December 31, 2014

Eagle Mountain legal battle settled after 15 years

A massive iron ore mining pit at Eagle Mountain in the remote desert just east of the Coachella Valley. (Jay Calderon, The Desert Sun)

Sammy Roth
The Desert Sun

A longstanding legal battle over land around the old Eagle Mountain iron mine has been settled in a deal that some activists hope could bring the mine one step closer to inclusion in Joshua Tree National Park.

The old mine has been the subject of fiery debate in recent years, with several groups fighting over its future. The owners have been trying to sell the land to another mining company, while a separate company has obtained federal approval to build a hydroelectric power plant at the site. Conservationists, meanwhile, want to see the area absorbed by Joshua Tree National Park, which surrounds it on three sides.

The legal settlements signed last month don’t directly address any of those possibilities. Rather, they require Kaiser Eagle Mountain, which owns the mine, to return to the federal government certain lands surrounding its property, which the company received as part of a land exchange 15 years ago.

Regulators say that Kaiser still has the right to mine those lands, and that the partial reversal of the land exchange is more of a technicality than anything. Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Dana Wilson said the land’s return to federal control “doesn’t in any way relate” to the possibility of the area becoming part of the national park.

“If the park service is interested in the future in pursuing that, then we’d need to cross that bridge when we get to it,” she said.

Conservationists, though, see last month’s settlements as a major step toward the land being incorporated into Joshua Tree National Park. They’ve argued that the old mine — and the ghost town next to it — have conservation and historic value, and would allow park visitors to learn about the history of mining and steelmaking.

Donna Charpied, a local activist who brought one of the lawsuits to undo the land exchange, said Kaiser giving up its ownership of some of the land removes “a monumental stumbling block” to the national park proposal.

“We just knocked one of the heads off the hydra,” she said. “Time to get that land back to the park now. There’s no reason not to.”

It’s unclear what prompted Kaiser to agree to the settlement, after years of fighting Charpied and the National Parks Conservation Association in court. Kaiser Eagle Mountain Vice President Terry Cook said the company could have demanded it get back the lands it gave up 15 years ago, but that it decided to be “magnanimous” by letting the federal government keep them.

Those lands are important because of their conservation value. The Bureau of Land Management said in a statement that they include critical habitat for threatened and endangered species, including the desert tortoise, the flat-tailed horned lizard and the Yuma clapper rail.

“We thought long and hard about it, and we decided we’d let the (Bureau of Land Management) retain the lands, even though we were entitled to receive them back,” Cook said. “We’re trying to do the right thing by people.”

It’s possible that Kaiser had other motives for agreeing to the settlements as well. David Lamfrom, who works for the National Parks Conservation Association, speculated that the company might be trying to ease a potential sale to another mining company.

“Having a longstanding lawsuit over the raincloud of any prospective buyer just makes things so much more complicated,” he said.

It’s also unclear what the settlements mean for the hydroelectric power plant proposed by the Eagle Crest Energy Company. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted a license for the plant earlier this year, but Kaiser has thus far refused to sell its land to Eagle Crest.

The possibility of a sale could be more remote now, since some of the land that Kaiser returned to the federal government could be needed for the hydroelectric plant. Cook, Lamfrom and Charpied all said they weren’t yet sure what the reversal of the land exchange means for Eagle Crest’s proposal.

Conservation groups and the National Park Service have vehemently opposed the hydroelectric project, saying the power plant would drain billions of gallons of groundwater from an aquifer adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park.

The Eagle Crest Energy Company first proposed the hydroelectric project two decades ago — a move that angered Kaiser executives, who at the time had endorsed a plan to build a massive garbage dump at Eagle Mountain. That plan, which fell through last year, would have involved Kaiser selling its land to the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, which would have built the landfill.

In preparation for that sale, Kaiser executed a land swap with the federal Bureau of Land Management in 1999. That land exchange was the source of the legal controversy that was finally settled last month.

As part of the original land exchange, Kaiser gave the federal government land it owned alongside the Eagle Mountain railroad, which stretches from the eastern shore of the Salton Sea to the mine site. In exchange, the company received federal land surrounding the mine, which would have been used for the landfill project.

But conservation groups have long criticized the exchange, saying that it was carried out illegally and that federal land managers got the worse end of the deal. They’ve also argued that the exchange is no longer necessary now that the landfill plan has been scrapped.

Now, those groups have succeeded in reversing part of the land exchange. The reversal may or may not have practical implications — Kaiser could still mine the exchanged lands — but Lamfrom sees the end of the long-running legal battle as critical to Eagle Mountain’s future.

“This is a milestone that I think gets us back to a place where we can start having reasonable discussions about what the future of this landscape is,” he said.

Lamfrom’s organization supports studying Eagle Mountain for inclusion in the national park, saying that setting aside the area would connect important fragments of wilderness.

National park officials have agreed that preserving the area would be beneficial. Such a step would require action by Congress or President Barack Obama’s administration.

Industrialist Henry Kaiser founded the iron mine in the 1950s, on land that was carved out of the southeastern corner of the Joshua Tree National Monument — the predecessor to the national park. But the mine was shut down in the early 1980s as production of steel in the United States waned.

Federal and state regulators maintain that Kaiser never gave up its mining rights at Eagle Mountain, although local activists have contested that claim. Charpied and others have accused Kaiser of conspiring with state regulators to keep control of the site, which still has millions of tons of valuable iron ore.

December 13, 2014

Arizona farmers take hit to stave off water crisis

Rock Island’s “bathtub ring” illustrates how the water level at Lake Mead has dropped. It is at 1,085 feet, 10 above a level that would trigger supply reductions. (Mark Henle/The Republic)

Brenna Goth
The Arizona Republic

All it takes is 10 feet of water to go from caution to crisis on the Colorado River.

That's why Arizona farmers like Dan Thelander support a new agreement that will help conserve the amount of water in Lake Mead even though it could mean short-term sacrifices for them.

The water level at Lake Mead is currently at about 1,085 feet above sea level, hovering near its lowest point since the dame was built in the 1930s. A drop of 10 more feet to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's official tipping point of 1,075 feet would trigger swift and significant supply reductions.

Arizona agriculture would be the first to take a hit.

Under a new multistate agreement signed this week, Colorado River water users will save a portion of their allotments to store in Lake Mead and boost the lake's levels. Arizona is committing to save the most water among the states, which means some deliveries and diversions will be reduced to keep water in the system.

Thelander grows alfalfa, barley, cotton and other crops on about 5,000 acres in Pinal County. His irrigation district is taking a voluntary cut, which may affect farmers' operations.

He said it's a small price to pay to postpone the more drastic reductions they would be hit with under a shortage.

"It's kind of a bogeyman that's out there," he said. "Farmers know about it."

Under the new agreement, Arizona agencies will work with Nevada, California and the federal government to store water in Lake Mead. Residential users in Arizona are not expected to be affected by the reductions.

No one knows exactly how a shortage would play out, but Arizona will be the first to face cuts based on its junior priority to California. Reductions would hit farmers before cities like Phoenix that depend on the Colorado River supply.

The agreement's proposed 740,000 acre-feet water savings aims to keep roughly an extra 10 feet in Lake Mead by 2017, buying time for water planners as they address a system dried from drought and drawing for farms and cities across the west. An acre-foot of water is enough to supply two or three families for a year, experts say.

"We're trying to stave off a crisis," said Chuck Cullom, Colorado River programs manager for the Central Arizona Project.

After more than 14 years of drought, a shortage could come as soon as 2016, Cullom said. Lake Mead is at about 40 percent of its capacity, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

CAP will take the largest share of the voluntary reductions, committing to saving 345,000 acre-feet of water between now and 2017. The agency manages Arizona's Colorado River water allotment for municipal and agricultural users in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties, using a 336-mile-long canal system.

The savings are a small portion of the water delivered or diverted for storage, but participating agencies said it's a start in addressing the imbalance between the river's supply and the demand on it.

Southern California's water district will aim to save 300,000 acre-feet, and the agency in southern Nevada will save 45,000 acre-feet. The Bureau of Reclamation's goal is 50,000 acre-feet.

Under the terms agreed to when the CAP began construction in the 1960s, Arizona's water rights are the first to go. California is guaranteed its supply, but the logistics would likely be a legal nightmare in the case of a shortage, officials said.

The lower the elevation of Lake Mead, the more severe the reductions. Under CAP's priority system, Arizona farmers are the first to lose their water, though the pinch would later apply to municipal users.

Under this week's agreement, Phoenix water customers are unlikely to notice a difference. Most of the voluntary cuts fall on irrigation districts providing water to farmers in the central part of the state.

Nine districts served by CAP will together conserve 161,000 acre-feet that they would otherwise receive from CAP before 2017 — nearly half of the agency's total savings.

For the water the districts do get, CAP is providing a discounted rate to incentivize temporary changes in farming techniques by their agricultural customers to reduce water use.

"Hopefully, economically, it's about a wash," said Paul Orme, a lawyer representing three of the participating districts.

The Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District, where Pinal County farmer Thelander is a board member, will take a voluntary 20,000 acre-feet cut in its CAP water supply next year.

Keeping more water in Lake Mead will avert a shortage declaration and give farmers more time to plan, said Brian Betcher, general manager of the district. Water is their most expensive input, and it's difficult to change crops with little notice, he added.

"We have to be on top of it and see things before they come at us," he said.

The district can likely compensate for this year's voluntary reduction by increasing groundwater pumping, Betcher said. The method could, however, increase rates in the future, depending on power and energy costs.

"We're looking at it as giving a little to hopefully save a lot," Betcher said.

A CAP fallowing program already in place in Yuma will also contribute to the Lake Mead savings. The remainder of the goal comes from yearly operational decisions, like storing excess water unused by customers, and a deal to replace some of Phoenix's CAP water with local supplies.

Phoenix water rates won't be affected by the deal, said Kathryn Sorensen, the city's water-services director.

Other states are still deciding how they will meet their Lake Mead storage goals.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California doesn't have a firm proposal but is in talks with agricultural agencies and other users, said Bill Hasencamp, manager of Colorado River Resources. California's part of the agreement provides extra flexibility for using its savings for short-term drought relief until conditions improve in the state.

"We just don't know where we'll be a year from now," Hasencamp said.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority approved the agreement in recent days, spokesman Scott Huntley said. He said he didn't have information on potential projects.

The agreement is a sign of the shifting dialogue about managing the Colorado River, said Dave White, an Arizona State University associate professor who focuses on water policy. The looming pressure of a shortage is fueling cooperation among states that have historically fended for themselves, he added.

While the West's water solutions for the past 100 years have relied on the engineering of dams and reservoirs, the next 100 years will depend on collaboration, said White, who works for ASU's School of Community Resources and Development and the Global Institute of Sustainability.

Recent agreements at the local and regional level may focus on small-scale pilot projects, but they are important because of the proactive thinking they show, White said. Any relief will give water managers time to plan — or to let nature do the work.

"Essentially what they're trying to do is buy time," White said. "This is a more sophisticated version of the 'pray for rain' strategy."

County Pushing Daggett, Yermo & Newberry Springs CSD Mergers

Map of existing Daggett (green), Yermo (blue), and Newberry (purple) Community Service Districts. (SBC LAFCO/ESRI)
San Bernardino Sentinel

The San Bernardino County Local Formation Commission has recommended that the Daggett Community Services District consolidate with two other nearby community service districts. This week the Local Agency Formation Commission reviewed a draft plan, the centerpiece of which is that the Daggett Community Service District, the Yermo Community Services District and the Newberry Community Services District be merged to form one district.

Under that recommendation, the services for all three communities would be provided in common and consolidated.

The Local Agency Formation Commission staff has formulated a so-called “plan for service” that would make for consistent service levels, allow for the free distribution of resources between the entities and communities, streamline governance and management and reduce overall costs. A five-year projection shows the newly-formed district would remain fiscally solvent for at least half a decade, with no diminution of service levels in any of the three communities.

Daggett encompasses 26 square miles and is home to 487 residents. Newberry Springs covers 117 square miles and has 2,288 inhabitants. Yermo, at 74 square miles, boasts a population of 1,629. Despite the size differences between the three communities, they have similar population densities. Daggett averages 18.7 people per square mile. Newberry Springs has 19.6 residents per square mile. Yermo has a per square mile density of 22.

Within its confines, Daggett contains its own water company, which services an area beyond its borders, including several businesses and a few residences as well as Silver Valley High School, all located in Yermo.

The Yermo Water Company has long been troubled. Formerly owned by Donald Walker, the Yermo Water Company fell into severe disrepair early last decade, a situation which was exacerbated by Walker’s departure to Florida, making it difficult for his company’s customers to contact him.

As the absentee owner, Walker did not have a licensed operator available to operate the system. During the summer of 2006, the primary water tank serving the Yermo community’s water system developed a leak and customers were without water for a week in the small community near Barstow, where temperatures exceeded 100 degrees every day. The California Department of Health and the California Public Utilities Commission initiated an investigation into the matter in 2007.

A decision to pursue the appointment of a receiver was issued in May of 2009. A community-based prospective buyer surfaced and the receivership was suspended while it appeared that a sale of the system was possible. But after more than two years of negotiations, Walker refused to inform the prospective buyer how much he owed in back taxes and fines to the California Department of Health. As a result, the sale fell through. The receivership arrangement that took place in November 2012 was contested by Walker’s family but was denied by the Superior Court on March 6, 2013. Beginning in November 2012, the Yermo Community Services District took over operation of the company’s assets and in December 2013, arrangement for the Apple Valley Ranchos Water Company to purchase the Yermo Water Company in its entirety began. Preparations for that takeover are yet ongoing, as repairs to the water system are being carried out.

In its 2012-13 report, the San Bernardino County Grand Jury identified numerous shortcomings in the governance, accounting and financial management, and internal controls of the Newberry Springs Community Services District. The Local Agency Formation Commission detailed its staff to look into those issues and others pertaining to Yermo and Daggett. The upshot was a finding that it would behoove all three districts to merge and settle on management and leadership for the collective that is competent and efficient. At the very least, according to commission staff, the Daggett Community Service District and Yermo Community Services District should come together to form one entity. Economies of scale, not to mention other advantages, make it logical that the Newberry Community Services District be brought in on the merger, according to the Local Agency Formation Commission.

There have been similar consolidation imperatives and consolidations carried out involving those communities in the past. In the 1960s Daggett’s school district was forced into a shotgun marriage with the Barstow Unified School District. In 1978, the Daggett School District was able to reassert its independence, breaking away. But in that departure, Daggett had to forego assets and resources local residents felt rightfully belonged to Daggett and not Barstow.

Daggett and Yermo resisted the Local Agency Formation Commission’s push for them to merge five years ago.
While few of the residents in the Daggett, Newberry or Yermo communities look upon the pressure to merge favorably, they are subject to the authority of the Local Agency Formation Commission, which is putting each district through its paces in having to respond to the merger concept. The Local Agency Formation Commission will lay out the options outlined by its staff and present them to the three communities and their residents. On January 21, the Local Agency Formation Commission will consider those plans/options.

For a significant number of residents, there is concern that the dictates from the county seat in San Bernardino some 70 miles away will impose on them a management and operation plan that will run roughshod over local control and in some cases, at least, result in services, including emergency services, being based at locations that will be more remote and not conducive to quick response or sensitive response.

December 5, 2014

Water Woes Among Topics For 8 Governors In Vegas

A view of the Colorado River from a scenic overlook at Glen Canyon on Nov. 22, 2004, in Page, Ariz. (Photo by Jeff Topping/Getty Images)

Ken Ritter
Associated Press

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Facing dwindling water supplies, Western states are struggling to capture every drop with dam and diversion projects that some think could erode regional cooperation crucial to managing the scarce resource.

Against that backdrop, eight Western governors meeting in Las Vegas this weekend will address regional water issues, and water managers from seven states arrive next week to work on ways to ensure 40 million people in the parched Colorado River basin don’t go thirsty.

Gary Wockner, a conservationist with the Denver-based advocacy group Save the Colorado, said there’s already jostling amid the fear of empty buckets. “Everyone is trying to get the last legal drop of water,” he said.

Colorado River Water Users Association representatives deny there’s discord at their table.

“Fifteen years of drought has tightened everything. But I don’t see this as people are getting ready to fight,” said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. That agency is dealing with a double-whammy — drought on the Colorado River and in the Sierra Nevada and Northern California.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval will host Western Governors’ Association counterparts from Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming this weekend to consider several issues, including water. Two days of drought workshops follow.

“The motto is: We save the system as a whole,” said Pat Mulroy, longtime general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority in Las Vegas and now a senior policy fellow with the Brookings Institution.

“If we get into, ‘I’m going to win,’ and, ‘You’re going to lose,’ there won’t be a winner,” Mulroy said.
But Wockner said Colorado, Wyoming and Utah are considering dams and diversions in the mountains to capture water they’re entitled to before it reaches the Colorado and flows to the deserts.

New Mexico has plans to divert and store water from the Gila River for cities and farms before it flows into the Colorado.

“Diversions extract water from the system,” said Jack Schmidt, professor of watershed sciences at Utah State University. He just completed three years studying the Grand Canyon for the U.S. Geological Survey. “More water use and more water retention in the upper basin means less water flowing through the Grand Canyon to the lower basin.”

Schmidt referred to the Colorado River Compact of 1922 and agreements with Mexico that promise about 16.5 million acre-feet of water annually from a river system that has historically taken in about 15 million acre-feet from rainfall and snowmelt. But that amount has diminished during almost 15 years of drought. One acre-foot of water is about enough to serve two average Las Vegas homes for a year.

“You could say that we decided how to divide the pie, but the pie is smaller than anybody thought,” Schmidt said. “With climate change, it is even smaller than that.”

In Las Vegas, which virtually relies on water from Lake Mead, officials are making plans to add a $650 million pumping facility to draw from the reservoir even if levels drop below 1,000 feet above sea level. That’s the line at which Hoover Dam’s hydroelectric turbines would be idled.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority already is drilling an $800 million tunnel to tap water from the bottom of the lake, at 860 feet above sea level.

At 900 feet — so-called “dead pool” — the river would end at Hoover Dam. Nothing would flow downstream.
The lake reached its high water mark in 1983 at 1,225 feet.

The Metropolitan Water District’s Kightlinger said the seven basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico upstream and California, Arizona and Nevada downstream — have a history of cooperating, and they have forged several landmark agreements.

A 2012 amendment to a 70-year-old treaty between the U.S. and Mexico has the river flowing south of the border again.

Last summer, water agencies in Denver, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix began an $11 million pilot program with the federal government to pay farmers, cities and industries to cut use of Colorado River water.

The goal is to prop up Lake Mead, which stood Friday at 1,084 feet above sea level — just 9 feet above the crucial 1,075 level that would trigger cuts to Arizona, Nevada and California.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation this week projected a better than 50 percent chance that it will declare such a shortage in January 2017.

The Central Arizona Project would face the first cutbacks, and farmers would be hit hardest, agency chief David Modeer said.

“Hoping for snowpack is not sufficient to solve this,” Modeer said. “It’s going to take cooperation and sacrifice among all of us to stave off disaster in the river.”