September 30, 2012

Cadiz water project faces federal, local hurdles

The Metropolitan Water District, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, environmental rules and lawsuits could stand in the way of the controversial Cadiz water project.

Water from a pilot well at the Cadiz project pours into a spreading basin in the Mojave Desert. If approved, the water project would move underground water 200 miles west to Southern California suburbs. (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times / May 8, 2012)

By Bettina Boxall
Los Angeles Times

Plans to sell groundwater from beneath the Mojave Desert to Southern California suburbs are likely to pick up another approval Monday when Cadiz Inc.'s proposal goes before the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.

But the company's highest hurdles lie ahead.

The project faces mounting legal challenges, difficult negotiations with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California over use of the Colorado River Aqueduct, opposition from California's senior U.S. senator and the possibility that it may yet be forced to undergo an exhaustive review under federal environmental law.

"I think the biggest obstacle Cadiz is going to have is sitting in Washington, D.C., named Dianne Feinstein," water district board member Brett Barbre said. "She is committed to do everything to make sure this doesn't happen.... I don't see how politically it gets done. And financially I don't see how this water pencils out."

At least some Metropolitan Water District board members have not forgotten that Cadiz sued the agency when the water district dropped out of a groundwater project the company proposed a decade ago. They are skeptical that the project will qualify for the MWD subsidies Cadiz intends to seek. And they are concerned about the presence of hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen, in the groundwater that Cadiz would have to transport in the river aqueduct, which the Metropolitan Water District owns and operates.

Scott Slater, a well known water attorney and president of Cadiz, has expressed confidence that an agreement can be struck with the MWD. Cadiz Chief Executive Keith Brackpool has no shortage of political connections, notably his friendship with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who appoints the city's representatives on the MWD board.

Cadiz has "been dealt what I would consider to be one debilitating blow after another. And they have shown tremendous resilience," said MWD board member Larry Dick. Nonetheless, he added, "my feeling is that none of this is going to be easy, none of it."

Dick and Barbre represent the Municipal Water District of Orange County, which has to sign off on the Cadiz project because it oversees the Metropolitan Water District's imports to Orange County, the location of Cadiz's biggest potential customer, the Santa Margarita Water District.

A looming state standard for hexavalent chromium, a toxic heavy metal that is naturally occurring in the aquifer Cadiz plans to tap, could prompt the MWD to require expensive treatment of the groundwater before it is pumped into the Colorado aqueduct.

Slater has said he hopes to lessen costs by undertaking limited treatment in the well field and blending the groundwater in the aqueduct with river water. That would also provide a benefit to the MWD, he has suggested, because the groundwater has lower levels of corrosive salts than the river supplies.

"It's going to be a negotiation over benefits," Slater said in July. "Our water is a lot softer."

But pumping tainted groundwater into the aqueduct would be "a nightmare scenario," Barbre said. "They're going to have to treat it. I guarantee you our board is not going to say, 'Oh yeah, it's lower in salts, and maybe it's higher in chromium 6.... We'll take it. No problem.'"

John Foley, chairman of the MWD board, also questioned Cadiz's interest in agency subsidies that the company intends to pursue to lower the price of its water. In one program, the MWD funds the development of local water resources, including recycling projects or groundwater cleanup. The other is a complicated federal program that allows Colorado River contractors such as the MWD to gain credits for river supplies by introducing non-river water into their systems.

But the Cadiz project is 200 miles east of the MWD's coastal service area. "It's not really a local project," Foley said. "I would think that would have a difficult time getting through the board."

Ditto for using Cadiz groundwater to obtain a river credit. "It's a little stretch of the imagination. It was never intended to" work that way, Foley said.

Cadiz has enjoyed a warmer reception from San Bernardino County supervisors, who have received nearly $80,000 in combined campaign contributions from the corporation since 2007. The board approved an agreement with Cadiz earlier this year, and on Monday, it is expected to OK a pumping management and monitoring plan. The project has also been approved by the Santa Margarita Water District, the lead in the state environmental review process.

The management plan gives the county greater enforcement authority than an earlier draft. It also sets a floor for groundwater withdrawal, allowing the pumping to lower the water table beneath the well field no more than 80 feet. "The key provision now is the floor that has been added by the county," said Christian Marsh, the county's outside counsel in the matter.

But the plan still allows Cadiz to extract more water than is naturally recharged, drawing down the desert aquifer by slightly more than 1 million acre feet over the 50-year life of the project. (An acre foot is enough to supply two households for a year).

Critics say the management plan is full of loopholes that will make it tough to prove environmental harm is a result of the pumping and also gives the project too much leeway in measuring the floor. "There are so many places along here where it's just so easy to say, 'That's not us,'" said Debra Hughson, science advisor to the nearby Mojave National Preserve.

The preserve was established by Feinstein's Desert Protection Act in 1994 and the California Democrat has demanded federal review of the Cadiz project, which is surrounded by public land. The U.S. Interior Department is considering whether the company's proposed pipeline route along a federally granted railroad right-of-way will require a federal permit.

The number of lawsuits filed against the project has grown to five. The plaintiffs include major environmental groups, a company that owns an industrial salt mining operation near the Cadiz property, and a labor union that argues the project's environmental documents failed to account for the possible dangers of munitions debris left in the area during World War II military exercises.

September 29, 2012

Protect Mojave Desert water sources

Point of View

Greg McKnight
San Bernardino Sun

The story of California cannot be told without telling the history of water. That has been borne out repeatedly, sometimes with benefit to all, sometimes, as in the Owens Valley, with tragic results. Now, the next chapter of the water saga is being told here in the Mojave Desert.

On Monday, the Board of Supervisors has an opportunity to show how seriously it takes the issue of protecting local water resources by taking the time to carefully study a proposal to mine water from the ancient water aquifers under the Mojave Desert and ship that water, for profit, outside the county.

If water is a precious resource, then it is many times more so in a desert environment. The water below the desert has seeped into the water table over millions of years. This process supports the desert ecosystems and the hardy desert humans who rely on wells to sustain their way of life.

This process also supports Tetra's longstanding business operation that has operated in the desert for almost 100 years. As the water passes through the desert, it collects salt from the soil, which is deposited into dry lakes. We collect salts that are sold to agricultural and industrial users in California. We employ dozens of workers, pay millions in taxes and payroll, which in turn supports local businesses.

Into this environment comes the Cadiz Water Project, a proposal to mine billions of gallons of water from these ancient aquifers and sell it, for profit, to water providers outside the county. Cadiz, which claims they are taking water that would otherwise evaporate, proposes to pump water from far below the surface, and convey that water for distribution outside the county. Ironically, that water will water lawns and golf courses and fill up artificial lakes, and from which it will ... evaporate.

This makes no sense, and is troubling because the process has been rife with concerns that it is biased in favor of Cadiz. That is why it is so important that our Board of Supervisors slow this process down, and be certain that pumping so much water from beneath the desert will not do irreparable harm to our community.

What are some of the concerns?

1. A small Orange County water district that will buy the water led the environmental review of the proposal. This is a conflict of interest because this district gets the benefit of the water, but suffers none of the harm.

2. Previous studies from objective scientists of the National Park Service and the U.S. Geological Service concluded annual recharge of the aquifer was 3,000-15,000 acre-feet per year. Cadiz claims in a new study paid for by them, that the annual recharge is 32,000 acre-feet, up to 10 times more than previous studies. This study needs to be much more closely scrutinized.

3. Even if you accept Cadiz's study, the project will mine 50,000 to 75,000 acre-feet of water each year. So even under their recharge assumption, they would take 2 times more water than is recharged naturally. Under the Park Service and USGS numbers, the "overdraft" of water is much worse.

4. The county is reviewing a complex document called a groundwater management, monitoring and mitigation plan (GMMMP). This document was only made public on Thursday, and now the Supervisors propose to approve this document on Monday. The public has had no time to review this document.

5. This water extraction could impact military bases in the region, and make them more of a threat for future rounds of base closures.

6. Mankind does not know everything about how aquifers store water and how fragile these may be; many scientists believe that if you extract water too fast from natural underground storage, you can damage the aquifer before you can notice the damage. That means monitoring alone, which is the key component of the GMMMP, is not enough.

With all the possibility of great harm to the county if the Cadiz study is wrong and the U.S. Geologic Service is right, the proper course for the Board of Supervisors is to act carefully. There is no reason to rush through approval of the Cadiz project. That water has sat under the desert for millions of years, and we need not decide Monday if we have to mine it and sell it to Orange County. We can take more time, conduct more studies, and make sure San Bernardino County does not become the next tragic tale in California's water history.

Greg McKnight is director of manufacturing for TETRA Technologies Chemicals Group, headquartered in The Woodlands, Texas.

September 22, 2012

Decision delayed on expansion of Marine base at Twentynine Palms

Johnson Valley, west of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Times

The Navy and Marine Corps have delayed a decision on a controversial proposal to expand the Marine base at Twentynine Palms to include parts of Johnson Valley, a popular spot with off-road vehicle enthusiasts.

The Marine Corps says the acreage is needed to allow for large-scale live-fire training exercises for up to three battalions converging on the same target.

But off-roaders say that expanding the base into Johnson Valley could destroy its use for jeeps, motorcycles, dune buggies, ATVs, "rock-crawlers" and other vehicles. Johnson Valley is the site of the annual King of the Hammers race, billed as the toughest desert race in the nation.

The Marine Corps has offered a compromise that allow would off-road use of the area during parts of the year. Still, an environmental impact report done for the Marine Corps drew more than 1,000 comments in a month, many highly negative.

The Navy and Marine Corps had hoped to have a decision by October, but that deadline has now been pushed to November or December in order to provide time to review the comments, the Marine Corps announced Friday.

The land is controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. The expansion plan would be included in the annual defense budget, which would allow members of Congress to have a say.

September 20, 2012

Taxpayers, ratepayers will fund California solar plants

A new breed of prospectors -- banks, insurers, utility companies -- are receiving billions in subsidies while taxpayer and ratepayers are paying most of the costs. Critics say it's a rip-off.

 One of three solar receivers stands 459 feet above the floor of the Mojave Desert in California's Ivanpah Valley at BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station. The facility will eventually generate 392 megawatts of electricity, serving about 140,000 homes. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times / August 8, 2012)

By Evan Halper, Ralph Vartabedian and Julie Cart
Los Angeles Times

Driven by the Obama administration's vision of clean power and energy independence, the rush to build large-scale solar plants across the Southwest has created an investors' dream in the desert.

Taxpayers have poured tens of billions of dollars into solar projects — some of which will have all their construction and development costs financed by the government by the time they start producing power.

Banks, insurers and utility companies have jumped in, taking advantage of complex state and federal tax incentives to reap outsized returns. Among the solar prospectors in the Mojave are investor Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., General Electric, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Morgan Stanley and technology giant Google Inc.

The cost for decades to come will also be borne by ratepayers. Confidential agreements between solar developers and utilities lock in power prices two to four times the cost of conventional electricity. The power generated by the mega-plants will be among the most expensive renewable energy in the country.

That high-priced power will compose an increasing share of California's electricity following Gov. Jerry Brown's signing last year of legislation requiring that renewable sources provide 33% of the state's power by 2020.

Stanford University economist Frank Wolak, an expert in the California electricity market, said the state's renewable energy strategy could boost electricity rates 10% to 20%, depending on a number of factors. Potentially, consumers' bills could go up by 50%.

"It is easily in the billions of dollars," he said.

Government and solar officials say the subsidies are no different from long-standing federal support for the oil, gas and nuclear industries. They say generous incentives are necessary to incubate the fledgling renewables industry.

"We are driving clean energy projects that would otherwise not have gotten built at a commercial scale with innovative technology," said Daniel Poneman, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Energy Department officials say solar energy prices will fall as the industry matures, and the cost of power from future conventional plants will be higher.

Critics, however, say that despite the righteous goal of combating climate change, solar entrepreneurs are getting too much government money.

"What's happening in California is a tragedy, on every front," said Bill Powers, a San Diego-based electrical engineer and power plant consultant to government, nonprofits and developers. "It's a huge waste of money…. I see a lot of this as just an old fashioned rip-off."

The lure of outsized profits has set off a solar frenzy in California, with dozens of projects planned from Barstow to Blythe, from Inyo County's high desert to the Sand Hills in Imperial County.

The spark has been the renewable energy program begun by former President George W. Bush and expanded under President Obama.

The incentives allow solar developers to reap annual returns on their investments of 8% to 12%, as much as tripling their money in a decade. In some cases the returns could go as high as 17%, according to Lee J. Peterson, an Atlanta-based tax attorney at the Reznick Group.

"Banks and Wall Street are trying to outdo one another with green commitments," said Michel Di Capua, a renewable power analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance. "It looks good from an environmental perspective. But it is also very profitable."

To make such projects economically attractive for developers, the government created a mix of federal loan guarantees, grants and tax incentives — and threw in the cheap use of millions of acres of public land for power plants.

Taken together, the incentives can provide solar companies with more than half a project's costs in cash, with the remainder covered by the federally guaranteed loans.

The cash grants, approved as part of the 2009 economic stimulus package, provided renewable-energy developers 30% of the cost of a project once it is finished. More than $13 billion has been distributed. The grants are no longer offered. They have been replaced by a tax credit of equal value.

The most complex piece is a tax policy that allowed companies to deduct in one year the entire cost of a project from their taxable income. The program was changed this year, requiring the cost be deducted over five years.

The low-interest, government-guaranteed loans — more than $16 billion for renewable energy projects so far — pay up to 80% of a project's construction costs.

"If this were a modern-day fairy tale — and in many respects it is — solar developers would be saying, 'Mirror, mirror on the ground, look at all the money I found!' " said one county official, who did not want to be identified because of pending negotiations with a solar developer.

One of the biggest solar projects in the world is now rising in the California desert just off Interstate 15 near the Nevada border.

The $2.2-billion Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System is being built by Oakland-based BrightSource Energy Inc. on 3,500 acres of public land.

Spread across a dry lake bed will be 173,500 mirrors, each the size of a garage door. Eventually 6 square miles will be covered with three fields of gleaming mirrors, each aimed at a 459-foot tower.

The sun's power will be focused on a boiler in each tower, heating water to 1,000 degrees to create steam to drive turbines. When completed, the plant is expected to produce 370 megawatts, enough to power about 140,000 homes.

Joe Desmond, a senior vice president at BrightSource, said the tower design allows Ivanpah to produce more electricity during high demand periods later in the day compared to other technologies, such as photovoltaic panels. Still, the Ivanpah design has never been proven on a large scale.

The Ivanpah plant was made possible by government-backed loans at low rates — 4% to 4.2%. BrightSource and its corporate investors will receive about $600 million in federal grants once the plant starts producing.

The project's investors, which include New Jersey-based NRG Energy Inc. and Google, also will be able to share a federal tax reduction of an estimated $600 million to $700 million over five years under the government's tax break.

Even renewable-energy advocates, such as the Bay Area-based Climate Policy Initiative, acknowledge that the nation's first forays into utility-scale solar plants will be expensive.

The group estimates that 43 cents of every dollar of energy produced by the Ivanpah facility will be paid for by taxpayers.

BrightSource Chief Executive John Woolard said the company isn't looking for "persistent large subsidies" but isn't ready to operate without them. "You want to diminish them over time, but you don't want to fall off a cliff," Woolard said.

The developers and investors will continue making money on the project thanks to a long-term power agreement with Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

The California Public Utilities Commission, which approves all rate agreements, won't disclose the rate for Ivanpah or any solar plant because it is considered a trade secret.

But outside experts, including Wolak, the Stanford economist, estimate that Ivanpah power is priced at $90 to $130 per megawatt hour — three to four times the cost of electricity in the state last year.

BrightSource declined to specify the price but said it was in line with the PUC's recommended renewable rate of $129 per megawatt hour.

The PUC has approved virtually every long-term contract for renewable energy that has come before it, driven in part by the state's renewable energy goals. The commission has greenlighted all but two of 184 green-energy proposals since 2002, including a plan by Pacific Gas & Electric to buy solar power generated in outer space.

The state Division of Ratepayer Advocates, whose purpose is to represent consumers, concluded in a report last year that the power contracts the PUC has been approving have put consumers on the hook for $6 billion in excess costs.

"What the commission's practice has been is not to consider the cost of renewable power but to approve every renewable project that came before them," said Joe Como, acting director of the division. "We really spent too much money. It's frustrating as hell."

A PUC member broke the secrecy about rates at a public meeting last November. Michael Florio, a longtime consumer advocate appointed to the commission last year, revealed that the price of energy from the Abengoa Mojave Solar Project near Barstow would cost ratepayers at least $1.25 billion more over 25 years.

Even by the inflated standards of current power purchase agreements, the Abengoa contract stands out — about $200 per megawatt hour, said Powers, the San Diego-based power consultant.

"We have plenty of time to obtain less expensive, readily available renewable energy from other sources," Florio said.

PUC staff presented the commissioners with two options: Either pull the plug on Abengoa or renegotiate the contract with more favorable terms for ratepayers.

But commission President Michael Peevy, a former president of Edison International and Southern California Edison, pressed for approving the contract, arguing that changing the terms could jeopardize the project's federal loan.

"While it is true Mojave Solar is more expensive, this project has positive attributes not reflected on a price-by-price comparison," Peevy said.

Among the benefits cited by Peevy and his colleagues were the 800 construction jobs and 60 permanent jobs that would come with the solar plant.

Peevy's resolution passed by a 4-1 margin.

Although they will pay higher rates for solar power, California's utilities are poised for huge rewards by building thousands of miles of transmission lines to far-flung solar sites.

The state allows big power companies to bill ratepayers for every dollar they plow into building transmission lines, at a guaranteed annual rate of 11% for 40 years.

Powers estimated the cost of new transmission lines to reach remote solar and wind power plants could exceed $15 billion statewide in the next decade. Upgrading existing transmission lines would add billions more, he said.

The transmission upgrades and new lines for the Ivanpah project carry a price tag of $400 million.

"The utilities are thinking, 'How could we morph this thing into a … infrastructure boondoggle for our company?' " Powers said. "This is the answer — remote solar projects."

Environmentalists Split Over Tortoise Treatment at Solar Farms

BrightSource Energy Inc. is caring the desert tortoises as they are found while biologists prepare new homes for them elsewhere in the desert, Joseph Desmond, senior vice president says. (BrightSource Energy Inc.)

By Ken Wells
Bloomberg News

It’s a 106-degree Fahrenheit day in the Mojave Desert. Heat devils dance off chocolate-hued Clark Mountain on the horizon. Air-conditioned cars zip along Interstate 15 toward Las Vegas. And inside a chain-link pen covered to keep out predators are scores of rare, threatened, sand-colored desert tortoises.

Their captivity helps show how complicated it is to combat climate change without collateral damage. The foot-long (30- centimeter) creatures are being removed from their burrows for a project to harvest solar energy in the California desert. Trucks groan down sunbaked roads, cranes pivot with 750-pound (340- kilogram) mirrors and mechanical post-pounders drive steel pylons into the packed desert floor, destroying their habitat.

Construction of such large-scale green-energy projects has splintered environmental groups. When concern over global warming was at a peak, national organizations such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council threw their support behind industrial-scale wind and solar installations on public land. Now some smaller conservationist groups object to what they consider an environmentally destructive gold rush.

“Of course we need to do solar, but it should go on rooftops or in appropriate places, not the pristine desert,” says April Sall, director of the Wildlands Conservancy in Oak Glen, California, operator of the state’s largest nonprofit preservation system. “We need to tackle warming -- but not forget that there are other things at stake.”

Priorities Clash

The Mojave solar project embodies the clash of environmental priorities. The $2.2 billion installation being built by closely held BrightSource Energy (BRSE) Inc. of Oakland, California, is designed to power 140,000 homes without emitting greenhouse gases. But it threatens the tortoises. That’s why the Western Watersheds Project conservationist group of Hailey, Idaho, sued to stop it in a Los Angeles U.S. court.

The 120-year-old Sierra Club, which calls itself “America’s largest and most influential” environmental group, also lobbied for changes to the project’s design to protect the tortoises. Yet the 1.4 million-member organization chose not to try to block the plant, says Barbara Boyle, a Sierra green energy specialist.

“Ultimately, we need to jump-start renewables to combat climate change, and large-scale solar has to play a big part in that,” Boyle says. However, as it became clear the project was rooting out many more tortoises than projected and as some California chapters urged action, the organization joined a coalition that sued the Department of the Interior in March to block another long-planned Mojave solar project that it says threatens wildlife.

Climate Change

Similar disputes are playing out elsewhere and show a growing concern among green groups and willingness to block large-scale solar and wind projects when the cost to wildlife and habitat seem to outweigh the benefits of fighting climate change. A surge in supplies of cheap, clean-burning natural gas has also begun to undercut demand for more costly green energy.

The green backlash against sacrificing habitat and wildlife to curb global warming parallels polls finding that the public rates climate change low on a menu of environmental problems and has doubts whether it can be fixed. In a March Gallup survey, the issue ranked last among seven environmental concerns, with just 30 percent saying they worried about it “a great deal.”

A Washington Post-Stanford University poll in July found that while most Americans believe the earth is warming, 60 percent said little could be done to stop it, and more than 70 percent opposed energy taxes to address it.

26 Projects

Including the Mojave project that is relocating desert tortoises, the Interior Department has accelerated construction approval for 26 large-scale solar plants on public lands since 2009, including nine that it cleared in August. The Obama administration has steered $9 billion in stimulus funds from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to 23,000 solar and large-scale wind installations, according to the Department of Energy.

Conservationist and Native American groups sued to halt five other Mojave solar projects. The organizations argue that federal and state authorities conducted inadequate environmental reviews and failed to consult with tribes on sacred sites. The Bureau of Land Management, the solar companies and the state deny the allegations.

Dozens more solar plants could arise across the American desert West. A July BLM plan allocates 285,000 public acres to 17 solar zones. An additional 19 million acres -- an area almost the size of West Virginia -- may be approved for solar projects. The goal is to produce 23,700 megawatts, enough to power 7 million homes, according to the BLM. Solar power now provides less than 1 percent of U.S. electricity, amounting to 5,700 megawatts, or enough for about 1 million households.

Abandoned Mines

Conservationists say it is wrongheaded to rip up the public desert and destroy wildlife habitat when millions of already- degraded acres are available. The Environmental Protection Agency last year identified 80,000 to 250,000 abandoned mine sites that could be used for solar and other renewable energy projects, according to Janine Blaeloch, director of the Seattle- based Western Lands Project, a watchdog group.

“This is the ritual privatization of public lands, turning our deserts into permanent industrial zones that will utterly transform the sites upon which these solar plants are placed,” Blaeloch says. “Even if they are dismantled in 50 years, the desert will be unable to restore itself.”

While the Interior Department won’t comment on pending litigation, it says the allocation of public desert for solar projects balances the needs of developers with conservation.

Ancient Lake

The designated zones “have high solar resources, access to existing or planned transmission, and low resource conflicts,” said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in an e-mailed statement. “The blueprint guides development away from important cultural and biological resources and establishes best practices to ensure the most environmentally responsible development.”

BrightSource is building on 3,471 acres leased from the BLM, an ancient patch of dry lake bed in an area of the Mojave known as the Ivanpah Valley. At the October 2010 groundbreaking, former California Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called the desert “miles and miles of a gold mine” that would help the state reach its goal generating a third of its power from renewable sources by 2020.

Solar Contracts

The Ivanpah Solar Electricity Generating System is BrightSource’s first plant. Others are on the drawing board. The company has 14 long-term contracts to sell solar power to Pacific Gas & Electric (PCG) Co. and Southern California Edison. BrightSource’s largest shareholders are Alstom Power Inc. with 18 percent; VantagePoint Capital Partners, 25 percent; and Morgan Stanley, 10 percent, according to a 2011 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Investors in Ivanpah include Google Inc. with $168 million and NRG Energy Inc. (NRG), $300 million. It received $1.6 billion in federal loan guarantees, according to the company.

When completed next June, Ivanpah will be the largest solar installation of its kind, with 173,500 heliostats, or arrays of solar mirrors. They are arranged in concentric circles like worshipers around three 45-story towers. Computer controllers will rotate the heliostats to focus the sun’s rays on boilers atop the towers, creating 1,000-degree Fahrenheit (538-degree Celsius) steam to drive electric turbines.

Gila Monsters

This technology, known as concentrating solar power, or CSP, takes up less space and obstructs less ground than arrays of photovoltaic panels, which convert sunlight directly into electricity. CSP also requires less water for cleaning.

However, the pivoting mirrors -- 10.5 by 7.5 feet, mounted 5 feet above the desert floor -- generate levels of heat unfriendly to birds and other animals. Construction -- involving trucks, graders, pile drivers and cranes -- and later cleaning of mirrors and pruning of shrubbery make the area uninhabitable for desert tortoises.

The reptiles, which can live a century and don’t start reproducing until they are 12 years old, have been on state and federal threatened species lists for more than two decades. They eat cacti, grasses and wildflowers and hibernate in burrows in the winter. The mortality rate is 98 percent for hatchlings in the wild, and the species is preyed upon by ravens, foxes, badgers, Gila monsters and fire ants.

Saving Tortoises

The Bureau of Land Management estimated the project would kill or dislocate about 38 tortoises. Construction had barely begun two years ago, though, when so many tortoises turned up that work was halted for a reassessment. By the end of June, the count was 144, 67 of them juveniles. The BLM found that many more could be uprooted or harmed as the project proceeds.

Thus Western Watersheds sued in federal court to halt Ivanpah. Last month, California’s Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Los Angeles federal district judge’s decision denying a preliminary injunction to stop the work. Other motions on the case are still before the district judge.

“Putting solar power plants in sensitive areas filled with tortoises and other endangered species doesn’t address warming at all,” says Michael Connor, the group’s California director. Those areas need to be preserved “if we are going to retain any kind of resiliency in the face of climate change.”

BrightSource has no desire to harm tortoises, says Joseph Desmond, senior vice president. The company is caring for them as they are found while biologists prepare new homes elsewhere in the desert, he says.

$56 Million

U.S. and California wildlife experts have been using the discovery of so many tortoises to study how to move a species that hasn’t historically been agreeable to relocation. The effort has resulted in successfully placing all but 19 of them in new habitats.

The captives, meanwhile, produced 53 new hatchlings. Desmond says Ivanpah will result in a net increase of tortoises. BrightSource estimates it has spent $56 million caring for and relocating the tortoises.

At California’s Wildlands Conservancy, the director Sall was one of the first to object to U.S. plans for turning over public desert to solar companies. She discovered two years ago that 50,000 acres the Conservancy bought and deeded to the BLM for conservation had been placed on the list of solar sites, she says. While the land has since been removed, other Conservancy- donated lands could be thrown open to solar development as part of the additional 19 million public acres that the BLM said could be granted variances for solar development.

‘No Sense’

“The idea now that these lands could be plucked out for industrial solar, even though there are plenty of degraded options, makes no sense whatsoever,” Sall says.

Sall expected to find allies in the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, longtime advocates of wild lands and endangered species -- and she says she eventually did.

“But the early message coming from the national staffs of these groups was that ‘We need massive solar in the West,’” Sall says. “But it was a message that didn’t include ’on appropriately sited lands.’” This signaled that solar companies needn’t worry about environmental objections, she says.

That wasn’t the intention when the big national groups decided to back large-scale renewable power on public lands, officials of the organizations say. The idea originated in 2006 when the Bush administration instructed the BLM to prepare a list of suitable federal property for solar and other renewable leases.

Increased Urgency

“Back then, the federal position was that you could put solar pretty much anywhere you wanted to,” says the Sierra Club’s Boyle. The Obama administration “has been able to ameliorate that, but it’s a long way to go from a free-for-all to smart planning.”

At the same time, new data have reinforced evidence of climate change while some strategies to combat it have foundered. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2011 followed a three-decade trend of rising temperatures, and this July was the warmest in recorded history.

Yet legislation to create an American carbon trading system and cap on greenhouse-gas emissions died in the Senate in 2010. An effort last year at the global climate talks in Durban, South Africa, to adopt a new, binding global climate agreement was a “failure,” according to the environmental group Greenpeace.

Disputes Continue

The big green groups may have erred initially in not pressing federal officials harder to protect environmentally sensitive areas, says Helen O’Shea, a solar-siting specialist with the NRDC. Still, she says she sees marked improvement in the BLM’s recent revision dropping hundreds of thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive lands that the green groups said were inappropriate for solar development.

The disputes probably won’t end soon. In March, the Sierra Club joined the NRDC and Defenders of Wildlife in suing federal court to stop a 663.5-megawatt photovoltaic project called Calico Solar on 4,600 acres of BLM land in the Mojave. The installation was proposed by closely held, Dublin-based NTR Plc’s Tessera Solar, which later sold its interest to closely held K Road Power Holdings LLC of New York City.

“Utility-scale solar development on Bureau lands may rapidly accelerate habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, destruction of wildlife corridors, and population isolation for desert tortoise in this region,” the Sierra Club said in its complaint. The suit is pending.

September 15, 2012

Wind Developer Taking Aim at Mojave National Preserve

Image depicts the approximate boundaries of the proposed Crescent Peak Wind energy project in red, located in Nevada along the California border. The boundary of the Mojave National Preserve shares the state border to the west and south. Ivanpah Valley to the northwest is the site of the Brightsource solar project.

Shaun G.
Mojave Desert Blog

Oak Creek Energy Systems, under a subsidiary known as Crescent Peak Renewables LLC, has submitted initial plans to install up to 220 giant wind turbines in southern Nevada, just outside of the scenic Mojave National Preserve, according to documents submitted to the Nevada Public Utilities Commission and obtained by Basin and Range Watch. If built, the Crescent Peak Wind project would fragment and industrialize approximately 58 square miles of remote desert habitat, threaten raptors and likely impact nearby Wilderness Areas and an Area of Critical Environmental Concern.

Oak Creek Energy Systems, which is ultimately controlled by the Japan-based Marubeni Corporation, has expressed interest in developing a wind project in the area since 2006, according to Bureau of Land Management records, and was granted permission to install wind testing equipment in 2009. In the meantime, Oak Creek has been responsible for some of the destruction of desert habitat in the western Mojave Desert at the Alta Wind Energy Center near Tehachapi.

The Crescent Peak Wind project would industrialize the heart of the Mojave Desert, destroying views from the Mojave National Preserve, a beautiful Joshua Tree woodland at the Wee Thump Wilderness Area, and the South McCullough Wilderness Area. The turbines almost certainly would pose a threat to raptor species in the region, including golden eagles, and require dozens of miles of wide dirt roads to accommodate construction traffic, fragmenting pristine desert. Energy development is already taking its toll on the nearby Ivanpah Valley, with two giant solar projects built or under construction. To the east, Duke Energy plans to build the Searchlight Wind project, which is expected to displace or kill dozens of threatened desert tortoises.

September 12, 2012

Arizona high court rules that Congress did not reserve water rights for state trust lands

Associated Press

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Congress did not intend to reserve water rights for state trust lands, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in settling a question important to resolving claims to the Little Colorado and Gila rivers.

State officials had argued that when Congress granted the land to Arizona for universities, government buildings, prisons and other institutions, it established a trust similar to creating reservations for American Indian tribes and, therefore, implied reserved water rights.

The high court said land grants are different in that they are not the product of negotiated agreements or treaties. It also rejected Arizona's argument that Congress meant to reserve water rights for state trust lands because lawmakers were aware that water was needed to make use of the arid land.

"Support of the common schools and other specific institutions undoubtedly serves the public interest," the court wrote in its ruling. "It is not, however, a federal purpose."

Arizona became a state in 1912, carved out of what once was New Mexico territory. Two-thirds of the more than 9 million acres of state trust lands lie in the river basins.

The state had filed motions for partial summary judgment in two cases — one in Maricopa County Superior Court to resolve Gila River claims and the other in Apache County Superior Court for the Little Colorado River. The state appealed a determination from the water judge overseeing both cases that federal reserved water rights don't apply to state trust lands.

Supreme Court Justice A. John Pelander, writing for the court, said Congress compensated Arizona for the relatively low value of the land granted by giving the state more land. Although a federal law that set requirements for Arizona and New Mexico territories to become states imposes enforceable trust obligations on Arizona, it doesn't allow the federal government to make policy decisions on how state institutions are run, the court said.

The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled similarly in a case involving rights to the San Juan River.

The Arizona State Land Department said a determination in the state's favor would have upped the value of the lands held in trust for public education and furthered the department's ability to generate revenue. Department spokeswoman Vanessa Hickman said it would continue to pursue its water claims in the court.

Nearly 10,000 claims have been staked in the cases that has been ongoing for decades.
"There are more than 9 million acres of state trust lands. If suddenly these lands had water rights, they would overwhelm all other uses of water," said Glennon, author of the book, "Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What To Do About It."

Congress never explicitly reserved water rights for federal reservations, but they've been implied in the creation of federal reservations for American Indians, military bases, and national forests, parks and monuments. The U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly has recognized those rights.

Congress defers to state water law except in limited circumstances, such as water rights for federal reservations, said water rights attorney Stanley Pollack, who works for the Navajo Nation.

In the Gila River case, for example, the parties are wrangling over water rights for the Army's Fort Huachuca base in southern Arizona, which has federally reserved water rights.

The Navajo and Hopi tribes recently took up a settlement agreement that would have resolved claims to the Little Colorado River basin, but they've returned to litigation after Navajo lawmakers rejected it. Aside from Zuni Pueblo, no other Arizona tribe has acquired rights to the Little Colorado River.

Pollack said the Arizona justices' ruling "removes an important cloud that hovers over everyone's water rights in both cases."

Dave Roberts, water resource manager for the Salt River Project, said the state Supreme Court made the right decision.

"The opposite decisions could have thrown a huge monkey wrench into the state's water allocation process and raised still more uncertainty for water users," he said.

Stinky L.A. smell tied to dead fish in the Salton Sea, officials say

Dead fish along the Salton Sea shoreline in southern California. The South Coast Air Quality Management District acknowledged the possibility that dead fish at the Salton Sea are partially to blame for the rotten-egg smell reported all day Monday. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Los Angeles Times

Regional air-quality managers on Tuesday said that the rotten egg odor that hit Southern California on Monday came from dead fish in the Salton Sea.

Air samples collected in the Coachella Valley, near the Salton Sea and elsewhere clinched inspectors’ suspicions of the 376-square mile, murky body of water as the source of the pervasive smell. Atwood said AQMD inspectors collected air samples which contained hydrogen sulfide.

Inspectors found concentrations of the gas, a product of organic decaying matter, heaviest close to the Salton Sea, with a pattern of decreasing concentration farther away.

“We now have solid evidence that clearly points to the Salton Sea as the source of a very large and unusual odor event,” said Barry Wallerstein, executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

How unusual? As late as Monday night, AQMD officials weren’t even sure it was scientifically possible for a malodorous scent to trek the distance the Salton Sea’s fumes did. So they asked an air-quality modeler to use sophisticated computer modeling to find out if it was “theoretically possible” for a stench to travel that far.

“I think we’ve shown it was theoretically possible,” said Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the AQMD. “But this is just something we did not expect.”

Inspectors ruled out landfills, oil refineries and a natural springs site as possible sources.

“The air samples were the final piece of the puzzle,” Atwood said. “Our inspectors did go out to the Salton Sea and did smell some very strong odors at the sea, as well as at the locations leading up to it.”

But it took the might of a powerful storm blowing from the southeast to bring the stench of the Salton Sea to L.A. All in all though, L.A. got lucky, compared with the town of Mecca, just north of the Salton Sea, and Indio, which received larger doses of the gaseous, funky odor.

“The storm originated in the Gulf of California and the Sea of Cortez and hit the Imperial Valley and Salton Sea,” said Tim Krantz, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Redlands. “We had huge squalls and pretty heavy winds in the Coachella Valley. The winds pull the surface layers of the sea off from the southeast to northwest, and that surface water is replaced from the depth.”

And those depths are all kinds of stinky.

Experts said the winds from the Sunday night storm unsettled the fetid layers of water near the bottom of the sea, bringing them to the surface.

Andrew Schlange, general manager of the Salton Sea Authority, said that in the last week, a large number of fish died in the body of water, likely exacerbating the problem. But he said the fish die-off, which is a normal occurrence, was not significant enough on its own to explain the well-traveled odor.

Rather, he said, the storm upset an anaerobic—or oxygen-deprived—lower layer of the sea, where organic material lays decomposing, releasing the noxious hydrogen sulfide gas, with its distinct rotten egg smell.

The good news was that by Tuesday the odor had greatly diminished. As of about 5:30 p.m. Monday, there had been 235 complaints about the smell, Atwood said. Since then, there have been less than 10, though the “sulfur-type” odor still lingered in some parts of the region.

Atwood said a meteorologist for the AQMD has looked at the thunderstorm reports, and that along with wind-measuring instruments in the Coachella Valley, they determined that winds of more than 60 mph blowing from the southeast probably blew the rank odor to the L.A. Basin.

“That’s unusual because usually the winds are blowing in the opposite direction,” he said.

The Salton Sea has lost much of its depth. It's about 50 feet at its deepest point, with an average depth of about 30 feet, Schlange said. That means it doesn’t take as potent a weather event as it did in the past to cause an upswell that sends the water near the bottom to the top.

Schlange said the Salton Sea is losing much more water through evaporation than is being replenished through agricultural runoff and other sources. If water wasn’t flowing into the sea, it would lose a depth of about 4 to 6 feet a year through evaporation.

If something isn’t done to better replenish the Salton Sea, Schlange said issues with far-flung odors could be more common in the future. He said there’s a plan to do mitigation work on the sea, but money to fund it is lacking.

“All of a sudden Sunday evening, we had all these conditions that came together to allow something like this to occur,” Schlange said. “It’s occurred before, but not at this magnitude.”

September 11, 2012

Storms flood parts of Vegas, Navajo land, Calif. desert communities, Utah town

University of Nevada students Ryan Klorman, left, and Markus Adams relax on inflatable pool toys in floodwater in a parking lot at UNLV in Las Vegas on Tuesday. (John Locher / Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP)

By NBC News
wire services

Residents in four Southwest states were drying out Wednesday after thunderstorms flooded Las Vegas streets, stranded Navajo families in northern Arizona, left two mobile home communities in Southern California deep in water and caused a dike to fail in a Utah town.

In the Las Vegas area, the Tuesday storms delayed flights, snarled traffic and prompted helicopter rescues of stranded motorists. A golf course worker was reported missing and a search for the man resumed Wednesday, NBC affiliate KSNV-TV reported.

Television news video showed school buses inching along roads after school east of downtown Las Vegas, and muddy water up to the lower sills of windows of stucco homes in other neighborhoods.

In southeast Las Vegas, authorities urged the residents of about 45 homes damaged by flooding to leave in case electrical fires are sparked.

Dozens of cars were swamped by water up to their headlights in a parking lot outside the Thomas & Mack sports arena at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Firefighters responded to more than 20 calls about people in stalled cars .

A Las Vegas police helicopter was dispatched during the height of the storm to pluck several people from swamped vehicles on roadways.

More than 1.75 inches of rain were reported in downtown Las Vegas. The rainfall amounts put the region on pace to exceed the 4.5 inches of rain it normally gets in a year.

Tuesday was also the wettest September day on record in Las Vegas, meteorologist Nick Wiltgen reported.

Calif. mobile home parks hit hard

In California's Coachella Valley, a thunderstorm on Tuesday dropped more than the average annual rainfall there in one night alone, settling for six to eight hours over Mecca and Thermal, desert towns 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

In Thermal, the downpour flooded the Desert Mobile Home Park better known as Duroville, a community of mostly migrant workers with about 1,500 people, including 900 children, that has long been the subject of legal fights as Riverside County officials attempt to relocate residents.

More than a foot of water stood in the southern end of the park, knocking out power to about 800 people for much of the day.

"None of us had ever been through anything like this," said Tom Flynn, the court-appointed receiver for Duroville. "That much water in a dilapidated mobile home park was something to see."

The lack of power knocked out electric motors on both of the park's wells, leaving no fresh water until one was revived and county workers brought several tons of bottled water.

The park has no paved streets or drainage, and health officials were concerned about overflow from two ponds that serve as the community's sewers.

Between 60 and 80 people had evacuated from the park and were spending the night at a high school. "The poorest of the poor were hit the hardest," Flynn said.

St. Anthony's Mobile Home Park in Mecca also was affected, but fared better than Duroville. Video clips showed residents wading through knee-high water and cars creeping through flooded residential streets.

The storm dropped 5.51 inches of rain near Mecca and 3.23 inches of rain near Thermal, meteorologist Mark Moede said. The average annual rainfall in arid Thermal is just shy of 3 inches, he said.

"That's an amazing amount of rain," Moede said. "It's unusual anywhere to get a storm that sits stationary for five to eight hours."

Arizona and Utah flooding

On the Navajo Nation reservation in northeastern Arizona, many of Tuba City's roads were underwater and residents stuck in their homes. State Route 264, one of two main arteries in and out of town, was closed after a bridge washed out about a mile outside of the community, Tuba City Chapter Manager Benjamin Davis said.

Flooding was reported in some homes but no residents were displaced, Davis said.

Meanwhile, a dike that broke during heavy morning rain flooded nearly four square blocks in the southern Utah city of Santa Clara. More than 30 homes and business were evacuated after the break.

City Manager Edward Dickie said the dike along a retention pond sent a deluge of water into downtown.

"It didn't just breach. It broke. It's gone," he said, adding that the flooding quickly receded as water drained into rivers and creeks.

Such a wide area across the Southwest was hit, Wiltgen told, because moist, unstable air interacted with a disturbance in the upper atmosphere.

"The disturbance helped to trigger the scattered thunderstorms that popped up across a broad swath of the Southwest," he said, "and these storms translated that very moist air into flooding downpours."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

September 1, 2012

Rumor of Efforts to Ban Hunting on Mojave Preserve Greatly Exaggerated

By Jim Matthews

There was a wildfire of e-mails shooting around the hunting community this week over a supposed effort by the National Park Service to change the name of the Mojave National Preserve to “National Park” as a backdoor way to ban hunting.

David Moore, on the planning staff at the Mojave National Preserve, was shocked to hear that news, but after having the scenario pieced together for him, he wasn’t surprised to see how hunters came to that conclusion. But he was emphatic: “It’s not about banning hunting. There isn’t any intention to ban hunting on the preserve or change its name,” said Moore.

The confusion came because all units of the National Park Service have been directed to put together a “Foundation” document that lists all of the important features – biological, geological, archeological, everthing – that makes the unit important and define why the area was and continues to be worthy of inclusion into the National Park system as a way to help future managers of the unit understand the area and make planning decisions that protect and enhance the core features.

A brief draft of this Foundation document for the Mojave Preserve was recently posted on the agency web site along with a request for comments. Unfortunately, it was not clear what the document was about and its purpose.

This statement in the draft panicked hunters:

“Significance statements are directly linked to the purpose of Mojave National Preserve and express why the preserve’s resources and values are important enough to warrant national park designation.”

Hunters have been a little gun-shy after the first superintendent of the Preserve did everything she could to get rid of hunting and hunters. So it sounded like this document was being written to change the status of the Preserve to a Park, very quietly banning hunting.

This was even reinforced by an unfortunately circumstance on the Preserve’s website. On the bottom of each page of the website there is a little factoid, a brief “did you know” about the preserve or national parks. On the page about the Foundation document, it read:

“Park or preserve? Like other parks with the designation of "national preserve," Mojave National Preserve is managed under the same guidelines as national parks. The main difference is that hunting is allowed in national preserves, but not in national parks.”

That juxtaposition was not intentional, according to Moore, and he suddenly realized why hunters were panicked.

But he said this confusion and further reading of the Foundation draft made him realize that the importance of hunting on the Preserve wasn’t even mentioned in the document. He asked that a few hunters and hunting groups look at the document and then send him e-mails or letters expressing how important hunting and hunted wildlife is both historically and today, and why it’s one of the key reasons the preserve was created and should remain a preserve. You can e-mail Moore at, or write him at David Moore, Mojave National Preserve, 2701 Barstow Road, Barstow, CA 92311.

It’s refreshing to have a staff on the Preserve that is working with hunters instead of working against us.