March 28, 2015

San Bernardino County’s national parks face huge repair backlog

"The potholes on the road in the (Mojave) National Preserve are so bad that people are getting flat tires."

Joshua Tree National Park saw more visitors in 2014 than any other year. (Staff file photo)

By Jim Steinberg
San Bernardino Sun

Going into the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service, the nation’s 59 national parks have $11.5 billion in deferred maintenance — a record amount.

Three areas run by the NPS that are in at least partially in San Bernardino County have a combined $351 million backlog, says a recent NPS report on its collective deferred maintenance.

“The last big influx of money into the National Parks was under the Mission 66 program under the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s and 1960s,” said David Smith, superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park, where the deferred maintenance budget is $83.2 million, primarily for roads, as is the case for the National Parks system as a whole.

Up and down California the deferred maintenance backlog has hit $1.7 billion, said John Gardner, director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association.

“The budget and appropriations system has broken down in recent years. ...We are unable to come to agreement to preserve one of America’s most prized assets,” he said.

“If Congress does not address the national parks’ infrastructure, they are going to fall into irreparable disrepair,” Gardner said.

At Joshua Tree National Park, which had a banner year last year with 1.6 million visitors, $70 million of the backlog is for roads.

Other deferred items:

• $3.8 million for trails.

• $3 million for building improvements.

• $1.5 million for campgrounds.

Death Valley has a backlog of $159 million, with $141 million for roads.

The Mojave National Preserve has a $109 million backlog, of which $103 million is for roads, Gardner said.

Every dollar invested in national parks generates $10 in economic activity, according to NPS research.

Yet the Park Service budget represents one-fifteenth of 1 percent of the federal budget, costing the average family roughly the same as a cup of coffee each year in tax dollars, according to the National Parks Conservation Service.

Ahead of the celebration of the NPS Centennial in 2016, NPS Director Jonathan B. Jarvis, told members of the House subcommittee on Interior that visitors to America’s national parks are “too often”... “greeted by facilities in disrepair instead of a seasoned ranger ready to answer their questions.”

“I’m particularly sensitive to the deferred maintenance backlog in our National Parks system,” said Rep Paul Cook, R-Apple Valley. “My district has a number of National Park Service areas, including the Mojave National Preserve, that have experienced a significant amount of infrastructure deterioration over the years. The public must have access to public lands and without adequate roads, this is nearly impossible.”

Said Gardner: “The potholes on the road in the (Mojave) National Preserve are so bad that people are getting flat tires.”

Since 2005, the total budget for the NPS has declined by nearly half a billion dollars, or 22 percent in today’s dollars, Gardner said.

“To address this growing problem,” Cook said Friday, “I’ve signed on to a letter with several of my colleagues in Congress calling on the Appropriations subcommittee on Interior to augment current maintenance funding levels in the 2016 budget. This is an important step towards ensuring the public’s ability to recreate in our National Park Service land for years to come.”

“Preserving and maintaining our National Parks is important to our community and regional identity,” Rep. Pete Aguilar, R-Rancho Cucamonga, said Friday in a statement . “The lack of adequate funding prevents members of the community from enjoying the beauty and character of the Inland Empire. I absolutely believe we need to do a better job maintaining our National Parks.”

March 13, 2015

Desert tortoise gets 7,400 acres

Biologist Jeff Valentine, working for BrightSource, walks back to his truck just outside the gates of the BrightSource solar project in 2011, after releasing a desert tortoise in the Ivanpah Valley. A large amount of desert tortoises have been displaced to make way for the companies large-scale solar project.


More than 11 square miles of private land and prime habitat in eastern San Bernardino County have been set aside for the desert tortoise - which is sliding toward extinction - to offset the impacts of future renewable energy projects and other development.

While environmentalists were pleased with the conservation, they accuse Cadiz Inc. of establishing the preserve to appear more environmentally sensitive and win favor for its widely opposed plan to pump groundwater from the Mojave Desert and pipe it to cities across Southern California.

Cadiz’s new “conservation bank,” on the southeastern edge of the Mojave National Preserve, is separate from its proposed water mining operation in a valley to the south, between the preserve and Joshua Tree National Park.

Critics of the pumping project, including Seth Shteir of the National Parks Conservation Association, say it would deplete the ancient aquifer and dry up seeps and springs for the desert tortoise and other creatures in the surrounding Fenner Valley. And that has cast a shadow on the newly declared preserve land.

The conservation bank “doesn’t alleviate or minimize or mitigate the damage that will be caused by the Cadiz water project,” said Shteir, senior program coordinator for the group, one of several that sued unsuccessfully to block the water project. “We feel that this recent effort is an attempt to greenwash that project.”

Los Angeles-based Cadiz established the 7,400-acre conservation bank earlier this month through the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. The concept is similar to cap and trade, with developers buying mitigation credits in the bank if their project affects the tortoise or its habitat, rather than having to search for property on their own.

The desert tortoise is a hardy species, able to live years without water and survive temperatures of 140 degrees Fahrenheit. But their numbers have dwindled since the 1950s as their habitat was swallowed up by development. They were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990.

Since then, the battle over their territory has grown even more heated as utilities hustle to meet a mandate that one-third of their energy come from renewable sources by 2020. Solar and wind energy projects have been approved for almost 48,000 acres of the California desert and applications on more than 70,000 acres are pending, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

The conservation land is made up of a dozen separate parcels around Interstate 40 and U.S. Route 95 west of Needles. It is part of the 70 square miles Cadiz has owned in the Mojave since 1993.

“This is a way we can harmonize our other land uses while providing land benefits,” said Scott Slater, the company’s president and CEO.

The conservation bank stands to be profitable for Cadiz.

With quality habitat and privately owned parcels hard to find, desert land that once sold for less than $1,000 an acre now sells for five times that, said Ileene Anderson, a biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, which also sued to block Cadiz’s water project.

“These lands would be hard to develop and this is one way they can make money off these lands and also look environmentally sensitive,” she said.

Slater denied any financial motives for setting up the Fenner Valley Desert Tortoise Conservation Bank.

The company doesn’t need the mitigation land for any of its projects, spokeswoman Courtney Degener said. Depending on where a project is located, the developer must acquire one to four acres of mitigation land for every one acre disturbed.



• A conservation or mitigation bank is privately or publicly owned land that protects threatened and endangered species habitat.

• Mitigation is required to compensate for a project's impact on threatened or endangered species or their habitat. Steps taken to minimize environmental impact can include setting aside habitat outside the project area or buying credits in a conservation bank.

• In exchange for permanently protecting, managing and monitoring the land, the bank operator is allowed to sell or transfer habitat credits to developers who need to satisfy legal requirements for mitigating the environmental impacts of projects.

• Conservation banks help consolidate small, fragmented mitigation lands into large, contiguous preserves, which have much higher wildlife habitat values.

• Agencies that approve and regulate conservation banks are the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service.

Source: California Department of Fish and Wildlife


Desert tortoise

STATUS: In the early 1900s, as many as 1,000 tortoises per square mile inhabited the Mojave Desert. As late as the 1950s, the population averaged at least 200 adults per square mile. More recent studies show the level is now five to 60 adults per square mile. In 1990, the tortoise was listed as threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act.

THREATS: Primarily human activities causing loss of habitat, including road construction, housing and energy developments, conversion of native habitats to agriculture, grazing and off-road vehicle use, as well as disease.

HABITAT AND RANGE: Creosote bush scrub at elevations ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level, although they are known to occur in suitable habitats up to about 5,000 feet in elevation. They occur over a relatively large region including the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of California, Nevada, Utah and portions of Arizona.

FEEDING: Vegetation, including annual wildflowers, grasses and new growth of selected shrubs, cacti and their flowers. Desert tortoises forage in the spring and again in the fall, and obtain most water from moist spring foods. During the late summer, they may emerge from their underground burrows to drink standing water after thunderstorms. They may go many years without drinking.

BEHAVIOR: Tortoises are able to live where ground temperatures may exceed 140 degrees farenheit by digging burrows 3 to 6 feet deep to escape the heat of summer and the cold of winter. The animals spend up to 98 percent of their time underground.

Source: Defenders of Wildlife

March 10, 2015

Desert plan shifts focus to public land

Federal and state officials put plans for privately owned land on the back burner.

Larry LaPre, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, describes the location of a solar energy development planned near the Mojave National Preserve.


A ballyhooed energy development and land conservation plan for California’s deserts will now focus just on public lands managed by the federal government, at least for the time being, state and federal officials announced Tuesday, March 10.

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan has been hailed by the Obama administration as an all-encompassing plan for the desert regions of seven counties, including Riverside and San Bernardino.

In the works since 2009, its goal was to get federal, state and local officials to agree on the best places to locate huge solar, wind and geothermal projects while also preserving the desert’s most important wildlife habitat, and archeological and recreational areas.

When the 8,000-page draft was released last fall, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell appeared in Palm Springs to promote it.

The draft called for directing alternative energy development to 2 million acres of mostly privately owned land that is expected to have little value as endangered-species habitat.

But after receiving 12,000 public comments on the plan, federal Bureau of Land Management and California Energy officials, in a conference call with reporters, appeared to reel back expectations, if not the plan itself.

With no certain time frame, the plan now is being broken into phases, the first of which will pertain only to public lands managed by the BLM, said Jim Kenna, the agency’s California director.

Planning for privately owned land will be delayed to give local officials in the seven counties more time to complete their own planning initiatives, he said.

The draft plan now calls for some 392,000 acres of public land for focused alternative-energy development, 4.9 million acres for conservation and 3.6 million for recreation, Kenna said.

Officials with Riverside and San Bernardino counties have expressed concerns that large-scale solar increases demand for county fire and sheriff’s services without providing the county additional property tax revenue.

San Bernardino County officials also are concerned that large-scale solar projects could be made obsolete by other technological advances.

“We don’t want obsolete solar projects on land that would have been good for other kinds of development,” said county spokesman David Wert.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said it was disconcerting that the focus now is on public land, because most of the already disturbed land most appropriate for development is privately owned.

“This was supposed to be a grand, coordinated plan,” she said.

Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan

What is it? A proposed land-use plan for California's deserts that strives to place big solar, wind and geothermal projects in place that do the least harm to wildlife habitat and cultural resources.

Where is it? Desert portions of Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties.

Who is doing it? The plan is a collabaration led by the Calfornia Energy Commission and U.S. Department of Interior.

What's is the Preferred Alternative?

A version of that calls for:

-- Renewable energy development focus on more than 2 million acres of public and private land, where environmental conflicts are expected to be minimal.

-- Conservation designations for 4.9 million acres of public land managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

-- Recreation designations on more than 3.6 million acres of BLM-managed lands.

-- More than 183,000 acres of land identified for future analysis.

Source: The California Energy Commission

The Desert Oracle Is Your New Favorite Guidebook

by Rick Paulas

The Desert Oracle is a new print quarterly, and it's amazing. I could try to come up with the perfect 100 words to sum up its contents, but I'll let its website speak for itself: "A pocket-sized field guide to the fascinating American deserts: strange tales, singing sand dunes, sagebrush trails, artists and authors and oddballs, ghost towns and modern legends, musicians and mystics, scorpions and saguaros!"

Despite having a website, the quarterly's contents are only available in an honest-to-goodness printed-out pamphlet form. It can be picked up in a handful of shops strewn throughout the desert, or you can purchase a one-year subscription for a measly $15. It's worth it.

I spoke to Ken Layne, the quarterly's creator, about the project.

Where did the idea come from?

Ken Layne:
I've been roaming the deserts for 30 years, and living in one godforsaken lizard-filled wasteland or another for probably a dozen years total. And desert people do get a little peculiar, after a while. You get used to the space and the quiet and the light and the silence. Get outside and away from the TV and life is full of small, strange moments, like finding a young rattlesnake bouncing over your dirt driveway while you're taking the beer bottles out to the recycling bin on a summer night, or the sudden realization that a lone coyote is tracking you down a desert canyon, or instantly knowing that's the International Space Station moving over your part of the sky at dusk.

I had to leave the desert for a while, and was having another existential crisis that no amount of salary or page views or retweets would ever fix. So I spent most of a year wandering around, back and forth across the Sierra, up and down the 395, and all over the Mojave and Great Basin. Since the early 1980s when I started writing for little Southern California papers and magazines, I knew I'd end up being the editor and publisher of some eccentric thing. It was just a matter of seeing the publication clearly before I ever started work on it. One day last summer, it appeared more or less fully formed, and then it was just a matter of figuring out how to make it exist.

What was behind the decision to go with a print version as opposed to a website?

I've been doing online writing and websites for 20 years now and it was a lot of fun for a long time. But it's a mature medium now, big companies and big numbers. And websites all look the same now, especially because most people view them through a Facebook or Twitter viewer on their phones.

The desert is a physical thing. People who love the desert physically miss it when they're away. The air is different, the space is generous, and I thought I might be able to capture some of that in a physical artifact -- something that comes by mail just four times a year, that you can read and enjoy in a personal and solitary way, no "sharing" required.

In the first issue, you have a piece about Art Bell's Coast to Coast show. To me, that voice and content encapsulate the tone of the desert for me. Why do you think that the show fit so well with the desert landscape?

Art Bell lives in the High Desert around Pahrump, not far from Area 51. That geography is in his voice and was always felt in his late-night radio show. It makes an ideal soundtrack for a late-night drive on a lonesome road. When his show was at its peak in the 1990s, it was really "community radio" for weirdos and desert rats.

Where are these going to be available besides getting a subscription?

I'm distributing the Oracle myself, so it's for sale at places I like in the kind of desert outposts I like: Joshua Tree, Amboy, Old Town Yucca Valley, beloved southwestern bookstores such as Back of Beyond Books in Moab and Antigone Books in Tucson. I'll find a few more places to put it with each issue, but for now here's a list of shops in four southwestern states where you can get a single copy.

What are you favorite SoCal hikes/campsites?

My most beloved hike was my daily walk when, for many years, I lived across from Black Rock Canyon Campground in Joshua Tree National Park. Out the door and west along the park boundary, connecting with the West Loop and the trails up to Warren Peak and Eureka Peak -- many spots where you can sit and stare out at the snowy peaks of San Jacinto and San Gorgonio. You can go all the way back to Black Rock Canyon spring and there's a huge flock of pinyon jays living there in the forest. This is prime Joshua tree woodland, with junipers and Mormon tea and all kinds of critters you will see on a regular basis: bobcats, black-tailed deer, my coyote-pack neighbors, gopher snakes and rattlers and rosy boas, tortoises, roadrunners, jackrabbits, antelope ground squirrels, families of ravens including a mysterious old albino raven that was seen around for many years, etc. I never saw the bighorn sheep, because they're shy and rise earlier than I do, but the evidence was everywhere. (One day I found the sawed-off, bloody horns of a mature ram dumped on the side of a dirt road just outside the park. The Fish & Game ranger came out and took a report.)

There's a place called "Section 6" and another called "Coyote Hole" not far from what we call "downtown Joshua Tree." Wonderful places, the latter with a real desert spring, and both are easy enough to find if you're interested. Boulders and chuckwallas, spring flowers and cactus blooms. You can camp in the rocks at the first place. (Please do clean up your mess, give a hoot, and don't act surprised when the locals pass by your remote campsite on their morning dog walks or bicycle rides.)

The wildest and most remote walks in urban Southern California are along the shore. A few years back, I walked the California Coastal Trail from Tijuana to San Francisco, and discovered some stunning wild shoreline here and there. There's a stretch between the very southernmost point of San Onofre State Beach, where there's a mile or more of parking-spot "campsites" on old Pacific Highway, and you walk down whatever canyon (always follow the surfers hiking down with a board under their arm), and you immediately forget Interstate 5 is about a thousand feet away, running parallel down the coastline. The canyon walls are full of chaparral, but also ferns and other fog-fed greenery. The spookiest part of this walk, headed north toward San Clemente, used to be walking over the nuclear plant's seawall -- which is part of the structure, so it hummed and vibrated as you walked across. And then you go through these 1940s-style Marine Corps beaches and cabins that are part of Camp Pendleton, palapa shade structures, woody wagons, it's a kind of time travel.

March 7, 2015

Water grab pits Las Vegas against Mormons

Spring Valley, which sits atop an aquifer 263 miles from the country clubs and casinos of Las Vegas, is the focus of a Nevada legal fight over water rights.

Bloomberg News

Las Vegas is seeking to quench its growing thirst by draining billions of gallons of water from under the feet of ranchers whose cattle help feed the Mormon church's poor.

A legal battle across 275 miles of treeless ridges and baked salt flats comes as the western U.S. faces unprecedented droughts linked to climate change.

The surface of Las Vegas's main source of water, Lake Mead, is more than 100 feet below Hoover Dam's spillways after reaching the lowest mark last summer since the dam was filled. As it seeks new sources, the city's water supplier is waging a court fight over plans to suck as much as 27 billion gallons a year from the valley that is home to the Mormon ranch and its 1,750-head herd, as well as three other rural valleys.

Casino resorts, five of which are Southern Nevada's largest commercial water users, labor unions and the developer of a 22,500-acre mini-city west of Las Vegas argue their future depends on the water supply that the church, Indian tribes and environmental groups say is needed by local communities.

The fight, likely to echo across the increasingly arid West, conjures up the Los Angeles water grab that turned the once prosperous Owens Valley into a dust bowl.

As cities including Denver and Phoenix look to secure water for growing populations and economies, the prospect of sustained droughts, more severe and sustained than any in the 20th century, looms over Nevada's court battle, with one pipeline opponent calling it the "poster child" for future showdowns.

The 7,000-acre Cleveland Ranch, established in Spring Valley in 1873 by Maine native Abner "Old Cleve" Cleveland and bought in 2000 by the Mormon church, sits atop an aquifer a dozen-plus miles to the north of Route 50, known from postcards as "America's Loneliest Highway."

The ranch, owned by the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is worked by a combination of paid employees, church missionaries and other volunteers, according to a history of the ranch. The calves, after they are weaned, are shipped to an Idaho feed lot and then to a processing plant, where some of the meat is frozen or canned as stew and beef chunks for distribution around the world.

If the Southern Nevada Water Authority wins in court, its proposed groundwater project may leave the valley to sage brush and coyotes, according to lawyers for the church and environmentalists.

"This is a huge project that raises fundamental questions," said Paul Hejmanowski, a lawyer for the church. "Can we sacrifice an ancient way of life for a growing metropolis?"

So far, the ranch and other project opponents have fended off Las Vegas, convincing a judge in 2013 that there was insufficient scientific evidence for the state engineer's decision to award the water rights.

The Nevada Resorts Association, the Nevada AFL-CIO, representing members of 120 unions, and developer Howard Hughes Corp. support the water authority's and state engineer's petitions to the state Supreme Court for help. A hearing before the court hasn't been scheduled.

"There are no other alternatives available, and it would increase the region's water security," said Virginia Valentine, president of the casino and resort trade group. "Our infrastructure needs to be there."

The five resorts - the Wynn Las Vegas, Mandalay Bay, Venetian, Bellagio and Caesars Palace - consumed 2.4 billion gallons in 2013, according to the water authority. Other large users include the golf and country clubs that surround Las Vegas, an area whose population has almost tripled since 1990 to 2 million.

The leisure and hospitality sector employs 28 percent of Nevada's workforce and the taxes it pays make up 47 percent of the state's general fund.

Those economics may doom Cleveland Ranch even if pipeline opponents have a good case, said Jeffrey Dintzer, a lawyer specializing in water-rights issues with Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP in Los Angeles who isn't involved in the dispute.

"Money talks," Dintzer said. "Nevada gets a huge amount of its revenue from gaming."

If the Nevada Supreme Court doesn't reverse the December 2013 decision by the state judge who second-guessed the state engineer, the Legislature and governor may step in to draft a compromise to ensure Las Vegas gets the water, Dintzer said.

That might not end the lawsuits. If the ranch and surrounding valleys are left dry, the state could face hundreds of millions of dollars in claims, he said.

"This will be one of many of these disputes I see coming in the future," said Ed Casey, a water-rights attorney with Alston & Bird LLP, who represented Los Angeles in litigation over air pollution at Owens Lake. "Water is a commonly shared commodity, and as it becomes scarce, we have to face the question who gets priority."

Ranchers, farmers and other so-called senior water rights holders may lose their place at the pump to growing cities, Casey said.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority is pursuing unassigned groundwater rights to reduce its reliance on the Colorado River, which accounts for about 90 percent of its supply and is subject to new upstream diversions as drought conditions worsen.

With Lake Mead - the largest man-made reservoir in the U.S. - at 43 percent of its capacity, the agency already has increased its use of recycled water and cut its per-capita use by 40 percent since 2002, said Bronson Mack, a spokesman for the authority. Still, the agency expects to need new sources by about 2060, based on current estimates, or as soon as 2035 if population growth exceeds forecasts, Mack said.

The agency's groundwater project calls for 263 miles of pipelines connecting Las Vegas with four valleys. U.S. approval of the pipeline is subject to a separate legal challenge in federal court.

As far back as 1989, the Las Vegas Valley Water District, now part of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, applied for unappropriated water in Cave Valley, Dry Lake, Delamar Valley and Spring Valley. The state engineer didn't rule on those applications until 2007, leading to the first round of litigation, which voided the approvals.

In 2012, the state engineer again approved most of the water authority's applications, leading to a new round of court battles.

The Nevada case may set a precedent for urban water districts in arid and semi-arid regions looking for groundwater to sustain development, said Simeon Herskovits, a lawyer for counties, water agencies, environmental groups and businesses opposed to the project.

"This is kind of a poster child case for pro-development interests in urban centers trying to take water away from rural areas through a large infrastructure project by arguing, based on bad science, that vast amounts of water are available for extraction and export," Herskovits said.

A defeat for the project may force water agencies in the West to find other alternatives, he said.

If Las Vegas builds the pipeline, an area the size of New England could face the same environmental and socio-economic devastation as California's Owens Valley after completion of the 200-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913, he said.

Cleveland Ranch and other opponents persuaded Senior District Judge Robert Este in Ely, the only city within 100 miles of Spring Valley, that it was premature to approve large-scale pumping before its effects were fully known. He directed the state engineer to further develop mitigation protocols for any "unreasonable" effects of the project.

While the church declined to discuss Cleveland Ranch, its lawyer provided a copy of a DVD about the ranch that details its operations and makes the case that an abundant water supply is essential to raising healthy calves. The DVD was submitted as evidence in the court fight.

The Nevada Supreme Court on Feb. 6 dismissed the water authority's appeal of Este's decision, saying it wasn't ripe for review because the judge sent the case back to the state engineer without issuing a final judgment.

In a second bid, the water authority and the engineer asked the state's seven-member Supreme Court to use a procedure called a writ, which doesn't require a final judgment in the underlying case, to overturn Este's decision. They contend the judge acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" by substituting his judgment for that of the state engineer, an expert in hydrology.

"The worsening drought conditions in the West generally, and the Colorado River Basin in particular, do not afford the luxury of time," the water authority said in a Dec. 12 court filing. "This court should hear this petition, and resolve these issues, now."