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.

New Rules for Meteorite Hunters

The Bureau of Land Management has new rules governing the collection of meteorites found on public lands

A close-up of the Sutter’s Mill meteorite, a fragment from a daytime fireball that exploded over parts of California and Nevada on April 22, 2012. This fragment was discovered in a horse pasture outside Lotus, Calif. (NASA Lunar Science Institute)

by Leonard David, SPACE.com
Discovery News

It’s official! A fishing license for the sky.

The Bureau of Land Management, under the U.S. Department of the Interior, has issued Instruction Memorandum No. 2012-182. It establishes policy governing the collection of meteorites found on public lands.

The policy, issued Sept. 10, provides guidance to the BLM’s field office managers for administering the collection of meteorites on public lands in three "use categories," said Derrick Henry, a public affairs specialist for BLM in Washington, D.C.

They are:

  • Casual collection of small quantities without a permit
  • Scientific and educational use by permit under the authority of the Antiquities Act
  • Commercial collection of meteorites through the issuance of land-use permits

"The policy recognizes that there is interest in collecting meteorites by hobbyists … but it also is recognition that there are science and commercial interests as well," Henry told SPACE.com.

Henry said the new policy builds upon the guiding authority of the 1976 Federal Lands Policy and Management Act. It is the first time the BLM has formally addressed rules regarding collection of meteorites on public lands, he added.

As noted in the new policy, the extraterrestrial origin of meteorites, as well as their relative rarity, "has made them highly desirable to casual collectors, commercial collectors and scientific researchers."

The document goes on to note that "recent media attention has increased … confusion about the legality of and limits to casual and commercial collection. Courts have long established that meteorites belong to the owner of the surface estate. Therefore, meteorites found on public lands are part of the BLM’s surface estate, belong to the federal government, and must be managed as natural resources in accordance with the FLPMA of 1976."

Henry said the only other option under the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act would be to prohibit meteorite collection on federal land except for scientific inquiry. "This policy ensures that the three listed types of collection on BLM-managed land are allowed, and each of those has guidance under FLPMA," he said.

Fair market value

"We tried to account for every kind of occurrence out there," said Lucia Kuizon, national paleontologist at the BLM in Washington, D.C. "We felt the policy helps the public understand the issues, as well as for our own resource specialists out in the field when they get inquiries."

The policy for commercial collecting is new, Kuizon told SPACE.com.

"Prior to the instruction memorandum, we did not allow commercial collection of meteorites," she said. "The details of how to go about obtaining a permit and what it will cost can only be determined by submitting a proposal to the field office where the activity will take place, and then fees and other costs are calculated.

"Most collectors are probably 'small businesses,' and because the activity is more surface collection after a fall, the application fees should be reasonable," Kuizon added. "The fair market value would be calculated by the appraisers in the state office."

Mixed feelings

In the world of meteorite collecting, the new rules have sparked a flurry of comment on the Internet and on a special mailing list dedicated to the topic.

"I have mixed feelings about the new BLM guidelines," said Michael Gilmer of Galactic Stone and Ironworks, in Lutz, Fla. "I think this is all about money. Meteorites flew under the regulatory radar for a long time."

"I think it is good that BLM is trying to preserve the land, but they are schizophrenic in how they preserve the lands," Gilmer told SPACE.com. "They want to discourage meteorite hunters, but at the same time they allow large commercial mining interests to lease the land for exploration and exploitation. I think the mining companies do more damage than any meteorite hunter."

Gilmer said that if the BLM decides to rigorously enforce these guidelines, "then it will negatively impact the recovery rate of all meteorites … old finds and new falls alike."

The general consensus around the meteorite world of dealers and hunters, Gilmer added, is that the new rules are worrisome. However, "it varies from office to office, and a lot depends on the director of that particular BLM area. Some of them are more lenient than others. So I expect enforcement of the regulations to be spotty and inconsistent," he said.

What is needed is increased cooperation between private hunters and officially sanctioned hunters, Gilmer emphasized. "Ideally, the BLM should encourage meteorite hunting … but this is what happens when bureaucrats pass down new regulations without having any knowledge of how the meteorite market operates."

Freshly fallen meteorites

According to Arizona-based meteorite hunter Jim Wooddell, the BLM’s new rules clarify much of what the meteorite hunting community already knew.

"However, I want to point out that local policy for any specific area could be different based on the local land-use plan, which I think is the ultimate policy for a given area," he told SPACE.com.

Wooddell said two things are imperative: "First, the local authorized officers need to be educated in the collection of meteorites and, of critical importance, the need to recover fresh fallen meteorites as soon as possible."

Second, based on conversations with BLM representatives, Wooddell said institutions – such as those that study and curate meteorites – can and should proactively file permit applications that cover an entire state. Doing so would allow them, or their volunteers, to collect meteorites immediately after a fall. Still, this is up to the authorized officer for the state, he said.

"The bottom line is that no one has any rights to collect meteorites on federal lands for profit or for science without permission from the BLM in the form of a permit," Wooddell said. "Science and profit seekers are those affected the most. It was made apparent the BLM knows who many of them are. Time will tell how this works out."

Check out the BLM memorandum on meteorites here.

October 14, 2012

Massive turbines rise in Ocotillo

By Alejando Davila | Staff Writer
Imperial Valley Press

For Don Quixote, windmills were monstrous giants, some with arms nearly two leagues long. But for El Centro resident Efren Ramos, windmills such as the 112 being built west of here, are the source of income that pay for his daughter’s wedding.

Video: Pattern Energy's Ocotillo wind farm takes shape

“I told her that my limit was $25,000,” said Ramos with a laugh while referring to his daughter, who’s marrying at a San Diego beach in December.

The 56-year-old had been retired for more than a year when the project began and was doing OK, he said. And yet, he has worked all his life, so when the opportunity came up to work at the project, Ramos decided to come out of retirement.

He is now part of the civil crew, doing day-to-day operations, meaning he does roadwork and “anything else that comes up,” such as loading and unloading material or even cholla plant relocation.

Ramos is one of some 350 people, about half of them local, who are employed by Pattern Energy and its Ocotillo Wind Express, a renewable energy project comprised of windmills — or better said, wind turbines — unlike any Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes was likely to imagine.

That is because once commissioned, these wind turbines roughly the size of 40-story tall buildings and blades the size of a 747 Boeing passenger jet won’t power mills; they will power about 94,000 homes in San Diego, according to U.S. Bureau of Land Management figures.

The Imperial County Board of Supervisors approved Ocotillo Wind Express on April 25.

Some three weeks later the BLM did the same as the lead agency in charge of this project that the federal government selected as one of many priority projects needed to diversify the nation’s energy portfolio.

Rising turbines

Construction began in May amid lawsuits filed by local Native American tribes, environmental organizations and some residents who oppose the project over cultural, biological, health and aesthetic concerns.

Just last month, a lawsuit filed by Community Advocates for Renewable Energy Stewardship was dismissed in a San Diego federal court.

Lawsuits are also pending from the Quechan Tribe, the Desert Protective Council and a joint suit by Protect Our Communities Foundation, Backcountry Against Dumps and activist Donna Tisdale.

However, thus far, lawsuits have been unsuccessful in halting the project.

All facets of the project are in one stage or another at this time, said construction manager Joan Inlow.

“(This) consists of roads and site preparation, as well as pouring of the concrete bases that are underground (and) support the turbine, she said, “we are also delivering and putting up turbines. It’s kind of hard not to see that when you drive through the area.”

Workers “are also doing a lot of internal wiring in the turbines,” said Inlow adding the interconnecting underground collection system, which connects the turbines together into circuits, is being built.

As this takes place, San Diego Gas and Electric crews are working on the switchyard and other structures that will tie the project up into the Sunrise Power Link, described as a 500-kilovolt “superhighway” connecting the Imperial Valley to San Diego County.

So everyday workers along with cranes and other heavy machinery are assembling towers, rotors and turbines; an impressive feat to witness particularly when noticing the speed in which open desert becomes a turbine site.

Construction manager Russell Graham said it takes about 60 hours to put up a turbine.

As of Friday, more than 30 turbines could be seen standing from afar and many more will be seen in the upcoming months.

“Our plan was six (turbines) a week and we’ll also have a few weeks when we may put up seven and possibly eight (turbines),” said Inlow, who expects 86 turbines to be up and delivering power by the end of this year. The remaining 26 turbines, she said, will surely be up and working by June 2013.

The bigger picture

But Ocotillo Wind Express and the engineering that goes into building and connecting turbines across some 12,000 miles of BLM land is just a variable of a much bigger equation, one that hopes to find the answer to the country’s energy needs.

Ocotillo Wind was a priority in the Obama administration’s effort to diversify the nation’s energy portfolio through a “fast-track” process.

This priority is achieved on a variety of criteria, like necessary public participation, environmental analysis and its likelihood of success in the permitting process.

BLM spokeswoman Erin Curtis described this plan as the “environmentally responsible development of utility-scale renewable energy projects on public lands.”

This plan continues, and just this year, the BLM gave priority status to 17 projects: nine solar developments, six wind developments and two geothermal plants, according to Curtis, who noted these projects represent about 7,000 megawatts of power.

But the fast-track process, just like Ocotillo Wind Express, has created unease among some community members.

Native American tribes like the Quechan, have repeatedly called for the fast-track process and this project to stop, as it’s being built on an area archaeologically rich and spiritually important for them. Tribes also feel mitigation efforts are insufficient.

This comes in spite of the environmental and financial benefits presented by those who support industrial renewable energy projects.

According to an independent report, the project will bring about $442 million in revenue to the county over the 30-year life of the project.

On the other hand, some Ocotillo residents fear for their health and safety, while at the same time dislike the aesthetic change of the desert.

Long-standing concerns

Parke Ewing is one of those displeased residents. His house is just over a half mile from where turbines will stand and, he says, “I’ll be surrounded about 220 degrees … basically on three sides.”

“We are just scared to death for our health,” said Ewing, who like many opposing the project, has fears, allegations and shows deep distrust of Pattern and the government branches that have approved the project.

“There are plenty of scientists that have proven that low-frequency sound — the noise in these things, is proven to be unsafe and a bother (to) people,” he said.

“They can’t sleep at night and I’m scared to death that that’s going to happen to me. I don’t know that it’s going to, but from the research that I’ve done on the Internet — yes, I think it’s going to be a problem.”

Ewing also alleges there isn’t enough wind in the area to support the project.

“They (Pattern) say that they will be able to produce up to 320 megawatts of power. We think that they are going to be able to produce less than 20 percent of that,” said Ewing, who adds he is unsure if the project is properly engineered or inspected by the BLM or the county.

It should be noted Graham says the project will create about 265 megawatts of power as planned turbines were taken out of the project over environmental concerns.

Meanwhile, county Planning Director Armando Villa notes he gets a report on the project every day.

“We have hired engineers and inspectors that specialize in steel foundations to be out there,” he said.

“This is ongoing,” added Villa, who when asked about health issues responds “there’s not enough verifiable science to tell us that these things (turbines) are bad.”

And as far as the BLM’s monitoring efforts, Curtis pointed to online reports available on www.ocotilloeccmp.com

These reports have been posted every week since late May, up until the latest report, which is good through Sept. 9.

The last report notes issues/concerns over dust suppression, trash management and generator emissions, among others. Some of these concerns appear on previous reports as well. However, reports also note the contractor addressed concerns in a timely manner.

In addition, Pattern dismisses Ewing’s allegations.

Civil, geotechnical, structural and electrical engineering plans and calculations were completed by state licensed engineers and submitted to and approved by the county, said Pattern Energy’s Matt Dallas through an e-mail in which he wrote that “multi-year wind studies confirm that the site has strong wind resources.”

Meanwhile, a 2007 geographic information system map developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows the southwestern end of the county as having wind resource potential ranging from “marginal” to “superb.”

This last study surely opens more back and forth allegations, responses and findings on both ends of the spectrum.

And yet, two things are certain in this project. Like all developments, Ocotillo Wind Express impacts the county, bringing benefits and costs.

But whether one outweighs the other seems to be, depending on who answers, as contrasting as the way the errant knight Don Quixote and his faithful squire Sancho Panza saw the windmills.

For one, they were monstrous giants, while for the other: “what we see there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the sails that turned by the wind make the millstone go.”

October 5, 2012

Board Endorses LA & Orange Counties Draining Desert Aquifer

San Bernardino County Sentinel

Seth Shteir, of the National Parks Conservation Association, speaks during a protest of the groundwater management plan for the Cadiz project, before the San Bernardino County Supervisors meeting, on Monday, October 1, 2012. (KURT MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

In an action of historic proportion, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors on October 1 voted 4-1 to allow a water extraction project in the east Mojave Desert to proceed, removing the last procedural obstacle to a Los Angeles-based company’s plan to profit from the exportation of billions of gallons of San Bernardino County’s water up to 230 miles westward for sale and use in Orange, Los Angeles and Riverside counties.

Notably, San Bernardino County was not the lead agency on the project. Rather, Monday’s hearing was a formality required under the terms of a memorandum of understanding between the company undertaking the project, Cadiz, Inc., and Orange County-based Santa Margarita Water District, which served as the agency-of-record for the approval of the project and its environmental certification, and the Fenner Valley Mutual Water Company, an entity owned by Cadiz, Inc. The county by its action signed off on the Santa Margarita Water District’s approval of the project and certification of the environmental impact report, and it approved a groundwater management, monitoring, and mitigation plan to facilitate it.

On July 31, the Santa Margarita Water District, which lies 217 miles from the Cadiz Valley and serves the affluent communities of Rancho Santa Margarita, Mission Viejo, Coto de Caza, Las Flores, Ladera Ranch and Talega, approved the project, officially known as the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation and Recovery Project, certified the environmental impact report for the project and agreed to purchase 20 percent of the water Cadiz, Inc. drafts as a consequence of that approval. The environmental impact report states that Cadiz, Inc. can draw an average of 50,000 acre-feet of water per year from the desert aquifer for the next century.

The controversial plan was given go-ahead over the strident objections of desert residents and landowners, who said they viewed the project as an unprincipled theft of the desert’s water resource by Cadiz, Inc. and the water district. Environmentalists registered opposition to the project, asserting the amount of water to be extracted from the desert will exceed the natural recharge rate of the region’s groundwater basins, that springs within the immediate area of the project’s well field will dry up, and near-lying aquifers that are linked to the Cadiz Valley and Fenner Valley’s water tables will be depleted.

While Scott Slater, the president and general counsel for the Cadiz Land Company, and Christian Marsh, an attorney representing the county of San Bernardino, asserted that the October 1 hearing fulfills all of the procedural requirements for the project to proceed, John Goss, a former assistant administrative officer with San Bernardino County who had worked for 18 months drafting the county’s desert groundwater management ordinance before it was adopted in 2002, said that ordinance was violated when the memorandum of understanding between the county, Cadiz, Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District had been entered into before a groundwater management plan for the Cadiz project was adopted. There were also suggestions that the county had failed to live up to its own procedural requirements when it failed to provide a ten-day public review of the documentation considered by the board on October 1. That documentation, consisting of the groundwater management, monitoring, and mitigation plan, was not made available until September 26.

The board of supervisors would have normally been the lead agency responsible for approving the project and granting it environmental certification. After Cadiz, Inc. arranged for the Santa Margarita Water District to commandeer that process, San Bernardino County officials initially contemplated filing an appeal with the California Office of Planning and Research to wrest from Santa Margarita authority over the project and its application for approval. The county, however, did not file such an appeal and acceded to the Santa Margarita Water District’s assumption of lead agency authority over the project application and environmental certification. Earlier this year, the county upon a vote by the board of supervisors entered into a memorandum of understanding with Cadiz, Inc. and the Santa Margarita Water District that gave the county limited power to second-guess the district’s decision on the environmental certification and compliance with its own ground water management ordinance as well as requiring that Cadiz, Inc. defray the cost of any legal action taken by parties against the project or in reaction to its impacts.

The project still faces four legal challenges.

A brine mining operation in the desert, Tetra Technologies, has already filed a lawsuit against San Bernardino County over the memorandum of understanding. Tetra alleges the monopolization of water in the area will harm its operation.

Four environmental groups – the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Parks Conservation Association, the San Gorgonio chapter of the Sierra Club and the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society – filed a suit in San Bernardino County Superior Court, naming both the county of San Bernardino and the Santa Margarita Water District. That suit asserts the county should not have allowed the environmental review of the project to be carried out by the Mission Viejo-based Santa Margarita Water District. The suit challenges the county for allowing Santa Margarita to assume lead agency status and calls into question as well the water district’s approval of the environmental impact report.

The Colorado River branch of the Archaeological Heritage Association filed suit in federal court against Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and San Bernardino County, further naming the Santa Margarita Water District, project proponent Cadiz, Inc. and the Cadiz, Inc. corporate offshoot Fenner Valley Mutual Water Company, as real parties in interest. That suit cited the failure of Salazar and the Department of the Interior to invoke the protocols and requirements of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, as well as the National Environmental Protection Act, which the association maintains should have been done because part of the project will involve a 42-mile right-of-way for the aqueduct on federal land. The suit further alleges the county failed to live up to its obligation to comply with federal law in reviewing the impact a permitted project might have on federal public resources in transferring the authority for environmental certification of the project to the Santa Margarita Water District.

A group of Orange County residents calling itself Citizens and Ratepayers Opposing Water Nonsense have sued the Santa Margarita Water District over its approval of the environmental impact report and the water purchase agreement it entered into with Cadiz, Inc.

In addition, Senator Dianne Feinstein has signaled continuing opposition to the project, which is consistent with the stance she took when Cadiz, Inc. floated a similar water mining operation more than a decade ago. In an October 1 letter to board chairwoman Josie Gonzales, Feinsten reiterated that opposition, urging Gonzales and her board colleagues to deny the project endorsement if the amount of groundwater to be extracted from the aquifers exceeds the natural annual recharge rate of the local desert basins, which was determined by the United States Geological Survey in 2001 to be 5,000 acre feet per year.

Only supervisor Neil Derry, whose Third District includes a portion of the East Mojave, voted against the project.

Project proponents asserted the project represented no harm to the desert and its environment, and they said the county should embrace it because it represented economic development and employment opportunities. Opponents retorted that the jobs to be created would be temporary and that the monopolization of the region’s water by areas outside of the county would inhibit or outright prevent future economic growth and development in the Eastern Mojave.

October 4, 2012

Canal break slows Colorado River flow

State Route 72 following a breach in a Central Arizona Project canal near Bouse Arizona, early Sunday morning. (Photo courtesy John Mickey.)


Federal regulators are slowing the flow of the Colorado River below Hoover Dam after a break in the canal that feeds river water to Arizona's largest cities.

The Bureau of Reclamation announced Thursday that the river will be running uncharacteristically low below Hoover and Davis dams this month because of reduced deliveries to Arizona.

The Grand Canyon State stopped taking water from the Colorado this week after the Central Arizona Project canal failed early Sunday near the town of Bouse, 50 miles southeast of Lake Havasu City, Ariz.

Officials in Arizona estimate approximately 400 acre-feet of water was lost in the canal break. That is enough to supply 800 average single-family homes in Las Vegas for one year.

The canal breach flooded a nearby highway, forcing it to close temporarily.

It is unknown when the canal will be repaired, but the Central Arizona Project will continue to make normal deliveries to its customers from water it has stored in Lake Pleasant, north of Phoenix.

The reduced water releases from Hoover and Davis will cause lower than normal river levels below the two dams and in the Laughlin and Bullhead City, Ariz., area.

Boaters are warned to be on the lookout for sandbars, boulders and gravel that might normally be submerged this time of year.

October 1, 2012

County supervisors approve Cadiz desert water pumping plan

Ruth Musser-Lopez, a former council member from Needles, speaks during a protest of the groundwater management plan for the Cadiz project, before the San Bernardino County Supervisors meeting, on Monday, October 1, 2012. (KURT MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)


An ambitious private water project that would draw water from deep under the Mojave Desert and pipe it across California was given the go-ahead Monday, Oct. 1, by San Bernardino County supervisors.

Opponents and supporters spoke for five hours during a special hearing on the controversial Cadiz project, which would pump an average of 50,000 acre-feet per year from beneath a remote valley south of the Mojave National Preserve and pipe it to cities across the state.

The vote was 4-1, with Supervisor Neil Derry dissenting.

“My constituents have been very vocal about not taking water out of the desert,” Derry said.

The supervisor said he also opposes the Santa Margarita Water District in Mission Viejo acting as lead agency on the project instead of the county. The Orange County water agency has agreed to buy water from Cadiz Inc., along with Jurupa Community Services District in Riverside County, and five other agencies as far north as San Jose.

Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt cited several benefits for the county, including a hedge against uncertain supplies from Northern California and new jobs in a region that needs them.

Part of the agreement reserves 20 percent of whatever is pumped for the county, plus 25,000 acre-feet, he said.

“How much would it cost us to build a project that could access that much water?” Mitzelfelt asked. “I see a benefit at a very reasonable cost.”

Numerous representatives of the manufacturing industry, pipe layers, surveyors and the Building Industry Association said it would create thousands of jobs and bring water supply reliability that would boost the economy by billions of dollars.

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.

The board approved an amended version of a management plan to govern project operations.

The plan includes a water-withdrawal threshold that, if reached, would allow the county to shut down pumping from the Cadiz Valley.

The 80-foot floor was established because the county doubts Cadiz Inc.’s assertion that natural recharge — the rate at which rain and snow replenish the water — is 32,000 acre-feet per year, said Christian Marsh, the county’s special counsel.

A study by the U.S. Geological Survey showed recharge at 5,000 acre-feet per year.

“If the recharge is only 5,000 acre-feet per year and they pump 50,000, they’ll hit the (80-foot) floor within 10 years,” Marsh said.

The threshold eliminates widespread worries about the aquifer’s rate of recharge, he said. The county also will monitor vegetation in the area and watch for sinking land, among other indicators of potential harm, he said.

Many project opponents complained about the threshold.

“By 80 feet, the damage will be done,” said Michael Valdez, a lawyer with the UC Irvine Environmental Law Clinic.

Several speakers alleged campaign donations by Cadiz Inc. had influenced the supervisors’ decisions in favor of the project. From 2007 to June 30, 2012, Cadiz has donated more than $107,000 to supervisors and candidates for the office, according to county records.

Among them: Mitzelfelt received $48,100; Gary Ovitt, $11,745; Josie Gonzales, $8,450; Janice Rutherford, $5,999; and Derry, $5,250.

Supervisors did not respond to calls from the public to address how much money they have received from the company.

This is the second incarnation of the Cadiz project. Since it was first proposed in 1999, Cadiz general counsel Scott Slater said his company has downsized the project, spent $10 million to drill wells and map the area and change the pipeline route.

“The project has made a promise to conserve millions of acre-feet of groundwater without harm to others and the environment and, with its action today, the county will ensure that this promise is fulfilled,” Slater said.

It will be years before the $225 million project is operational because the company must still reach an agreement with Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to use its pipelines. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is critical of the project. In addition, it may require a federal environmental review.

Meanwhile, two lawsuits are pending, one by the National Parks Conservation Association and other environmental groups, and the other from Delaware Tetra Technologies Inc., which runs a brine mining operation at two dry lakes near the 45,000 acres that Cadiz owns.

Feds Plan Roundup for 3,500 Wild Horses, Burros

A wild stallion runs for freedom after jumping over the fence of a holding area during a wild horse roundup in the Clan Alpine Range in Fallon, Nev., about 120 miles east of Reno, Nev. (AP file photo)

Paul Foy
Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Federal officials plan to round up thousands of wild horses and burros across six Western states starting today, Monday.

The roundups will take place through February on drought-stricken range lands in Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.

Contractors for the Bureau of Land Management will use helicopters plus bait- and water-trapping methods to corral 3,500 wild horses and burros, officials said.

In addition, more than 900 other horses will be captured for birth control injections and returned to range lands.

The government is already holding 47,000 horses, most of them on green pasture in the Midwest. Bureau of Land Management officials said it was a popular misconception that they send horses to slaughterhouses. The animals are protected under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

A small number of horses are put up for adoption, but most horses are kept until their final days in permanent corrals, officials said.

Owners of adopted horses must swear under the penalty of law that they do not plan to send horses to slaughter, said Heather Emmons, a BLM spokeswoman in Reno, Nev.

The BLM's ability to care for ever-rising numbers of wild horses is a decision left to Congress, she said. The BLM says there are 11,000 more wild horses roaming public lands across the West than belong there.

In all, there are 37,300 wild horses and burros on public range lands across 10 Western states, the government says.

Officials said they have no choice but to cull wild horse herds. With virtually no predators, they say, the herds can double in population every four years.

Horse advocacy groups have been critical of government roundups and what they call the rough treatment of horses gathered up.

"They aren't placing enough wild horses through adoption so they need to put a freeze on roundups," said Anne Novak, executive director of Berkeley, Calif.-based group Protect Mustangs. "Killing them is not a solution. Selling them to slaughter is not a solution. They need to be responsible for their actions and stop the gluttony of roundups at taxpayer expense."

BLM officials say comments suggesting they kill horses are irresponsible.

"We do not send horses to slaughterhouses," said Chris Hanefeld, a BLM spokesman in Ely, Nev. "You can quote me."

Several multi-month roundups will get under way across Nevada starting Monday. Officials plan to hold those horses at pens at Palomino Valley near Reno or at Utah's Gunnison Correctional Facility until they can be prepared for adoption or sent to long-term pasture in the Midwest.


One 400-horse roundup is planned for the Cedar Mountain herd, known as "Utah's Rainbow Herd" because of its high number of pintos, roans, buckskins and grays. The herd is thought to be related to the mounts that the Standard Horse and Mule Co. supplied the U.S. Cavalry in the late 1800s.

Officials say they will release 250 of the Cedar Mountain horses after injecting them with a contraceptive. Roundups also will take place in two other Utah locations.

New Mexico

Officials say 102 horses will be rounded up — and 66 later released — on the Carson National Forest. Another roundup will take place for 365 horses in the high desert of the Jiicarilla Wild Horse Territory. Ninety of those horses will be returned to the land after fertility injections.


105 horses will be removed from the Murderer's Creek management area near Mount Vernon. None will be returned.


274 horses will be captured — and 137 released — on national forest land along the East Fork of the Salmon River. The BLM says this herd is comprised of a hardy, genetically diverse stock roaming across more than 240 square miles of mountains.


810 horses will be rounded up — and 580 released — near Riverton. Another roundup is planned for 90 horses in the McCullough Peaks region near Cody. Twenty of those horses will be released to the range.

This is of the government's most widespread roundups. Horse advocates say the practice should be scaled back.

"Rounding up only the number of wild horses they can adopt out is a viable solution that makes fiscal sense," Novak said.