July 27, 2012

Donors who bailed out state parks want their money back

California State Parks ranger closes gate to shuttered and vandalized Mitchell Caverns in the East Mojave Desert. The Providence Mountains SRA is the only unit in the state part system not re-opened following the scandal. (IRFAN KHAN / LOS ANGELES TIMES)

By Paul Rogers
San Jose Mercury News

Saying they feel betrayed by the discovery of $54 million hidden in two state parks accounts, a growing number of groups that donated money to keep California state parks from closing this year now say they want a refund -- or at least a binding promise from lawmakers to spend the extra money on parks.

"They sort of came to us under false pretenses. They cried wolf, and we responded," said Reed Holderman, executive director of the Sempervirens Fund, a nonprofit conservation group in Los Altos. "An elegant solution would be for them to refund the nonprofits, and put whatever is left into parks."

Holderman's group announced in March that it would donate $250,000 in private donations to the state parks department to keep Castle Rock State Park off the closure list. Known for its sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, Castle Rock is located along the Santa Cruz-Santa Clara County line.

State Parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned Friday and her top deputy was fired after Gov. Jerry Brown's administration announced the state parks department had kept $54 million in two accounts without reporting it to the state Department of Finance.

Generous donations

There has been no evidence that any of the money was embezzled or stolen, and Coleman says she did not know of it. Still, the discovery came at a politically difficult time for the governor. Brown announced last year that the state was so short of cash that 70 state parks -- one-quarter of the entire system -- had to be closed by July 1 to save $22 million. Critics called the threat a political gimmick to convince middle-class voters to support Brown's tax increase measure on the upcoming November ballot.

When dozens of civic groups, local cities and businesses stepped forward with donations, the parks closures were averted. The state attorney general's office is now investigating.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Cerritos, sent a letter this week to the state parks department calling it "irresponsible with taxpayer dollars" and demanding that it refund $30,000 that the city of Whittier donated to help keep Pio Pico State Park open. The park is famous for its adobes and exhibits of life in California around the time of the Gold Rush.

"I am extremely proud our community stepped up to keep this treasured state historic park open," Sanchez wrote. "However, based upon the recently discovered budget surplus, it is clear that there was no need for the city to use their general funds for this purpose."

What happened?

In the Bay Area, the Coe Park Preservation Fund, a nonprofit group that pledged $300,000 a year over three years to keep Henry W. Coe State Park near Morgan Hill open, said that if lawmakers do not devote the extra money to state parks this year, it will rescind the donation.

Dan McCranie, treasurer of the group, noted that $20.4 million of the unreported money was in a fund that comes from state park entry fees and which is traditionally used to fund parks. Another $33.5 million was in a fund that comes from registration of off-highway vehicles and used to fund parks for motorcycles and dune buggies.

"The $20 million, that money came from folks visiting the parks, spending money at the parks. It's obvious it should be used for state parks," said McCranie, a Gilroy resident and Silicon Valley executive.

Clark Blanchard, a spokesman for the California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the parks department, said his agency will recommend that lawmakers spend the extra money on parks but that ultimately the decision rests with state lawmakers.
State legislative leaders were noncommittal on Thursday.

"There's no determination at this point," said Mark Hedlund, a spokesman for state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. "The priority is to get to the bottom of the situation and figure out what happened. And then we go from there."

July 26, 2012

Big Green lawsuits cause megafires, destroy endangered species

Ron Arnold, Contributor
The Washington Examiner

Professional foresters have known for years that environmentalists are the forests' worst pest. Green groups' lawsuits block federal forest health improvements and catastrophic wildfire prevention measures, leading to destroyed communities, dead animals and forests and timber jobs exported to foreign suppliers.

Last Tuesday, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., convened an oversight hearing on the problem, titled, "The Impact of Catastrophic Forest Fires and Litigation on People and Endangered Species."

A single panel of four nongovernment witnesses laid out different perspectives on the hearing's major premise: For decades, environmental groups have used the Endangered Species Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act to file dozens of lawsuits that block timber fuels reduction and thinning projects that would decrease the risk of wildfires that decimate species' habitat.

The issue doesn't register on many people because it's too technical. What are timber fuels? How could thinning prevent wildfires? Any number of past surveys show that the American psyche sees forests as either Disneyland or Chartres cathedral: clean, safe, well-managed playgrounds or temples for the faithful.

Timber fuels are anything in the forest that gets dry or combustible -- grass, brush, trees, dead or downed wood -- or whatever. Thinning is the removal of these things through such methods as logging, junkwood hauling, chipping and mulching, pile and controlled burn, livestock grazing to crop tall grasses in open forests, et cetera. Such management of the woods keeps them clean and safe.

However, the green faithful hate development, including firefighting roads, tree cutting in fire-prone stands, and water catchments to put out megafires. When imposed by lawsuit upon an actual forest, the Big Green Bible produces a Crispy Critters National Wasteland. Humor aside, such behavior should be a felony.

Committee Chairman Hastings made this point tellingly by placing a superscription over the hearing's briefing paper. It was a 2009 quote from Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity.

Suckling said: "When we stop the same timber sale three or four times running, the timber planners want to tear their hair out. They feel like their careers are being mocked and destroyed -- and they are. So, they become more willing to play by our rules and at least get something done. Psychological warfare is a very underappreciated aspect of environmental campaigning."

It's not just wretched hidden agendas that thwart forest managers and fire fighters. The law itself, piled high with old environmental agenda items, is wildfire's best friend. Rick Dice, president of the National Wildfire Suppression Association, told the hearing panel, "Our environmental laws individually provide important safeguards. But collectively, they overlap in contradictory ways that make it nearly impossible for the federal land managers, local elected officials, partnership groups and private firefighting companies to navigate through the legal paperwork."

American environmental law has only STOP buttons. There are no GO buttons that can force a development through special interest litigation.

Witness Alison Berry, an energy and economics expert at Montana's Sonoran Institute, said as much. She recommended that the Forest Service "overhaul the public land laws that are dragging down federal land management. Reform should be directed at making national forests less vulnerable to seemingly endless litigation."

Hastings and his staff posted a video of this crucial hearing on the committee's website, which everyone should watch. In the meantime, how do we put STOP buttons on the environmentalists' psychological warfare against development, and give GO buttons to rational management of our nation's forests?

Examiner Columnist Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

Are environmentalists' anti-gun policies to blame for wildfires in the West?

Photograph by Mark Thiessen

by Chad D. Baus
Liberty For All

The headlines have echoed across the country:
“Guns blamed for starting wildfires in parched West”
According to the Associated Press, officials believe target shooting or other firearms use sparked at least 21 wildfires in Utah and nearly a dozen in Idaho. Shooting is also believed to have caused fires in Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico.

In Utah, the AP says Republican Gov. Gary Herbert “took the unusual step” of authorizing the top state forest official to impose gun restrictions on public lands after a gunfire-sparked fire.

A gunfire-sparked, you say? How could target shooting start fires? I mean, we’re almost certainly not dealing with flintlock guns here.

The devil is in the details, and an accurate Associated Press headline would read as mine does above:
“Are environmentalists’ anti-gun policies to blame for wildfires in the West?”
From the AP article:
“Utah officials believe steel-jacketed bullets are the most likely culprits, given one shot that hits a rock and throws off sparks can ignite surrounding vegetation and quickly spread…The bullets were recently banned on state and federal lands in Utah. Officials are telling sportsmen to use lead bullets that don’t give off sparks when they hit rocks.”
What the article doesn’t mention, of course, is that environmental extremists have been attempting to ban the use of lead bullets - the very ones Utah officials now say are preferred - in favor of bullets made of materials such as steel, which is blamed for causing sparks when they impact rocks. Many in the West are avid Second Amendment proponents, so most state lawmakers are hesitant to enact any restrictions for fear of a backlash.

“We’re not trying to pull away anyone’s right to bear arms. I want to emphasize that,” said Louinda Downs, a county commissioner in fire-prone Davis County, Utah. “We’re just saying target practice in winter. Target practice on the gun range.

“When your pleasure hobby is infringing or threatening someone else’s right to have property or life, shouldn’t we be able to somehow have some authority so we can restrict that?” she asked.

For weeks, state officials have said they were powerless to ban gun use because of Second Amendment rights, but legislative leaders say they found an obscure state law that empowers the state forester to act in an emergency. The last high-profile time people’s Second Amendment rights were stripped in the name of an emergency, the problem was hurricane-level flooding in Louisiana, not fires.

For his part, Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Sports Shooting Council, told the AP he is skeptical about the placement of blame on target shooters, and estimated that perhaps 5 percent of the wildfires in the state have been caused by target shooters this year. “I don’t know how much of a problem it really is,” he said. Aposhian said his group will conduct tests to determine if the steel-jacketed bullet theory is true. If there are limits, “we want to make sure it is not knee-jerk legislation to ban guns or ammunition,” he said. “If it turns out the problem is with a few types of rounds, we will not be an apologist for them.” There is no need for such tests, Utah state fire marshal Brent Halladay said. With steel bullets, “you might as well just go up there and strike a match,” he said.

And so, yet again, we have to suffer the unintended consequences of extreme environmentalist policies that weren’t based on sound, verifiable data in the first place, just as we are suffering with the whole lead bullet controversy that may very well have caused these fires in the first place.

Chad D. Baus is the Buckeye Firearms Association Vice Chairman

July 24, 2012

Interior Names Solar ‘Hot Spots’ Out West

Small blue circles indicate sites that are prime zones for solar energy installations; light blue patches are sites for which solar applications could be admitted under a variance process. Yellow zones present limited solar alternatives, and pink areas are excluded from development.

New York Times

After more than two years of study and public comment, the Department of Interior on Tuesday identified 17 sites on 285,000 acres of public lands across six Southwestern states as prime spots for development of solar energy. Agency officials said the government would fast-track applications for large-scale solar energy installations at those sites in the hope of speeding construction of thousands of megawatts of renewable, non-polluting electricity generation.

The agency identified an additional 19 million acres of public lands in California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico as potential venues for solar energy projects that could win rapid federal approval.

But officials said they were fencing off more than 78 million acres of public land from solar development because the areas have less solar energy potential, do not have immediate access to transmission lines or pose a threat to important archaeological or cultural sites, endangered species, scarce water resources or other environmental values if developed.

“This is a key milestone in building a sustainable foundation for utility-scale solar energy development and conservation on public lands over the next two decades,” the interior secretary, Ken Salazar, said.

Republican critics have accused the Obama administration of restricting energy projects on public lands and waters, and such charges are a staple of the current political campaign, particularly in Western states and along the Gulf of Mexico.

Administration officials have bent over backward to show their commitment to resource development on lands and waters that the federal government controls. On Monday, the Interior Department announced a 20-million-acre oil and gas lease sale in the western Gulf of Mexico, and the agency has liberally granted permission over the past year for mining and drilling across the West, in the gulf and in Alaska.

On the solar energy front, the Interior Department on Tuesday issued a document known as a final programmatic environmental impact statement covering more than 3,000 pages that spells out the considerations in narrowing the sites for solar development and describes the process for permitting new projects.

The agency has already approved 17 large-scale solar energy projects on public lands that are expected to produce nearly 6,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 1.8 million homes.

The department estimated the resource potential of the newly-identified development zones at 23,700 megawatts, enough to power seven million homes, by 2030.

Solar industry and environmental advocates reacted favorably to the announcement, saying it would mean jobs and renewable power for years to come.

“Renewable energy development on federal lands is essential to reaching our national clean energy goals,” said Arthur L. Haubenstock, vice president for regulatory affairs at Brightsource Energy, a solar technology company.

Helen O’Shea, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s western renewable energy project, said she hoped the new plan would help the nation address climate change while protecting wildlife and critical habitat.

Opponents will have 30 days to formally protest the solar plan, after which Mr. Salazar will consider adopting the document through executive action.

Litigation, Red Tape Fuel Megafires damaging Forests, Communities, Species

Press Release
Committee on Natural Resources
United States House of Representatives

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, the House Natural Resources Committee held an oversight hearing on, “The Impact of Catastrophic Forest Fires and Litigation on People and Endangered Species: Time for Rational Management of our Nation's Forests.”

The hearing focused on the devastating impacts of catastrophic wildfires on people and species and how Endangered Species Act litigation blocks activities that help prevent and fight fires.

“Information provided by the Justice Department to this Committee reveals that at least 59 environmental lawsuits against the Forest Service and BLM have been filed or are open during just the past four years. These suits have stopped most human or economic activity connected with forests, including eliminating thousands of jobs. They have also obstructed projects to improve species habitat on thousands of acres decimated by fires, by removing dead or diseased trees, maintaining access roads to fire areas, and removing ash and sediment.

Ironically, some of these lawsuits aimed at ‘saving’ forests have resulted in their actual destruction, where once old-growth, critical habitat forests now resemble the moon’s surface after fires,” said Chairman Doc Hastings (WA-04).

“Our communities and endangered species deserve practical solutions now to address and reduce the risks of megafires. We owe it to them to improve federal forest health and species habitat and ensure that the Endangered Species Act works to protect species and people before and after these devastating fires occur.”

July 23, 2012

California state parks director resigns amid $54 million scandal

California State Parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli) 
By Matthew Renda
Tahoe Daily Tribune

GRASS VALLEY, Calif. — The director of California's state parks resigned and a deputy was fired Friday after officials learned the department sat on nearly $54 million in surplus money for years, while parks were threatened with closure over budget cuts.

Parks Director Ruth Coleman stepped down, and chief deputy Michael Harris was let go, amid questions about the underreported funds dating back 12 years, according to Clark Blanchard, a spokesman for the secretary of the Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the parks department.

Local officials expressed a mixture of outrage and astonishment at the news that the parks department intended to close 70 parks to save $22 million over two years while reportedly sitting on reserves of more than twice that amount.

“You don't go around coercing community groups and nonprofits to solve your problems while you're sitting on reserves that size,” said Caleb Dardick, executive director of the South Yuba River Citizens League, which has taken a leadership role in raising awareness and funds to keep open two Nevada County parks — Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park and South Yuba River State Park.

In February, Dardick led a contingent of local environmental leaders, conservationists, park advocates and children from Grass Valley Charter school, to hand deliver more than 10,000 petitions to Coleman.

At the time, Coleman praised the contingent, including western Nevada County officials and the children for developing a sustainable plan to keep the park open.

Dardick said those words now ring hollow.

“The state parks staff betrayed the public trust, they betrayed our community and betrayed our children,” he said. “As a sign of good faith, the parks department should immediately restore full services to both parks.”

Alden Olmsted, who has undertaken a comprehensive fundraising effort that encourages people to provide $1 to buckets strategically placed at businesses around the state, said he has long suspected something wrong was afoot.

“Now I know why it was so difficult to try and help the parks system,” Olmsted said.

Olmsted said he repeatedly pressed park officials for specific figures regarding what it would take to keep specific parks open and was repeatedly rebuffed.

“The numbers were erroneous all along,” he said.

Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who emerged as a consistent critic of how the parks department conducted the park closure process agreed with Olmsted in a Friday news release.

“As we've dealt with the parks funding crisis, I've repeatedly expressed my concern about the lack of transparency and the fortress mentality at State Parks,” Huffman said. “The only good news I can see from this scandal is that it will bring much-needed transparency, accountability, and a serious ‘reset' to an agency that desperately needs it.”

State Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, joined the chorus of voices in denouncing the fiscal fiasco.

“Though I am happy to discover there is money to keep California's parks open, I am disappointed in the State Parks Director and her staff for concealing money from California's taxpayers while calling for the closure of 70 state parks,” LaMalfa said.

The attorney general's office is investigating and state finance officials will conduct an audit, Blanchard said.

The resignation comes at a time when state lawmakers and park advocates have been trying to find ways to keep most parks open despite ongoing budget cuts. Last month, park officials announced most of the 70 state parks once slated to close would remain open due to various operating agreements.

The Sacramento Bee first reported Coleman's resignation Friday, after inquiring about the possibility of a surplus. In addition, the newspaper reported Sunday about a secret vacation buyout program for employees at department headquarters that cost taxpayers more than $271,000.

State officials said the “hidden assets” that prompted the shake-up were found by new park fiscal staff while the attorney general's office was looking into the unauthorized vacation buyouts.

It's not clear why the accounts weren't properly reported. A preliminary investigation shows the parks department underreported two funds as far back as 2000.

The state parks and recreation fund, which is generated from park fees and rentals, held $20.4 million more than was reported. The off-highway vehicle fund, which is generated from registering ATVs and similar types of vehicles, held $33.5 million more than reported.

Officials said Gov. Jerry Brown accepted Coleman's resignation and has appointed California Natural Resources Agency Undersecretary Janelle Beland as acting interim director of the department.

California operates 279 parks, which include famous beaches to redwood forests. The parks that were at risk of closure got a reprieve last month after the governor signed a bill allocating new funds for the beleaguered parks system for the next year.

The state has also reached agreements with nonprofits, local governments and others to keep 40 parks open at least for a few years.

A large share of nonprofit funding has come from the California State Parks Foundation, a nonprofit arm of the state parks that raises money to support the parks mission.

The foundation has issued $833,000 in grant money over the past two months to help finalize operating agreements, according to the foundation's Director of Communications Jerry Emory.

Emory said the foundation is “shocked and dismayed” at the news of the parks department shake-up, but said the discovery of the funds does not necessarily mean the fiscal crisis has passed.

“The California State Parks' budget has been reduced by 33 percent in the last four years,” he said. “There is still $1.3 billion looming in deferred maintenance — these parks are falling apart.

Nonprofits and community groups will still need to continue to raise the necessary funds to ensure the long-term viability of all 70 parks on the list.

California State Parks recently came to a donor agreement to keep Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park open through the next year.

The agreement involved SYRCL, the Malakoff Diggins Park Association and the Olmsted Park Fund and a reduction of services.

Dardick had planned to meet with Marilyn Linkem, the supervising ranger of the Sierra District next week to finalize the agreement, but it remains unclear on Friday how the news of the underreported funds will impact this agreement.

July 22, 2012

Public lands war heats up between SUWA, Gov. Gary Herbert

Riding out of the Little Grand Canyon of the San Rafael Swell April 2, 2011, in the San Rafael Swell in central Utah. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance worries public lands like San Rafael Swell would be in peril if Gov. Gary Herbert's public land policies succeed. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance is on the attack, launching a high-profile campaign against Gov. Gary Herbert over his so-called public lands "grab."

The environmental group took out full-page advertisements in both of Salt Lake City's daily newspapers last week and plans to air radio spots and go door-to-door to spread its anti-Herbert message.

Referencing HB148 sponsored by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, the ad says Herbert signed legislation requiring the federal government to hand over more than 30 million acres it manages in Utah.

"But how could Utah afford to manage those lands?" the ad asks. "Right now, the state government can barely afford to keep our state parks open."

Instead of focusing on messages such as preservation or conservation of the land, SUWA asserts such an action would be a financial catastrophe that residents can ill afford.

"Gov. Herbert's efforts to take over public lands would be incredibly expensive for the state of Utah, both environmentally and economically," said Scott Groene, SUWA's director. "We have faith that when Utahns know the facts, they will oppose his land grab."

Groene said the public campaign is also being spurred by lawsuits the state filed earlier this summer against the federal government seeking control of RS2477 or Civil War-era routes and roads, an estimated 12,000 of them.

"(Herbert) has filed 22 lawsuits in front of eight federal judges. It seems serious," Groene said. "He is ready to throw a mountain of public money at it. And we are taking it very seriously."

This latest dust-up adds another dimension to what has become an increasingly active and vitriolic war of words and legal actions over what should — or should not happen — on federal lands controlled by the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service.

From sage grouse protections, the RS2477 battle and angst over rumored monument designations, Herbert has thrust himself front and center into the fray, stressing repeatedly that conservation of public lands and responsible development are not mutually exclusive and local control is best.

But Groene said Herbert's decisions go far beyond what other gubernatorial leaders are doing throughout the West.

"Gov. Herbert's actions to date have been far more radical than what has been taken by any other Western state. You see the issue of (RS2477) pop up here and there across the West, but nothing comparable to the lawsuits in Utah."

Groene said the scope of the state's actions under Herbert's purview constitute one of the most "serious threats Utah wilderness has faced in years. The only thing that is clear is that the state will spend millions and millions of dollars to benefit a small group of anti-federal constituents."

Herbert's spokeswoman, Ally Isom, dismissed the assertions of the environmental group.

"It's the political campaign season, so it is no surprise when special interest groups make political statements for their self-serving purposes. It's nothing more than political grandstanding," she said. "Neither their conduct nor their statements will weaken the governor's commitment to work through his Balanced Resource Council to make meaningful progress."

Ivory, the architect of HB148, said SUWA's criticism of Herbert's public lands policies comes from one small faction.

"SUWA is out to raise money. It is the same throughout time. You try to find a boogeyman and make it as scary as possible and raise as much money as possible so you have a reason for being."

He added that the mainstream public is fed up with over-restrictive federal ownership of lands that gives no concessions to local sentiments, and points to the American Lands Council, a group that grew out what he says is a groundswell of support for Western states to reclaim the federal lands promised to them.

"Because these things are now getting so personal, it's come down to the health, safety and welfare of local communities, the counties and the state," he said. "You either stand up for those rights or allow these arbitrary national policies to negatively impact the health, safety and welfare of these communities going forward."

Ivory said precedent exists for states to have that federal land returned, citing a successful effort by Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana and several others in 1828.

"They all got together and sent petition after petition after petition to the federal government saying, 'You are not disposing of our lands like you promised.'"

He said the federal government now controls only about 4 percent of the lands in those states.

"It's just crazy," he said. "What they're saying is you people in Utah are not good enough, not strong enough, not smart enough to manage your own lands, but somehow the people in Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana and Illinois are."

July 21, 2012

Carcinogen in Mojave ground water could require costly treatment

High levels of hexavalent chromium, a toxic heavy metal, add to the hurdles Cadiz Inc. faces in its plan to ship water to the Southland.
Water is pumped into a spreading basin at the Cadiz Inc. facility in the Mojave Desert. The water that Cadiz wants to sell to the Southland contains a carcinogen, in amounts that are hundreds of times greater than the state’s public health goal for drinking water. (Joe Cavaretta, Associated Press)

Bettina Boxall
Los Angeles Times

The Mojave Desert ground water that Cadiz Inc. wants to sell to Southland suburbs contains hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen, in amounts that are hundreds of times greater than the state's public health goal for drinking water.

The presence of the toxic heavy metal, which occurs naturally in the aquifer Cadiz proposes to tap, could force the company to undertake expensive treatment, driving up the cost of the project and ultimately the price of its water.

The chromium contamination is one of several concerns raised by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which owns and operates the 242-mile-long Colorado River Aqueduct that Cadiz would use to transport its supplies to customers.

Metropolitan has also informed Cadiz that the aqueduct space the company is counting on may not always be available, especially during dry years when demand for the Cadiz water would likely be the greatest.

The issues, described in environmental documents released last week, add to the hurdles Cadiz faces as it pursues a project that would push the boundaries of California’s nascent private water market.

They also underscore that though the company is promoting its water as an alternative to imported supplies threatened by drought and environmental restrictions, its ground water would also be imported 200 miles from the eastern Mojave to coastal customers and could be subject to delivery limits.

“Our aqueduct is probably the most valuable possession we have. So we’re going to be extremely careful,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of Metropolitan, which built the aqueduct and has for decades used it to convey Colorado River supplies to millions of Southern Californians.

Metropolitan and Cadiz have a complicated history. More than a decade ago they planned a major water storage and pumping project in the Mojave that the Metropolitan board voted down in 2002, killing the proposal. Cadiz subsequently sued the agency, waging a costly legal battle that ended when it dropped the lawsuit shortly before a scheduled trial.

Now Cadiz needs Metropolitan’s approval for use of the aqueduct, which is key to its latest proposal to withdraw and sell enough ground water from beneath its Mojave holdings near Amboy to supply 100,000 homes each year. The sales could reap $1 billion to $2 billion in revenue for Cadiz over the life of the project.

The proposal has drawn opposition from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a powerful Mojave advocate, conservation groups and desert residents who fear the pumping will harm the environment of surrounding public lands, including the Mojave National Preserve.

An international company that operates industrial salt works at neighboring dry lakes has filed two lawsuits to block the project and environmental groups are expected to file more legal challenges.

There are currently no federal or state standards for hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium 6, in drinking water. But the state, citing international research that drinking water exposure has been linked to an increase in stomach tumors and liver cancer deaths, last year set a public health goal that will be used in the development of a regulatory standard.

At 14 parts per billion to 16 parts per billion, the chromium 6 levels in the Cadiz water far exceed the public health goal of .02 parts per billion. The ultimate state standard, expected in two to three years, will undoubtedly be higher than the health goal. But even if Cadiz supplies meet the new standard, Metropolitan could still require treatment before the ground water is pumped into the aqueduct.

“Just having some chromium in our water could be a detriment to some of our folks,” Kightlinger said, noting that some Southland cities blend Metropolitan supplies with their own chromium-tainted ground water to reduce pollution levels. “We would have to do more analysis and see what the final standard is and do some modeling” before deciding whether treatment by Cadiz would be required, he added.

Scott Slater, president and general counsel of Cadiz, said chromium treatment could cost as much as $400 an acre-foot.

“The worst case would be that we had to treat at every individual well,” he said, adding that the company hopes some form of limited treatment combined with blending the ground water with river water in the aqueduct would suffice, bringing costs to below $150 an acre-foot. (Cadiz proposes to pump an annual average of 50,000 acre-feet.)

Whatever the costs, they would be covered by contract provisions, Slater said. “The price of the water could go up or the profits of the company could go down.”

He dismissed Metropolitan’s suggestion that there might not be enough room in the aqueduct to accommodate Cadiz shipments, noting that long-term drought in the Colorado River basin has reduced the agency’s deliveries.

“The Colorado River Aqueduct has not been full since 2003,” he said. “I don’t think that you can project forward and come to the reasonable conclusion that the aqueduct’s not going to be able to take 50,000 acre-feet of water.”

But Kightlinger said Metropolitan has spent the past decade developing supplementary programs, such as acquiring irrigation water and holding supplies in Lake Mead, that could fill the aqueduct in dry years.

“We would pull the Mead water and say there is no wheeling capacity available. We’ve filled up our aqueduct,” Kightlinger said. “That’s just something they need to understand.”

July 20, 2012

$20 million tortoise habitat deal in the works

An aerial view of the construction of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, which is scheduled to be completed in 2013. The project’s three solar fields — sited on 3,600 acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management territory — will be able to generate about 392 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 140,000 homes. (Jamey Stillings/New York Times)


State fish and game officials and the BrightSource Energy Co. are considering a $20 million land deal that would allow the Oakland-based solar energy developer to make up for desert tortoise habitat losses from its solar plant now under construction in northeast San Bernardino County, state officials said.

BrightSource would pay into a state habitat land-bank fund and the company would get credit for preserving about 7,100 acres of desert tortoise habitat that the state has preserved since 2010 by funding grants to conservation land trusts, said Armand Gonzales, a special advisor for the California Department of Fish and Game.

Roughly half of the $20 million would cover the state’s land grant and administrative costs, Gonzales said. The other half would be used to create an endowment to pay for managing and monitoring land as wildlife habitat.

These habitat parcels are scattered about in the western Mojave Desert, with some parcels more than 100 miles from the company’s “power tower” solar energy plant now under construction in the Ivanpah Valley off Interstate 15 near the Nevada border.

The habitat land includes a checkerboard of parcels northeast of Kramer Junction between U.S. 395 and Harper Lake; an area north of Joshua Tree National Park just east of Yucca Valley; and the Hidden Valley area between Barstow and the Mojave National Preserve.

The deal would allow BrightSource to meet its state obligation to preserve 7,164 acres of desert habitat that was required in October 2010 when the California Energy Commission approved its 5.6-square-mile project on public land.

The state has since rejected a proposal by the company to meet the requirement by acquiring mining interests in the Castle Mountains in the eastern Mojave, because the area was not robust tortoise habitat, said Eric Knight, manager of an environmental protection office for the energy commission.

BrightSource declined to comment on any of the specific aspects of the deal.

“We’ve placed $34 million into an escrow account and continue to work on finalizing an agreement,” said an email from company spokeswoman Kristen Hunter. “Until a formal agreement is reached, the negotiations remain confidential.”

BrightSource also is working separately with federal officials to help tortoises by fencing roads and enhancing habitat on federal land, said a Bureau of Land Management spokesman.

BrightSource initially had until April of this year to acquire tortoise habitat, but energy commission staff have twice extended the deadline, which is now set for January of next year, Knight said.

Desert tortoises are listed as threatened with extinction, and the habitat acquisitions were required to offset habitat loses from the project and to help species survive.

Before BrightSource broke ground in the Ivanpah Valley, surveys commissioned by the company found only 16 tortoises in the project area, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service subsequently issued a permit to move a maximum of 38 tortoises.

But the company had to temporarily stop construction last year after many more reptiles than expected were found in the path of heavy machinery. Federal officials had to reassess the situation and issue a new permit before work resumed.

So far 75 adult and about 50 juvenile tortoises have been captured at the site, and another 50 babies have hatched in captivity, said Larry LaPre, a wildlife biologist for the federal Bureau of Land Management.

David Lamfrom, California desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said habitat lands in the proposed state deal need to be preserved, but he added that conservation is needed in the Ivanpah Valley, where more solar development, an airport and high speed train line are planned.

The Ivanpah reptiles are genetically unique and are needed to help the species survive, he said.

“We need to go into this with eyes wide open about the trades we are making, and (see) whether we are ultimately dooming the important, biologically diverse Ivanpah Valley,” Lamfrom said.

BrightSource's 392 million-megawatt project will consist of thousands of mirrors focused on three central towers where heat will be used to generate power. The first phase is expected to produce power by early next year.

President Barack Obama has hailed the project as a step toward reducing the nation's reliance on fossil fuels and cutting greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. It is one of several alternative-energy projects in California approved by the administration under a “fast track” policy that expedited environmental review.

July 18, 2012

Cadiz water project progresses

By Janet Zimmerman

A final environmental report has been issued for a long-running and controversial project that proposes pumping water from an ancient Mojave Desert aquifer and exporting it to cities in California, which is now the subject of a lawsuit.

The Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project would provide a new water source for about 400,000 people by extracting the groundwater in an open valley between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park in eastern San Bernardino County.

A public hearing on the environmental impact report is set for Wednesday, July 25, in Orange County and via video conferencing in Joshua Tree.

The company, Cadiz Inc., says the $225 million project would make use of water that would otherwise be lost to evaporation, delivering up to 50,000 acre-feet per year to water agencies, including Jurupa Community Services District in Riverside County. A second phase also would provide underground storage for surplus Colorado River water.

But environmentalists say the pumping would cause a drop in the water table that would dry up springs supporting bighorn sheep and other wildlife. They have also raised concerns that it could cause dust storms on nearby dry lake beds, adversely affect air quality, overdraw the water table and alter the flow of groundwater beneath the Mojave Preserve.

The 1,664-page environmental impact report was prepared by Santa Margarita Water District in Orange County, the lead agency for the permitting process under the California Environmental Quality Act that also is a potential buyer of the water. The other interested agencies are Three Valleys Municipal Water District in Claremont, Suburban Water Systems in Covina, Golden State Water Company in San Dimas and California Water Service Co. in San Jose.

The report released this week addresses comments from nearly 200 individuals and state and federal agencies. Many of them reiterated their earlier worries about the project, particularly that the recharge rate for the basin was overestimated.

In May, San Bernardino County supervisors approved a memorandum of understanding that laid out the review process for the controversial project and gave the county authority to approve or deny a permit for the project. The Santa Margarita Water District was named as the lead agency responsible for reviewing and approving the environmental impact report.

Delaware Tetra Technologies Inc., which operates a brine mining operation at two dry lakes adjacent to Cadiz Inc.’s property, has filed suit against San Bernardino County and Santa Margarita Water District.

The company claims the two violated state environmental law by not making the county the lead agency, since it has the principle authority for approving the project, said Robert Bower, Tetra’s attorney. Tetra also claims the county violated its own Desert Groundwater Management Ordinance.

“What is Santa Margarita Water District’s approval authority here? How can Santa Margarita Water District, which is over 200 miles away from this project and is going to benefit from it, objectively weigh the benefits of the project against the environmental cost?” Bower asked.

A drop in the water table of even one foot would harm the mining of the salt from sediment in Bristol and Cadiz dry lake beds, the company said in comments included in the environmental report.

The county’s spokesman, David Wert, could not be reached for comment.

Scott Slater, Cadiz’s president and general counsel, said in a statement that his company stands by the project’s “extensive monitoring program, the county’s enforcement role and believes this case has no merit.”

Cadiz project
Public hearings on the final environmental impact report for the Cadiz groundwater pumping project will be held July 25 at 6:30 p.m. at:

Norman P. Murray Community Center, 24932 Veterans Way, Mission Viejo

Copper Mountain College, Bell Center Community Room (via video conference), 6162 Rotary Way, Joshua Tree.

For information, go to www.smwd.com, or call 949-459-6400

July 17, 2012

Former Mayor Says There's "Nothing" Out in the Desert

Commentary by Steve Brown
The Sun Runner

"You've all been out there, there's nothing out there in that desert anyway." Garry Thompson, Cadiz Water Project supporter, public comment at SMWD Engineering Committee meeting July 13, 2012.

There's nothing out there?

Oh really.

If the folks behind the Cadiz water mining operation (known euphemistically as the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery & Storage Project as it siphons off the desert's water to soak the lawns of Orange County) wanted to prove their ignorance of the desert region without a doubt, they could not have found a better person to demonstrate that ignorance than former Rancho Santa Margarita mayor, Garry Thompson.

Thompson proves that the "minds" behind the Cadiz water mining project don't know much about the desert, the place where they're planning on getting their water.

What that means is their ignorance, which is evidently acceptable to them, could lead to disasterous results for the desert.

According to Thompson, there's nothing out here in the desert. Just the fact that he would make that statement as a supporter of the Cadiz water mining project is an indicator of the Orange County mindset that whatever happens to the desert as a result of their project doesn't matter.

There's nothing here, ergo there can be no harm done to nothing.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

The "science" used in their studies has been challenged in various aspects, by numerous groups, while the Cadiz backers charge that mysterious forces in Sacramento are all that oppose their project, a tawdry ploy to divert attention from the fact that their project could lead to irreperable harm to desert wildlife, including plant life, and that by the time monitoring provided conclusive evidence of the harm, the damage would be done.

The desert is a vibrant and diverse set of ecosystems, a beautiful but delicate land, where life has learned to thrive with limited resources. The downside of that is when you extract some of those limited resources, you remove a portion of those resources that elsewhere may not lead to extreme and disasterous consequences, but here could lead to the destruction of entire populations of effected species.

Dry up the seeps and springs that desert bighorn sheep rely upon during the summer months, for instance, and by the time your monitoring confirms that there are no more seeps and springs during the summer, the bighorn will have all died off.

That may not bother Cadiz backers like Thompson very much as they water their green lawns with pristine desert water, but it sure as hell bothers me and many of us who know and value what there really is in this desert.

The Sun Runner Magazine officially opposes the Cadiz water mining project because of the likely devastating environmental consequences for the nearby Mojave Desert wildlands, and the Mojave National Preserve. The blatantly ignorant comments of folks like Thompson do nothing to further our confidence in the assertions of the organizations behind the Cadiz water mining project that there will be no environmental harm done to the desert by the project.

They clearly don't know about, or care about the desert, so therefore, it is up to those of us in the desert, and those who do care about the desert, to stand up for our home.

Perhaps the former mayor is confused. Maybe there's nothing in his head - a desolate landscape devoid of life.

July 16, 2012

Environmental report released for Cadiz water project

Needles Desert Star

MISSION VIEJO — The Santa Margarita Water District released a final environmental impact report for the proposed Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project and scheduled a public hearing for Wednesday, July 25.

The meeting will be held in the Sycamore Room of the Norman P. Murray Community Center, 24932 Veterans Way, Mission Viejo. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m.

A video conference option will be available in Joshua Tree in the Bell Center Community Room of Cooper Mountain College, 6162 Rotary Way. Anyone attending the video conference will also have a chance to interact and make comments related to the final EIR.

During the public hearing, the SMWD board of directors will decide whether or not to certify the final impact report pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act, CEQA. The board is also asked to consider a draft purchase and sales agreement, which will further detail the financial terms for purchasing water from the proposed Cadiz project.

Thirdly, the board will be asked to consider the groundwater monitoring, management and mitigation plan, which authorizes San Bernardino County to provide separate oversight and monitoring of the proposed project.

The proposed project is two phases. The first would be to capture and conserve the Cadiz aquifer’s average annual recharge. The aquifer is under Cadiz and Fenner Valleys. Approximately 50,000 acre-feet per year would be delivered to southern California water providers. In wet years, the water district would have the option of decreasing or foregoing its water delivery for that year and carry it over to another year when it may be needed. The carry-over would be stored in the Cadiz aquifer.

The second phase of the project contemplates storage of imported water from the Colorado River in the Cadiz aquifer system. In wet years, surplus water from the Colorado River could be conveyed to recharge basins on Cadiz-owned land and would percolate into the underground aquifer for storage.

All are encouraged to attend the public hearing and to present written and/or oral comments. Letters must be received on or before the date of the hearing, or can be submitted at the hearing. Submit written comments to SMWD at 26111 Antonio Parkway, Rancho Santa Margarita, CA, 92688.

For additional information contact Michele Miller at 949-459-6548 or send email to cadizproject@smwd.com.

Opponents organize transport

Transportation will be provided from Needles and Goffs to the Santa Margarita Water District Board Meeting in Mission Viejo.

Those interested in transportation on July 25 to Mission Viejo to voice their objection to the proposed Cadiz Project should contact Ruth Musser-Lopez at 760-885-9374 for the van schedule. Vans leave Needles at 10:30 a.m. on July 25.

July 14, 2012

Water woes causing a lonely death for palm oasis

Corn Springs palm trees. (BLM)
Written by James Cornett
Special to The Desert Sun

In the middle of our own Colorado Desert exists a very lonely palm oasis. Known as Corn Spring, it is one of the most remote palm oases anywhere in the Southwest desert. It lies about 100 miles east of Palm Springs and about 10 miles south of Interstate 10, in the middle of the Chuckwalla Mountains.

I first visited Corn Springs and its small palm grove in the early 1970s. At that time it was a lush oasis dominated by desert fan palms, the same species of palm that lines Palm Canyon Drive in downtown Palm Springs.

The desert fan palm (Washingtonia filifera) is unique in that of the 2,500 or so species of palm on our planet, it is the only one whose dead fronds typically adhere to the trunk throughout the life of the tree. It is the second most widely planted palm in yards and parks in our region. Its close cousin, the tall and skinny Mexican fan palm (Washingtonia robusta) is now, unfortunately, the most widely planted palm in the Coachella Valley. It does not usually show the characteristic fronds on the trunk.

Few palms at Corn Spring have dead fronds adhering to their trunks. In fact, few palms have any fronds at all, living or dead. The reason for this is the oasis is dying, one of the few palm oases in our desert that is expiring. This is strange since most palm oases in California, Nevada and Arizona are thriving as never before with dramatic increases in palm numbers compared with a half-century ago.

What gives with Corn Spring? Why are the palms dying?

Desert fan palms require lots of water and so are only found where water is at or near the surface; such places as desert springs, seeps, streams or rivers like the Colorado. In the desert, dying palms are inevitably a sign that the source of water is being exhausted or changing where it comes to the surface. One or the other of these explanations is happening at Corn Spring.

The Bureau of Land Management manages Corn Spring and most of the lands around it. The BLM placed a well at the oasis decades ago. Could it be that too much groundwater is being removed by the well? Not likely. The campground at the oasis is rarely used; most people bring in most of their water, hand pumped to the surface.

Tamarisk trees have been growing at the oases since at least 1980. Might the tamarisk trees be intercepting the groundwater with their roots before the palms get it? This could account for some water loss but palms usually crowd out tamarisk trees, not the other way around. Besides the palms and tamarisk trees have been living together for quite a while and for most of the time the palms were doing fine.

Most desert springs, such as Corn Spring, receive their water from the damming of underground flows by earth faults. Finely crushed soil (fault gouge) can be impermeable to water flow and groundwater may rise all the way to the surface. A fault has created the canyon in which Corn Spring lies. The damming of groundwater results in water rising to the surface at just the one place. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years ago desert fan palms seeds were brought to the spring, most likely by the ancestors of Cahuilla Indians. The seeds germinated and the young palms thrived in the warm climate of the Colorado Desert and in the moist soil at the spring.

Some time in the last 20 years or so, an earthquake resulted in a shifting of rock and alluvium along fault. It seems to have altered the movement of groundwater to the surface. Although some water was still available to the palms, most was not. Perhaps the underground dam was breached allowing the water to sink deeper into the earth.

An alternate explanation is that the aquifer (groundwater) was finite, filled during the last ice age when rainfall was more plentiful. With the drying out of the Southwest over the past 10,000 years, the aquifer is no longer sufficiently recharged and has become exhausted. No water is left for the palms and oasis slowly expires.

Whichever explanation is correct, the oasis is dying. Cutting down the tamarisk trees might help but will probably not alter the long-term prospects of the oasis.

James Cornett is a desert ecologist living in Palm Springs.

July 13, 2012

Firm is spearheading opposition to Mojave Desert groundwater pumping

A Texas-based oil and gas services company files two lawsuits to combat an effort to withdraw Mojave groundwater and sell it to urban Southern California.

Water pours out into a spreading basin that holds water from a pilot well used for testing. Cadiz Inc. hopes to pump groundwater from the Mojave Desert to sell to urban Southern California. (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times / April 18, 2012)

By Bettina Boxall
Los Angeles Times

The company that wants to pump large amounts of Mojave Desert groundwater and sell it for a profit to Southern California suburbs has run into opposition from an unexpected quarter: an international corporation that runs industrial salt operations next door to the proposed project.

Texas-based Tetra Technologies Inc., an oil and gas services enterprise, has come out swinging at Cadiz Inc.'s pumping plans, filing two lawsuits, mounting a public relations campaign and dismissing the water project's environmental review as a sham designed to escape serious scrutiny.

"There are so many games that they've played to make this thing 'work,' " said Robert Bower, a partner in the California law firm of Rutan & Tucker, which is representing Tetra.

The company's combativeness has given a boost to conservationists and desert residents who are fighting the project, which would annually withdraw enough Mojave groundwater to supply 100,000 homes and sell it to urban Southern California at prices that could earn Cadiz $1 billion to $2 billion in revenue over a 50-year period.

The proposal, a long-held dream of British-born entrepreneur Keith Brackpool, has stirred concern that it would harm surrounding public lands and open California's desert aquifers, a public resource, to unprecedented water exports by private interests.

In Tetra, opponents have a deep-pocketed ally, a corporation with operations on six continents that is the world's largest producer of calcium chloride, a salt that is used in oil and gas production, water treatment, food processing and road maintenance — and that has for a century been commercially extracted from the aquifer system Cadiz wants to tap.

Just south of Cadiz's proposed well field and 200 miles east of Los Angeles are several dry lakes, beneath which lie shallow reserves of calcium chloride-rich brine replenished by the groundwater flow. The lakes are the end point of the basin's subterranean drainage and when the groundwater collects there, it picks up salts from ancient lake bed sediments.

In 1998, Tetra bought a long-standing brine-mining operation on Bristol Dry Lake and a few years later purchased a similar one on nearby Cadiz Dry Lake. The operations are almost primitive in their simplicity. Brine is drawn from shallow depths and collected into solar evaporation ponds where it is reduced to a concentrated calcium chloride liquid that is pumped off, leaving sodium chloride, or common salt, which is also gathered and sold for industrial purposes.

The collision between Tetra and Cadiz lies in Cadiz's plans to divert groundwater to its wells before it reaches the dry lakes. Cadiz officials have made the diversion a major selling point of their project, which they are pitching as a "water conservation program" that would capture water that would otherwise naturally evaporate from the lake beds and "be wasted."

That is not the way Tetra sees it. "The groundwater migrating to the dry lakes has been used for decades…for the production of brine and commercial chemicals and the groundwater that does evaporate is beneficial to local ecosystems. Evaporation comes back as precipitation," Bower wrote in a recent letter to San Bernardino County supervisors.

Cadiz says that if necessary it would pay to drill deeper brine wells for Tetra and would also consider buying out the salt operations. "I've done everything I can and I continue to reach out," Cadiz general counsel and president Scott Slater said in an interview. "I'm puzzled as to why [Tetra's legal fight] is proceeding."

Tetra's Superior Court lawsuits, filed against San Bernardino County and the Santa Margarita Water District, also name Cadiz as a party. The actions challenge the project's review under state environmental law and an agreement Cadiz struck with the county that exempted the project from the county's groundwater ordinance while setting certain conditions on the pumping. Tetra argues that the county should have taken the lead in reviewing the project instead of the Orange County water district, which has signed an option to buy the largest share of Cadiz water.

"Why could they possibly be the lead agency on a project that's going to extract San Bernardino [County] groundwater and send it to them as a customer?" Bower asked. "You think there may be a conflict of interest there?"

San Bernardino County spokesman David Wert called Tetra's legal action "misguided and without merit." The county has said previously that it retained authority over the pumping because Cadiz has agreed that its monitoring and management plan requires the final approval of the board of supervisors. But that accord has also been questioned by Tetra, which contends it effectively gives free rein to Cadiz.

Dan Ferons, the Santa Margarita Water District's new general manager, declined to comment on Tetra's legal challenge. But his predecessor, John Schatz, has said it was appropriate for the district to assume the lead in the environmental review. "We think as a public agency in the water business we can adequately assess the environmental impacts."

The district plans to release its final environmental impact report today and has scheduled a public hearing for July 25, when its board is expected to approve the project.

Tetra is not confining its fight to the courtroom. Working with other opponents, Bower's law firm set up a nonprofit opposition group that sent mailers to Santa Margarita district customers warning that the Cadiz project would send their water rates soaring. Bower also hired a public relations company that created an opposition website.

Cadiz in turn hired a public relations firm that set up a pro-project website. And, in a shot at the Sacramento-based public relations firm Tetra retained, the South Orange County Regional Chamber of Commerce sent a mailer to Santa Margarita customers warning that "Sacramento operatives" were trying to dictate the county's water future.

Not to be outdone, the Santa Margarita district sent a mailer of its own, denying that rates would skyrocket and saying that water otherwise lost to the "desert air" would be "collected and conserved."

July 2, 2012

Most Calif. parks escape ax, but not out of woods

by Peter Fimrite
San Francisco Chronicle

California's state parks have emerged almost intact from the vortex of red ink coursing through the state, but officials insist it will take more time, work and a lot more money to save the beleaguered system during the next budget cycle.

Only two of the state's 278 parks will be shut down completely, a far cry from the 70 scheduled last year for closure due to the state's seemingly perpetual budget crisis. But the park system is a long way from being out of the woods. The dozens of agreements recently struck with nonprofits and foundations to run parks are all temporary, meaning the state could be facing more closures next year and the year after.

John Laird, California's secretary for natural resources, said that the park system is ultimately the government's responsibility and that permanent solutions must be found by the Legislature.

"We will probably in some form be looking at what the future of the state parks department is," Laird said. "We're going to have to take a look overall at what the best way is to have a sustainable parks department for the generations to come, and it's something that in some form we will do over" the next year.

As of now, operating agreements have been signed for 40 parks that were originally on the closure list. Twenty-five others, including Candlestick Point State Recreation Area, are in active negotiations with organizations that are prepared to provide security, parking attendants, rangers and other services, Laird said.

5 parks could be cut

Five parks are still on the chopping block: Gray Whale Cove State Beach near Pacifica; Benicia State Recreation Area in Benicia; Zmudowski State Beach near Moss Landing in Monterey County; the California State Mining and Mineral Museum in Mariposa County; and Providence Mountains State Recreation Area in San Bernardino County.

The Providence recreation area has already been closed for months. The mining museum will also be shutting its doors, but officials said it still could be saved. The two beaches will not have any services, but California law requires them to remain open to the public. The Benicia recreation area will remain open with limited services while state park officials work with the city on a long-term solution, park officials said.

The mass closures scheduled for Sunday were averted thanks to a move by the Legislature to spare the parks by giving them $41 million. But Gov. Jerry Brown slashed that funding to $10 million last week. Still, combined with $13 million in redirected bond payments, the funds bought state park officials more time to complete deals with nonprofit organizations, foundations, government agencies, regional park districts, associations and private companies willing to run a park.

"It will give us a path to keep most, if not all, state parks open, and it will help make parks more financially sustainable," Laird said. "I think we are on a path to potentially keep all the state parks open."

The park situation has become a major crisis in California, which is responsible for 1.4 million acres of land, including 280 miles of coastline and 625 miles along lakes and rivers. The state parks, which also include historic buildings, museums and sites, generate billions of dollars in revenue from tourism and have been particularly important to Californians recently as the economy tanked and more people turned to affordable camping vacations as options.

Public outrage over the cuts prompted groups and individuals to begin raising money, including one man who went from park to park with donation buckets. Park prospects improved dramatically after the passage of AB42, introduced by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, which smoothed the way for nonprofit groups to take over park operations.

"I think part of this narrative is we have re-energized the people who love parks, and they are stepping up and contributing to these parks in all kinds of ways," said Ruth Coleman, director of California State Parks. "It's a new way of everybody getting involved and protecting these extraordinary resources, and this is going to be the new model for California."

Huffman, chairman of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, has been a major catalyst in the effort to save park programs. The $13 million infusion of bond money will go into an enterprise fund and be used by the parks department to develop new revenue-generation programs, a scheme first proposed in AB1589, the California State Park Stewardship Act of 2012, introduced by Huffman.

Pay machines in the works

Coleman said her department plans to place solar-powered pay machines in parking lots and at kiosks, so that park visitors can easily use credit and debit cards. Officials are also working on deals with county governments to put up road and parking signs and otherwise encourage people to come into parks and pay instead of parking on county roads and walking in. Diesel generators will be replaced by solar power to cut down on fuel costs, she said, and more backcountry cabins and alternative camping sites will be built for visitors to rent.

Some successful new ventures have already been put in place, she said, including the recent opening of a wine-tasting kiosk at Topanga State Park in Malibu, an annual blues festival at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma and a recent Broadway-style production inside the ruins at Jack London State Historic Park for which 400 people paid $40 each.

"There's a lot of different creative ideas that staff have been generating internally already, and with these funds we think we can really push forward and come up with some exciting new developments that will help the department create more of a sustainable enterprise model," Coleman said.

There is, for now, less of a threat that there will be more of the kind of criminal activity that happened earlier this year at the remote Providence recreation area, where vandals smashed windows at the vacant visitors center and stripped copper wiring connected to the lighting system for the park's Mitchell Caverns.

Some people are concerned that California is in the process of selling off its park system to private entities in an attempt to ward off transients, pot growers and vandals, a fear that Huffman said is premature.

"We're trying new things, a lot of which have never been done before, in the nadir of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression," Huffman said. "We are going to see how that plays out to assess the degree nonprofits can be a solution, but the upwelling of support is a part of why I think we have a very solid chance of saving our parks. Legislators have heard the public, which is playing a huge role in shaping this debate."