January 31, 2013

Acting on tip, federal officials recover stolen petroglyph panels

The location of the petroglyphs, stolen from a sacred Native American site last fall, was disclosed in an anonymous letter. The tip may have come from the thieves themselves.

Greg Haverstock, an archaeologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, inspects the site north of Bishop, Calif., where thieves removed Native American petroglyph panels last November. Aciting on a tip that may have come from the thieves themselves, federal authorities have recovered the five panels. (Don Kelsen, Los Angeles Times / November 12, 2012)

By Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times

Federal investigators acting on a tip have recovered five petroglyph panels that thieves cut from an eastern Sierra site sacred to Native Americans, U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials said Thursday.

The location of the petroglyphs, stolen last fall, was disclosed in an anonymous letter to authorities.

By failing to sign the letter, its author walked away from a $9,000 reward — a sign that the tip may have come from the thieves themselves. Experts had said the petroglyphs would fetch little money from collectors and would be difficult to fence because of widespread publicity about the theft.

No arrests have been made and the investigation is continuing, officials said.

Bernadette Lovato, manager of the BLM field office in Bishop, declined to disclose details about the recovery, including when or where the petroglyphs were found. "The panels are currently being held as evidence," Lovato said.

"Now, the healing can begin," she said. "Recovery was a priority for me, and the public outrage intensified the need for them to be returned."

Investigators believe the vandals used ladders, chisels, electric generators and power saws to remove the panels from cliffs in an arid high-desert region known as Volcanic Tableland, about 15 miles north of Bishop. The thieves gouged holes in the rock and sheared off slabs that were up to 15 feet above ground and 2 feet high and wide.

The theft was reported to the BLM last Oct. 31 by visitors to the area, where Native Americans had carved hundreds of lava boulders and cliffs with spiritual renderings: concentric circles, deer, rattlesnakes, bighorn sheep and hunters with bows and arrows.

The site, which is still used by the local Paiute Indians for ceremonies, is protected under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Authorities said the petroglyphs were probably worth no more than $500 to $1,500 each.

But they are priceless to Native Americans, who regard the massive tableaux as a window into the souls of their ancestors.

"It feels real good to have them come back home," said Raymond Andrews, Paiute tribal historic preservation officer.

Lovato said the petroglyphs may eventually be put on public display, "but that will be up to Paiute-Shoshone tribal leaders."

Damaging or removing the petroglyphs is a felony. First-time offenders can be imprisoned for up to one year and fined as much as $20,000, authorities said.

Anybody with information about the theft is asked to contact the BLM at (760) 937-0301 or (760) 937-0657.

January 29, 2013

Tortoise center wants out of the shelter business

Mojave Max, Nevada's most famous desert tortoise, roams the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in September 2009. (Las Vegas Review-Journal File)

By Henry Brean

After years of taking in people's unwanted pets, the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center at the valley's southwestern edge is desperately trying to get out of the shelter business.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials announced Tuesday that the federal facility has discontinued its pickup service for pets and strays, which literally gobbles up resources meant for research and recovery work.

Instead, the center is teaming up with the Animal Foundation to develop a new tortoise drop-off and adoption program through the foundation-operated Lied Animal Shelter.

The Fish and Wildlife Service simply doesn't have the funds to take in and care for more than 1,000 unwanted tortoises a year, said Ted Koch, who heads up the agency in Nevada.

"We aren't picking them up anymore, and we do not want to take them in anymore," Koch said. "We cannot take them in anymore."

Lied Animal Shelter was already accepting desert tortoises as part of its mission to take in "anything anyone brings to us that's an animal," said Betsy VanDeusen, development manager for the Animal Foundation.

Clark County's largest animal shelter would serve as the main drop-off point for unwanted tortoises that would otherwise end up at the conservation center.

That's the goal anyway.

Koch acknowledged the change could result in more pet tortoises being dumped into the open desert by their owners, even though doing so is "illegal, unwise ecologically and cruel."

"Unless you do it at the right place at the right time, it's likely to end in an unpleasant death for the tortoise," he said.

The conservation center was established 20 years ago as a place for developers to put the federally protected animals after removing them from job sites.

The San Diego Zoo now manages the center under a 2009 partnership with the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies.

Koch said shelter work takes time and money away from the facility's core missions of research, education and the controlled release of tortoises into the wild, but there is another reason the community needs to transition away from using the center as a care home for unwanted animals. He said the conservation center only has funding for the next two years, and its future is unclear.

VanDeusen said the Animal Foundation is now developing an adoption program in consultation with the center. The details are still being worked out, but the idea is to let people adopt male tortoises only in an effort to curb backyard breeding.

The program should be up and running later this year, she said. Until then, Lied will take in as many tortoises as it can and turn the rest over to the conservation center.

No healthy tortoises will be euthanized by Lied or anyone else, at least not yet.

Koch said he can't rule that out down the road if funding continues to shrink and no solution can be found to "stem the flow of unwanted pet tortoises."

Some estimate there could be as many as 150,000 captive desert tortoises in the Las Vegas Valley alone. Koch couldn't vouch for that number, but he said there isn't much to stop their numbers from skyrocketing in a backyard setting with ample food, water and protection of predators.

Tortoises lay up to a dozen eggs at a time precisely because so many of the hatchlings don't survive in the wild. In captivity, the number of eggs is the same but the survival rate is far higher.

Koch knows it sounds strange for the agency charged with saving the desert tortoise to actively campaign against more breeding of the animal. But he said one of the fundamental purposes of the Endangered Species Act is to conserve the ecosystems on which species depend, "and raising individuals in captivity does not meet that purpose."

No other federally protected species is so widely kept as a pet, Koch said. "It's unique in the country."

In addition to the collaboration with Lied, the Fish and Wildlife Service is exploring a possible partnership with the Humane Society or other animal group to offer tortoises for adoption nationwide.

Ultimately, Koch said, the agency is open to any ideas that might help keep the state reptile of Nevada from stacking up at shelters while officials try to figure out how to preserve it in the wild.

MOJAVE DESERT: Reward offered in burro death

Burros rounded up from public land in the West are held in BLM corrals until adopters can be found. (File photo)

BY David Danelski

The federal government is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of whoever killed and butchered a wild burro on public land in northeast San Bernardino County.

A biologist found the carcass earlier this month in the Ivanpah Valley, near the site of a solar energy project under construction next to Interstate 15 a few miles from Primm, Nevada.

The animal appeared to have been cut up at the site for its meat, said David Briery, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management spokesman. Whoever killed the burro left behind its head and ribcage.

Burros are protected under the federal Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. The law makes it illegal to kill them.

“We are working with other agencies to bring the responsible parties to justice and hope members of the public will provide us with helpful information,” said Amy Dumas, a BLM wild horse and burro specialist, in a news release.

Anyone with information about the dead burro can contact Chief Ranger Brad Baron at 760-326-7000.

The bureau regularly uses helicopters to round up wild burros on public land in Southern California and throughout the West when theirs ranges are deemed to be overpopulated. Some of the animals are taken to holding corrals in Ridgecrest and later offered for adoption.

The BLM regularly brings horses and burros to the Sundance Ranch off San Timoteo Canyon Road in Redlands for adoption events.

As of November, about 1,100 burros rounded up in the West were being held in federal corrals, according to a BLM website.

January 28, 2013

Boulder City Bypass project protects tortoises

By Joe Hawk

White men must not be the only creatures who can't jump.

Fortunately for Steve Cooke, the desert tortoise doesn't have much of a vertical leap, either.

As chief of environmental services for the Nevada Department of Transportation, Cooke has the responsibility of ensuring the state's environment isn't damaged when a new roadway is constructed. So this month his focus is on the desert tortoise, a species more endangered - with apologies to Woody Harrelson's 1992 film character Billy Hoyle - than white men who CAN jump.

Cooke's role comes into play as Phase 1 of the 15-mile Boulder City bypass project gets under way on a short opening stretch of virgin land between the Foothills Drive exit on U.S. Highway 95 in south Henderson and where the new road will meet U.S. 95 to the southwest of Boulder City.

The 2.75-mile expanse soon will be enclosed by a fence during construction to keep the desert tortoise from plodding in. While the length might be somewhat daunting, not so the height.

Eighteen inches.

Eighteen inches of tightly meshed metal fence that will prevent even juvenile tortoises from crawling in.

"Because they're an en­dangered species, we have to take certain precautions to protect them," Cooke says. "They can't jump two feet."

The opening phase's environmental safety work extends beyond the desert tortoise to select desert plants in the area - at a combined protection/salvage cost of $1.5 million.

Before the first bulldozers roll in, a number of cactuses and yuccas have to be rolled out, replanted elsewhere, only to be returned as landscaping or erosion control when the opening phase of the bypass project is completed.


Make no mistake: Despite what you might read or hear about the fitness, financing and future of the bypass project's more contentious second phase - 12 additional miles of a four-lane, limited-access freeway that, if constructed, would permit motorists to skip driving through Boulder City - the first phase is being built.

Tentative completion date: late 2017 or early 2018. Or so hopes Tony Lorenzi, the state Transportation Department's project manager.

Seventy-five percent of the land has cleared right-of-way acquisition, with only three parcels left to be purchased through contentious condemnation in the courts. The full land acquisition is coming at a cost of $20 million to $30 million, according to documents provided by the transportation agency.

As acquisition wraps up, the second "package" of the opening phase begins, first with the environmental safeguards and followed in late summer or early fall by the start of construction on a frontage road and numerous utility relocations - everything from moving towers belonging to the Western Area Power Administration to relocating conduits of the Colorado River Commission, Southwest Gas, NV Energy, Las Vegas Water District, AT&T, Cox Communications, etc.

"Literally a dozen, if not more," Lorenzi says as he ticks off the more notable names.

The relocation of the utilities and the construction of the frontage road is a 12- to 18-month segment of the project, estimated to cost between $20 million and $22 million.

From there, construction begins on the mainline - or new roadway - with Package 3 going from Foothills Drive to the Railroad Pass interchange, with the mainline being built under the existing railroad bridge, and followed by Package 4, which is the extension of the mainline from the interchange to U.S. 95.

Package 5, the construction of the mainline as an underpass to a reinforced, at-grade Railroad Pass bridge, likely would be built at the same time as Package 3.

The combined cost of the mainline construction would come in at between $90 million and $110 million, bringing the total price tag for Phase 1 to somewhere between $110 million and $140 million.

The state transportation agency, which gets its funding from the federal government and a percentage of state gasoline taxes, is paying for the project.

One of the highlights of Phase 1 will be an artistic history lesson on the construction of Hoover Dam that will be chiseled into a 1,200-foot-long retaining wall along the route. The rendering will start with the migration of the '31ers to Southern Nevada, to the pouring of the dam's forms, to the dangerous work of the dam's high-scalers, to a rendering of the completed project.

"I feel really good about this getting started," Lorenzi says. "There's been a lot of anticipation.

"There's been some delays for multiple reasons" - funding and right-of-way issues, construction logistics - "but it's nice to get it started."


Lorenzi and Cooke recently appeared at an open house at Boulder City High School to explain the Nevada Department of Transportation's work on the initial phase of the two-phase project.

Most of the community's concerns, however, regarded Phase 2, the approximately 12-mile stretch that will connect the southwest portion of Phase 1 at U.S. 95 to the recently completed interchange at state Route 172, the road to Hoover Dam.

The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada is developing Phase 2, with the likelihood of establishing the uninterrupted 12-mile stretch as a toll road to cover the construction funding of between $330 million and $350 million. Early discussion said the toll could start at $2.25 per passenger vehicle, with the price going up for multi-axle trucks.

A 2012 study announced at the meeting said 44 percent of drivers would choose to use the toll road, with the remainder of motorists continuing to drive through Boulder City.

Some attendees were upset at the prospect of almost half of the area's current traffic being diverted from businesses in the nongaming community, while others saw the need to reduce city traffic, which can become heavy with travelers going between Las Vegas and Phoenix during the spring and summer months.

But with funding of Phase 2 yet to be determined and construction still years off, if it happens at all, there's plenty of time to ease concerns and massage egos.

Meanwhile, Phase 1 is being built. And even if there is no Phase 2, there will be a fresh stretch of roadway that will connect to U.S. 93 into Boulder City via a high-speed flyover and to U.S. 95 via graded ramps.

"Even though it's a short distance, there's still a huge amount of work to get (to completion)," Cooke, the state transportation agency's lead environmentalist, says as tortoise fencing goes up this month.

"Once things start," Lorenzi chimes in, "we build a lot of momentum quickly.

"There's nothing I like better than to see something getting built," he adds. "It's progress. The public is getting what it's paying for."

January 16, 2013

Interior Chief Salazar stepping down in March

FILE - In this March 9, 2009 file photo, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar gestures during an interview with The Associated Press in Washington. Salazar will leave the Obama administration in March, an Obama administration official said Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)


WASHINGTON (AP) -- Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who oversaw a moratorium on offshore drilling after the BP oil spill and promoted alternative energy sources throughout the nation, will step down in March.

A former U.S. senator from Colorado, Salazar ran the Interior Department throughout President Barack Obama's first term and pushed renewable power such as solar and wind and the settlement of a longstanding dispute with American Indians.

With Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson also leaving the administration and Energy Secretary Steven Chu expected to depart, Obama will have a clean slate of top officials overseeing energy and environment issues.

In a statement Wednesday, Obama said Salazar had helped "usher in a new era of conservation for our nation's land, water and wildlife" and had played a major role in efforts to expand responsible development of the nation's domestic energy resources.

Salazar said in a statement that the Interior Department was helping secure "a new energy frontier" and cited an aggressive agenda to reform oil and gas leases, which he said had increased offshore drilling safety.

Under his watch, the Interior Department has authorized nearly three dozen solar, wind and geothermal energy projects on public lands that provide enough electricity to power more than 3 million homes, Salazar said.

Obama has vowed to focus on efforts to bolster renewable energy in a second term while continuing to expand production of oil and natural gas. He also has made it clear he will focus on climate change, an issue he has acknowledged was sometimes overlooked during his first term.

Former Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, a longtime Obama ally, is among those mentioned as a potential successor to Salazar, along with John Berry, director of the White House Office of Personnel Management. Berry is a former assistant interior secretary and the director of the National Zoo. Gregoire, whose term expired Wednesday, also is considered a candidate to head the Energy Department or the EPA.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., a senior member of the House Natural Resources Committee and a favorite of the environmental community, also is believed to be under consideration for Salazar's position.

Salazar, 57, entered the Senate with Obama in 2005. At Interior, he gained the most attention for his role in the drilling moratorium, a key part of the administration's response to the April 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico. It was one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history and led to the unprecedented shutdown of offshore drilling.

Business groups and Gulf Coast political leaders said the shutdown crippled the oil and gas industry and cost thousands of jobs, even aboard rigs not operated by BP PLC. But Salazar said the industry-wide moratorium was the correct call and that his ultimate goal was to allow deep-water operations to resume safely.

"Today, drilling activity in the Gulf is surpassing levels seen before the spill, and our nation is on a promising path to energy independence," Salazar said in his statement Wednesday.

The moratorium was lifted in October 2010, although offshore drilling operations did not begin for several more months. Some Gulf Coast lawmakers continue to complain about the slow pace of drilling permits under the Interior Department, which renamed and revamped the agency that oversees offshore drilling in the wake of the spill.

Salazar also approved the nation's first offshore wind farm, Cape Wind, off the Massachusetts coast.

On land, Salazar has promoted solar power in the West and Southwest, approving an unprecedented number of projects, even as oil and gas projects continued to be approved on federal land.

Salazar also oversaw the settlement of a multibillion-dollar dispute with Native American tribes that had lingered for more than a decade.

Throughout his tenure, Salazar tangled with oil companies. He criticized the George W. Bush administration for what he called a "headlong rush" to lease public lands, saying officials treated oil and gas executives as if they were "the kings of the world." Soon after taking office, Salazar suspended 60 of 77 leases in Utah that had been approved under Bush, setting a confrontational tone that would continue the next four years.

Jim Noe, an oil executive and head of a shallow-water drilling coalition, said Wednesday that Salazar's actions "hurt the industry, thousands of workers and the small businesses and communities that depend upon them. We hope that future leadership at the Interior Department will be able to take a more balanced approach to natural resource development."

Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said Salazar worked to strike a balance between responsible energy development and vital environmental protection.

Salazar set a sound foundation for solar and wind power on federal lands, while protecting areas where development does not make sense, Beinecke said.

Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune hailed Salazar for opening seven new national parks and 10 wildlife refuges while protecting Arctic areas from offshore drilling.

Salazar's leadership "has helped put our nation on a path where protecting our natural legacy and wild lands is a priority, not an afterthought," Brune said.

January 11, 2013

Energy company halts plans for wind project

A wind energy project proposed for Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa will not move forward after plans were terminated by Desert Mesa Power. The company has been testing wind conditions at the site since 2011.

By Courtney Vaughn
Hi-Desert Star

PIPES CANYON — A proposed utility-scale wind energy project slated for Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa will not move forward.

The Bureau of Land Management received a notification Thursday from Desert Mesa Power, LLC that it plans to terminate its right of way grant for wind testing.

Desert Mesa is owned by Element Power. The company installed two meteorological towers atop the buttes in July 2011 to test wind conditions on the public lands there.

Wind not conducive

In its letter to the BLM, the company stated it “does not believe that the wind resource at the site is conducive for further consideration for utility scale wind energy generation.”

California Desert Coalition and Save Our Desert released a joint statement Friday, saying the area should be off limits to industrial development.

“The work isn’t finished by any means,” Frazer Haney, president of SOD, stated. “We need to ensure permanent protection for these remarkable landforms...”

Both conservation groups collected thousands of signatures on petitions opposing the wind energy project.

SOD has been surveying the area’s flora, fauna and geological formations to register the buttes as important archaeological sites with the county museum.

According to the CDC, Desert Mesa Power planned to install 400-foot tall wind turbines on the buttes if wind patterns were favorable.

In November 2012, the Yucca Valley Town Council passed a resolution in opposition of the wind project, citing concerns of a scarred landscape and the destruction of biological resources. April Sall addressed the council, saying the proposal for a wind energy project in Pipes Canyon was left over from the Green Path North project previously proposed by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

“Our perseverance and hard work has paid off, and the enlightened public voice has been heard again. We are pleased that Element Power is withdrawing their application and that we are one step closer to maintaining our viewsheds and protecting the resources in and around the buttes,” Sall stated in a news release.

A representative from Element Power could not be reached for comment.

January 10, 2013

BLM Rebuffs Conservation Groups, Approves California Solar Project

Desert tortoise sporting a tracking device and a desert tortoise monitor/biologist.
Alyssa Carducci
Heartland Institute

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management released a final Environmental Impact Statement approving the development of 1,044 acres of desert tortoise habitat adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park in southern California for the construction of a large-scale solar power project.

BLM’s decision rebuffs conservation groups such as the Western Lands Project and the Wildlands Conservancy that seek to preserve desert tortoise habitat.

Dislodging Threatened Tortoises

The Desert Harvest solar power project, proposed by EDF Renewable Energy in San Diego, will produce as much power as a small conventional power plant during daylight hours when the sun is not obscured by clouds.

Conservationists point out the project will be prominently visible from many mountain ranges in Joshua Tree National Park. The power project will also dislodge and potentially cause the death of bighorn sheep and desert tortoises, which are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

“We are opposed to the Obama administration's policy to site large, damaging, remote solar plants on public lands, where they destroy habitat and ecosystem function and require large transmission lines [and] corridors to get the power to urban centers,” Janine Blaeloch, director of Western Lands Project, said.

Western Lands Project, along with Basin and Range Watch and Solar Done Right, filed a protest against the project with BLM.

Developing Pristine Lands

Conservation groups generally support renewable power but say the industry should be able to produce power without destroying pristine lands harboring valuable plant and animal species.

“We don’t oppose solar energy, and we are not climate change skeptics,” said Kevin Emmerich, spokesperson for Basin and Range Watch. “We would just like to see solar energy built in a way that does not replace undeveloped land, wildlife habitat, and ancient Native American sites with solar panels.”

Emmerich said the Desert Harvest project is especially troublesome because it would be located between two important wildlife conservation areas and Joshua Tree National Park. The site is known for important microphyll woodlands, which provide habitat for several bird species, said Emmerich.

Other Lands Available

The Desert Harvest project will be near another large-scale solar project now under construction, the Desert Sunlight Project. Emmerich said construction of the Desert Sunlight Project is already creating negative environmental impacts for the local region, such as degraded air quality due to dust storms.
Emmerich said the Desert Harvest project could be moved to “degraded lands,” land already developed, damaged, or contaminated.

“The Environmental Protection Agency has identified 15 million acres of brownfields or degraded lands that would be suitable for renewable energy,” said Emmerich.

Blaeloch agreed with Emmerich on the siting of solar power projects.

“We are pushing for siting solar generating facilities and rooftop arrays in the built environment, on damaged land, and on the millions of acres of brownfields, degraded lands, landfills, etc., the EPA has identified as suitable for that purpose,” said Blaeloch.

January 9, 2013

California desert aquifers contain high chemical levels

Sunset at the New York Mountains in the Mojave Desert. (Courtesy National Park Service)
The Associated Press
Tribune - San Luis Obispo

MOJAVE, Calif. — More aquifers in the Southern California desert contained high levels of arsenic, boron, fluoride and other naturally occurring elements compared with the rest of the state, a study released Wednesday found.

Federal scientists only looked at the presence of contaminants in raw, untreated groundwater and did not analyze tap water. Water agencies typically treat groundwater supplies to make drinking water and to comply with health standards.

Trace elements were found in high concentrations in 35 percent of groundwater used for public supply in the desert, compared with 10 to 25 percent elsewhere in the state.

One reason is that groundwater pumped from the desert tends to be older than groundwater pumped from other parts of the state, allowing more time for it to mix with elements found naturally in rocks and soil.

The study was conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey. Scientists tested groundwater samples from wells in the desert - including the Antelope Valley, Coachella Valley, Indian Wells Valley, Owens Valley, Mojave area, and the Colorado River basin - and around the state between 2004 and last year.

State and federal regulators and water agencies have long known about the existence of these elements in desert aquifers, but this is the most comprehensive assessment of groundwater quality in the desert.

Groups "are actively working to manage local groundwater resources and assure that water delivered to consumers meets water-quality standards," Miranda Fram, who heads the USGS groundwater monitoring program, said in a statement.

Besides studying the presence of naturally occurring contaminants, researchers looked at the role of human activity and found little impact on groundwater quality: High levels of solvents, pesticides and nitrates, typically associated with runoff from industries, agriculture and homes, were found in less than 1 percent of desert aquifers.

The USGS continues to monitor water quality in more than 100 groundwater basins around the state.

January 8, 2013

Wildlife Agency: Mojave Solar Project Would Harm Tortoises

Desert Tortoise | Photo: USFWS/Flickr/Creative Commons License
by Chris Clarke
KCET - Los Angeles

The nation's chief wildlife protection agency is opposing a new solar project in the Ivanpah Valley just outside the California state line, saying the project as currently designed would harm the valley's beleaguered tortoise population. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has called for the BLM to either deny or redraw the proposed 350-megawatt Silver State South solar project, which would affect more than 13,000 acres of prime tortoise habitat adjacent to the California state line, a few miles north of the Mojave National Preserve.

The Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) objections were made in a formal comment filed late last year in response to a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for Silver State South, released by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The project, proposed by the Tempe, Arizona-based firm First Solar, would directly occupy between 2,500 and 3,800 acres of land stretching from the California line to the northern edge of the Lucy Gray Mountains.

FWS's objections arise from the fact that the proposal occupies much of a north-south corridor of suitable habitat for the desert tortoise, which -- like the project's proposed footprint -- runs in a relatively narrow band between the Lucy Grays and Ivanpah Dry Lake to the west:

We are concerned about habitat fragmentation and demographic and genetic isolation of desert tortoise populations within the Ivanpah Valley and recommend that BLM select the 'No Action' alternative. Maintaining a robust population of desert tortoises within the Ivanpah Valley area is of particular importance because the habitat is already highly fragmented. Currently, the desert tortoise population within the Ivanpah Valley is only tenuously connected to the Ivanpah Critical Habitat Unit. This valley is a critical link between desert tortoise conservation areas in California and Nevada. Only four potential linkages remain in Ivanpah Valley. The linkage between the Silver State North project and the Lucy Gray Mountains is the widest of these linkages and likely the most reliable for continued population connectivity.

Tortoises don't migrate to find mates. Therefore, in order to provide adequate connectivity between populations of tortoises, says the FWS, corridors must be at least the width of a typical tortoise's lifetime range, allowing enough tortoises to have adjoining or overlapping ranges. FWS calculates that average range width at 1.4 miles, meaning that a functional corridor ought to be no narrower than that.

The BLM's draft EIS includes three variations on the project's footprint, and one "No Action" alternative in which no project would be built. The least extensive alternative would constrict the available tortoise habitat corridor to just under one mile: the BLM's Preferred Alternative would leave only 100 feet of habitat at the project's narrowest chokepoint.

The FWS's comments thus ask the BLM to either deny the project by adopting the No Action alternative, or send it back to the drawing board:

We recommend BLM select the 'No Action' alternative to avoid reducing the width of the existing corridor. If this is not possible, we ask BLM to minimize impacts to the linkage by creating and selecting a new alternative that would protect a corridor of undisturbed desert tortoise habitat between the Silver State North project and the Lucy Gray Mountains. This corridor should be wide enough to accommodate multiple desert tortoise ranges, spanning up to several times the desert tortoise lifetime utilization area.

The Silver State North project is a 50-megawatt solar facility built by First Solar and sold to the Canadian firm Enbridge in early 2012. It was completed in Ocrtober 2012 and is now generating power. Despite the projects' respective names, Silver State North would actually be surrounded on three sides by Silver State South.

January 3, 2013

Whiskey is for Drinking, Water is for Fighting

Why Resolving Water is Important but Difficult for the Western US

Colorado River Basin
Written by Sig Silber
Global Economic Intersection

An enormous struggle and debate is taking place in the Western U.S. involving water. This struggle includes among other things:

  • Historical disputes over who owns what water.
  • The modern relevance of the principle of “first in time first in right” referred to as the Priority Doctrine and written in the constitutions of many Western States. In theory, water markets allow the use of water to move from lower-value applications to higher-value applications but the public does not always think this is fair especially if the right to use the water moves from one location to another.
  • Conflicts over the appropriate roles of the Federal Government and the States. Many streams flow through multiple states and in reality states do not have the financial resources to provide and manage the required infrastructure. But in general, water is owned in trust by states and the right to use (a usufructuary right) is permitted by states to users. So in many cases there ends up being overlapping roles.
  • Conflicts among various categories of water users including Native Americans, descendants of original Spanish settlers, more recent acquirers of water rights, mining and extractive industries, and growing municipalities (urban areas) and last but certainly foremost crop irrigation which represents between 80 and 90 percent of water consumption in the West.
  • Variations in the water supply. Some of these variations are cyclical and not well understood either by the general public or water administrators. Although science clearly indicates that Warming means wetter, it is also likely that the geographical distribution of precipitation will change and a certainty that losses to evaporation will increase.
  • Agreements made relevant to sharing water among States and with Mexico often were made during wetter than usual periods and thus present challenges during drier than usual periods exacerbated by a growing population and impacted by Warming.
  • The current economic value of water is low. Its marginal utility in irrigated agriculture is usually less than $100 an acre foot (the amount of water it takes to flood an acre to a depth of twelve inches i.e. just slightly under 326,000 gallons).
  • Other than weather modification (cloud seeding), there are essentially no other methods of increasing the water supply which have a sufficiently low cost to be viable for agriculture so conservation is the only viable approach in that sector.
  • More methods of increasing the water supply work for the municipal sector because water is a small component of the costs of a household and most businesses. In the past, three or four families could have their water needs met by one acre-foot of water. Some “green” developers are able to achieve water efficiencies that allow up to six families to have their needs met by one acre-foot of water.
  • Oil and gas are becoming a larger user of water but in most cases this water is separate from the water used for agriculture and municipalities and to a very large extent is not consumed (depleted) but instead is re-injected back into the ground. Water used in the oil and gas industry generally need not be of drinking water quality. There is a concern that oil and gas operations will pollute domestic and agricultural water quality but no pattern of this occurring has been substantiated in more than 70 years of drilling or production.

Reduced Political Power of Farmers to Protect Their Water Rights

Farmers represent less than 1% of the workforce (may not count individuals who operate a farm on a part time basis or in other ways are not identified as farm workers) and use 80 to 90 percent of the water while their political clout is diminishing. The economic multiplier for agriculture is probably in the range of 2 to 3. Total economic impact is more than the work force but still is not sufficient to have significant political power in most States. In New Mexico, agriculture accounts for 1.7% of SDP but only about a third of this is related to irrigated agriculture. The economic impact of impeding the growth of municipalities carries more weight than the well-being of farmers. The analysis of the impact of agriculture is facilitated by the widespread use of a single model called IMPLAN It has limitations especially related to the value added after the product leaves the agriculture sector for example the manufacturing of wool into a sweater and sale of the sweater would not be included in the multiplier since the multipliers are mainly backward looking and mainly address the agriculture sector and its suppliers. I will now discuss a few of the situations in some detail. Additional information on the water problems facing Western States can be found at WesternStatesWater.org.

New Mexico Lower Rio Grande Adjudication

This is the New Mexico part of an irrigation project begun by farmers and private parties that was nationalized and completed by the Federal Government. It was designed to serve two counties in New Mexico and two counties in Texas. The Treaty of May 21, 1906 with Mexico requires the provision of 60,000 acre feet of water to Mexico which depending on many factors might be sufficient to irrigate 20,000 acres. Litigation in this area began while the area was controlled first by Spain and later by Mexico which gained its independence from Spain in 1823. The US gained possession of the west side of the Rio Grande first via the treaty with Texas which brought the Texas portion of the area under US control. New Mexico became a Territory of the US in 1850 and the east side of the Rio Grande came under the control of the US in 1853 as a result of the Gadsden Purchase.

The Lower Rio Grande within New Mexico was managed by the US from its office in El Paso, Texas and New Mexico was a virtual colony of Texas up until at least 1912 when statehood was granted. The US and the railroads were eager to have the west populated and a series of programs were initiated by the government and the railroads towards this end including the Homestead Act of 1862, the Mining Act of 1872, the Desert Land Act of 1877, and the Carey Act of 1894. In 1866, the Territory of New Mexico enacted legislation to provide for incorporation of companies for construction of irrigation works and in 1867 the Federal Government provided for maps of rights of way for irrigation projects.

Development proceeded more rapidly in Southern Colorado and in Mexico creating conflicts among irrigators up and down the Rio Grande. The Southern Pacific Railroad reached El Paso on May 19, 1881 and the Santa Fe Railroad reached El Paso from Albuquerque on June 11, 1881 and growth accelerated in those areas. A free running Rio Grande did not always meet the needs of the downstream farmers and ideas for a reservoir were floated first by farmers in the Mesilla Valley of New Mexico and then by businessmen in El Paso. The International Dam site about four miles north of El Paso gained strong support in Washington based on lobbying carried out by Colonel Anson Mills. In May of 1902, immediately prior to the passage of the Reclamation Act of June 17, 1902, Arthur Powell Davis, Assistant Chief Engineer for the new Reclamation Service selected the dam site at Elephant Butte, 100 miles upstream of El Paso because of its greater storage capacity, lower reservoir evaporation, and minimal loss of arable land. The Financial Panic of 1893 restricted both private and public capital but a private entrepreneur with strong ties to British capital created a British Company and undertook to finance the Rio Grande Dam and Irrigation Company (RGD&IC) founded by Mesilla Valley farmers to construct a large storage dam with about 237,000 acre feet of storage in a canyon below a rock formation referred to as Elephant Butte nine miles west of Engle, New Mexico, and a diversion facility at Leasburg New Mexico to divert water in a controlled manner to a 15 mile system of canals serving 15,000 farms and other related irrigation infrastructure the full extent of which remains to be determined in the ongoing litigation.

At the time of the passage of the Carey Act in 1894, the opinion in Washington was still to encourage private investment to develop the West. That philosophy changed as it became evident that private capital was in some cases insufficient to cope with the extreme vicissitudes of surface water flow both floods and droughts. After construction of the Leasburg diversion facility (essentially a weir dam) and a certain number of canals by the RGD&IC, private interests in El Paso, Texas managed to stop the RGD&IC and its construction of its major storage dam by claiming that the Rio Grande at Elephant Butte was a navigable waterway and invoked the War Powers Act to stop the obstruction of the river by a private dam. Years of litigation ensued and ultimately a default judgment was entered in 1903 to strip the RGD&IC of its assets and permits on the basis that the work, delayed by the Federal Government, was not completed within the five years allowed. During this time, the US hypocritically advanced its own plans and the construction of its own dam began in 1910 at virtually the same location as planned by the RGD&IC. Some of the diversion dams of the RGD&IC were improved by the Federal Government between 1903 and 1910. Although the matter went before the US Supreme Court three times and the International Court at the Hague and there has been additional litigation since then, no definitive decision has yet been rendered over a matter that occurred more than 115 years ago and the litigation continues by the descendants of those impacted. Possibly because of the Panic of 1907, the owners of the private dam and those served by the partially completed private project were not compensated by the Federal Government as was done on all of the other 22 private dams of that era which one way or another were nationalized including the Carlsbad Project on the Pecos River in New Mexico.

The failure of the federal government to follow norms of behavior when nationalizing a private venture has resulted in 115 years of litigation which now is complicated by the recent droughts, agreements made between the irrigation district established in New Mexico and the one in the El Paso Texas area (a second County in Texas benefits from drainage water from the Project), conflicts with Mexico and the low level of efficiency of the Project. I calculate that crops are only using about 25% of the water. That is a very low efficiency and is essentially unexplained. A further complication is the increasing attractiveness and expanding acreage of pecans which is a relatively efficient crop in the sense of dollars of product produced per unit of water consumed but nevertheless uses more water per acre than other crops grown in that area. With an essentially fixed or declining supply of water, paradoxically higher on-farm productivity per acre creates administrative problems as fewer acres can be irrigated. As another example of progress creating problems, drip irrigation when surface water is involved and unused water can return to the river does not reduce the amount of water required per ton of production but increases the production and thus the use of water per acre.

So there are many issues to be resolved and this process moves very slowly. In the meantime, many New Mexico farmers are receiving far less than their normal allotment of water and this is especially troublesome to the farmers in the New Mexico portion of the Rio Grande Project which is administered by the Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID). The legal process to sort this out is part of what is called the Lower Rio Grande Adjudication (LRGA) Stream Issue 104.

One aspect of the issue is that the general rule in the West is the concept that the first party to put water to beneficial use has the better right to continue to do so and in times of shortage the party with the senior rights should get their full allotment and the party with the most recent priority right should not receive water that year. Clearly that is harsh but it is the way things are handled in the West. The Rio Grande Project was established on the basis of an equal full allotment for each acre irrigated as described to potential members in informational material published by the Elephant Butte Water Users Association in 1905. Though subscription agreements to the EBWUA required that members surrender their management of their water rights to the EBWUA, there is a legal dispute as to whether or not it required that the member surrender their title or their priority during times of shortage. Therefore, when there was a full allotment of water, as the EBWUA supposed, the EBWUA would manage the water as to timing of delivery for everyone. But in years of shortage as was unforeseen at the time, the EBWUA perhaps should have been required to deliver the water according to priority date – which they and their successor the Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID) has not done, but has instead curtailed all users proportionately thus not taking into consideration the original priority date of those who farmed the 31,000 acres of bottom land prior to the appearance of the US Reclamation Service the predecessor of today’s Bureau of Reclamation.

This issue of pro rata distribution of water versus priority distribution of water is one of the major issues now being litigated before a New Mexico District Court. To some extent it may be a question of the relative roles of the Federal Government and State Government in the administration of this Project and the water which is central to the Project. The goal is to “adjudicate” the water rights of each farmer or other user of the water. At this point the hydroelectric facility at the Elephant Butte Dam is not part of the litigation. But more recently permitted groundwater wells which supplement the surface flow of the Rio Grande but presumably are tapping into an aquifer that is connected to the river is part of the litigation. So it gets very complicated.

Middle Rio Grande Lack of Enforcement of the Priority Doctrine

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District MRGCD is a form of an irrigation district (created under a different provision of New Mexico Statutes than EBID) and extends north of Elephant Butte to the Cochiti Dam north of Albuquerque. It is an irrigation district embedded in the major population center of New Mexico.

The MRGCD area is a smaller irrigation area than the Lower Rio Grande but important nonetheless. The distribution of water is managed by the MRGCD. Although in times of shortage it would appear to some that farmers with earlier “priority dates” i.e. the date when they applied to put water to beneficial use should receive their full allocation of water and those with later priority dates would receive water only as available after the senior water rights holders have received their allocation, the desire for harmony seems to have led to the non-enforcement of the Priority Doctrine. Thus this matter also is in court the subject of a law suit filed by Janet Jarratt a farmer and former Board Member against the MRGCD.

A number of years ago a similar situation occurred on the Pecos River, a much smaller river but one also governed by an Interstate Compact. Texas sued to receive the water they believed they were due. My reading of the Pecos Compact is that the Priority Doctrine should have been enforced but the New Mexico Legislature instead took the approach of buying sufficient water from New Mexico farmers to meet the obligations to Texas thus removing the need to do what is called a “Priority Call” on the Junior (more recent priority date) water rights holders and instead transferring the costs to New Mexico taxpayers. Perhaps, if you accept Modern Monetary Theory, the Federal Government could have assumed this cost but they didn’t. The Rio Grande is at least ten times the size of the Pecos River so any effort to protect the junior water rights holders would probably involve in the range of ten times the amount of water and the price of water along the Rio Grande is five to ten times the price along the Pecos so it could get quite costly.

One of the complications in all of this is that in some cases municipalities may have some water rights which are junior to some farmers and a priority call might impact municipalities. A farmer can fallow his field for a year. A city can’t stop providing water for residents and businesses.

Colorado River Basin

The largest river in the Southwest is the Colorado River as shown below. The Colorado River Basin, including its tributaries impacts parts of seven Western States: Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. Although only the NW and SW parts of New Mexico are naturally part of the Colorado River System, the Rio Grande is also shown on this map because a tunnel transfers water under the Continental Divide from the Colorado River System into the Rio Grande Stream System.

The Colorado is divided into an upper basin and lower basin. Each basin is entitled to receive 7.5 million acre feet (maf) of water over ten year periods under the Colorado Compact. Mexico is entitled to 1.5 maf under a Treaty with the US. In addition to the original 1922 Colorado Compact and the initial Treaty with Mexico, there is a collection of other laws and International agreements and court decisions that apply which collectively are known as the Law of the River.

The potential amount of available water in the Colorado Basis over the last 100+ years has averaged 16.4 maf. The usage over the past ten years has averaged 15.3 maf. Thus, although there have been tight periods, the reservoir system has enabled all lower basin states to receive their 7.5 maf requested deliveries and Mexico has received 1.5 maf partially because the upper basin states so far are not using their full allotment. The current forecast predicts both increased demand and reduced supply. There will be shortages within the seven Western States and Mexico. Using various scenarios of population growth and increased efficiency, consumption is projected to increase to a range of from 18.1 maf to 20.4 maf by 2060. This results in a median estimate of basin shortfall of 3.2 maf. This range has a fairly large confidence interval. The shortfall could easily be greater than predicted. Precipitation variability could create management problems beyond what is apparent from simply looking at averages. How these shortages will be shared is not as clear as one might like or expect so considerable litigation should be anticipated. Among the legal issues are the interpretation of the multiple agreements and their ability to be modified.

Bureau of Reclamation shows the possible ways of increasing the water supply to meet this projected gap in supply and demand. The options were rated on a number of evaluation criteria. Obviously that is a complex process and this report should be viewed as an initial screening. Other than weather modification (cloud seeding), which the authorities are reluctant to employ on a large scale for reasons that baffle this author, all the other sources are too high a cost to be economic for farmers. So if the improvements are funded by the Federal Government or the individual States, this will clearly be a subsidization of municipalities which are exhibiting the most rapid growth.

It is a bit similar to Peak Oil. We have not reached peak oil on a worldwide basis. But we have reached peak low-cost oil. It is a similar situation with respect to water in much of the West. The cost of adding to water supplies exceeds its value to agriculture. This raises the question of who should pay for the cost of adding to water supplies and whether or not the Priority Doctrine should simply be enforced which mainly means reducing the use of water in irrigated agriculture by those farmers with more recent priority dates. Thus a water administration issue becomes a political issue. It is not just farmers versus cities but states versus states, and the US versus Mexico.

There are many players in this equation and each situation (and there are many more than I have described) have their own history usually containing indiscretions sometimes by well know individuals in the history of the US. Some of the famous sayings in this area are “There is no law west of the Pecos” and “There is no God west of El Paso”. Curiously, on Christmas I watched a very entertaining movie with John Wayne that involved a dispute over water. No courts were involved in resolving this dispute – just guns. Hopefully we have progressed from that period of time but the time required for resolving this sort of dispute has greatly expanded and may not be available.

Water is an issue which somehow did not get much attention in the last presidential election but it is an issue that is likely to gain importance over time and ultimately will have to be dealt with. Each of the three or four situations I have described has its own dynamics so one has to become familiar with those dynamics to really understand all the issues which prevent an easy solution.

To summarize, the Fiscal Cliff is not the only major issue confronting the U.S. Provision of water to agriculture and municipalities is another challenge which may actually be more challenging. You can’t print water. Nevertheless, we have powerful institutional arrangements in place for dealing with both the equitable distribution of water and adjusting to changes in the overall situation. In most cases, those involved have concluded that cooperation is preferable to litigation. But in other cases, the conflicts appear to be intractable. Thus it remains unclear if the system will hold together. I suspect it will not.

January 2, 2013

Best dam views are accessible to all

Parking Area 12 overlook from the Arizona side has one of the finest views of both the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge and Hoover Dam. (Dennis Boulton)
by Deborah Wall
Las Vegas Review-Journal

The Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge (Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge) on U.S. 93 offers a magnificent visual experience that is accessible to all, and there is no fee to access it. Opened on Oct. 19, 2010, the bridge spans the Black Canyon of the Colorado River approximately 1,500 feet south of Hoover Dam.

This bridge was the first concrete-steel composite arch bridge in the United States. It's now the longest bridge of its sort in the western hemisphere, at 1,905 feet. It's 88 feet wide. The walkway is 880 feet above the Colorado River, making it the second highest-walking bridge in the United States.

Pedestrian traffic is allowed along the bridge's north side, but it is accessed only from the Nevada side. Although there are stairs from the parking area, there are also a series of paved, low-angle switchback ramps. From the parking area to the bridge walkway, those using wheelchairs, strollers or scooters will use these eight paved switchbacks. Although their grade is gentle, those in a wheelchair may need assistance to travel the full distance to the walkway, about 1,000 feet.

At the summit of the switchbacks, many resting benches are available before venturing onto the walkway itself, and interpretive signs give you something interesting to read while resting. Once on the walkway, it is approximately six feet across and about 900 feet to the center of the bridge. As you head across the bridge you will find numerous interpretive signs including one that marks the Arizona-Nevada state boundary.

Besides getting a spectacular view of the dam, you can also see a section of Lake Mead, the largest man-made lake in the United States, which the dam created. The white band along the lake's perimeter, well above the waterline, is the former shoreline, showing how far the lake has dropped during the long recent years of drought.

Looking down at the lower section of the dam, you can see the location of the turbines that generate hydro electrical power used throughout the Southwest. A local landmark, Fortification Hill, can be easily viewed from the walkway.

Once they have seen Hoover Dam from the walkway, many visitors also enjoy driving across the dam itself to view it from the Arizona side. From the Memorial Bridge Plaza parking area, head east to drive about two miles across the dam to where the road terminates. Along this drive there are parking and viewing areas for the bridge, dam and Lake Mead. One of the best views is on the Arizona side of the dam at Parking Area 12. Accessible parking is available at all parking areas.

Although accessible tours of the dam itself are not available, the Hoover Dam Visitor Center and Powerplant Tour are wheelchair- and scooter-accessible. For $5 at the main parking garage, wheelchairs can be rented to use on the Powerplant Tour or visiting other locations at the dam. Tours are not recommended for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia or who may have a pacemaker or defibrillator. Call 702-494-2517 or visit www.usbr.gov/lc/hooverdam.

January 1, 2013

BLM agents continue to investigate petroglyph crimes

An area where the thieves tried to carve out a petroglyph
but ended up leaving it. (Bureau of Land Management)
by Benett Kessler
Sierra Wave Online

Bureau of Land Management investigators continue to look into the case of the stolen and damaged petroglyphs near Bishop. A month ago, BLM reported that someone had used a power saw, generators and ladders to cut out and take at least four petroglyphs, leaving dozens of others damaged. The news went global.

One of the BLM agents working on the case is Melody Stehwein. She said in the new year the investigation is still ongoing. She said donations are still being made and that the $2,000 reward for information in the case has gone up. She said the climbing community, for one, had contributed to the fund.

Stehwein said she could not report any new details on the case. Anyone with information on the case that would lead to the thieves is asked to call investigator Eric Keefer at 760-937-0657 or Melody Stehwein at 760-937-0301.

Greg Haverstock, BLM Archaeologist, confirmed that the rock art is thousands of years old and part of the current Paiute Tribe’s ceremonial tradition. Haverstock said Europeans documented the rock art prior to 1890 and geological evidence shows them to be thousands of years old. Haverstock had earlier said, “The location of archaeological materials, feature remains and the rock art clearly portray the activities that occurred at the site during the past 3,500 years.”