November 25, 2014

SMWD establishes agency to oversee Cadiz groundwater project

Orange County Register

A project that will pump drinking water from a Mojave Desert aquifer and pipe it to south Orange County has taken another step forward.

The Santa Margarita Water District board of directors recently approved establishing the Fenner Valley Water Authority to control and operate the delivery of the groundwater.

The district is moving forward with the plan after an Orange County Superior Court judge in May shot down lawsuits filed over the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project by environmental groups trying to stop the project.

District spokesman Jonathan Volzke said operating under the joint powers authority shields Santa Margarita and its customers from liabilities.

Los Angeles-based Cadiz Inc. plans to install wells to capture water from the natural aquifer that lies beneath 70 square miles of remote valley east of Twentynine Palms. The private developer which owns the land would also build an underground 43-mile pipeline along railroad right-of-way to the Colorado River Aqueduct, which delivers water to Southern California residents.

Cadiz is estimated to spend $225 to $275 million for the construction, spokeswoman Courtney Degener said.

There’s no timeline for the beginning of construction, Degener said. The company needs to reach an agreement with the Metropolitan Water District of Los Angeles on moving water through its aqueduct, she said.

The opposition has so far filed appeals in four of the six lawsuits, but the project will continue moving forward regardless, Degener said.

The well would pump some 16 billion gallons of water a year, and Volzke said Santa Margarita plans to purchase at least 5,000 acre feet a year, or 20 percent of its water supply, from the Cadiz project. The district serves 165,000 people in Coto de Caza, Ladera Ranch, Rancho Santa Margarita and parts of Mission Viejo and San Clemente.

Santa Margarita buys 85 percent of its water from the Metropolitan Water District, which has increased water prices each year for the last two decades, Volzke said. The Cadiz project could reduce the district’s reliance on the Metropolitan Water District.

“It would give us more local control over the cost of water,” Volzke said.

Once built, Cadiz plans to lease the facilities to the Fenner Valley Water Authority, which will oversee day-to-day operation of the well and pipeline.

Cadiz is trying to reach an agreement with other water agencies that have shown interest in buying water from the project, Degener said. They include: Jurupa Community Services District, Golden State Water Company, Suburban Water Systems, California Water Service Company and Three Valleys Municipal Water District, San Luis Water District and Lake Arrowhead Community Services District.

November 20, 2014

BLM rejectes application for Silurian Valley energy project

Kailah Miles,11, of Apple Valley and her brother Rex, 8, walk back to their family's campsite at the Dumont Dunes in the Silurian Valley. The BLM rejected an energy project in the area. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Times

The Bureau of Land Management on Thursday denied a Spanish company's application to build a controversial renewable energy facility in the Mojave Desert's remote Silurian Valley, deciding the sprawling project “would not be in the public interest.”

The closely watched decision is considered a bellwether for how the federal agency will handle future requests to develop renewable energy projects outside established development areas.

The company had planned a side-by-side wind and solar facility. Thursday's decision applies only to the solar portion of the project. The wind energy aspect is still in the planning stages.

Jim Kenna, the BLM's California director, made the decision, finding that Iberdrola Renewables' proposal would have industrialized 24 square miles of “a largely undisturbed valley that supports wildlife, an important piece of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail, and recreational and scenic values.”

Kenna said he had been discussing the matter for weeks with field personnel and found the evidence “pretty persuasive.”

He cited concerns that the project would degrade the quality of the wilderness surrounding the site, located between two national parks. He also noted potential hazards to the desert tortoise and other impacts that could not be mitigated.

“It was fairly clear to me,” he said.

Iberdrola Renewables had sought permission to build its project using a “variance” process. Had it been approved, it would have been the first major exception to federal land managers' “guided development” approach across more than 22 million acres of California desert. Under the policy, companies are encouraged to develop in areas that have been pre-approved for projects, where there would be less environmental or wildlife conflict.

Kenna said the variance process was intended to be rigorous. In denying the application, no other message was intended other than the specific project was unsuitable for the specific site, he said.

Iberdrola began the application process three years ago and had envisioned completing construction by December.

In a statement, Iberdrola said it was weighing whether to appeal the decision to the U. S. Department of Interior.

“It is unfortunate that the variance process is enabling unsubstantiated discretion in advance of a proper National Environmental Policy Act review that should be based on clear and understandable predictable requirements,” the statement said.

But the BLM decided that the project would have “too great of an impact on the resources.”

Among the specific concerns the BLM noted were that the facility would disrupt migration corridors critical to bighorn sheep and other wildlife.

“We are quite pleased that the BLM made this decision,” said Kim Delfino, the California program director for Defenders of Wildlife. “It's encouraging that they are taking those criteria seriously.”

The wind and solar plants that Iberdrola proposed would have been encircled by protected lands. The entire project site that the company proposed sits atop the Old Spanish Trail, a historic trail managed by the National Park Service, which opposed the project.

In its application, Iberdrola said the plants would create 300 construction jobs and generate about 400 megawatts of power.

The BLM is under pressure to meet the administration's goal of generating 20,000 megawatts of power from federal land by 2020. There have been 460 applications for renewable-energy-related projects in California since 2007, Kenna said. The BLM has approved 18 applications.

November 8, 2014

Feds to flood Grand Canyon to distribute sediment

Glen Canyon Dam water release in 2013. (Bureau of Reclamation)

Associated Press
Arizona Republic

PAGE — Campsites along the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon will be in shorter supply as federal officials flood the waterway.

The high-flow release from Glen Canyon Dam in northern Arizona is scheduled to start Monday and end Friday. It's the third under an innovative science-based experimental plan approved in May 2012.

Tons of sediment from river channels will be re-deposited along downstream reaches as sandbars and beaches along the river. Grand Canyon officials say most campsites will be smaller and some low-lying sites might not be usable.

Most of the sediment once deposited throughout the Grand Canyon now is trapped behind the dam near the Arizona-Utah border. The intent of the flooding is to mimic pre-dam conditions.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department says the release should enhance trout fishing.

Will renewable energy ruin an 'irreplaceable' Mojave desert oasis?

The BLM has called the Silurian Valley an "undisturbed, irreplaceable, historic scenic landscape." But now the federal agency is considering a proposal for two solar facilities amid the oasis

Highway 127 cuts through the landscape in the Mojave Desert, carrying tourists, campers and hikers to Joshua Tree and Death Valley. (Gina Ferazzi)

Los Angeles Times

In one of the hottest, driest places on Earth, velvety sand dunes surround dry lake beds that, with luck, fill with spring rains. Hidden waterways attract a profusion of wildlife and birds; submerged desert rivers periodically erupt in a riot of green.

The federal Bureau of Land Management describes the Silurian Valley as an "undisturbed, irreplaceable, historic scenic landscape."

Now, a Spanish energy firm is proposing a wind and solar project that would cover 24 square miles of the Mojave Desert oasis.

Iberdrola Renewables wants to build a 200-megawatt wind farm that would sprout as many as 133 turbines reaching heights of 480 feet. Next door would be a 200-megawatt solar facility with 400 pairs of photovoltaic panels. The industrial facility would operate around the clock and be visible from nearly every point of the valley.

If approved, the project would be the first major exception to the BLM's strategy of guided development across more than 22 million acres of California desert.

The BLM's approach aims to encourage development in less-sensitive parts of the Mojave. But the agency allows developers such as Iberdrola to apply for variances — critics call them loopholes — that let energy prospectors plant their flags just about anywhere in the California desert if they successfully clear hurdles designed to discourage building in environmentally fragile areas.

Iberdrola's experience will help developers determine whether the difficult process is worth their time and money. For environmentalists, it will be a test of the government's commitment to protect sensitive areas of the desert.

In its application, Iberdrola said the plants would create 300 construction jobs and about a dozen full-time positions once the facilities are completed. It would require building 45 miles of new roads, a new power substation and 11 miles of transmission lines to connect the site to the power grid. The two plants would generate about 400 megawatts of power.

There has been wide position to the project, which sits astride the Old Spanish Trail, a historic trade route managed by the National Park Service.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California's Department of Fish and Wildlife have criticized its proposed location: a valley that serves as a crossroads for three major wildlife corridors and an important avian flyway. They warned that the long-standing migration corridors would be disrupted and wildlife would be injured or killed in the wind project's turbines or the solar project's superheated panels.

This lonely place is a tourist mecca too. The valley's volcanic mesas and creosote forests are bisected by Highway 127, a two-lane black ribbon that connects three jewels of Southern California: Joshua Tree National Park, the Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Park.

Mark Butler, who retired this year as superintendent at Joshua Tree, said energy developments in the desert must be smartly placed to protect sensitive ecosystems.

"I believe it would be a mistake to place this in the Silurian Valley," he said. "We need renewable energy — it's just about where it is and how we go about it."

Conservation groups, which have opposed variance exceptions, say the Silurian Valley is a poor testing ground for the process.

"They are proposing something that has such grave impacts, that benefits so few and harms so many and is opposed by so many," said David Lamfrom, the associate director of the California Desert program for the National Parks Conservation Assn., a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.

Iberdrola representatives declined requests for an interview.

Some local officials have sent letters to Congress opposing the project, in part because they fear industrialization could mar the valley and deter tourists.

Le Hayes, who for 23 years was the general manager for the town of Baker, called the proposed energy plants the latest example of "the ongoing pillage of the desert, scraping off thousands of acres to generate electricity so the metropolitan areas can light their streets, big box parking lots, etc."

Proponents of the projects say the plants will become an engine for job creation in San Bernardino County, while others cite the need for more clean energy sources to combat climate change.

Siting renewable energy on public lands in the West is a priority for the Obama administration, which has pledged to generate 20,000 megawatts of power from federal land by 2020. There have been 375 applications for renewable-energy related projects in California since 2007, BLM State Director Jim Kenna said. The BLM has approved 18 applications.

The proposal comes as both solar and wind facilities are facing criticism over bird fatalities.

Three solar farms were examined in a recent report from the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory. The investigation concluded that one of the plants was a "mega-trap" for insects, attracting birds that later died. The report described birds igniting as they chased after their insect meals and flew into the plant's concentrated solar beam. Workers at the site referred to the smoking birds as "streamers," according to investigators.

At the Ivanpah project near the Nevada border, investigators saw "hundreds and hundreds" of dead dragonflies and butterflies that had been attracted to the luminescence generated by 170,000 mirrors focused on a 450-foot glowing tower.

Other birds, the report said, died after striking photovoltaic panels or other structures. The report did not offer a definitive number of annual deaths, because investigators only observed the sites on a few occasions, but they collected more than 200 birds from 71 species.

BrightSource Energy, which developed Ivanpah, reports avian mortality to the California Energy Commission monthly and said investigators' estimates were greatly exaggerated.

When it comes to permitting renewable energy projects such as Iberdrola's, the BLM employs a carrot-and-stick approach.

To encourage companies to develop projects in less sensitive zones, it offers fast-tracked permitting and streamlined environmental review. The shortened process can take less than two years.

The stick comes down on companies seeking to develop outside designated areas, known as Solar Energy Zones. Those projects are relegated to the back of the line, and the companies must pay for costly environmental analysis.

Iberdrola is the first to use the variance process. Its development plan will have to pass muster on a 25-point review that examines potential effects on air and water, cultural resources, wildlife, parks and other conservation lands. Developers also must demonstrate that they have the financial and technical resources to complete the project. The projects' plans are open to public comment.

"It was always anticipated to be a rigorous process," Kenna said.

The variance decision for Iberdola's Silurian Valley project rests with Kenna, who said he will rule early this month. Should he deny the application, Iberdrola may appeal to the Department of the Interior's Board of Land Appeals.

Iberdrola originally had envisioned completing construction by this December. Three years after beginning the process, not a spade of dirt has been turned.

"Given the often-stated desire of the current administration to responsibly develop more renewable energy on the large amount of federally owned lands, the actual reality of the variance process they've initiated seems to be somewhat at odds with that desire," Iberdrola spokesman Art Sasse said in a statement.

Solar companies argue that the variance process is critical to allow industry to choose its own sites.

Environmental groups are watching to ensure that companies such as Iberdrola meet the strict requirements meant to protect natural treasures like the Silurian Valley.

"There was a high bar put in place and a lot of scrutiny," said Kim Delfino of Defenders of Wildlife. "We … very much feel this is a test for the BLM."

The park service has said the visual impact would be "significant, irreversible and likely unmitigatable."

November 7, 2014

Section of National Trails Highway to reopen

Public Works equipment repairing a section of National Trails Highway between Newberry Springs and Ludlow to repair road damage caused by flash flooding. (@CountyWire)

County of San Bernardino

Public Works is planning on reopening the section of National Trails Highway from Hector Road to Crucero Road, in the Newberry Springs/Ludlow area, by Friday, November 7.

Severe thunderstorms blasted the Mojave Desert September 7 and 8 triggering flash floods throughout the desert regions. Closure of I-95, I-40, National Trails Highway (Route 66), Needles Highway, and various other desert roads occurred due to washouts and bridge damage.

The most extensive damage was along National Trails Highway where approximately 40 bridges were damaged along with major portions of the roadway. Sections between Hector Road to Crucero Road (Newberry Springs/Ludlow, area), Crucero Road to Amboy Road, and Cadiz Road to Mountain Springs Road at I-40 have been closed pending roadway repairs, shoulder repairs and bridge evaluations.

Public Works crews have been working diligently to make these repairs. This is the first stretch of the road to be reopened since the storms occurred.

It is anticipated the section of roadway between Crucero Road and Amboy Road will be open by the end of December 2014 and the section between Cadiz Road and Mountain Springs Road at I-40 by the end of January 2015. All of these time frames could vary depending on the weather.

November 2, 2014

A new push for protecting public lands in the desert

Joshua Tree National Park, Wednesday, October 29, 2014. (Jay Calderon)

Ian James
The Desert Sun

Twenty years ago, President Bill Clinton signed the California Desert Protection Act, turning Joshua Tree and Death Valley national monuments into national parks, creating the Mojave National Preserve, and establishing more than 3.6 million acres of wilderness areas across the Mojave Desert.

On the anniversary of those sweeping changes, conservationists are rallying around a plan by Sen. Dianne Feinstein to relaunch legislation that would further expand protected areas in the desert and create two new national monuments – one of them stretching from the desert oases of the Whitewater Preserve and Big Morongo Canyon to the alpine forests of the San Bernardino Mountains.

The Democratic senator introduced the original California Desert Protection Act, which was enacted on Oct. 31, 1994, and calls the law one of her proudest legislative accomplishments. Feinstein plans to join the 20-year anniversary celebrations speaking at a Nov. 6 event hosted by The Wildlands Conservancy at the Whitewater Preserve.

"The 1994 law was a great first step, but there is broad consensus that more needs to be done," Feinstein said in a statement ahead of her visit. "I plan to introduce an updated bill in the new Congress that will balance the needs of this land, protecting the most fragile regions, setting aside other land for recreation use and allowing the state and local communities to benefit from this bill."

The legislation, which is expected to be introduced in January, is an updated version of a bill that Feinstein has been promoting since 2009.

While the details have yet to be announced, the proposal centers on creating two new national monuments covering more than 1 million acres. It would establish the Sand to Snow National Monument, stretching from near Joshua Tree National Park to Mt. San Gorgonio, as well as the Mojave Trails National Monument, between Joshua Tree and the Mojave Preserve, including a historic stretch of scenic Route 66.

That status would heighten the level of protection for vast areas of desert with a rich variety of plants and animals ranging from desert tortoises to bighorn sheep. The bill would also designate additional federal lands as protected wilderness and would designate four areas as recreational sites for off-road vehicles.

Those steps will ensure wildlife "corridors" and help keep ecosystems intact, said April Sall, conservation director of The Wildlands Conservancy.

"It's a pretty important ecological hotspot, and it's a great opportunity to highlight that and at the same time create a tourist attraction and provide great access points for the public to enter the wilderness," said Sall, whose organization administers the Whitewater Preserve and is supporting the creation of new wilderness areas.

The national monuments proposed by Feinstein would include areas that are also separately proposed for protection under the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which would divide 22.5 million acres of the desert into zones for solar and other energy projects, conservation lands, and recreation sites.

David Lamfrom, associate director of National Parks Conservation Association, said that by creating additional national monuments, Feinstein's bill would make an area that has already grown increasingly popular as a tourist destination even more attractive.

"As the world gets smaller, our wide open spaces and our starry skies become really what everybody else is looking for," Lamfrom said.

The lure of Joshua Tree for visitors has grown markedly since it became a national park and was expanded under the California Desert Protection Act. The numbers of visitors have grown from less than 1.2 million in 1994 to what is expected to be a record 1.5 million visitors this year.

Those hikers, climbers, campers and others have brought a growing economic boost to communities such as Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree, where motels, restaurants, and gas stations depend largely on out-of-towners during the cool winter months.

"The protection of the desert land all around us is extremely important because visitors come to escape urban America," said Vickie Waite, executive director of the Joshua Tree National Park Council for the Arts, which is coordinating a series of events celebrating the 20th anniversary of the 1994 law.

The anniversary events include hikes, speeches, receptions and the unveiling of a new mural in communities across the desert.

Those attending the anniversary events will include Pat Flanagan, a naturalist who leads nature walks at the Oasis of Mara.

"Something as monumental, congressionally monumental, as this should be celebrated, and every 10 years is a good time to do it," Flanagan said.

She praised Feinstein's work in backing the legislation 20 years ago, and recalled that those changes took years to win approval after an initial version was introduced by Sen. Alan Cranston in 1986.

"This is not easy work, and you have to have a long vision," Flanagan said.

The work of creating Joshua Tree National Park and the other desert wilderness areas goes back a century and has involved many contributors.

Minerva Hamilton Hoyt for years championed the creation of a national park before President Franklin D. Roosevelt established Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936. By 1950, the size of the park had been reduced significantly to make room for mining of iron and gold.

During the past two decades, the national park has been expanding, though it remains significantly smaller than the original national monument created by FDR. That gradual expansion has been boosted by the Mojave Desert Land Trust, a nonprofit formed in 2005, which has bought 123 properties totaling 7,500 acres.

Danielle Segura, the organization's executive director, said the 1994 law guides its work and is "a hallmark for protecting open spaces for the public."

At the park headquarters, Superintendent David Smith has a series of maps on his wall showing how the boundaries of Joshua Tree National Park have changed since 1936.

"This is the boundary that FDR created for the park, in his opinion, working with conservationists at the time," Smith said, standing beside the map. "He thought this was a realistic appraisal of what the park should be. I think we're trying to replicate that. We're looking at more, broader ecosystem management."

Smith said that includes working on ways to link the national parks and other protected areas to allow for migration corridors, and also working with other agencies to protect wilderness areas outside the park.

Those tasks take on even greater importance, he said, as the park plans for threats including global warming and fires fueled by invasive weeds – which scientists predict could lead to the disappearance of Joshua trees in much of the park by the end of the century.

"It's a bigger picture. It's more than just the boundaries around the park," Smith said. "Yeah, we've come a long way in preserving some of these desert places, but now we've got to look outside."