May 31, 2013

Rural water customers could face higher fees

By Courtney Vaughn
Hi-Desert Star

MORONGO BASIN — Residents in three areas of the Morongo Basin could be getting higher water bills soon.

The county Board of Supervisors will review rate increases for county water customers in Morongo Valley, Landers and Pioneertown Tuesday, on behalf of the county’s special districts department of water and sanitation.

Property owners were mailed notices of the proposed rate hikes in each of the county’s four local districts. Increases would vary in each district.

In Landers, County Service Area W-1, monthly fees are proposed to jump 19 percent and customers will be charged $1.05 more per unit of water. In Pioneertown, customers with a 1-inch meter will pay 33 percent more every month if the plan goes through.

Morongo Valley has two water districts operated by the county. In Little Morongo Heights, the current monthly fee of $57.25 will jump to $58.78 and consumption rates will go up $2.07 per unit over last year’s rates. Customers who enter the second tier of water use will pay $2.55 more per unit of water than last year.

Morongo Valley’s other district, CSA 70, zone W-3, would be affected the least, with monthly fees increasing less than $2 and consumption-fee hikes of about 10 cents per unit.

A letter to customers states the higher rates will help the county establish an operations contingency fund and replacement reserves in each district to cover the cost of repairs and daily operations.

Citizens’ groups have mounted opposition to the proposed fee increases, gathering signatures of property owners for petitions.

Landers ratepayers have submitted a request to Supervisor James Ramos’s office, asking the Board of Supervisors to delay the vote to allow for more time to gather signatures from customers.

May 29, 2013

Judge dismisses lawsuit challenging Cadiz water project

Seven suits from three groups still pending over plan to pump Mojave Desert groundwater.


SANTA ANA – An Orange County judge last week dismissed a citizen group's lawsuit challenging the Cadiz Valley water project, with trials expected to start soon in seven suits from three other groups opposing plans to tap a remote Mojave Desert aquifer.

Cadiz Inc., which owns land above the groundwater basin in eastern San Bernardino County, still needs to secure some $225 million in funding and approval from public agencies such as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California before it can begin drilling wells and laying pipeline for the project, which would deliver 50,000 acre-feet of water to Southern California districts each year.

Citizens and Ratepayers Opposing Water Nonsense sued Santa Margarita Water District and its board of directors on Aug. 31, a month after the district approved a 1,668-page environmental impact review for the project.

The district hopes to buy 5,000 acre-feet a year, or 20 percent of its water supply, from Cadiz. The water district – which serves more than 155,000 customers in Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, Talega in San Clemente and surrounding unincorporated areas – volunteered to serve as lead agency on the project, overseeing nearly two years of environmental reviews and supervising development going forward.

The citizens group also named Los Angeles-based Cadiz, San Bernardino County and other public agencies in the lawsuit, saying environmental reviews weren't conducted in accordance with state law and that the agencies didn't do enough to protect groundwater supplies.

"Obviously we're pleased it was dismissed and dismissed with prejudice," district spokeswoman Michele Miller said Tuesday, with the citizens group unable to again challenge the project's environmental impact review or its groundwater management, monitoring and mitigation plan in Orange County Superior Court.

Corey Briggs, who represented the citizens group in the suit, said the group has no plans to appeal or pursue further action over the project.

"There are other parties that are perfectly capable of continuing the lawsuit, and we don't need any more cooks in the kitchen," Briggs said by phone from his San Diego office. "That just drives up costs for everyone."

Texas-based Tetra Technologies Inc. has filed four claims over potential impacts to its liquid calcium chloride operations in the area. Laborers' International Union of North America is suing over potential danger from munitions used in the project area during World War II training operations. A coalition including the Center for Biological Diversity, National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club and San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society filed two claims protesting potential environmental impacts.

All of the cases are being coordinated under Judge Gail Andler, with a hearing set for Monday to consider consolidating the seven outstanding claims.

What is the Cadiz project?

The Cadiz Valley Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project involves installing wells to tap the natural aquifer that lies beneath 70 square miles of Mojave Desert land owned by Cadiz Inc. The private developer would also build a 43-mile pipeline from its eastern San Bernardino County property along railroad right-of-way to the Colorado River Aqueduct, which supplies water to residents in Orange County and beyond.

Proponents say the project will capture groundwater that otherwise flows to nearby dry lake beds. Rather than let it evaporate, they say the additional 50,000 acre-feet of water each year could be used to shore up local supplies and stabilize rates.

Opponents have cried foul over potential impacts on the environment, water quality and nearby mining operations, along with questioning how the project's environmental reviews were conducted.

May 25, 2013

Not enough water in the Colorado River to go around

Yuma County Water Rights
Colorado River
Yuma Sun

As demand in the Southwest increases for dwindling water resources, thirsty communities are casting their eye on the Colorado River as the lifeblood for their future.

But there already are too many straws in the river, a system that studies indicate is over-allocated and highly variable.

Spanning parts of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, California and New Mexico, the Colorado River and its tributaries provide water to nearly 40 million people for municipal use, irrigate nearly 5.5 million acres of land and is the lifeblood for at least 22 Native American tribes, seven national wildlife refuges, four national recreation areas and 11 national parks, according to a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation study released in late 2012.

Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Denver, Phoenix, Tucson and Albuquerque are among the many large cities dependent on Colorado River water. It also is vital to Mexico to meet agricultural and municipal needs in that country. In addition, hydropower facilities along the river provide more than 4,200 megawatts of generating capacity to help meet the power needs of the West.

The Colorado River system is operated in accordance with the Law of River, a complex series of treaties, compacts, decrees, statutes, regulations, contracts and other legal documents and agreements.

Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, both the upper basin that includes Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, and lower basin of California, Arizona and Nevada were allocated 7.5 million acre-feet each. In 1944, Mexico was allocated 1.5 million acre-feet.

It has since become clear that the early decades of the 20th century, the period upon which the 1922 compact was based, has been the wettest period in the Colorado River gage record.

“The Colorado River is the backbone of our dependable water supply,” said Herb Guenther, former Yuma County lawmaker who served as director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources for eight years and is now a consultant for water issues.

“And it has the most competition,” he said.

A tree-ring study by a University of Arizona research team in 2007 documented the year-by-year natural variability of stream flows in the upper Colorado River Basin back to A.D. 762 with various dry periods. The biggest drought found in the entire record was an epic drought during the mid-1100s. That 60-year drought was remarkable for the absence of any wet years interspersed with the dry ones. At the core of the drought was a period of 25 years in which the river averaged 15 percent below normal.

Drought has again come to the Colorado River basin with a number of years experiencing below average stream flows. While the consistent year-after-year below average flows of the drought in the 1100s hasn't been experienced in the last decade, projections for the near future are not encouraging.

Guenther said estimates for over-allocation of the river range from 2 million to 4 million-acre feet.

And new research by UA scientists indicates an unprecedented combination of heat plus decades of drought could be in store for the Southwest sometime this century.

For every 1.8-degree warming in the future, Colorado River flow is projected to decrease between 2 and 8 percent, Connie Woodhouse, a UA professor of geography and development, wrote in her 2009 paper, “A 1,200-year perspective of 21st century drought in Southwestern North America.”

She noted that in recent decades, temperatures have been higher than during the previous 1,200 years and future temperatures are predicted to be even warmer.

In addition, she said, other research predicts that changes in atmospheric circulation will reduce the amount of winter precipitation the Southwest receives in the future. And new tree-ring research indicates that long-term droughts in the Southwest often mean failure of both summer and winter precipitation.

“Droughts similar to those that occurred in the past could occur in the future, exacerbated by climate warming,” she said. “Even without warming, if you had one of those medieval droughts now, the impact could be devastating. Our water systems are not built to sustain us through that length of drought.”

Relief apparently isn't in sight anytime soon.

Current Colorado River basin snowpack is 77 percent of average, according to the USBR website. Total river storage system was 52 percent of its 60 million acre-foot capacity as of May 5, compared with 62 percent last year. Lake Mead is at 49 percent of capacity and Lake Powell 47 percent. That puts Mead at 38 feet above the trigger to declare a shortage.

And another hot, dry summer is forecast for the West.

“While much of the eastern half of the nation has cooler and wetter conditions relative to last summer, the West will bear the brunt of this summer's drought and heat,” reported Paul Pastelok, head of the Long Range Forecast Department.

“It's a bit scary,” Steve Hvinden, chief Boulder Canyon operations officer for the USBR, said of the situation during a water summit in Yuma. He noted that the latest models show a “significant chance of a shortage by 2016.”

And that's without any new straws in the river.

Editor's Note: This story is the first in a series called Yuma County Water Rights, which takes a look at pressing water issues in the region.

Rejecting Nevada water deal hurts Utah, critics say

Snake Valley » Officials wonder if state’s stance could complicate proposed Lake Powell Pipeline.

Dave Baker, a third-generation Snake Valley rancher, looks at the Stateline Spring which is a critical source of water for farmers and ranchers near the towns of Baker, Nev., and Utah's Garrison and EskDale. The Utah Water Development Commission on Tuesday voted to ask Gov. Gary Herbert to reconsider his rejection of an agreement with Nevada that would equally divide the Snake Valley aquifer's water between the two states. (Brian Maffly | Tribune file photo)

By Brian Maffly
Salt Lake Tribune

When Utah Gov. Gary Herbert vetoed a water-sharing agreement forged with Nevada over Snake Valley’s groundwater, he said he was acting in response to locals’ desires and to ensure that water that flows into Utah stays in Utah.

But the governor’s move, which was hailed by both West Desert ranchers and environmentalists, could jeopardize Utah’s own aims on the Colorado River, according to critics in the water-development community. By failing to cooperate with an important neighbor, Utah could sacrifice a positive tradition of bi-state cooperation and invite trouble as it seeks to divert some of the Colorado to feed its own growing desert metropolis.

That’s according to Ron Thompson, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District and an influential figure in Western water circles. He is now publicly linking Las Vegas’ interest in Snake Valley groundwater with Utah’s proposed 139-mile pipeline that would deliver nearly 100,000 acre feet from Lake Powell to Kanab and St. George.

"It’s hypocritical for us to tell Nevada not to develop a water project. Ultimately they will figure out how to do it," Thompson said. He is concerned Nevada, which has its own interest in the Colorado River, will be less inclined to support Utah’s campaign to secure water rights, regulatory approvals and rights of way needed for the Lake Powell Pipeline.

Thompson raised these concerns last week at a meeting of the State Water Development Commission. Most of the commissioners, including Thompson, voted to formally ask Herbert to reconsider his decision.

Nevada officials likewise hope an accord is still within reach, although they declined to discuss their state’s leverage on Utah water projects.

"Gov. Herbert has committed to continue to work with Nevada to identify options for addressing this issue. That said, we believe this agreement is good for both states and we would welcome reconsideration from Gov. Herbert with regard to signing it," said Leo Drozdoff, director of the Nevada Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, the agency proposing to pump and pipe Snake Valley water to Las Vegas, declined to comment for this story.

Meanwhile, conservationists ridiculed Thompson’s position as a self-serving gesture to protect the controversial Lake Powell Pipeline proposal, calling this project both costly and unnecessary.

"It has nothing to do with need. They are doing it so other states won’t be able to use the river," said Utah Rivers Council Executive Director Zach Frankel. "Ron Thompson is not an objective source on this. He is looking out for his agency’s interests."

Frankel, as well as local officials and business owners, contend the proposed agreement with Nevada would not truly protect Snake Valley from Las Vegas’ thirst once it begins pumping. Groundwater depletion could turn the valley into a "dust bowl," yet the agreement fails to anticipate air quality impacts, critics say.

"Pieces of paper are worthless and most often in these circumstances, are written to placate the opponents at the time only to be broken in the future," Terry Mascaro, a Baker, Nev., business owner, wrote in an open letter castigating the commission’s recent vote. "A 39-page paper document will never stop the stated destruction to us out here."

Millard County’s elected leaders oppose the agreement, reached without an opportunity for public comment, because it would promise groundwater to Nevada that they believe is not there. Once impacts from pumping become apparent it could be too late or too costly to fix the damage, they say.

But many on the water development commission question whether Utah could secure a better agreement than the one Herbert has rejected. That pact would have safeguarded the valley’s existing water users in a tiered water-sharing arrangement and featured several provisions to protect the landscape and monitor environmental changes, backers say.

"We had long indicated we would sign, then backed out at the last minute. It looks like our word is not that good. It was a strong agreement in Utah’s favor," Thompson said. "It’s a false premise that if Utah doesn’t come to an agreement, Nevada won’t be able to develop its water interest [in the Snake Valley]."

Thompson believes Nevada’s water troubles are an accident of history that began in the 1920s when the Colorado River Compact was established, allocating the Silver State a relative trickle of the mighty river’s flow. Back then, no one envisioned subdivisions, much less water-guzzling tourist amenities, blooming in the Las Vegas Valley.

Nevada’s 300,000-acre-foot annual apportionment hardly lines up with its territory’s contribution to the Colorado’s flow or its current needs, while nearly one-third of Utah’s 1.4 million-acre-foot share has gone undeveloped. (About 326,000 gallons, an acre foot of water supplies two to four households annually.)

For years, Utah and other basin states have opposed renegotiating the compact and encouraged Nevada to tap sources inside its borders.

"Utah has a long history working with all the basin states and Nevada. We have a long border and history of comity. Those [border] communities have been interrelated since they were developed," Thompson said, noting St. George’s own extensive ties to the Nevada economy.

The states are the nation’s two driest, as well as among the fastest growing, suggesting the competition for water may only get more intense. But what if Utah leased its unused share of the Colorado River to Nevada?

Conservationists say such an arrangement would make Utah money and help solve Las Vegas’ water woes without developing a destructive groundwater pumping scheme. In the mid-1990s, Utah’s then-Gov. Mike Leavitt proposed as much, but the idea did not get much traction among policy makers.

"That’s narrow-mindedness. That’s myopia," Frankel said.

May 22, 2013

The tortoise tax

Steve Williams, Opinion Page Editor

Steve Williams, Opinion Page Editor
Victorville Daily Press

If you know anything at all about Nipton, you know that for years it had the most lottery ticket sales in the state. That’s because it was the town nearest Primm and Las Vegas, and thus the most accessible place for many Nevadans to purchase tickets.

But from Nipton, on the northern edge of the Mojave National Preserve, those who visited to purchase tickets could look across 15 miles of dry lake bed and desert emptiness and see Brightsource’s huge new solar thermal plant, southwest of Primm. It doesn’t look very big from Nipton, though. It looks tiny against the mountains beyond, and tinier still when compared with the thousands of square miles contained in the Preserve.

But the plant sits on land that is prime habitat for the desert tortoise. So Brightsource, Google and NRG, the investors, have been fighting attempts by environmentalists to first bar the plant from being built, and then keep it from operating.

In a May 15 piece noting the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, two writers for PERC (Property and Environment and Research Center), Laurie Higgins and David Currie detail just how much it’s cost the companies and taxpayers to fight the enviros. To date, investors have allocated $56 million — and have already spent more than $130,000 per animal — to care for and relocate the species.

When the permit for the plant was finally issued after years of negotiations, it was estimated that 150 desert tortoises lived within the plant’s footprint. But environmentalists, citing more recent “studies,” now estimate that 750 are there. If 750 tortoises are on that land, there must be, oh, 20,000 of the creatures between the plant and Nipton. At $130,000 per, the desert tortoise population in the area is worth about $2.6 billion.

Higgins and Currie write that among creatures protected by the ESA, “the tortoise is one of the top recipients of tax dollars ... with little success in advancing conservation goals. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that the tortoise received nearly $190 million in tax-dollar support from 1996 to 2009, yet species population increased negligibly.” Or zero.

They also note that the plant received $1.6 billion in taxpayer-backed loan guarantees to help create green jobs and energy. So, they write, “At the end of the day, we may have no tortoise, no green power, and no money.”

We in the Victor Valley know about the desert tortoise. On the “endangered” list, its presence has created endless delays in building everything from roads to freeway overpasses to the VVI power plant at Southern California International Airport. To what end? To make environmentalists feel good about themselves, apparently. Certainly their efforts have done nothing to increase the tortoise population.

Our only hope is that one of these years, environmentalists will begin using common sense to reach their goals. In the meantime, they’re just creating unnecessary economic woes, even to the extent of stubbornly keeping a “green” plant from generating electricity. Typically, that makes no sense at all.