January 26, 2012

Kit foxes fall victim to distemper near new solar site

State, feds team to find source; construction not affected
A desert kit fox warms itself in the sun near its burrow. California Department of Fish and Game is investigating the deaths of seven desert kit foxes in the past two months near the Genesis solar project near Blythe. The deaths are the first documented cases of canine distemper in wild desert kit foxes. (BLM)

Written by K Kaufmann
The Desert Sun

An outbreak of canine distemper among desert kit foxes near the Genesis solar project off Interstate 10 east of the Coachella Valley has triggered a state and federal investigation to find the cause of the disease and protect the animals near all solar projects in the region.

Since last October, a total of seven kit foxes dead or dying of the disease have been found on or near the Genesis site, said Deana Clifford, a wildlife veterinarian with the California Department of Fish and Game.

The deaths are the first documented cases of canine distemper in wild desert kit foxes, she said.

“What we've seen, they are declining very quickly and don't appear to live very long,” Clifford said.

Two kit foxes suffering from distemper were rushed to The Living Desert in Palm Desert in November and December, respectively, she said.

“The first animal was brought from the Blythe area and died before it got it here,” said Dr. Kevin Leiske, staff veterinarian at The Living Desert, which does not have kit foxes in captivity.

“The second animal was comatose and near death when it arrived and the only humane course of action was to euthanize the animal. Canine distemper is a devastating disease. The only true prevention is vaccination.”

Considered one of the desert's unique species, kit foxes can survive in dry climates because they get all their water from food. The animals are not endangered, but are a focus for wildlife conservation efforts, Fish and Game officials said.

A virus causes canine distemper, which affects both domestic and wild animals. Puppies, if not vaccinated, are particularly vulnerable, Clifford said.

It affects the animals' breathing and digestive system, causing coughing, diarrhea and dehydration, as well as brain swelling and seizures, she said.

It can cycle naturally through wild canine populations, she said, but also can be transmitted to and from domestic animals that come in contact with wildlife.

Trapping, tagging

In response to the outbreak, Fish and Game and the Bureau of Land Management have launched an investigation involving the trapping, tagging and vaccinating 39 kit foxes.

Earlier this month, they trapped foxes at four sites over a 10,000-acre area between NextEra Energy's Genesis — 20 miles west of Blythe — and Desert Sunlight in Desert Center and near the site of the Colorado substation south of I-10.

The outbreak may have briefly slowed construction on both sites as Clifford ordered the developers to halt activity near active kit fox burrows and to create wide buffer zones around them.

It's too early to say if there is any connection between the outbreak and the disruption of the fox habitat by the solar projects, she said.

“Habitat disturbance can cause stress and when animals are stressed, they may be more vulnerable to the disease,” Clifford said.

A nearby I-10 rest stop where people stop and let their dogs run could be another possible source of the virus, she said.

To find out, disease samples from the dead animals has been sent to Cornell University in New York, where experts will try to identify the particular strain of distemper and its possible origin, she said.

Distemper, like other viruses, can have different strains and some may be “hotter,” more virulent, than others, Clifford said.

Meanwhile, onsite biologists at both projects are monitoring 12 kit foxes that now wear radio collars, Clifford said. If an animal stops moving for more than six hours — a sign it may be sick or dead — the collar emits more beeps, she said.

The other 27 foxes were given a distemper vaccine deemed safe for wild animals. More animals would have been tagged, but the radio collars were not available, she said, and with the foxes going into their breeding period — which runs through May — the effort had to be organized quickly.

“We have been very proactive and cooperative working with the BLM and Department of Fish and Game; we have followed the agency directives,” said Steve Stengel, a NextEra spokesman.

Construction on the site is continuing with no major disruptions, he said.

“There are no visual signs of distemper in any of the kit foxes on the Desert Sunlight project site at this point, so we are encouraged by that,” said Alan Bernheimer, a spokesman for First Solar, the Arizona company building that project.

Genesis and Desert Sunlight are the only two solar projects under construction in the Riverside East solar zone, a swath of public land stretching from Joshua Tree National Park to Blythe.

As the investigation continues, Clifford sees the lack of extensive knowledge about desert kit foxes in general as a major challenge.

“We don't have a lot of details about the state of their health, their population, their ecology,” she said.

“I hope this will provide momentum to do some nice work on desert kit foxes.”

Ensuring all domestic canines get distemper vaccinations is also important in helping protect kit foxes and other wild animals.

“Although we do not know if this outbreak was started by an infected domestic animal, it is important for people to vaccinate their pets regularly,” she said.

About kit foxes

The desert kit fox lives in the deserts, though other kit foxes live in arid lands of western North America.

In the U.S., the foxes' habitats can be found from Southern California to western Colorado and western Texas, north into southern Oregon and Idaho.

The mostly nocturnal, burrowing canines, which typically weigh six pounds or less, also live in Mexico and mostly eat small animals. Source: California Department of Fish and Game

January 24, 2012

Mining Groundwater for Profit: The Cadiz Project

Cadiz Valley Water Project watershed boundaries (Cadiz Inc.)

Dr. Peter Gleick, Pacific Institute
The Huffington Post

A private company, Cadiz Inc. (Cadiz), has revived plans to mine groundwater underlying land in the delicate Eastern Mojave Desert. This project raises fundamental questions about how we manage our precious water resources, and in particular, whether in the 21st century it is appropriate, or even necessary, to use renewable water resources in a nonrenewable and unsustainable way, for short-term profit.

The idea for the Cadiz project is simple: mine groundwater faster than nature refills it and sell it to urban centers in Southern California for profit. The full proposal seems more complicated - the owners might try to temporarily replace the lost groundwater with extra water from the Colorado River, if it is ever available (which is highly unlikely), but they propose to pump out this water and sell it, too, so the economics of the project really just depend on the water removed through unsustainable groundwater mining. Without that water, the project fails economically.

The project is located in the desert of southern California, east of Los Angeles and San Diego, in an area with very low precipitation. The owners intend to remove at least 50,000 acre-feet of water a year (and if they can get away with it, 75,000 acre-feet per year in the early years) for 50 years and sell it to local water agencies, including the Santa Margarita Water Agency (SMWA), Three Valleys Municipal Water District, Suburban Water System, Golden State Water Company, Jurupa Community Services, and California Water Service Company. Scientists estimate that nature, in contrast, only refills the basin with around 5,000 and 32,000 acre-feet per year, with most independent estimates at the very low end. This means the groundwater levels will drop and drop, like taking more water out of a bathtub than you put in. This is, simply, unsustainable.

If there were no adverse consequences of this kind of water mining, and if all that mattered was money, then perhaps using up this stock of water and turning it into a private good would make sense - at least to the project owners. But there are adverse consequences for other humans and for the local environment. This is cut-and-run water management: take a non-renewable resource that will last a short time, turn it for a profit, and leave a degraded landscape, mimicking the classic boom-and-bust cycles that characterized much of the mining industry in the western U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Here are some of the other consequences:

  • The water supply is unsustainable - it is not a permanent source of water and new sources would have to be found when it is no longer economical to pump.
  • The project produces water that is already more expensive than saving the same amount of water through improving urban conservation and efficiency programs.
  • Other local landowners and businesses believe their water availability or quality will be affected by the project in ways neither fully understood nor mitigated by Cadiz.
  • There are unresolved questions about the quality of the water and how the project might worsen water quality for other users over time.
  • And perhaps most important, water in the desert is a rare thing, and the desert pools, ephemeral seeps, natural springs, and playas support delicate ecosystems dependent on the ability of groundwater to reach the surface. This project would draw down that groundwater, leading to the inevitable disappearance of surface water with highly uncertain, poorly understood, but almost certainly negative ecological consequences. And even the project owners admit in their draft Environmental Impact Report (dEIR) that we don't know enough about the science to fully understand the consequence for centuries to come - long after they've left the scene.

In a mathematical sleight of hand, the project argues that water is "saved" by the project because it might reduce evaporative losses when water ponds on the surface during some wet periods. Yet it is precisely this water that local ecosystems rely upon for survival. Another piece of mathematical magic is their claim that the project is actually sustainable because they assume the project life is 100 years long: thus they pump like mad for the first 50 years and take their money and leave, acknowledging that the groundwater might or might not recharge to its original levels over the next 50 years after pumping stops. That's like saying that fossil fuels are renewable, because nature might make them again in the future. Under the lower (and perhaps more accurate) estimates of natural recharge, there is a real risk of permanent damage to the groundwater basin through subsidence of land or contamination of the aquifer with salts, and it may never fully refill. And the draft environmental impact report says nothing at all about how the real risk of climate change might alter the desert hydrology.

Finally, there are natural springs in nearby valleys that may be connected to the groundwater basin in Cadiz. In a remarkable grammatical sleight-of-hand, the draft environmental impact report states that a field survey done by their consultants concluded that "there is no information demonstrating a physical connection of the identified springs in the local mountains to [Cadiz] groundwater." Note the wording: "there is no information." They use that to discount any risks to local springs. But absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence. An honest assessment of the science would conclude that, at best, we don't know if there is a connection. And in fact the hydrologic assessment does show that if there is any connection, the mining of groundwater would ultimately affect the springs, perhaps long after pumping began. This means that if there is a connection, once it is ultimately noticed, it would be too late to prevent the springs from drying up.

We need new thinking about water in California and new innovative solutions. We must modify how we use water, and we must find new sources of supply. But the Cadiz Project is old thinking, based on the pillage-and-run philosophy of the past centuries, where water was seen as a resource to be mined and consumed, not managed in a sustainable way. This project is an insult to the notion of sustainability, to the efforts to protect the Eastern Mojave's beauty and unique nature, and to the idea that resource development should respect more than just narrow economic gain. The good news is there are excellent alternatives, including recycling and reuse of water, improved efficiency of use by our cities and farms, smarter and renewable groundwater use and recharge projects, and even desalination of brackish waters or the ocean if the economics and environmental challenges can be properly overcome. Cadiz might have made some sense a century ago when we didn't know better, but today it is neither appropriate for California nor necessary, and it should be cancelled.

A public comment hearing on Cadiz will be held, Tuesday, January 24 at 6:00 p.m. at SMWD, 26111 Antonio Parkway, Rancho Santa Margarita. Another will be held Wednesday, February 1 at 6:00 p.m. at the Joshua Tree Community Center.