermometer," Ramallo said. "I want them to tear it down. It's gone from good to bad to ugly."

December 21, 2012

County’s Legal Costs Near $1 Million for Cadiz

SMWD to pay legal costs for 9 lawsuits and counting...

San Bernardino County

The county of San Bernardino has sustained over $675,000 in outside legal costs and is on the brink of running up another quarter of a million dollars in lawyers’ fees as a consequence of its acquiescence in the Santa Margarita Water District’s approval of the so-called Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project.

All of that money will be recovered from those involved in the project, county officials said.

The Cadiz Valley water project upon completion will extract an average of 50,000 acre-feet of water from the East Mojave Desert and convey it via pipeline to Orange and Los Angeles counties for use there. The Santa Margarita Water District, which lies some 217 miles from the Cadiz Valley, assumed lead agency status on the project, which is an undertaking of Los Angeles-based Cadiz, Inc. The Santa Margarita Water District gave approval of the project, including signing off on an environmental impact statement, in July.

San Bernardino County contemplated but in March ultimately elected against challenging Orange County-based Santa Margarita’s assumption of that lead agency status on the project and instead on May 1 entered into a memorandum of understanding with that district and Cadiz, Inc. and its corporate entities, including the Fenner Valley Mutual Water Company, allowing Santa Margarita to oversee the environmental impact report for the project and conduct the public hearings related to project approval. On October 1, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors gave approval to a groundwater monitoring plan to facilitate completion of the project.

As a consequence of the project, San Bernardino County, Santa Margarita and Cadiz, Inc. have been named as defendants in nine separate lawsuits challenging the project’s approval. The county, on March 27, hired the San Francisco-based law firm of Downey Brand to assist county counsel in responding to any lawsuits it contemplated might be triggered by the project at what was then said to be a not-to-exceed cost of $449,322. Within four months, however, those funds had been exhausted and on July 24, the board authorized a $250,000 amendment to the Downey Brand contract, increasing the amount to $699,332. Legal billings to the county by Downey Brand have now eaten up that funding, and this week, county land use services director Christine Kelly asked the board to give approval for the expenditure of another $250,000 to cover continuing legal costs, pushing the Downey Brand contract to $949,332.

Delaware Tetra Technologies, Inc., which operates a salt mining operation in the Cadiz and Fenner Valleys, has filed four suits, each based on separate causes of action and differing applications of the law against the county, Santa Margarita and Cadiz, Inc., on May 25 in San Bernardino County Superior Court, on June 13 in Orange County Superior Court, on August 28 in Orange County Superior Court and on October 30 in San Bernardino County Superior Court.

On August 28, the Colorado River Branch of the Archaeological Heritage Association filed suit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles against the county of San Bernardino, Cadiz, Inc., Santa Margarita Water District, the U.S. Department of the Interior, its secretary Ken Salazar, and the Bureau of Land Management over Santa Margarita’s approval of the project.

On August 31, the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit against the county, Cadiz, Inc. and Santa Margarita in San Bernardino County Superior Court.
On August 31, a group, Citizens and Ratepayers Opposing Water Nonsense, filed suit against the Santa Margarita Water District, the county of San Bernardino and Cadiz, Inc. in Orange County Superior Court.

Another lawsuit naming the county, Briones vs. Santa Margarita Water District, was filed in San Bernardino County Superior Court on August 31. And the Center for Biological Diversity filed a second lawsuit against the county and the other defendants in San Bernardino County Superior Court on November 1. In several of the lawsuits, the adequacy of the environmental certification of the project is under attack. San Bernardino County’s abdication of its land use and environmental oversight authority is also a recurrent issue in the lawsuits.

According to the memorandum of understanding the county entered into, Cadiz, Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District are to reimburse the county for any of its legal costs relating to the project. According to county spokesman David Wert, “The county has received $650,000 in reimbursements, $135,000 from the Santa Margarita Water District and $515,000 from Cadiz, Inc.”

Wert said, “The county has incurred legal costs [related to the Cadiz water project] of $675,994.02 to date.”

An issue in the lawsuit brought by Citizens and Ratepayers Opposing Water Nonsense pertains to the Santa Margarita Water District’s assumption of the financial liability of other parties involved with the project approval. Opponents of the project have questioned whether Cadiz, Inc., an agricultural and landholding company which has not shown a profit for more than 13 years, will be able to sustain itself in the face of mounting legal challenges to the project. Those inveighing against the project not on environmental grounds but financial ones have questioned who will assume the company’s liabilities if it folds or declares bankruptcy.

Land use services director Christine Kelly stated, “The county of San Bernardino is to be reimbursed by Santa Margarita Water District, Cadiz, Inc., and Fenner Valley Mutual Water Company for all claims, liabilities, damages, or costs arising from or relating to any administrative or judicial action brought by any third party against the county, its agents, officers, or employees, that may arise from or be related to the county’s approval of the memorandum of understanding and the groundwater management, monitoring and mitigation plan.”

December 18, 2012

Final EIS Published on Searchlight Wind Energy Project

Searchlight Wind Energy project map (BLM)
Press Release

LAS VEGAS -- A Final Environmental Impact Statement for a proposed wind energy facility near Searchlight, Nev., was released Dec. 14, starting a 30-day review period before a final decision on the project is made. The BLM’s notice was available on the Federal Register electronic desk on Friday and it will be published on Dec. 18.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Las Vegas Field Office released the EIS, which recommends cutting the size of the original proposal from 161 wind turbines to 87. That change and others came through extensive public comments periods on the Draft EIS as well as discussions with the area tribes and State and federal agencies.

The Searchlight Wind Energy, LLC proposal is to construct and operate a wind energy generating facility, which would produce approximately 200 megawatts of electricity and deliver power to the electrical transmission grid by 2015.

In addition to the wind turbines, the proposed project would require the construction of pad mounted transformers at the base of each turbine, underground collection lines, new access roads, two electrical substations, an overhead transmission line connecting the two substations, an electrical interconnection facility/switchyard owned and operated by Western Area Power Administration, an operations and maintenance building, and temporary and permanent laydown areas.

Three meteorological masts would remain on the site to measure the wind speed and direction over the life of the project.

The right-of-way application area encompasses approximately 18,789.71 acres of BLM-administered public lands along U.S. Route 95. The permanent footprint of the project, as proposed, would be approximately 163 acres.

The Final EIS is available for public inspection at the BLM Southern Nevada District Office. Printed or electronic copies of the Final EIS are available by request from the BLM Southern Nevada District Office, 4701 N. Torrey Pines Drive, Las Vegas, NV 89130, phone (702) 515-5173, or email: Interested persons may also review the Final EIS on the Internet.

December 14, 2012

Clock running out on wilderness bills

The Castle Mountains are part of an area that would be added to the Mojave National Preserve under Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s California Desert Protection Act. (Photo: Contributed Image/The Press-Enterprise)


WASHINGTON — Every United States Congress for nearly half a century, no matter how divided, has agreed to set aside undeveloped tracts of land for future generations by designating them as wilderness areas.

But as the nation’s 112th Congress draws to a close, lawmakers have yet to protect a single acre of forest, mountain or desert under the Wilderness Act. The clock is running out on 27 such bills, including Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s plan to preserve more than a million acres in San Bernardino County’s High Desert and Republican Rep. Darrell Issa’s legislation to expand an existing wilderness area along the Riverside and San Diego county line.

As long as Washington remains consumed with efforts to avoid a national plunge off the “fiscal cliff,” it is likely that all of the bills will expire with the 112th Congress on Dec. 31. But advocates and congressional staffers attribute inaction on wilderness bills to a larger problem: bitter partisanship that has pervaded even areas in which Democrats and Republicans previously found common ground.

“It is interesting that we have these bipartisan supporters, and the committees are still not moving them (the bills) forward,” said Annette Kondo, a spokeswoman for The Wilderness Society.

In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act, which set aside more than nine million acres throughout the country and authorized Congress to designate wilderness areas where appropriate. Apart from the following Congress — the 89th — every Congress since has taken advantage of that power.

Almost 110 million acres across 44 states has been set aside as wilderness, including more than 15 million acres in California, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Feinstein, D-Calif., first introduced her California Desert Protection Act in late 2009, and she reintroduced the bill at the start of the current Congress in January 2010.

The legislation would bar development on more than a million acres in the Mojave Desert and northwest of Palm Springs. The largest component is the 941,000-acre Mojave Trails National Monument, encompassing dry lakes, mountain ranges and other terrain on both sides of Interstate 40, south of the Mojave National Preserve. It also would establish the Sand to Snow National Monument stretching across 134,000 acres from San Gorgonio Peak to the desert floor near Palm Springs.

The bill has support from a broad spectrum of local groups and officials and was the subject of a hearing before the Senate Energy Committee.

But it stalled in the face of possible opposition from Republicans, who question whether so much land should be deemed off-limits to development or other uses.

“There are Republicans who don’t want to do conservation bills,” energy committee spokesman Bill Wicker said.

“It’s really pretty simple. They just refuse to vote for them.”

Wilderness bills in the Senate are traditionally passed by unanimous consent, rather than a recorded vote, meaning that a single opponent can block passage.

Feinstein said she remains committed to passing the bill.

“I plan to reintroduce the bill early next year and look forward to working with the new Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman,” Feinstein said.

Both Feinstein’s bill and the Issa legislation won backing from the Obama administration, which issued a report in November 2011 urging Congress to approve those and 16 other wilderness bills in a single package.

The Issa measure would protect 21,000 acres, roughly doubling the existing Beauty Mountain and Agua Tibia wilderness areas in southwestern Riverside County and extending them into San Diego County.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who championed the original Beauty Mountain bill, introduced companion legislation to Issa’s bill in the Senate.

Though there is some opposition to wilderness legislation in the Senate, the lower chamber is the real problem, said Paul Spitler, policy director for The Wilderness Society.

“There is an extreme minority in the House of Representatives that is philosophically opposed to wilderness,” he said, noting that none of this year’s wilderness bills were approved by the House Natural Resources committee, which has jurisdiction over them.

A year ago, the panel’s chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., raised concerns about the White House’s wilderness plan, arguing that “the federal government already owns more lands than it can afford to properly manage.”

Committee spokeswoman Crystal Feldman defended the panel’s record on public lands issues.

“While neither the Senate or the House have passed wilderness legislation this Congress, the House Natural Resources Committee has held hearings on several wilderness bills, thoughtfully and carefully examining whether they have broad local support and how they would impact jobs, local economies and recreational opportunities,” she said.

While Issa, R-Vista, and other Republicans have proposed individual wilderness bills, some in the GOP are reluctant to support the measures, which they feel limit land use rights.

Following a statewide redistricting effort, Issa will no longer represent any part of Riverside County or the area where the new wilderness area is proposed.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, who will represent that area in the next Congress, has not yet taken a position on the legislation, according to his spokesman, Joe Kasper.

With no movement in sight, Issa and proponents of the other 26 wilderness bills now languishing in Congress have no choice but to look to the next Congress, or beyond.

Said Issa spokesman Frederick Hill: “We believe the proposal has merit and will ultimately become law.”

December 12, 2012

Colorado River Basin study projects future water shortages

Population will increase but water supply will shrink 9% by 2060

Valves at the base of the Glen Canyon Dam are opened last March, sending water at a rate of 41,00 cubic feet per second into the Colorado River. A new study released Wednesday indicate demand for the water will outstrip supply by 2060 unless conservation and other measures are adopted. (Paul Fraughton | Tribune file photo)

By Christopher Smart
The Salt Lake Tribune

Water supply projections are so dire in the Colorado River Basin looking 50 years into the future that some have suggested towing icebergs from the Arctic to quench the Southwest’s growing thirst.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Interior released a 163-page Colorado River study that projected demand for water would outstrip supply by 2060.

"This is a very significant finding," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Wednesday in a telephone conference call. "This study should serve as a call to action."

Utah’s fortunes, however, look brighter than those of the lower Colorado Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada that already are facing shortages, said Dennis Strong, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.

The Beehive State has not used all the water allocated to it from the Colorado River, he said. And the 1922 Colorado River Compact protects that allocation.

"The solution [for the lower basin states] is not to take water from the upper basin," Strong said.

But the study, a three-year cooperative effort between the federal government and the seven states in the river basin, including Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, produced startling findings.

By 2060, the water supply in the Colorado River and its tributaries will fall at least 3.2 million acre-feet short of demand and could be as much as 8 million acre-feet less than needed. (An acre-foot is the typical amount an average suburban family uses in one year.)

Presently, the Colorado River Basin is home to 33 million people. That number is projected to grow in coming decades. But, by 2060, the study says the flows in the Colorado and its tributaries will drop 9 percent from what they are today.

The findings were based on mathematical models that include drought and climate change, according to federal officials.

There will be no "silver bullet" solution to the problem, Salazar said, citing a host of proposed actions, including conservation, re-use of storm and waste water, new plumbing efficiencies, updated land-management strategies and progressive water-rate structures.

The Interior boss added that proposals such as piping water 600 miles from the Missouri River to Denver or dragging icebergs from the Arctic to Los Angeles are not being considered.

However, desalinization may be part of the solution. The federal government operates an experimental desalinization plant in Yuma, Ariz. But critics say such a process is too expensive to be feasible.

In Utah, conservation will be the key to future water use, Strong said. Moderate water-saving strategies should guarantee enough water for municipal and agricultural uses into the foreseeable future.

Further, he noted, the study should not undermine a proposed water pipeline from Lake Powell to St. George, even though flows into and out of the reservoir behind Glen Canyon Dam will be significantly lower.

The Colorado River Basin study defined and quantified the water-shortage problem, said Pat Graham, Arizona director of the Nature Conservancy. Fortunately, he said, there is time to find solutions.

"The important thing is, diverse interests came together for this study and that’s what it will take to find solutions."

Water-saving strategies implemented at local levels will be more efficient and cost less than regional solutions that tend to be large and expensive, Graham said.

"The more of those [local approaches] we get in place, the more time we buy," he said, "and the regional projects will be smaller and fewer."

Salt Lake City has demonstrated that is possible, said Jeff Niermeyer, director of public utilities.

Since 2000, the city has decreased its demand for water by 15 percent to 17 percent, he said. Those savings came from education, conservation and more efficient plumbing.

"In the future, I’m not worried that we won’t have enough to drink," he said. "But we won’t have the same kind of landscaping. People are already pulling up bluegrass and xeriscaping."

December 2, 2012

Riverside County to honor Mojave Cross advocates

Henry and Wanda Sandoz with the Mojave Cross in the background after the Nov. 11 installation ceremony. (David Olson/Staff photo)

by David Olson
Riverside Press-Enterprise

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors Tuesday is scheduled to honor those who helped save the World War I veterans memorial cross in the Mojave Desert east of Baker.

The cross was the subject of more than a decade of First Amendment court battles.

It sits on public land, the Mojave National Preserve, and a former National Park Service employee sued to have it removed, because he saw it as an unconstitutional government endorsement of Christianity. He received backing from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Supporters of the cross argued that it was erected 78 years ago by World War I veterans to honor their fallen colleagues, not to promote religion.

After two federal courts agreed with the ACLU, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 ruled that a land exchange, under which the land around the cross was converted into private property, passed constitutional muster.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars now owns the acre under and around the cross. A new cross was installed on the land on Nov. 11, Veterans Day. It’s the latest of several versions of the cross that have stood on the site.

Among those scheduled to be honored Tuesday are Henry and Wanda Sandoz, who had cared for the cross for 30 years and ceded five acres of their land to the national preserve as part of the land exchange.

American Legion District 21, who represents about 4,000 veterans in Riverside County and helped defend the cross, and retiring U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, who first negotiated a land exchange, are also scheduled to be honored.

Supervisor John Benoit will lead the ceremony, Rees Lloyd, director of the California Legion’s Defense of Veterans Memorials Project, said in a news release.

November 30, 2012

County Opposes Wind Turbines On Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa

Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa.
San Bernardino County Sentinel

In one of his last acts as Third District county supervisor, Neil Derry convinced his board colleagues to take a stand against a British company’s proposal to erect several score 197-foot high wind turbines in the desert north of Yucca Valley on Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa north of Pipes Canyon Road between Pioneertown and Yucca Mesa.

London-based Element Power, which has its main North American office in Portland, Oregon, has been doing exploratory work to determine whether it will seek permits for the project under the aegis of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which calls for 33 percent of California’s commercially-produced electricity sales to be provided by renewable sources by 2020. Element is banking upon an expedited permitting process that is available for projects applied for under the plan.

The board of supervisors this week, however, significantly complicated that approach when it collectively endorsed a resolution brought forth by Derry opposing Element Power’s application.

In making his recommendation for the resolution, Derry noted that the Black Lava Butte Wind Project was proposed to be sited where previously an electrical transmission line project known as Green Path North was to have been located.

“On December 4, 2007 the board of supervisors adopted Resolution No. 2007-367 opposing the Green Path North project proposed by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power,” Derry stated in his report to the board with regard to the resolution. “The project called for the erection of power transmission lines throughout western portions of the Morongo Basin and endangered natural wildlife corridors, sensitive habitat areas and important cultural resources. Following the abandonment of the Green Path North project, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power once again solicited requests for proposals to be filed for proposed projects on the Green Path North alignment.

The Black Lava Butte Wind Project application filed by Element Power and approved by the Bureau of Land Management calls for the exploration of potential wind energy capture and transmission within the backcountry of the Morongo Basin. Element Power would first seek to ascertain the viability of wind energy development by measuring data from two meteorological towers approximately 200 feet in height that have already been constructed.”

In July 2011, Element Power erected the two 197-foot high towers Derry referred to in order to collect data on wind speed and direction at that height at that location. The Bureau of Land Management in 2010 gave Element permission to build those towers. Element hopes to determine from that data whether building a wind farm at that location will prove commercially viable.

While some endorse the concept of aggressive corporate efforts to develop renewable energy and certain environmentalists embrace the wind farm concept, others, including some environmentalists, are opposed to the project proposal.

Some opponents cite the harm they perceive the placement of turbines will have on the desert vista. They and others find objectionable the danger they say the wind turbines represent to eagles, bats, and other birds that fly through or inhabit the area. Another point of protest hinges on the possible destruction of Native American rock art and other archaeological artifacts in the area. Other critics point out that the remote location of the wind field will require that the electricity be transported a considerable distance, and that a significant percentage of the energy will be lost during that line transport.

Three groups opposed to the project on environmental grounds, the California Desert Coalition, Save Our Desert, and the Center for Biological Diversity, are seeking to have that portion of the desert which was identified as an area of critical environmental concern in the Desert Protection Act introduced to Congress in 2011 extended to include Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa.

If Element Power elects to proceed with the project, it will need to erect eight miles of transmission lines and towers to deliver the energy to the California Power Grid’s existing electrical transmission lines.

Derry made reference to the transmission line and its placement in his call for the board to oppose the project.

“In order to supply the region’s electrical grid with the wind power, an eight-mile transmission line would need to be constructed over environmentally sensitive habitat,” Derry wrote. “Over 4,000 acres of undeveloped public lands would be subjected to transmission lines and networks of wind turbines. This project area required helicopter transport in order to erect the meteorological towers and further development would require the building of road infrastructure in order to reach two scenic jewels of the Morongo Basin: Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa.”

Derry said that neither he nor the county are opposed to the harnessing of the wind to produce electrical power, but that such projects should be undertaken in areas that will not suffer environmental or ecological degradation as a consequence.

“As stated previously in Resolution No. 2007-367, while the county supports the use of renewable resources and encourages programs that reduce greenhouse gas emissions; the county of San Bernardino also places a high value on protecting and preserving the natural resources of the California desert and as a result opposes the construction of high tension power lines through environmentally sensitive areas in the Morongo Basin, and recommends that additional power lines be located within existing energy corridors,” Derry stated.

November 29, 2012

BrightSource Seeks Changes In Ivanpah Tortoise Plan

by Chris Clarke

BrightSource Energy, developer of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System now under construction in the California desert, wants to change how it mitigates its project effects on the federally threatened desert tortoise. The company has filed a request last week to amend the project's permit with the California Energy Commission (CEC) allowing it to protect tortoise habitat elsewhere in the Mojave Desert rather than in the Ivanpah Valley, as the permit now requires.

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System is being built on almost 4,000 acres of what was once prime desert tortoise habitat in the Ivanpah Valley, which straddles the California-Nevada line south of Las Vegas. Slated for completion in 2013, the 370-megawatt solar thermal project was briefly halted in 2011 when workers found hundreds more of the threatened reptile on the site than surveys had predicted.

As part of the required mitigation of the project's impacts on desert tortoise habitat, BrightSource agreed in 2010 to a number of land protection measures including either buying or acquiring conservation easements on att least 175 acres of desert wash habitat in the same watershed as the project. The company now says that the Ivanpah Valley doesn't have sufficient connected lands to make that feasible. BrightSource wants to be able to meet the project's mitigation requirements through the California Department of Fish and Game's Advance Mitigation Land Acquisition Grants (AMLAG) program, in which the agency acquires mitigation lands with funds paid into a state trust fund by project developers.

The portion of the Ivanpah Valley where Ivanpah SEGS is located is neither an Area of Critical Environmental Concern nor a designated or proposed Desert Wildlife Management Area, nor is it designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as critical habitat for any species. With respect to cumulative impacts and related issues, the presence of 1-15, Nipton Road, the Primm Valley Golf Club, Primm itself, and the Union Pacific Railroad railway has not only permanently altered drainage patterns but, along with Ivanpah Playa itself, substantially fragmented desert tortoise habitat in Ivanpah Valley. These barriers also limit the value of the available private land parcels in the Ivanpah Valley due to their lack of potential to promote habitat connectivity.

The nearly 200,000-acre Ivanpah Valley actually offers a fair amount of potential connected tortoise habitat. It's true that some few thousand acres have been developed for Primm and its associated golf course, but those developments are clustered in a relatively small section in the central valley. Interstate 15 and the railroad line similarly disrupt connectivity between the east and west sides of the valley, but offer little obstruction to the north-south migration that will become especially crucial for tortoise survival as the globe warms.

Taking advantage of the AMLAG program would allow BrightSource to pay the state to protect land in other parts of the desert. BrightSource's petition to the Energy Commission identifies other areas in the Mojave that offer potential mitigation land opportunities:

Suitable lands have been identified within the Cady Mountain-Hidden Valley, Fremont-Kramer/Superior-Cronese, and Chuckwalla property groupings. These lands are located either within a proposed Desert Wildlife Management Area, or within a proposed Wilderness Area. Additionally, these lands are private parcels that currently fragment the proposed Desert Wildlife Management Area or Wilderness Area.

That's a laudable goal, though not one that does much to remedy any harms done to the Ivanpah Valley's tortoises, which U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) studies indicate may have been genetically isolated for millennia from tortoises elsewhere in the California Desert. In February, in an assessment of the tortoise's status across its range, the FWS described the long-term geographic barriers that have caused Ivanpah Valley tortoises to evolve a unique genome:

Saline Valley and Death Valley extending south into Silurian Valley and Soda Dry Lake act as a barrier between this recovery unit and the Western Mojave Recovery Unit. Although gene flow likely occurred intermittently during favorable conditions across this western edge of the recovery unit, this area contains a portion of the Baker Sink, a low-elevation, extremely hot and arid strip that extends from Death Valley to Bristol Dry Lake. This area is generally inhospitable for desert tortoises.

November 19, 2012

US, Mexico To Sign Landmark Colorado River Agreement

About 30 million people in seven western States and two Mexican states depend on Colorado River water. After years of negotiations the U.S. and Mexico plan to sign a landmark water use agreement Nov. 20.

The U.S. stores emergency water for Mexico at Lake Mead, the reservoir behind Hoover Dam near Las Vegas. (Laurel Morales/KPBS)

By Laurel Morales

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The Hoover Dam was built to control the powerful Colorado River, which for many years flooded farms and cities.

“‘Ladies and gentlemen, here is where man conquered the mighty river placing a concrete yoke about its neck to harness its tremendous power and water resources,’” a 1955 educational video explained.

In 1922 the Colorado River Compact divvied up the water to the upper and lower basin states. This allowed for cities like Las Vegas and San Diego to mushroom rapidly, and for farmers to grow acre upon acre of alfalfa and other crops.

About 20 years later, Arizona and Mexico signed on to receive their shares.

So let’s do a little math. Water is measured in acre-feet. An acre-foot is enough water for about two households a year. The upper and lower basin states were allocated 7.5 million acre-feet each, and 1.5 million acre-feet to Mexico, add in the loss to evaporation (remember we’re in the desert here) and you get a grand total of about 18 million acre-feet a year. But today -- in this extended drought period -- the river is flowing at best 15 million acre-feet.

"There simply isn’t enough water to go around even if we drained the river dry every year to satisfy those who have legal rights to the water," said Robert Glennon, a University of Arizona regents professor and the author of Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to do About it. In addition to the over-allocation of river water, the states are now facing climate change and population growth.

"You add all of those things up and it’s a train wreck," Glennon said. "So the states and the two national governments cannot put their heads in the sand and pretend that there’s not a problem. I commend them for tackling the issue head on."

The issue came to a head five years ago when Lake Mead, the reservoir behind Hoover Dam, reached a critical low point. The western states devised a backup plan. But the real question -- will Mexico go along?

"It was never clear when the river went into shortage conditions that Mexico was going to agree to accept a cutback in supply that went to Mexico," said David Modeer, the general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which provides 80 percent of the state’s water. "That’s an uncertainty and a threat to us that if we were going have to cutback supplies, there was no guarantee that the amount of water Mexico gets on an annual basis would be reduced similarly in fashion."

There was an added urgency to the negotiations for Mexico when, in 2010, an earthquake damaged pipelines in a major farming area south of the border. Mexico asked the U.S. to let it store water in Lake Mead while repairs were made. The new water agreement extends this emergency storage program.

It’s a precedent-setting agreement and many other nations dealing with water scarcity -- like Australia and some Asian countries -- are watching with interest.

"Just the notion that one country would use its facilities to store the waters of another country is a huge issue across the globe and this agreement will go down as a blueprint," said Pat Mulroy, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

The agreement also has some gains for environmentalists.

It calls for a pilot program of water releases from the U.S. to replenish the now mostly dry wetlands in the Colorado River delta in Northern Mexico -- once a major stopover for North American birds.

The most important element of this agreement is that Mexico will share in times of surplus and shortage with the western United States. Still, water experts say more needs to be done to plan for climate change, which will likely reduce Colorado River flows by as much as 9 percent.

Feds begin high-flow releases from Glen Canyon

Experiments will occur yearly in hope of restoring Grand Canyon’s ecological vitality.

The high-flow release of water into the Colorado River from bypass tubes at Glen Canyon Dam in Page, Ariz., Monday Nov. 19, 2012 begins as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar opens the valves. Federal water managers started a 5-day high-flow experimental release to help restore the Grand Canyon's ecosystem. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic,Rob Schumacher)

By Brian Maffly
The Salt Lake Tribune

Page, Ariz. -- Federal water mangers and scientists Monday began ratcheting up releases from Glen Canyon Dam as part of a five-day experiment to push sediments down the Colorado River in hopes of restoring sandbars that play a vital ecological role in the river channel.

This week’s high-flow releases, designed to mimic the pre-dam natural flooding, mark "an historic milestone" for river management, according to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

"It was an honor to open the door to a new era for Glen Canyon Dam operations and the ecology of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Grand Canyon National Park — a new era in which we realize that the goals of water storage, delivery and hydropower production are compatible with improving and protecting the resources of the Colorado River," Salazar said after he personally triggered releases at noon through the dam’s outlet tubes that bypass the turbines.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation began experimenting with high flows in 1996; this week’s event is only the fourth experiment. The others occurred in 2004 and 2008.

But the frequency of future releases will increase — to the delight of conservationists — under protocols Salazar announced in May.

"We have been pitching Interior for years to do these as often as the sediment in the system warrants. They rejuvenate all the sediment-related resources," said Nikolai Lash, a program manager with the Grand Canyon Trust. Under the new protocols, high-flow releases are expected to occur as often as once or twice a year, depending on the accumulation of downstream sediments.

Scientists led by Utah State University geomorphologist Jack Schmidt will closely monitor the effects of these high flows for the next several years. Their findings will help guide a long-standing "adaptive management" strategy for the Southwest’s signature river, which has carved one of the world’s most scenic landscapes. Damming the river produced a windfall of electrical power, but it also wrecked the river’s ecology and pushed warm-water fish species toward extinction.

"By early 1990s, the scientific community recognized it would be impossible to restore native ecosystems without controlled floods because they reintroduce disturbance into the ecosystem," said Schmidt, who now works for the U.S. Geological Survey. A professor of watershed sciences, Schmidt remains on unpaid leave from his USU appointment while he leads the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center in Flagstaff, Ariz.

By disturbance, Schmidt was referring to the massive floods that once roared through Glen and Grand canyons, with flows in excess of 50,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) occurring most years and in excess of 125,000 cfs every eight years on average. Before the 1966 completion of the 710-foot-high Glen Canyon Dam, which forms Lake Powell, the Colorado pushed millions of tons of eroded sediments downstream, creating a rich network of sandbars that supported fish and riparian communities along Grand Canyon’s floor, not to mention great camping spots for river runners.

The dam impounds 95 percent of the natural sediment flow, then releases water at a steady rate of 7,000 to 9,000 cfs, which prevents sediments building up at the mouths of tributaries from being pushed downstream, according Schmidt.

November 15, 2012

Mojave Cross to return to desert home

National Park rangers to send back cross

Golden Gate National Recreation Area ranger Nijaune Winston stands by the Mojave Cross. The National Park district intends to return the cross to its original locale in the Mojave National Preserve. (Photo courtesy of Golden Gate National Recreation Area)

by Mark Noack
Half Moon Bay Review

National Park Service officials this week took custody of the Mojave Cross with plans to return it to its desert home, one week after the handmade monument was found mysteriously on the side of Skyline Boulevard.

Once found, the cross, a 6-foot steel-pipe structure, was delivered to the Half Moon Bay Sheriff’s substation. Then it was transported to an undisclosed location in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. GGNRA officials say the cross is being treated as evidence until it is returned to the Mojave National Preserve. Those arrangements are still being made.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, Yucca Valley resident Henry Sandoz, the caretaker of the cross, installed a replacement at the same location as part of a Veterans Day ceremony. The event also marked a successful land trade as a workaround to the delicate church-state issues at play.

Originally erected in 1934 to honor World War I veterans, the Mojave Cross became the target of lawsuits, appeals and court rulings after its surrounding property became part of the National Park system. The cross became a legal pawn in a larger controversy. Civil-rights groups viewed its as a blatant religious display on public land while veterans’ associations defended it as a memorial.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a 2010 ruling on the matter, but just days afterward the cross was stolen. It remained missing for two years until last week, when a television news crew discovered it lying on the side Highway 35. The cross was wrapped up and had a message asking whoever found it to return it. Sandoz and National Park officials later authenticated it was the same cross stolen in 2010.

Last week, the National Park Service announced it was transferring a small piece of the Mojave National Preserve to the California Veterans of Foreign Wars as a way to resolve the central conflict of the lawsuits.

November 11, 2012

Cross stands again

The new Mojave Cross after it was installed on Sunday, November 11, Veterans Day. (DAVID OLSON/STAFF PHOTO)


MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE -- After more than a decade of First Amendment court battles, a cross stands again in the Mojave National Preserve, for the first time with the legal blessing of the U.S. Supreme Court.

More than 100 people Sunday, November 11, watched as the seven-foot-tall iron cross was hoisted onto and then bolted into Sunrise Rock, which is 12 miles off Interstate 15 about halfway between Barstow and Las Vegas. Then, the commander of the California Veterans of Foreign Wars, Earl Fulk, formally rededicated it.

The Veterans Day ceremony occurred 78 years after World War I veterans erected the cross in honor of their fallen comrades, and 11 years after a lawsuit backed by the American Civil Liberties Union sought to remove it.

The ACLU, representing a former National Park service employee, argued that permitting a cross on public land was an unconstitutional government endorsement of Christianity.

After two federal courts agreed with the ACLU, the Supreme Court in 2010 ruled that a land exchange, under which the land around the cross was converted into private property, passed constitutional muster. The VFW now owns the acre under and around the cross. The land exchange was formally completed Nov. 2.

The ceremony occurred as Riverside discussed a similar land exchange after threats of a lawsuit over the Mt. Rubidoux cross. A military atheist group is objecting to a proposed veterans memorial in Lake Elsinore that includes a cross.

The iron cross that had stood on the Mojave site for years was stolen two months after the Supreme Court decision. It was found Nov. 5, south of San Francisco. A plywood box encased it during years of court appeals.

The cross installed Sunday was a replacement created by one of the cross's caretakers, Henry Sandoz, 73, of Yucca Valley. Sandoz said concrete will be poured inside the iron pipes on another day, to make it harder to steal.

For 30 years Sandoz and his wife Wanda looked after several crosses on the site, those previous either vandalized or stolen.

Wanda Sandoz, 68, said she was overjoyed when she saw the cross finally go up, at last with its legality undisputed.

“I can't even describe it,” she said of her feelings. “It was just wonderful to see it go up and know it's going to be able to stay. That's the best thing.”

The Sandozes traded five acres of their land in exchange for the acre ceded to the VFW.

Sunrise Rock sits amid a sea of Joshua trees just off Cima Road.

Rees Lloyd, a Banning resident representing the American Legion at the ceremony, said the lawsuit against the cross was an attack on religious freedom and involved a memorial that few saw.

“Why would anyone be offended?” said Lloyd, a former Legion district commander who was wearing a white button with a red line through “ACLU.” “You can't see it from the freeway. You have to drive to it to be offended.”

Chuck Wilcox, 47, Henry Sandoz's son-in-law and a Yucca Valley resident, said the years of litigation “was a bigger deal than it should have been.”

“It just seemed ridiculous to me,” said Wilcox, who helped carry the blanket-wrapped cross up Sunrise Rock and then helped raise it. “The whole time I've lived out here, it was just here, part of the landscape.”

The land swap was first negotiated by U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands. Congress approved it.

But a federal appellate court ruled against it, saying that transferring one acre of land to the VFW in the middle of the vast expanse of federal park land “will do nothing to minimize the impermissible governmental endorsement” of a religious symbol.

A divided Supreme Court in 2010 overturned that decision.

“The goal of avoiding governmental endorsement (of religion) does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote.

During the ceremony, Hiram Sasser, director of litigation for the Texas-based Liberty Institute, which focuses on religious-freedom cases and was involved in the Mojave cross case, talked of the indignities that crosses on the site have been through.

“This memorial has been bagged, it's been torn down and it's been stolen,” he said. “And now it's back, it's up and you're standing on VFW property,” Sasser said to loud cheers and clapping. “It's fantastic.”

A cable surrounds the newly private land, with signs stating that it is VFW-owned property open to the public.

The Sandozes became caretakers in 1983, when Riley Bembry, one of the WWI veterans who erected the cross in 1934, was near death and asked the couple to take care of the cross. Veterans Day was established to honor WWI veterans and now honors all who served in the military.

On a table topped with red, white and blue cupcakes to celebrate the installation of the cross sat a wood-framed black-and-white photo of Bembry. The photo usually is in the Sandozes' living room, near an oak dining room table that Reilly gave to the couple.

“My great friend Riley, he would really be smiling down on us now,” said Henry Sandoz.

“He probably is,” he said with a laugh.

November 5, 2012

Stolen Mojave cross mysteriously reappears in California

An unsigned note was found taped to the Mojave Memorial Cross, which was found Monday. A new cross is due to be raised atop Sunrise Rock at Mojave National Preserve at 11 a.m. Sunday, followed at 1 p.m. by a re-dedication ceremony. (The Associated Press)

By Henry Brean

A stolen cross that sparked controversy and a Supreme Court case may soon be headed back to its Mojave Desert home after it was left by the side of a road south of San Francisco.

The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office recovered the white metal cross late Monday morning near the town of Half Moon Bay, Calif., more than 500 miles from where it stood for decades before being stolen in 2010.

Based on a tip from a San Francisco television station, deputies found the cross strapped upright to a fence post with an unsigned note taped to it that read: "This cross is an important historical artifact. It is in fact the Mojave cross, taken on the evening of May 9, 2010 from Sunrise Rock in the Mojave Desert. I would be very grateful if you would be so kind as to notify the appropriate authorities of its presence here."

Authorities don't yet know who returned the cross or who stole it in the first place.

Its mysterious reappearance comes just days before a replica was due to be placed atop Sunrise Rock as part of a Veterans Day service.

Long before igniting a constitutional controversy over religious symbols on federal land, the welded steel symbol was mounted to the rock 75 miles southwest of Las Vegas by a group of World War I vets 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, still stood in 1994 when the 1.6 million acres surrounding it was designated as a national preserve. Three years later, 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.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in with a 5-4 decision that cleared the symbol to remain on display while a lower court reconsidered the case.

The cross was stolen two weeks later.

At least twice since then, replicas were placed at the site, only to be taken down by National Park Service employees acting under a court order.

The long legal fight was finally resolved last week, when the park service transferred ownership of Sunrise Rock and the acre surrounding it to the California office of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a private organization free to erect and maintain a cross there.

In exchange, the park service got five acres of formerly private land inside the Mojave National Preserve.

"We have a solution that honors those who died for their country and honors national parks," said preserve superintendent Stephanie R. Dubois in a statement.

A new cross is due to be raised at the site at 11 a.m. Sunday, followed at 1 p.m. by a rededication ceremony featuring longtime caretakers Henry and Wanda Sandoz and others.

It is unclear whether the original cross will make it back to the site alongside Cima Road, about 12 miles south of Interstate 15, in time for Sunday's event. Authorities in San Mateo County said the recovered cross would be turned over to park service officials in San Francisco.

No matter which cross is raised this weekend, James Rowoldt, CEO of the VFW in California, is just glad the underlying dispute has finally been settled.

"I'm just happy for the Sandozes. I'm happy it's over for them," Rowoldt said earlier Monday, before learning about the cross found near Half Moon Bay. "It's just a happy day for everyone."

November 4, 2012

Mojave Cross to be re-erected on Veterans Day

Henry Sandoz and his wife, Wanda, visit the monument to fallen service members in Mojave National Preserve in October 2008, before the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear the case. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Beatriz E. Valenzuela
San Bernardino Sun

It's been a long legal battle that lasted more than a decade, but now, Henry and Wanda Sandoz of Yucca Valley will finally be able to keep a promise they made to a dying friend and veteran nearly 30 years ago.

"We really loved him," said Wanda in a phone interview. "It was really important for us to keep that promise to him. And to show we love our veterans and our country."

On Veterans Day, the Sandozes will be able to legally re-erect a simple 7-foot cross on Sunrise Rock east of Baker in the Mojave National Preserve.

The Sandozes met and became good friends with Riley Bembry, one of the World War I veterans who first placed the cross on Sunrise Rock in 1934 as a way to honor the veterans of that war.

When Bembry became ill and frail, he asked Henry to watch over the cross. Henry agreed.

Bembry died a short time later in 1984.

"It means very much to me, yes, and also to our veterans and our Lord and Savior," said Henry, 73.

The cross had become the focus of a legal case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2000. The ACLU sued the federal government, asking that the cross be removed because the Christian symbol on federal land violated the First Amendment, prohibiting the government from endorsing any religion.

Soon the Liberty Institute in Plano, Tex., took up the cause for the Sandozes.

"If they hadn't come in on this we probably wouldn't have won," Wanda.

In 2002, the U.S. District Court Central District of California ruled in the ACLU's favor and the cross was encased in wood until an agreement could be reached.
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned previous the ruling calling for the cross to be removed and sent the case back down to the U.S. District Court level.

A little more than a week after the ruling, the cross vanished. A replacement cross reappeared shortly after, but it was removed.

"We had people from all over the country offering us big granite crosses as replacements," Wanda said. "It was tempting, but we thought the cross should stay as the veterans wanted."

"Just a simple 7-foot white cross made of pipe," said Henry.

Earlier this year, a land swap was approved in which the Sandozes gave five acres of land to the Mojave Preserve in exchange for the one acre where the cross once sat. The land swap, putting the cross on private property, was finalized Friday.

"We're both just so happy that this is finally behind us," Wanda said. "It's been a 13-year battle. Henry had a big heart attack six or seven years ago and it's been a real concern that he was going to die before he saw this resolved."

For Henry, it's not only about keeping a promise to a friend, but honoring those who have served.

"Not having served, this is a way for me to give something back to them," he said.

The cross will be re-erected at 11 a.m. Nov. 11. A ceremony will follow at 1 p.m. The event is open to the public. Sunrise Rock is located on Cima Road off the 15 Freeway near Baker.

November 1, 2012

Environmentalists sue over Cadiz water project

Karen Tracy of Joshua Tree protests a groundwater management plan for the Cadiz project outside a San Bernardino County Supervisors meeting last month. (KURT MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)


Four environmental groups filed their second lawsuit against San Bernardino County on Thursday, Nov. 1, over a hotly contested proposal to pump water from Mojave Desert aquifers and send it to cities across the state.

The Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project would extract groundwater from an open valley beneath 45,000 acres that Los Angeles-based Cadiz Inc. owns south of the Marble Mountains, 40 miles east of Twentynine Palms. The area lies between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park in eastern San Bernardino County.

The $225 million project would provide water for about 400,000 people served by six water districts throughout California, including Jurupa Community Services District in Riverside County.

On Oct. 1, county supervisors approved a groundwater management plan for the project that would allow them to shut down operations when the water table drops to a certain threshold. That action gave the go-ahead for the plan to pump 50,000 acre-feet per year.

In their lawsuit, the Center for Biological Diversity, National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club San Gorgonio chapter and the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society say San Bernardino County failed to provide an environmental review and did not comply with its own groundwater ordinance, designed to protect resources in the desert.

“This shortsighted water grab will benefit those pushing more sprawl in Orange County, but it’ll rob some of California’s rare species of the water they need to survive,” said Adam Lazar, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Our desert, the residents of San Bernardino County and Orange County ratepayers all deserve better.”

County spokesman David Wert disagreed. “We believe the groundwater ordinance was adhered to and the approval followed the county’s procedures. It was proper and in the best interests of the county and the environment.”

This is the third lawsuit challenging the project. The same four environmental groups filed a lawsuit Aug. 31 against San Bernardino County and an Orange County water district, contending the county should have led the environmental review of the project, not the Santa Margarita Water District in Mission Viejo, which has signed on as a future buyer of the water from Cadiz Inc.

The water district is named in the August suit for approving the environmental impact report on the project on July 31.

Also suing is Delaware Tetra Technologies Inc., which operates a brine mining operation at two dry lakes near Cadiz Inc.’s property. The company filed suit against San Bernardino County and Santa Margarita Water District, saying they violated state environmental law by not making the county the lead agency, instead of Santa Margarita.

Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, who has received more than $48,000 in campaign contributions from Cadiz in the past five years, has said the project would benefit the county by creating jobs and providing a hedge against uncertain water supplies from Northern California.

Environmentalists said the pumping would cause a drop in the water table that would dry up springs supporting bighorn sheep and other wildlife, could cause dust storms on nearby dry lake beds that would adversely affect air quality, and overdraw the water table.

October 22, 2012

Mojave National Preserve Proposal Threatens Wildlife

ALERT: Under the guise of a comprehensive water management plan, the National Park Service is proposing the removal of critical water sources in the Mojave National Preserve, imposing a certain death sentence on desert wildlife. Comment on EIS now!

Water source near Hackberry Spring, Mojave National Preserve

Water Resources Management Plan for Mojave National Preserve

Mojave National Preserve proposes to develop a comprehensive, ecosystem-scale management plan for water throughout this 1.6-million acre unit of the national park system. Mojave National Preserve has natural, modified, and artificial sources of water throughout its lands. The NPS seeks to determine desired future conditions through a public scoping process with hunters groups, environmental organization, park visitors, and state and federal agencies. Future condition targets will be defined in accordance with existing laws, regulations, and NPS management policies. Park staff is working with the NPS Environmental Quality Division to develop a comprehensive approach to management of water resources in Mojave National Preserve.

October 22, 2012: A Preliminary Alternatives newsletter is available for review. Please send your comments in here or in writing, addressed to the Superintendent. We are accepting comments through November 20, 2012.

Contact Information
Stephanie Dubois, Superintendent
Attention: Water Resources Management Plan
Mojave National Preserve
2701 Barstow Road
Barstow, CA 92311

October 21, 2012

A Mojave Desert cross brings a lot of things to bear

The head of the Mojave National Preserve had little reason to think that an exchange over a memorial built in 1934 would spur a 13-year saga full of litigation, vandalism, political theater and theft.

A new cross in the wings
Henry Sandoz hefts a new cross that he made out of 5-inch-diameter pipe. With friends and supporters, he hopes to paint and raise it atop Sunrise Rock by Veterans Day. (Thomas Curwen / Los Angeles Times / September 21, 2012)

By Thomas Curwen
Los Angeles Times

Long before the promise to the dying man, the Buddhist stupa and the Supreme Court decision, there was the land. Once it belonged to no one, then it belonged to everyone, and that's when the trouble with the cross began.

Mary Martin, superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve, read her mail in the morning, and on a spring day in 1999 she picked up a letter signed by Sherpa San Harold Horpa. It sounded like a joke.

Horpa began by describing "a tasteful cross that stands on a small hill." The hill, known as Sunrise Rock, was in the preserve off Cima Road, six miles south of Interstate 15.

Horpa had a special request: He wanted to place another religious symbol on the site.

"I proposed to install a stupa equal in size, color, material and taste to the cross," he wrote.

Martin had to look up what a stupa was — a Buddhist shrine — and that afternoon she composed her reply: "Any attempt to erect a stupa will be in violation of federal law and subject you to citation and or arrest."

Martin was aware of that cross, which was erected in 1934, and she suspected that one day she would have to remove it. But at this point it was a low priority. The preserve was in its fifth year, and she and her colleagues were busy buying property from ranchers, preserving the habitat of the desert tortoise, and converting the old Union Pacific station in Kelso into a visitor center.

She never heard from Horpa again. Nor did she have any reason to suspect that this exchange would begin the 13-year saga that would see the cross on Sunrise Rock become an object of litigation, vandalism, political theater and theft.

Buono and the stupa

Herman Hoops thought writing a letter would be a good way to test the park service's attitude toward the cross. When going up against the government, he recently explained, the last thing you want to present are the facts; they can fight you on the facts.

So he came up with the idea of the stupa.

His friend Frank Buono had been visiting him that spring at his home in Jensen, Utah, just outside Dinosaur National Monument. Buono had first brought up the cross in a conversation about the Mojave National Preserve. Both men — retired park service employees with more than 20 years each — felt that a religious symbol on federal land was wrong.

With the sun setting on the river canyon of Dinosaur, Hoops sat down at his computer, and they began composing. They made the argument for the stupa, "complete with prayer wheels and flags," and Hoops came up with the pseudonym.

When he opened Martin's reply, Hoops wanted to continue with the pretense, but Buono told his friend to hold off. He had contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which had agreed to investigate the cross to see if there might be a case.

Buono loved the California desert, but the Mojave was special. He had been an assistant superintendent at the preserve for 11 months before budget cuts in 1995 forced him to Joshua Tree National Park.

The year before — as Congress debated the legislation that would create the preserve — he served on a committee to explore the logistics of managing the land. Walking through the halls of the Department of the Interior on his way to a reception after the signing ceremony for the Mojave in October 1994, he says, was the highlight of his career.

"It was like the Vatican for me," he said. "I hold the park agency to the highest of standards — as any citizen should."

When Buono first saw the cross in 1995, he wasn't sure if it was on federal land. The Mojave was a checkerboard of grazing allotments and private holdings, and after retiring, he read the old maps and confirmed his suspicions.

The Sandozes

Martin received the first letter from the ACLU in October 1999, urging that the cross be removed because it was a violation of the 1st Amendment. Ten months later a second letter arrived, this time setting a deadline of 60 days.

By then Martin had researched the cross and had learned about the promise that Henry and Wanda Sandoz made to a sick friend who had maintained it over the years. The Sandozes had agreed they would be its caretaker.

When their friend died in 1984, the cross had been missing for a couple of years, and Henry built a new one. This cross was vandalized, and he finally decided to replace it.

In violation of park regulations, he and Wanda gathered with family and friends at Sunrise Rock on Palm Sunday in 1998. They bolted a cross, made of 5-inch-diameter pipe, to the granite and filled it with concrete. Afterward, they crowded beneath it barbecuing hot dogs.

Because the cross — raised to commemorate veterans of World War I — wasn't the original, Martin felt she had to take it down. But she didn't want to make a decision that would be unpopular among Mojave residents who resented the changes that the park service had brought to their lives.

Martin needed an ally and found one in Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands). Throughout 2000, Lewis had stayed apprised of the ACLU's complaint. The group's accusation, he wrote, was "ridiculous," and as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, he would take legislative action, if necessary, to save the cross.

By late fall, Martin had exhausted her options, which included a personal appeal to the Sandozes to take the cross down. She drafted a letter for the park service's regional director to send to the congressman. "Absent legislative intervention," it read, Martin would have no choice but to remove the cross.

Two weeks later the congressional budget passed with language introduced by Lewis preventing the use of federal funds to remove the cross. Three months later, the ACLU filed its lawsuit; Buono was a plaintiff.

When a judge in Riverside ruled that the cross couldn't be displayed, it was wrapped in a tarp that was fastened, Houdini-style, at the base by chain and a padlock. After being shredded by vandals, the tarp was replaced by a plywood box.

"It looked like a big Popsicle," said Dennis Schramm, who replaced Martin as superintendent of the preserve in 2005.

Artists painted landscapes that prominently featured the cross. Videos were shot in its shadow. A website was created, and the Sandozes were cast as crusaders.

In the end, the ACLU won. A federal district judge in Riverside ruled that the cross' presence on federal land conveyed an endorsement of religion. His opinion was upheld by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

The only way the cross could remain was if Sunrise Rock were privately owned. A compromise was arranged: a land swap between the Sandozes and the park service. The California office of the Veterans of Foreign Wars would take ownership of the property around the cross.

But a district court ruled against the compromise. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually took the case and determined that the ruling was flawed. The district court reconsidered and in April approved the transfer. By then the ACLU and Buono had stopped their fight.

Not long after the Supreme Court's decision in 2010, the cross was stolen and was never recovered.

Martin and Buono today

Martin, 61, is retired today and looks back with disappointment on the long turn of events.

"If Buono felt so strong about the cross, if he would have called and discussed it, I am sure we could have reached a solution without litigation," she said. "When I first met with the Sandozes, they were receptive to various solutions, but as the conflict continued, all sides seemed to become more entrenched in their positions."

Buono, 65, works part time for the park service teaching policy and law and is gratified that the courts ruled in his favor, the land swap notwithstanding. He similarly wishes the matter of the cross could have been resolved without going to court and is critical of the park service.

"The agency culture of the NPS is so risk-averse that it borders on paralysis, in particular when confronted with a wildly unpopular decision," he said.

Closed off
Henry Sandoz, 73, examines the cordon that the National Park Service has placed around Sunrise Rock. Sandoz and his wife, Wanda, plan to erect a new cross on the site. (Los Angeles Times / September 21, 2012)

Last July, the Sandozes — Henry, 73, and Wanda, 68 — and a few supporters met park service officials at Sunrise Rock to work out the final arrangements.

With temperatures close to 120 degrees, they walked the perimeter of the property. The park service has allocated $28,121 to pay for a cable to section off the property, signs to designate it as private property and a plaque to identify the cross as a war memorial.

The park service hopes to hand the 1-acre parcel over to the VFW by the first week in November, and the Sandozes plan to commemorate the site by Veterans Day.

Henry Sandoz has a new cross ready. Partly covered by plywood and an old washtub, it lies on the concrete floor of a barn — three pieces of pipe, cut by an acetylene torch, welded together and, as yet, unpainted.

October 15, 2012

Desert fossil discovery reveals surprises

Desert tortoise eggs are among the finds at a solar project in eastern Riverside County

A fragment of ivory from an Ice Age mammoth was found in the Mojave Desert, on the future site of the Rio Mesa solar project near Blythe.

Press Enterprise

A solar energy company planning a development in eastern Riverside County has discovered a rare Mojave Desert treasure-trove of Ice Age fossils, including a clutch of desert tortoise eggs believed to be the first found in California.

Paleontologists are buzzing about pieces of ivory from a mammoth tusk, the teeth of ancient horses and other indications of large vertebrate animals seldom found in California, they said. The first fossils of a sidewinder, desert horned lizard and desert kangaroo rat to be discovered in Riverside County also were located on the project site 13 miles southwest of Blythe, near the Arizona border.

“It’s quite a find,” said Casey Weaver, an engineering geologist with the California Energy Commission, which oversees licensing of the project. “It was very surprising, especially the number. We’ve never had a site that is so fossiliferous.”

The fossils were discovered as the developer, BrightSource Energy, prepared an environmental review for its application last year for the Rio Mesa solar complex. This week, the company submitted revised plans for how it will proceed with its project and extract what experts say is sure to be a valuable and informative cache of fossils underground.

Rio Mesa would have two solar plants on 4,000 acres. Each plant would have a 750-foot concrete tower surrounded by mirrors that focus the sun on a boiler to create steam and turn turbines. Together the facilities would generate about 500 megawatts of electricity, enough to serve 200,000 homes per year.

Most of the 800-plus fossils uncovered so far were fragments spread over eight miles on the Palo Verde Mesa, according to company documents submitted to the state.

“On a scientific level only, the finds are exciting in that it had been thought that the last Ice Age sediments laid down in the Blythe region were terraces of the Colorado River, but we can now say that animals and plants later remodeled the upper layers of these terrace sediments into a soil, and that hundreds of animals left their remains in that fossil soil,” said Joe Stewart, the project paleontologist from URS Corp.

The fossils were located in soil dating back about 14,000 years. Finding such treasures on the surface, where they had been subjected to the elements, means chances are good the fossils deeper down will be more intact and identifiable, said Eric Scott, curator of paleontology at the San Bernardino County Museum in Redlands, where the collection eventually will be curated.

Only a few paleontological records exist from the surrounding region, which makes this find noteworthy, he said. Scott was especially excited about the discovery of tortoise shell fragments and the pieces of eggs preserved inside a burrow.

“The tortoise shells are over the top. We have desert tortoise fossils from the Ice Age, but no shell fragments. That’s really significant. If you’re finding stuff that is that delicate and that rare and preserved in that good a condition, that supports arguments that other stuff down there will be really well preserved,” Scott said.


Pieces of large vertebrates were dragged by rodents into their burrows, including fragments of deer antlers, a pronghorn and what is believed to be a bighorn sheep, according to BrightSource documents filed with the state. Also found were fossils of rabbits, rodents, a badger and a coyote.

The discovery has given paleontologists an updated understanding of the prehistoric environment in that area. When combined with information about fossils found at Diamond Valley Lake, Joshua Tree, the La Brea Tar Pits, Arizona and Las Vegas, it may help provide some clues about climate change, Scott said.

The Pleistocene, from 40,000 to 11,000 years ago, was a time of dramatically shifting climates and temperatures, and produced abundant fossils that are often well-preserved and easy to date, experts said.

During that era, the Colorado River Valley was free of ice, and the lowlands were well-watered and vegetated from freshwater lakes and rivers, Scott said.

An area with lots of horses, mammoths, bison and camels would tell scientists of an abundance of food. Correlating that information with climate change over time can show how animals adapted and how they might change in the future, he said.

“We’ve moved past the idea of, ‘Wow, this is a mammoth, isn’t this cool.’ In order to understand how these animals were living and adapting to changing climate and conditions, you need not just a fossil, but samples of many different animals to tell you how the ecosystem worked,” Scott said.

It’s not known how deeply buried other Rio Mesa fossils might be, Scott said. Part of the site, which is owned by the Metropolitan Water District, was disturbed during World War II training exercises


In February, the Energy Commission asked BrightSource for additional excavation to determine where and how fossils are positioned beneath the surface, Weaver said.

BrightSource initially objected to the request because the work would cost the company time and money, according to documents. But this week, the company submitted a supplemental report laying out its plan for further study. The company will excavate 10 trenches about 10 feet deep and bore five deeper holes under supervision of a paleontologist.

Concern stems from the pedestals for the project’s mirrors. Driving the pylons into the ground will cause vibration that could damage any nearby fossils, the Energy Commission said. One of the conditions of certification will be training workers on what to do when they encounter fossils during excavation, the commission’s Weaver said.

BrightSource spokeswoman Kristen Hunter said the discovery won’t delay the project, which is expected to begin construction next year.

Paleontologist Stewart, of URS, said it is possible that the only fossils recovered will be “microvertebrates,” pieces such as lizard, snake and tortoise eggshell parts found by screening sediment.

“It is important to note these fossils found on the Rio Mesa site are not big flashy fossils that one would expect to see on display. Rather they are small fragments of skeletal elements,” he said. “We might not even see any of these fossils until we sort the concentrate with a microscope.”

The fossils are being stored temporarily at the URS lab in Pasadena. Once they are at the museum, the identities will be confirmed, samples will be numbered and labeled and they will be added to a digital database for use by other researchers, Scott said.

A public workshop on the state’s preliminary staff assessment of the project will be held Oct. 29 in Sacramento. A second workshop in Blythe is planned for November, though an exact date has not been set. Information on the assessment and other documents are available online.