July 29, 2014

Camping By a Pool in the Mojave Desert Was the Weirdest Night of My Life

The boys crouched down to unlock the cover to the pool and slowly slid it open, like they were exposing a tiny silver of heaven. Our own personal desert mirage. Was this art? (Sasha Bronner)

Sasha Bronner
HuffPost LA

There is a hidden swimming pool in the Mojave Desert, an eleven-by-five-foot wide minimalist structure designed by an artist and titled the "Social Pool" -- and it is open to anyone who has a day to spare, Google Maps and the ability to follow directions. News about the pool started to buzz in June and caught my attention as something that might bring about adventure, happiness, or both. The sheer ridiculousness of it all -- the fact that you pick up a key that unlocks the cover to the pool from a museum in LA, are only then given the secret coordinates, drive three hours into the desert and then need to be back 24 hours later -- excited anyone I knew who had heard about it.

The Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, The Guardian, The Smithsonian and countless others had all covered the art installation -- and its limited run until September -- ignited my desire to go with an even greater sense of urgency.

I recruited two male friends who were both giddy about the adventure; one a newer friend and one whom I've known for years. It was all we could talk about for days leading up to our departure.

When we decided to up the ante and planned to camp overnight by the pool (which some people have done, but not many), my greatest fears were the possibility of snakes, the punishing sun and heat and possibly an interaction with a scorpion.

Mike, Jonathan and I collected the key to the pool at 11:03 a.m. in West Hollywood. We were given the GPS coordinates and little else.

About an hour before we arrived at our destination, we started noticing the small towns that appeared and then vanished around us: abandoned homes off the side of the road, cracking signs and large deserted plots of land. Signs for Ron's Ranch, various feed stores or the Lone Wolf Health Colony gave us pause. It was as if we were driving through a Disneyland attraction or an actual ghost town. We were delighted already.

After leaving a gas station with gallons of cold water, Gatorade and bags of ice, we resumed our route on the one-lane highway, only to strangely see a long procession of cars heading towards us with their hazard lights flashing. Most businesses were closed or hadn't been open in months and as we left the various towns behind, driving 80 mph on open roads, we looked around and said that we had just officially entered the mind of Stephen King.

The GPS told us to turn left onto what had been described as a dirt road, but was really more of a severely rocky road that we had to drive down very slowly to avoid damaging our cars. We pulled over 2.5 miles down the road when the voice of the GPS politely said to prepare to park and to continue to our destination on foot.

We knew ahead of time that finding the pool would take some searching -- some said anywhere between five and 30 minutes on foot -- and we were also told that the pool was in the "middle of nowhere." Instead, once we had turned on the rocky road, we passed a fairly big house on our right and closer to where we parked, we saw a set of three abandoned RVs with the windows smashed open, the doors blown out but lawn chairs sitting in the yard. This did not seem like the middle of nowhere.

Between looking for a GPS location in the desert and the questionable meth RVs haphazardly planted around us, the trip suddenly had all the makings of the complete Breaking Bad experience.

Off to the right, in the wide-open desert, we squinted and saw a group of people standing around something. Because the Social Pool is supposed to have only one key that is given out for 24 hours at a time, and because that key was tucked carefully away in my camouflage fanny pack, our curiosity about the group of men and their truck blossomed. Unsure of what to say when we approached them, we left all of our gear in the car and headed their way.

The sky, deeply overcast, broke open with warm rain and we soon saw bolts of lightning far off in the distance. As we grew closer, it was clear that the group was in fact waiting at the pool -- it looked like we wouldn't have to do any searching -- but when we approached, they headed back to their truck and drove off without saying a word.

The rest of the afternoon passed blissfully. We hiked back to our cars, transferred gear to Mike's car and drove it down a sandier road that put us closer to the pool. The boys crouched down to unlock the cover to the pool and slowly slid it open, like they were exposing a tiny silver of heaven. Our own personal desert mirage. Was this art? It didn't matter. They dropped a heavy block of ice into the already cool water and we jumped in, shrieking and laughing.

Everything that was supposed to be surreal and wonderful about a tiny oasis tucked into the ground of the desert -- was. We laughed at the absurdity of where we were, took Polaroid pictures and drank beers. I packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and we ate them sitting on the edge of the pool, our feet soaking, bewildered by the beautiful emptiness of it all, smiling when the rain blew away and was replaced by a perfect desert breeze. We listened to Fleetwood Mac, The Traveling Wilburys and Paul Simon. The sun started to fade and pinks and oranges burst into the sky and we quickly forgot about the ghost town, the RVs and the mysterious people who were there when we arrived.

The stars made their grand appearance, pulling us away from even our conversations as we looked up and tried to remember the last time we could see so much beauty above us. Lanterns were switched on, my sweatpants replaced my bathing suit and individually wrapped slices of pizza were consumed. We were happy.

But a few hours later, off in the distance, a tiny light appeared. Two, in fact -- the headlights of a vehicle. We watched it travel down the road, still a great distance from us, and wondered if it could be going to that first house we saw, or possibly, the less desirable option, if it could be headed toward the Breaking Bad RVs. But then the two lights veered off of the road and picked up speed, barreling directly toward us suddenly at a great pace. We all tensed, I turned off the music and lights and Mike and Jonathan whispered frantically about what to do. The car was approaching fast and they quickly got out of the pool and reached for empty beer bottles.

The Jeep stopped about 20 feet away, first passing us, and then reversing to our exact location. Two men got out of the car and started whispering. One put on a headlamp. As they approached we said, "Hello? Can we help you?" and they stopped, still covered by darkness, none of their features discernible. "A friend leaked the key," is all one said. We asked them to come closer so that we could see their faces, and the man continued, "We were going to check it out but we can stay out of your way."

We suddenly felt deeply protective of the pool, a subtle primal instinct setting in as we looked up at their faces, realizing that we were in fact not in the middle of nowhere. Realizing with a shudder of stupidity that actually, the entire Internet probably knew our exact location and anyone could have a copy of that key. Enter every horror movie plot you've ever seen.

Showing my true city girl colors, I confidently told them that we had a reservation and that we would be there 'til morning. They said it was so hot earlier that they didn't think anyone would be out there. But it wasn't that hot earlier, I thought to myself. It rained. There was something about the squint in their eyes, the weirdly high-tech watch that the man with the headlamp wore, the inflection of the voice that said "we can stay out of your way" that clung to me after the Jeep pulled away. We kept our lanterns off until the echo of the red of their taillights was long lost in the distance.

The visit changed everything and even though they were gone, we sat feeling edgy in the darkness, talking about how the very things we were most worried about -- the heat, actually finding the pool and maybe the snakes -- were really not a problem at all. Instead, what we feared the most was actually other human beings.

Around midnight we headed to our tents, feeling calmer after fixating on the beautiful blinking lights above us, talking about what the stars looked like during childhood and all the other things that humans talk about when we look up at the night sky. Mike went into his tent and Jonathan and I went into ours. The night was so warm that we kept the tent window, covered in thin mesh, open so that we could feel the breeze and even see the stars behind us if we tipped our heads back.

Three hours later, my eyes snapped opened to the sound of footsteps and breathing. My body went stiff and I felt Jonathan's hand squeeze my forearm tight telling me that he was awake and heard it too. We didn't move or speak, wanting whatever or whoever was out there to think that we were sleeping. We listened intently to the sound outside the tent. This went on for minutes. I was sure something was looking through the tent window at us. I could feel its eyes and hear it breathing.

Fear like this transfixes your body in an instant. The only thing moving was my heart; maniacally pulsating at a pace I have never felt before and hope to never feel again. We gripped each other's arms, squeezing quick pulses in an attempt to communicate when we heard something new. Next came the sound of something touching the tent, like it was trying to find the zipper -- but quietly. I reached for my glasses and Jonathan's hand quickly touched mine to feel what I was reaching for.

The brain doesn't run through multiple grand scenarios at a time like this. It doesn't consider all the possibilities. It zeroes in on a feeling. Someone was there to hurt us. I was sure in the deepest pockets of my gut that either the men from the Jeep had come back or someone from that house or the RVs was there to kill us. Or had they come to steal our car keys? Do we try to protect ourselves? Do we pretend we're sleeping? I waited with terror for the moment that they found the zipper. The moment didn't come.

The sound of footsteps and movement stalled. But there was an indentation of something leaning against the tent, right next to me. Very slowly we moved from lying on our backs to kneeling up on our knees and I whispered, the sound barely leaving my throat, "Who the fuck is that?" to which he quickly responded, "What the fuck is that?" As sure as I was that there was a human trying to get into the tent, he was sure that it was an animal pushing up against it. A coyote perhaps.

"We have to make a ton of noise to scare it away," he whispered.

"What if it's a person? What if they attack us?" I looked at him with wide glistening eyes.

"I think it's an animal. They are scavengers and we have to scare it away. We won't have any peace of mind until we do. We have to make really loud sounds at the top of our lungs."

"We are going to scare Mike so bad he's going to have a heart attack."

"We have to do it."

"I don't know what to yell."

"We have to yell loudly like we are mad. Not like we are scared."

"But I am so scared."

"Then you can shout something and I'll make sounds. Just scream 'Get the fuck out of here! Get the fuck out of here!'"

"Mike is going to think people are here."

"Okay then scream 'Get the fuck out of here, animals!'"

"But that's so long."

"Scream 'Get out of here! Get out of here!' But do it really, really loud. Okay?"

I took many deep breaths. "Okay."

He counted down from five and started making these insane short guttural calls from the belly of his body, and forgetting my line, I just started wailing, "Go away! Go away!"


Then the sound of Mike's voice wafted from his tent. As if in slow motion he asked, "So. What's going on?"

Jonathan took the flashlight and left the tent. As we told Mike everything that had just happened, I brought my knees to my chest and tried to stop my entire body from shaking. Jonathan spotted fresh urine around the tent and paw prints.

Falling back asleep was like trying to stop popcorn from popping out of a pan. We didn't say much else until the sun came up. Exiting the tent in the daylight felt like breathing for the first time. We packed up camp quickly, slid the cover back on the Social Pool and locked it.

We got all our stuff back to Mike's car in two trips. As we slammed the trunk and Jonathan and I put our backpacks on to walk up the road to my car, I sarcastically said, "After all this, you guys, you know there's going to be a third act."

Mike started the car and put his foot on the accelerator but the tires quickly sunk into the sand. He reversed and tried again. We tried pushing the car. Then I steered and they pushed. Sand and smoke wailed up around the tires and we looked at each other in disbelief. After 30 minutes of trying, and the pressure of being told that we had to return the key to Los Angeles by 11 a.m., we left everything and drove my car back up to the highway.

Mike Googled auto towing in the area and called at least three numbers that were disconnected. A fourth place was closed on the weekends. We finally got a live voice, Mark, who said he was too far away but to try Debbie. We called Debbie but got an Al, who told us to call Ed, who told us to call Tony.

I pulled into the town where we had seen the cars flashing their hazard lights and found a place called Cafe 247 that had a sign for breakfast all day. I've never ordered a milkshake at 8:40 a.m. but I earned it. We also were delighted to ingest the best breakfast burrito that's ever been made by human hands. If anyone ever asks you the vague question "all the meat?" when ordering anything, just say yes.

We sat in the roadside cafe while Tony worked out how to get to Mike's car. We met him on the highway an hour later and waited while Mike disappeared with him down the rocky road. We dozed on and off and whenever I re-opened my eyes, I squinted down the rocky road to see if I could spot Mike's white car or Tony's grey truck headed our way. Over ninety minutes and $375 later, after clearing out bushes and even some small trees, Tony was able to drag Mike's car back to the road.

We drove home, for a while following one another on the highway, and then eventually separating when I pulled over to take a picture of a faded, broken down sign with an abandoned couch in front of it. It read "Apple Valley Welcomes You...to a better way of life!" And after that, we couldn't stop ourselves from recounting in great detail, with insane spouts of laughter, all that had happened. All that had been said. All that we had felt in the span of 21 hours.

We noticed new signs on the highway for other abandoned ranches and bizarre motels, like the Portal Motel or Paradise Inn (which had vacancy), but the drive went more quickly this time. Perhaps I drove faster than I realized.

Now that we are home, friends have asked us if it was fun -- to which, we each have decided to answer: That's beside the point.

July 25, 2014

Make 'contact' with alien experts at Joshua Tree event

Giant Rock Convention, Landers, 1966. (Courtesy Morongo Basin Historical Society)
Denise Goolsby
The Desert

MORONGO BASIN — Tim Gaul had an extraterrestrial experience — in sales.

Gaul, an artist who graduated from Indio High School, found out how mainstream the fascination with other possible life has become when he rolled out his newest necklace creation earlier this week at a festival: porcelain alien faces — featuring those familiar almond-shaped eyes.

He sold dozens within a few days.

Although Gaul doesn't think a bunch of E.T.s are walking the Earth, he doesn't rule out the idea that other beings exist.

"I believe there's life on other planets," he said. "Maybe there's a race of other people on other planets."

And if there are, they aren't evil.

"Or they would have taken us out already," he said.

Extraterrestrials, ancient aliens, crop circles, contact experiences and UFO sightings are among the many out-of-this-world topics that will be explored during the "Contact in the Desert" four-day conference beginning Aug. 8 in Joshua Tree.

The second such conference, it features scientists, researchers, archeologists, best-selling authors and experts featured on History Channel shows such as "Ancient Aliens" and "Hangar 1."

It's in "stark contrast to UFO conventions famous for attracting fanatics in foil hats," according to organizers.

The event coincides with the Perseid meteor shower — one of the brightest meteor showers of the year — which occurs every August, peaking this year between Aug. 10 and Aug. 13.

The location of the conference is significant.

"Joshua Tree has a long history of sightings," co-organizer Paul Andrews said. "We think that, scientifically, there's something about the area that is attractive to this phenomena."

Just as us earthlings are drawn to Joshua Tree — its other-worldly beauty amplified by a sense of spiritual serenity — visitors from other worlds might also be lured by the charm of this secluded, sprawling high desert sanctuary.

George Noory, host of the nationally syndicated radio talk show, "Coast to Coast AM;" Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, host of "Ancient Aliens;" and Erich von Däniken, author of "Chariots of the Gods," are among the headliners of the event, which features a lineup of nearly 40 speakers, including local historian Barbara Harris, who has studied the Morongo Basin communities, specifically Morongo Valley, Landers and Joshua Tree for the past 30 years.

Harris said the history of the area's connection to UFOs dates back to at least 1947 when George Van Tassel — an aircraft mechanic and flight inspector who worked for Douglas Aircraft, Hughes Aircraft and Lockheed — left Southern California's aerospace industry and moved his family to Landers, site of the mysterious Giant Rock, a massive, freestanding boulder standing seven stories tall.

The 25,000-ton behemoth, purported to be the largest freestanding boulder in the world, covers 5,800 square feet — the size of an estate-size home in the Coachella Valley.

"That's where all of the UFO stuff began," she said. "Van Tassel started having visions or connections with space beings from Venus."

During one of these encounters, he received some advice.

"They told him, 'You human beings are coming along OK as a species. However, when you finally get to the place where you 'get it' you die.' They gave him some information on how to build the integratron — a time machine or rejuvenation device to help extend human life."

The one-of-a-kind, all-wood parabolic dome-shaped structure was built on a powerful geomagnetic vortex. Construction began in 1954 and he worked on it until his sudden death in 1978.

The structure, which still stands today, is open to the public.

Van Tassel put on open-air conferences called the Interplanetary Spacecraft conventions, which began April 4, 1953.

"In the 50s and 60s, as many as 10,000 people found themselves driving to the middle of nowhere in the middle of the desert to listen to George Van Tassel speak, to listen to contactees," Harris said.

Harris believes UFO activity — and sightings — are related to specific times in history.

The upheaval of World War II and the development and use of nuclear weapons may have drawn intelligent life closer to Earth, she said.

"Certain people believe the UFOs and the E.T.s come here as a support system to the human race. They're here, basically, to help us grow as a species. They were showing up so we wouldn't destroy ourselves."

"During this time period, people were just starting to come out of their shells and talk about UFOs, talk about X-Files and talk about government conspiracies. At the same time, things were happening in Roswell," she said.

Harris said people living in the high desert at the time had such an interest in UFOs that a newsletter was published — known as The Smoke Signal — that reported specifically on UFO sightings.

Interest in aliens ebbed in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

"There are times when the subject has its peaks and its lows, depending on media coverage," said Nick Redfern, an author and lecturer who writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Lochness Monster, alien encounters and government conspiracies.

"Fortunately today, there's a great deal of media coverage and attention given to the subject. History Channel, Nat Geo, Discovery. The more attention it gets, the more people listen to it."

Redfern, who is a featured speaker at the conference, will present a lecture on "The Pyramids and the Pentagon" and a workshop, "The Real Men in Black."

In the past, the media would laugh at the subject, poke fun and make jokes about "little green men," he said.

"The stereotype is a 40-year-old UFO researcher living in mom and dad's basement," he said. "The reality is, most people, we have normal lives, but we just happen to be interested in unusual subjects. It's not like it's an obsession. It's a fascination which I've made into a job."

If you go

Contact in the Desert

Joshua Tree Retreat Center, 59700 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree

Date: Aug. 8 - Aug. 11

Cost of four-day pass: Single: $250; Couple: $475

All lectures and panels are included. Workshops, intensives, tours and meal plans sold separately.

To order tickets, call (760) 365-8371 or visit contactinthedesert.com

July 24, 2014

2 supervisors oppose giant wind project

Lovingood, Ramos write letter to BLM

North Peak Wind Project map. Wind turbines and giant power poles of the renewable energy project could invade Apple Valley scenery.

Victorville Daily Press

SAN BERNARDINO — Supervisors James Ramos and Robert A. Lovingood submitted a joint letter to the Bureau of Land Management on Thursday strongly opposing the North Peak Wind Project planned for 16.4 square miles of mountain ridges overlooking much of the Victor Valley.

In the letter to BLM Director Neil Kornze, Ramos and Lovingood cited the anticipated harm to property values, viewsheds, Native American cultural resources, interference with radar tracking of aircraft and environmental concerns.

“The anticipated impacts on plants and animals are devastating, including the regular and continuous killing of bald eagles, golden eagles, bats and numerous migratory bird species that use the avian corridor along the ridgelines in question,” the supervisors said in the letter.

The project is planned for mountain ridges overlooking Lucerne Valley, Apple Valley and Hesperia.

“San Bernardino County has already borne the brunt of renewable energy projects,” Lovingood said. “For a wide variety of reasons, this is the wrong location for this project, and I urge the BLM to reject the North Peak Wind Project.”

The project is proposed by E.ON Climate & Renewables North America and promises to deliver 120 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 33,000 homes.

The 71-turbine project application is on hold until about November at BLM’s Barstow Field Office.

“Due to the damaging impact the North Peak Wind project would cause for the community, their property values and overall quality of life, I am opposing the development of this project,” Ramos said. “San Bernardino County has made great strides to become a leader in renewable energy projects. However, this project would have significant, detrimental effects (on) the environment and cultural resources that exist in this area. I ask that the BLM take these issues under consideration and reject this project.”

The letter from Lovingood and Ramos notes that while the project is on federal land, San Bernardino County retains authority over local roads, including necessary widening of roads for construction crews to access the project site.

Western US water crisis worse than thought

Nasa study finds dramatic loss of underground water in Colorado River Basin

The Colorado River Basin lost nearly 53 million acre feet of freshwater over the past nine years, according to a new study based on data from NASA’s GRACE mission (Bureau of Reclamation/NASA)

By David Millward
The Telegraph

The water crisis in the south west of the US is likely to worsen according to a new study carried out by the American space agency and University of California.

Research has found that the Colorado River Basin, the prime source of water in the region, is being sucked dry.

Only last week California announced daily fines of $500 (£300) for residents who water their lawns with nearly four-fifths of the state being classified as being under “extreme” and “exceptional” drought conditions.

The Colorado River is the only major river in the southwestern US, with the basin supplying water to 40 million people in seven states and irrigating around four million acres of farmland.

In California, the basin is a key source of water for Los Angeles and San Diego.

The new study is the first to look at the role of groundwater in the parched region and has been carried out against a backdrop of a severe drought dating back to 2000.

A series of monthly measurements have shown that over nine years the Colorado River Basin lost nearly twice as much water as Lake Mead, Nevada - the country’s largest reservoir.

"We don't know exactly how much groundwater we have left, so we don't know when we're going to run out," said Stephanie Castle, a water resources specialist at the University of California, Irvine.

"This is a lot of water to lose. We thought that the picture could be pretty bad, but this was shocking.”
Jay Famiglietti, the senior water cycle scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, warned the findings have long term implications for the entire region.

"The Colorado River Basin is the water lifeline of the western United States," he said.

"With Lake Mead at its lowest level ever, we wanted to explore whether the basin, like most other regions around the world, was relying on groundwater to make up for the limited surface-water supply.

"We found a surprisingly high and long-term reliance on groundwater to bridge the gap between supply and demand.

“Combined with declining snowpack and population growth, this will likely threaten the long-term ability of the basin to meet its water allocation commitments to the seven basin states and to Mexico.”

July 23, 2014

Drunk with power, agencies come for our water


Elko Daily Free Press

There may not be sufficient documentation to prove that Mark Twain ever said, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over,” but Nevada ranchers and farmers are having to fight over water with two branches of their own federal government. It’s enough to drive one to drink.

First, the Environmental Protection Agency rewrote the rules for the Clean Water Act in such a way that gives it authority over just about any stream, dry creek bed or backyard wading pool in the country, even though the law as originally written was meant to protect navigable interstate waterways from pollution. This would allow the Interior Department to require a permit and demand a fee for any work that alters the flow of water near any rivulet — anything from dredging an irrigation ditch to terracing a field — on public or private land.

At a recent meeting of the Nevada Conservation Commission, state engineer Jason King, whose office determines who in Nevada has rights to various water sources, was quoted as saying, “I look at this as an attempt to get into the regulation of the amount of water — an attempt to get their nose under the tent.”

As if grabbing a claim on every drop of water on the surface were not enough insult and injury, the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the Agriculture Department, has published a “Proposed Directive on Groundwater Resource Management” that would give it virtual veto power over the use of any aquifer remotely connected to any land under Forest Service jurisdiction.

The Western Governors Association has sent a letter to Agriculture Department Secretary Tom Vilsack challenging his agency’s authority to carry out this proposal and asking for answers to a number of questions. The letter, signed by Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and others, notes Congress gave states sole authority over groundwater in the Desert Land Act of 1877 and the Supreme Court upheld this exclusive authority in a 1935 court case.

Among the questions posed by the governors are: “Given the legislative and legal context, what is the legal basis for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and USFS assertion of federal authority in the context of the Proposed Directive?” and “How will USFS ensure that the Proposed Directive will not infringe upon, abrogate, or in any way interfere with states’ exclusive authority to allocate and administer rights to the use of groundwater?”

Additionally, several Western congressmen — including Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District Rep. Mark Amodei — are attempting to insert language in a 2015 appropriations bill that would protect privately held water rights from federal takings. The language was drafted by Amodei and Rep. Scott Tipton of Colorado. It passed the House in March as the Water Rights Protection Act. Putting the language in the appropriations bill increases the chances it will be signed into law.

“Nothing in federal law grants federal land managers jurisdiction over Nevada’s groundwater. That responsibility is one of the few states’ rights remaining in Nevada and I will work all day, every day to keep it,” said Amodei. “With its inclusion in the Interior appropriations bill, this much-needed and timely reminder keeps the pressure on the federal government to comply with state rules and decisions when it comes to Nevada’s groundwater. Anything less amounts to what increasingly looks like a war on the West by this administration.”

Amodei noted that in recent years various federal land agencies have made a concerted push to acquire water rights, including cases in which land managers demanded that water users apply for their water rights under state law in the name of the agency rather than for themselves.

In another letter to Vilsack signed by Western congressional members, including Amodei and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller but no other member of the Nevada delegation, the secretary is told the proposal would impose “a chilling effect on existing and future water resource development and the uses dependent on that development not only within NFS lands but outside these lands.”

The letter notes that the action could adversely affect job creation and is being taken without sufficient input from the states, farmers, recreational users, ranchers and other affected parties. “We therefore urge you to withdraw this ill-timed and punitive Directive,” the letter concludes.

The feds already control 87 percent of Nevada land, now they are coming for the water, too. Some are putting up a fight.

Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist.

July 18, 2014

BLM to remove fewer mustangs across West

In this June 5, 2013, file photo, horses stand behind a fence at the Bureau of Land Management's Palomino Valley holding facility in Palomino Valley. (Scott Sonner/AP file)

Martin Griffith
Associated Press

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management says it will remove fewer wild horses and burros from the range across the West this summer because of budget constraints and overflowing holding pens.

Under its roundup schedule announced this week, the bureau plans to gather 2,400 of the animals through the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. All but 215 of them will be horses.

Plans call for removal of 1,535 horses in Wyoming, 285 in Nevada, 200 in Utah, 75 in Oregon, 50 in California and 35 in Idaho. The bureau also plans to gather 140 burros in Arizona, 50 in California and 25 in Oregon.

The announcement comes at a time when the bureau has been under increasing pressure from Western ranchers to step up removal of horses they say threaten livestock and wildlife on drought-ravaged rangelands.

The bureau estimates 40,600 of the animals — the vast majority of them horses — roam free on public rangelands in 10 Western states. The population exceeds by some 14,000 the number the agency has determined can exist in balance with other rangeland resources and uses.

Bureau officials said aggravating the situation is severe drought that has resulted in reduced forage for the animals. The agency also faces limits on the number of horses and burros it can remove because holding facilities are at capacity. Some 49,000 of the animals are being held in government-funded short- and long-term facilities.

Removal of fewer mustangs from the range "will exacerbate the difficult challenges we face in nearly every aspect of the wild horse program right now," BLM officials said in a statement.

But the bureau's actions contradict recommendations of an independent panel of the National Academy of Sciences released last year, said Deniz Bolbol, spokeswoman for the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign.

In a report, the panel said the bureau should invest in widespread fertility control of the mustangs instead of spending millions to house them. It concluded the bureau's removal of nearly 100,000 horses from the Western range over the past decade is probably having the opposite effect of its intention to ease ecological damage and reduce overpopulated herds.

"The BLM already warehouses more wild horses in holding facilities than remain free in the wild," Bolbol said in a statement. "The agency's plan to remove thousands more mustangs and burros from the range makes no ecological, scientific or fiscal sense."

Horse defenders also dispute the bureau's position that mustangs are overpopulating the West. They say the vast majority of forage on the range is being allocated to privately-owned livestock, and public rangelands are being overrun by livestock instead.

"The hyper-focus on mustang numbers is a concerted effort to scapegoat wild horses and distract attention away from the massive level of livestock grazing that is occurring on our public lands," said Suzanne Roy, director of the AWHPC.

After removing horses from the range, the bureau places them in short-term corrals until they're either adopted or shipped to government-funded pastures in the Midwest where they spend the rest of their lives.

July 17, 2014

Sheriffs are key to BLM mission, but local politics intrude

Clark County Sheriff Douglas Gillespie, right, stands alongside rancher Cliven Bundy, middle, who addresses supporters during his standoff with the Bureau of Land Management last April. Gillespie took no side in the conflict. (Photo by Jason Bean, courtesy of AP Images)

Phil Taylor

When the Bureau of Land Management faced down an angry, armed militia while rounding up rancher Cliven Bundy's cows last April in the southern Nevada desert, missing was a key ally.

Clark County Sheriff Douglas Gillespie and his deputies stayed on the sidelines of the conflict, leaving BLM and National Park Service rangers to manage hundreds of protesters, many of whom saw Gillespie, not the agencies, as the area's legitimate law enforcement authority.

BLM had tried for months to secure a contract with Gillespie and his Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department to assist in crowd control at Gold Butte, but the deal crumbled at the 11th hour.

"Sadly, [Gillespie] backed out of his commitment shortly before the operation -- and after months of joint planning and sharing of accurate information," BLM spokesman Craig Leff said.

Gillespie declined to be interviewed for this article, but earlier this month he blasted BLM in an interview with the Las Vegas Sun.

Gillespie accused BLM of being untruthful with him about the circumstances of the cattle impoundment, ignoring his advice to postpone the operation until the fall and using aggressive tactics to quell the crowd.

"I think if anybody would look at how they handled the protesting with the use of Tasers and police dogs, anyone who had been in policing would question those tactics," Gillespie told the newspaper. "And I believe that led to the heightened interest and escalating the situation."

Gillespie, who is not seeking re-election, was courted both by BLM and the Bundy family in the conflict, though he did not take a side.

In many Western counties, sheriffs carry major clout. In rural Clark, Gillespie's criticism of BLM's operation may have bolstered those who saw the agency as a ham-fisted landlord.

YouTube videos of BLM rangers deploying police dogs and a Taser gun on protesters went viral last April, helping recruit a new wave of gun-toting militia and "sovereign citizens" to Bundy's Bunkerville ranch. As tensions rose to the brink of gunfire, BLM abandoned the roundup and members of the Bundy family released hundreds of cows back onto the range, according to the agency.

BLM says it works well with most of the more than 200 Western sheriffs who share jurisdiction on federal lands. But its recent spat with Gillespie illustrates how local politics can hamstring the agency's ability to protect the West's vast open landscapes and the people who use them.

Those working relationships have deteriorated badly both in Clark and in many counties in Utah, where state lawmakers have demanded the transfer of more than 20 million acres of federal land to the state.

Utah counties have passed resolutions calling federal authority a threat to "the health, safety and welfare" of their citizens, and some have banned BLM rangers.

Over the past few years, BLM has also allowed several contracts with Utah sheriffs and state agencies to lapse. The agency said those decision have nothing to do with local politics.

"Coordination with local law enforcement is critical to carrying out the BLM's mission and ensuring public health and safety on the public lands," Leff said in an email. "We routinely enter into contracts for assistance and other services, and across the bureau have successful working relationships with local law enforcement."

Partnerships of 'utmost importance'

County sheriffs are key allies for BLM's 225 or so law enforcement rangers and 70 special agents who help protect wildlife, habitats, minerals, timber and archaeological treasures across a massive 250-million-acre estate. That works out to more than 1 million acres per ranger.

In places like BLM's Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, an off-highway-vehicle Mecca in southeast California, as well as the annual Burning Man festival in BLM's Black Rock Desert in northwest Nevada, county sheriffs provide critical added patrols that help BLM curb incidents like drug use, domestic quarrels or reckless driving.

In Oregon, local law enforcement officials help BLM combat illegal marijuana cultivation on public lands that threatens both the environment and unsuspecting hikers.

"Because of the fact that our rangers are out there covering such large amounts of area with very limited resources, the only way we could even hope to get our job done effectively is to collaborate with the state, local and other federal partners," said Sal Lauro, BLM's director of law enforcement.

But in conservative pockets of the West, sheriffs' collaboration with federal agents doesn't always jibe with local politics. Sheriffs who assist BLM, whose multiple use mission sometimes involves closing roads, cracking down on illegal firewood cutting or curbing grazing, risk a backlash from voters on election day.

"The bottom line is that those relationships are the utmost importance," former BLM Director Bob Abbey said. "The local sheriff is an elected official. Therefore there are different things that are pulling upon him and her. That's local politics."

In Nevada, for instance, Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) has signed a state bill to prioritize lands Nevada would like to acquire from the federal government, which owns about 85 percent of land in the state, mostly under BLM.

When BLM last planned to impound Bundy's cattle in April 2012 -- an operation that was called off at the last minute at the urging of the Justice Department -- it sought assistance from Gillespie, whose presence at the ranch may have helped quell tempers, Abbey said.

"I knew we were going to be very dependent on Sheriff Gillespie and his deputies if we were going to have any chance of success," Abbey said.

Often, Western sheriffs face conflicts of interest in deciding whether to publicly support BLM, particularly in policies that local politicians oppose.

In southeastern Utah, for example, a county commissioner last May organized an illegal all-terrain vehicle ride through a river canyon teeming with archaeological sites.

BLM had closed Recapture Canyon to motorized vehicles in 2007 to protect Anasazi and Pueblo sites dating back more than 2,000 years, but the closure angered San Juan County elected officials.

Commissioner Phil Lyman led the May 10 ride to assert the county's right to access federal lands and to pressure BLM to reopen it to off-highway vehicles (OHV). Some of Bundy's children and militia supporters also took part in the protest with some carrying weapons.

San Juan Sheriff Rick Eldredge -- whose budget is set by Lyman and his two fellow commissioners -- brought about 30 deputies to the protest to safeguard citizens' right to free speech.

"We upheld the constitutional rights of everyone involved," Eldredge told the conservative news outlet Breitbart Texas in May. "I have got to be in that foxhole taking those mortars, so to speak, because I'm the one that was elected to do that."

Eldredge, who didn't respond to multiple phone messages from Greenwire, criticized BLM's management of the canyon, saying it has "drug their feet, drug their feet, drug their feet," on whether to grant San Juan's request to open it to ATVs.

"People are tired of it and want an answer," he told Breitbart, adding that he'd like to see the federal government "give back" the land to Utah.

With the public relations wounds still fresh from the Bundy standoff, BLM elected to keep a low profile at Recapture by sending two plainclothes officers to document who took part in the ride. It warned Lyman that he could face criminal charges for entering the canyon, but federal prosecutors are yet to take any action.

While that has frustrated some environmentalists, it reflects BLM's fear of further inflaming tensions with Utah counties.

'I'm pretty much waving the white flag'

According to The Salt Lake Tribune, Utah counties have recently passed resolutions deeming federal authority a threat to "the health, safety and welfare" of their citizens, and three of them -- Iron, Garfield and Carbon -- have passed resolutions banning federal law enforcement within their borders.

Carbon's resolution states that the county does not recognize any attempted law enforcement by an official of a federal land agency. Those agents who wish to enter the county and uphold federal laws on public lands are advised to first get approval of the sheriff.

The county anger has been further stoked by BLM's decision over the past two years to allow most of its contracts with Utah law enforcement offices to expire.

Throughout the West, BLM offers reimbursable contracts for local sheriff's offices to provide added patrols on public lands such as high-use campgrounds or during special recreation events or holiday weekends. BLM frequently also pays sheriffs to use their dispatch services.

According to data provided by BLM, the agency has allowed eight out of its 12 reimbursable contracts with Utah agencies to expire. Those include contracts for patrols and dispatch services in Emery, Grand, Juab, Kane and San Juan counties, as well as with Utah's Department of Natural Resources and Motor Vehicle Enforcement Division and the National Park Service.

BLM said some of those contracts were many years old and needed to be reassessed to ensure they were worth the money. Other contracts were no longer needed.

But the result is fewer police officers on public lands, less interagency cooperation and potentially more crime.

And it struck a nerve in Utah.

Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox (R), a former commissioner in Sanpete County, told the Tribune last month that the cancellations were "discouraging to our local sheriffs who are dependent on them, especially to our rural communities that don't have funding to provide law enforcement."

Garfield County Sheriff Danny Perkins had stronger criticism, calling BLM law enforcement in his county -- which includes BLM's massive Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument -- "a total embarrassment." He said his constituents regularly complain about heavy-handed enforcement and bullying and that he's frustrated BLM will not provide financial assistance for search and rescue operations that the county and state help provide in the monument.

"I'm bitter, I'm disgusted and I'm pretty much waving the white flag," Perkins said.

Perkins says he doesn't oppose federal law enforcement. He said he currently has three National Park Service law enforcement officials deputized to enforce state laws on federal lands and is working on deputizing another officer with the Forest Service. But he said BLM does not seem interested in partnering with him.

Dennis McLane, who served as BLM's deputy chief of law enforcement in the 1990s and wrote a book on the history of BLM law enforcement, said BLM has long struggled to win the hearts and minds of rural Western sheriffs.

"There's a kind of resentment because BLM comes in with a special set of laws," protecting wild horses and burros, archaeological sites, timber and minerals, and requiring BLM to set limits on motorized recreation, McLane said.

Those laws, which include the Endangered Species Act, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, are often opposed by local elected officials, McLane said. BLM is required by Congress to enforce them.

Sheriff-BLM beefs seen as 'localized issue'

The conflicts go back many years in Kane County, Utah.

In summer 2003, Sheriff Lamont Smith helped a county commissioner tear down 31 blue signs erected by BLM to restrict vehicle access in the Grand Staircase monument. The signs were later delivered to monument Manager Dave Hunsaker in Kanab with a letter from commissioners noting that the closures "fail to respect the rights of the dominant estate."

Kane two years later erected dozens of its own "road open" signs in closed portions of the monument, but no criminal or civil actions were ever filed. The county claimed it owned the rights to the roads under an antiquated law known as R.S. 2477.

To local constituents, the message from the county's highest law enforcement officer and elected officials was clear: BLM's decision to close roads on federal lands -- be it to protect soils, wildlife, cultural sites or solitude -- held no force of law.

"You're sending a clear message to your constituents that is confusing: that they don't have to follow federal law on public lands," said Steve Bloch, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

When county commissioners oppose BLM, sheriffs have an incentive to follow suit. It's a reflection both of the local electorate as well as the fact that commissioners write sheriffs' budgets, McLane said.

In the 1990s, the Western States Sheriffs' Association, which represents sheriffs in 15 states, was "generally hostile" to BLM, McLane said. Its officials at the time included Millard County, Utah, Sheriff Ed Phillips, a "county supremacy" believer who opposed federal law enforcement operating in his county, according to McLane.

BLM law enforcement officials in the 1990s made it a goal to attend WSSA's annual meetings, because "if you weren't there, they'd talk about you," McLane said.

In his book "Seldom Was Heard an Encouraging Word," McLane says county-supremacy sheriffs will "gladly accept funding through reimbursable law enforcement agreements as long as the BLM law enforcement program agrees not to operate in their counties whatsoever."

McLane said BLM often has more luck working with sheriffs in states where federal land management isn't so controversial.

"In some places in California, a phone call to a sheriff would get you five deputies in a heartbeat," he said.

But Jim Pond, WSSA's executive director who is a retired sheriff in Albany County, Wyo., said BLM's fallout with sheriffs in Utah is a "localized issue." By and large, the contract relationships between Western sheriffs and BLM are "good and remarkable," Pond said.

In southern Idaho, for example, sheriffs work "hand in glove" with BLM to patrol recreation sites during special event weekends, said Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger, who is WSSA's sergeant at arms.

"When the public needs help, they really don't care what the badge looks like," he said.

'Huge step forward'

Budgets remain a major factor limiting the number of paid partnerships BLM can establish with local sheriffs.

That's because funding often comes out of the same budgets used for wildlife, rangeland management, recreation and cultural resources, said McLane, who said such contracts are "totally underfunded."

Money aside, Abbey said it's crucial for BLM rangers to cultivate relationships and maintain trust with local sheriffs. Those relationships, he said, are built largely on personalities.

"That doesn't mean you have to agree on everything," Abbey said. "Patrolling the public lands is not the highest priority a local sheriff has, and it certainly doesn't help him get elected. But those local recreationists are usually local residents, and their safety is also important to a local sheriff."

Last month, BLM law enforcement chief Lauro attended the National Sheriffs' Association annual conference in Fort Worth, Texas, and spoke directly with Western sheriffs, Pond said.

"That's a huge step forward," Pond said.

"He realized BLM's been noticeably silent with our organization for a while," Pond said. "He certainly was here to re-establish and reopen lines of communication."

July 14, 2014

Pet desert tortoises need homes

There's no place to take unwanted desert tortoises, a reptile that is endangered in the wild. Yet desert tortoises can’t simply be put in the desert because of the dangers of overburdening the already fragile desert balance with more animals than the system can support.

Staff Reports
The Record-Courier

It’s been a busy summer so far for Tortoise Group, the Las Vegas nonprofit group that handles pet desert tortoise adoptions in Nevada.

In spite of having adopted over a dozen tortoises so far in 2014, there are still scores of tortoises looking for new custodians. And with no place to take unwanted desert tortoises now, and the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center about to close at the end of the year, finding new custodians for the reptile that is endangered in the wild is a constant problem.

“Although some tortoises lose their homes due to foreclosure or death of their custodians, the major problem is backyard breeding,” Jim Cornall, Executive Director of Tortoise Group said.

“Pet tortoises can’t simply be put in the desert, because of the dangers of introducing disease into the wild population, or overburdening the already fragile desert balance with more animals than the system can support. We have to find homes for them.”

Tortoise Group is planning to hold two workshops in July in Gardnerville and Reno – and will be bringing desert tortoises along for those that chose to adopt, and have prepared their backyards, as a result of the first trip.

The US Fish & Wildlife Service is assisting with funding for the efforts.

Over 150 people attended the two initial workshops, which were the beginning of Tortoise Group setting up a chapter in the capital region. The sessions led to new volunteers being recruited, and to several adoptions. Over a dozen adoptions have already taken place from tortoises already in the area, and around a dozen more tortoises will be going to their new homes in July.

Tortoises will be heading up to Reno on July 23, with assistance from the Nevada Department of Wildlife, with adoptions taking place the following two days. The first workshop is 3:30-5:30 p.m. July 26 at the Humane Society, 2825 Longley Lane, in Reno. The second workshop is 1-3 p.m. July 27 at the Cooperative Extension building, 1329 Waterloo Lane in Gardnerville.

“We were delighted by the response to the initial workshops,” Cornall said. “The people we spoke with and visited were so full of enthusiasm, and eager to be involved. We wanted to bring tortoises as soon as sufficient yards were prepared, and we also wanted to hold new meetings, both for the new members, and for anyone else who couldn't make those first workshops but might be interested in learning more about adopting a pet desert tortoise.”

For more information on desert tortoise adoptions, or the workshops, call (702) 739-7113 or email info@tortoisegroup.org

July 7, 2014

Water Extremes: Too Little; Too Much; Too Slow; Too Fast

High & Dry

Thunderstorm Gathering at Sunset - Infrared Exposure - Trona, CA - 2010 (photographer about to get drenched) | Photo: Osceola Refetoff

By Christoper Langley

The marks of water, and its absence shape the story of human presence in the desert. I have lived in the desert for more than forty years, having been converted to desiccation.

In the desert I suffer from "rain hunger" nearly all the time. When a moisture-laden front makes it over the mountains, it is a gift from the gods, a time for a celebratory walk through puddles. In the Iranian desert, the Sarhad, where my Peace Corps site of Khash is located, it rained once in two years while I was there. It was not much but all the children had umbrellas, which immediately appeared for the short downpour.

The desert suffers from extremes: too little; too much; too slow; too fast. In my hometown of Lone Pine, the summer forecast is hot day after day. The rainiest month is in the winter, often February. However the most exciting rains come in August, or sometimes July, when the monsoonal flows out of Mexico sweep across the dry valleys, filling the air with moisture. We wait for the giant thunderheads, glowing and pulsing with electricity like great translucent jellyfish in the ancient seas that once covered these lands. They pulse and glow over the Inyo Mountains to the east towards Death Valley and the high desert beyond.

The towering cumulonimbus move in, first with the cold winds that sweep down in front of the storm, then with intensifying thunder and finally a downpour that comes in sheets of driving rain. All hell breaks loose in a release from the persistent waiting for the rains that have taken several summer months to arrive.

The thunder shakes everything in front of it. The rain pounds like a stampede of racing feet ever harder and faster. I rush out to see the storm, feel the icy rain on my face. Quickly I am soaked to the skin. Later I stand mesmerized at the front window as the storm obscures the landscape to the east in veils of rain.

Slowly the storm abates. The land falls into a satiated peace. Now the land smells sweet and perfumed, by the wet sage and the more bitter rabbit brush, and invasive Russian thistle. The air has cooled significantly, and there will be a good night's sleep.

Two storms from the past come to mind. First there was the microburst that came on a July afternoon. It had been sultry all day, pregnant with promise, yet still as death. The sky darkened and the heavens let loose an explosion of water for half an hour. Three inches of rain, more than half a year's worth, fell in that thirty minutes. The paved areas gave up the rush. Patios regurgitated water though sliding doors into living rooms. Desert highways flooded with brown water. Large arroyos were cut across the desert as water flowed downhill picking through the hillocks. Those marks are still there. The highway gagged and choked, and silt and boulders were left behind. These are called "debris flows."

What was startling was that if you went a mile north or south of town, it was more like half an inch of rain. Go further and it was dry.

One time a woman drove on the dry Highway 395 as a flash flood built up in the canyons above. The debris flow swept across the pavement without warning. They found her car rolled over and over about 400 hundred feet beyond the pavement, her drowned and abraded body even further away on dry sand.

The desert here suffers from flash brush fires that sweep across the land burning the resin ripe desert plants with brilliant heat. Just after the 4th of July, the Inyo County seat of Independence suffered from one of these fires. Driven by the winds, desultory in their direction, what appeared a controlled fire suddenly raced drunkenly across the landscape. The result was a barren land burned to black ash, hidden roots, and unanchored sandy soil. Add a summer downpour high in the Sierra and it is a recipe for disaster.

A year later, almost to the day, a microburst of clouds shedding tropical water became trapped in a canyon of the Sierra just west of town. A giant wall of water, dirt and boulders rushed down Ask Creek where there were many cabins and houses. Fifteen houses disappeared or were filled with silt waist high. No one drowned although one resident was rolled a while in the cavorting water. The scars remain still from the flash flood that swept across the highway.

Matching the rain that vents its anger against the desert landscape is the rain that doesn't fall to earth. This is virga. It is rain falling in sheets or lines that evaporate before hitting the surface of the earth. Above the virga there is a dark bellied cumulus cloud. Rolling thunder and a flash of lightning announces the forming of virga, but it also comes without a grand entrance.

Virga has a cold heart, often beginning at high altitudes as ice crystals. The falling to earth begins slowly as these crystals slide into thickening air. Compression heating of the air first melts the ice crystals then evaporates them into vapor.

Desert water has many secrets. Most people who die in the desert suffer and die of dehydration. That is the harsh story of the desert water, and its absence. Mary Austin wrote, "To underestimate one's thirst, to pass a given landmark to the right or left, to find a dry spring where one looked for running water - there is no help for any of these things."

We'll tell that tale another day.

High & Dry surveys the legacy of human enterprise in the California desert. Together, writer/historian Christopher Langley and photographer Osceola Refetoff document human activity, past and present, in the context of future development.

Lake Mead water levels falling to lowest since 1937

Venise Toussaint
KSNV mynews3.com

BOULDER CITY, Nev. -- Lake Mead, the valley's primary source of drinking water, continues to shrink under the crippling drought. This week the water level at Lake Mead is expected to hit its lowest level since 1937.

Despite the rain and the flash floods from Mount Charleston, no amount of runoff is enough to replenish Lake Mead.

One doesn't have to look very closely to see the white rings around Lake Mead, which show where the water level used to be.

"We're very concerned about the continued drought of course; we're in the fourteenth year of drought," said Jayne Harkins with the Colorado River Commission.

Harkins is keeping a close eye on the lake and this week she says the water level is expected to drop to 1,081 feet, which is 23.5 feet lower than last year.

A drop to 1,075 feet could force reductions in the amount of water being pumped from the lake, and in turn affect the water available for consumption.

The good news is the community has conserved enough water so that they won't see the impact of those reductions.

Harkins said the lake isn’t expected to get this low for another two years, and even when it does she says southern Nevadans likely won’t be impacted right away.

July 4, 2014

Mojave Solar: Can big power make it online?

Mojave Solar Project near Hinkley, California under construction.
Victorville Daily Press

HINKLEY — One of the world’s largest solar-thermal projects is progressively going online this year, but not all of its power can be delivered unless more transmission lines are installed, experts say.

Nestled against the small community of Lockhart, about 20 miles northwest of Barstow on the edge of Harper Lake, the Mojave Solar project comes with a $1.6 billion price tag and a $1.2 billion loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy. Financial closing from the Federal Financing Bank helped start construction in 2011.

The project is the second of its type in the United States being built by Abengoa Solar, a Spain-based corporation. It will help fulfill the state’s mandate that 33 percent of electrical power supplied in California must come from renewable-energy sources by 2020.

“Mojave Solar will produce the clean energy equivalent to that needed to power approximately 90,000 households,” Abengoa Solar spokesman Luis Rejano Flores said in an email from corporate offices in Spain.

When completed, Mojave Solar will occupy 1,765 acres of mainly fallow alfalfa fields and use concentrating solar power, “a new parabolic trough technology that will be more efficient and cost effective” than previous solar-energy plants, the company says.

The installation at Mojave Solar’s two 140-megawatt “power islands” uses mirrors to concentrate the sun’s thermal energy in a low-profile configuration and drive conventional steam engines, the company says. It was intended to start transmitting power about mid-year but it is not yet in commercial operation, Flores said.

The project is engineered to transmit electricity to Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and prevent 437,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year when compared to a natural gas plant, according to corporate literature. It can store six hours’ worth of energy for use when there is no sunlight.

However, the Abengoa facility depends on a proposed Southern California Edison transmission project to become fully effective.

“They have an agreement to sell the power from their plant in Hinkley to PG&E, but it connects to the transmission grid on the SCE portion of the California ISO system,” said Charles Adamson, SCE’s manager of major projects. “Abengoa Mojave Solar cannot deliver all of its output to PG&E without the Coolwater-Lugo (Transmission Project).”

The California Independent System Operator manages the power-supply market and distributes electricity through high-voltage, long-distance power lines for 80 percent of the state and a small portion of Nevada. SCE’s Coolwater-Lugo project proposes to beef up existing transmission lines and electrical capacity from the Yermo area to Hesperia, where it is meeting resistance from some residents. It is still early in the permitting and approval process but is hoped to be approved for upgrade in 2016.

Abengoa Solar, with U.S. regional headquarters in Denver, also operates a similar 280-MW parabolic trough plant near Gila Bend, Arizona. Named Solana, it is the largest parabolic trough plant in the world, occupying 1,920 acres, the company says.

The Solana project received a $1.45 billion federal loan guarantee for construction, which was completed last year. It supplies power to 70,000 households through Arizona Public Service Co.

“Abengoa Solar will continue to provide clean energy, jobs and economic growth in California and the United States with both the Mojave and Solana projects,” the corporation says.

Solana created more than 2,000 construction jobs and 85 permanent jobs, Abengoa says, and Mojave Solar is creating more than 1,500 construction and permanent jobs. Corporate facilities include an operations and maintenance office in Victorville.

A spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Denny Boyles, confirmed the facility is not yet online and that connecting to the grid is the developer’s responsibility. He added that PG&E is on track to meet and sustain the state mandate of having renewable-energy sources contribute at least a third of its electrical production portfolio by 2020 and beyond.

The Mojave Solar installation will generate about $169 million in tax revenues over its 25-year expected life, according to company projections — after its 280-MW output is fully connected to the grid.

Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories examining renewable energy plans in the High Desert. Today’s story focuses on Abengoa’s Mojave Solar facility near Hinkley. Sunday’s second part will focus on Southern California Edison’s proposed Coolwater-Lugo Transmission Project.