May 15, 2015

Old Woman Mountains get a touch of new

The landscape in the Old Woman Mountains Preserve in San Bernardino County. The Native American Land Conservancy recently completed a project to improve trails and other features in the preserve. (Native American Land Conservancy)

Skip Descant
The Desert Sun

Hikers and other visitors to the Old Woman Mountains in San Bernardino County can now set out on improved trails with more informational kiosks and other upgrades.

The Old Woman Mountains Preserve — 2,500 acres in the eastern Mojave Desert — has completed a first phase of improvements intended to better connect the ancient landscape to modern visitors and native populations.

"It's a stunning landscape. And these trails are designed to introduce it to a person walking. It's a very easy terrain, and tell them what you're looking at, why it's here, why it matters and how it was used by the ancient peoples," said Kurt Russo, executive director of the Native American Land Conservancy, which leads the project.

"Three of the great deserts of the West all coincide on our preserve," Russo explained, pointing out the Mojave, Great Basin and Colorado deserts come together in this tiny corner of the Old Woman Mountains Wilderness Area near the tiny town of Essex. "So some species you'll find in each of those, you will find on our preserve."

The Native American Land Conservancy was able to complete the project with a $376,000 grant from the California State Parks Off Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division grant program, and more than $100,000 from the Bureau of Land Management, which offered supplies and technical support. Environmental groups and private land-owners also participated in the project.

"It was a great collaboration," Russo said.

"We provided advice on the development of their grant proposal," said Mike Ahrens, field manager for the Bureau of Land Management office in Needles.

"Once the grant was awarded and received, we provided logistical and coordination support for project implementation," he explained via email. "We also provided some of the materials for the project from a cache of materials that we had set aside for these types of projects."

Planning for the project began in December 2013, with the final proposal submitted in May 2014.

"And then we got word that it was funded in July of 2014," said Russo, adding construction began in January of this year.

"And we finished all of the construction phase in about seven weeks, which was way ahead of schedule," Russo added.

One of the key goals of protecting and preserving these lands has to with education and research, but also passing on "the spirit of the place" to native and non-native visitors.

"These places are very important for passing on conceptual knowledge, not just for flora and fauna, but the spirit of the place," said Russo.

"I have witnessed transformative moments among the youth, who go out there with the elders and sing the folk songs that come from there. And they sing them there, to the children, at night under the stars … and it's a very moving experience," he added.

The Old Woman Mountains Preserve is a cultural and biological sanctuary that once served as the meeting place for multiple American Indian tribes. Rock art, dating back 600-800 years, can be found throughout the Old Woman Mountains. The area is also home to more than 30 species of migratory birds, a third of all the native plant communities in California, as well as endangered and protected animal species like the desert tortoise, Bighorn Sheep and the golden eagle.

The Native American Land Conservancy, based in Indio, is a 501c3 organization founded in 1998 that includes the participation of tribal communities in California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. Troubled by the loss and desecration of sacred landscapes in traditional territories, the NALC was formed to acquire, preserve and protect these historic sites and landscapes. NALC has owned, and provided protective management for, the 2,560-acre Old Woman Mountains Preserve since 2002.

A ceremony and blessing, along with a tour of the preserve was held from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, May 23, 2015.

May 11, 2015

Colorado River and drought: Arizona's dam problem

Glen Canyon Dam, Arizona. (Ariane Middel/Flickr)

Jon Talton - Rogue Columnist
Tucson Sentinel

A photo hangs in my study showing my mother at Glen Canyon Dam, posing with officials of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Interior Department and Arizona State Senate. She is the only woman in the group and represents the Arizona Interstate Stream Commission, the quiet but powerful state agency fighting for the Central Arizona Project. The year is 1965 and the 710-foot-tall stark white (at the time) arched structure that impounds Colorado River water in Lake Powell will begin full operations a year later. She has the satisfied expression of a woman who never met a dam she didn't like (that would change later, as it would for many involved, when they realized the unintended consequences of what they had wrought). But she and some of her colleagues also knew they were pulling a kind of confidence game on California and the Upper Basin states. More about that later.

I've been studying that photo as Arizonans who are paying attention read about how persistent drought is reducing the water released from Lake Powell. A Bureau of Reclamation study says the drought is the worst in a century (it is actually worse than that, but such is the record keeping), and less water will be sent downstream to Arizona, Nevada and California than at any time since when Powell filled — when that photo was taken. The local-yokels say, it's no big deal. But they always say that.

It is a big deal.

Understanding why requires at least a cursory knowledge of Glen Canyon Dam and its history. I promise this won't hurt at all. Although it lacks the art deco majesty of Hoover Dam, Glen Canyon is still an amazing feat, the fourth tallest dam in the United States. But it was an accidental dam. When the Colorado River Compact was signed in 1922, the document divided the Father of Southwestern Waters among the seven states it drains. California already had its straw in the river, so to speak, creating the Imperial Valley, and the other states were desperate to avoid losing all the water to the Golden State. Arizona, small and lacking political power, was among them (and refused to sign the compact for another 24 years). But there was also concern among the Upper Basin states, those above the marker at Lee's Ferry, Ariz.: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. This only grew when Hoover Dam and Lake Mead were completed in 1936, primarily for the benefit of Los Angeles.

The Bureau of Reclamation — whose hammer was dams and every problem was a nail — wanted to build a major reservoir for the use of the Upper Basin in Echo Canyon. The Bureau did not like Glen Canyon, particularly because the Navajo sandstone of the walls was porous and potentially unreliable. The rock was the opposite of the granite to which Hoover was attached. But the Echo Canyon Dam would have inundated Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado.

The battle led to the birth of the modern Western environmental movement. The Sierra Club persuaded the Eisenhower administration and Congress to kill the Echo project and build at Glen Canyon instead. This was an endeavor only eclipsed by Hoover — the site was entirely isolated; Page didn't exist. Soon after the project was authorized, Sierra Club President David Brower toured the canyon for the first time and saw its singular beauty. Brower called the compromise he had led his "greatest sin."

Arizona, one of the three Lower Basin states, always supported Glen Canyon. It was moving on multiple fronts to get its full allotment of Colorado River water, which for decades California had been taking. By the late 1940s, it had two powerful senators, Ernest McFarland and Carl Hayden, working in Congress to secure the funds for the Central Arizona Project. In the 1950s, Mark Wilmer and Charlie Reed took over the landmark Arizona v. California, the longest case in Supreme Court history. Arizona won the suit, and the water, in 1963. Novel and clever legal tactics caused the court to remove the Gila River's water from Arizona's allotment. The state's plan was to get the Bureau of Reclamation to build dams at Marble Canyon and Bridge Canyon. The former would especially provide power to pump water in a canal to Phoenix and Tucson. The latter would be a reservoir, entirely in the state, from which CAP water could be drawn (the original plan was to send the water by gravity south, as opposed to the canal finally built from Lake Havasu). Glen Canyon was a useful hedge, storing water and gathering silt. It didn't matter that the water in Lake Powell primarily belonged to the Upper Basin. Those states lacked a canal to Lake Powell. The lake became the Upper Basin's water stock only insofar as it held water that could be measured off what was used upstream. By the Law of the River, a certain amount would have to be released down the river to the Lower Basin.

You know that when the 1922 Compact was drawn up, it used water measures from particularly wet seasons on a fickle river. You may not know that many experts understood this at the time. Later, it was used as testimony against allowing construction of the CAP. But Arizona was united in getting its legal allotment, damn the other states. Hence, the confidence game. Things started to go awry when environmentalists successfully defeated first Marble Canyon and then Bridge Canyon. Easterners, aghast at the prospect of turning part of the Grand Canyon into a reservoir, helped push back the Western Water interests. It was the Sierra Club's high mark and the end of the dam-building frenzy that had turned the Colorado River into a massive plumbing system.

The federal government funded the Central Arizona Project, which is ever more an essential prop of a state with 6.5 million people — not a rightful allotment for agriculture and 1 million people as it was sold. Arizona put its straw in behind Parker Dam, finished in 1938 to serve LA's Metropolitan Water District through the Colorado River Aqueduct. The 336-mile CAP canal is an engineering marvel. But it is far less efficient than the Bridge Canyon "gravity route."

It requires massive energy "inputs" (from the coal-belching Navajo Generating Station) to heave the water over the mountains and then on to Phoenix and up 2,000 feet to Tucson. Nor has the CAP really achieved its other promised goal: To stop the groundwater looting in Pinal and Pima counties. The canal also suffers huge evaporation — a growing problem at lakes Powell and Mead.

Now the troubles accumulate. Arizona's hard-won 2.8 million acre-feet per year is not guaranteed if the river falls to a certain level, which we are now reaching. California's allotment, however, is. The Gila River, which was once navigable by small craft all the way into New Mexico, is dry most of the year below Coolidge Dam. Its water, a big portion of which belongs to Indian tribes, was diverted over the decades to white farmers. Settling the tribal claims was a condition of the CAP. Now nine tribes have fully settled and four remain in adjudication. Many tribes may never get real justice, restitution for their stolen water. It may be many years, if ever, before all the tribes can utilize the water. But the Gila River Pimas are at least now in a powerful veto position. And their water will come from Arizona's allotment. Oh, Las Vegas: When the Compact was signed and amended, nobody ever imagined a major metropolitan area at the tip of Nevada, which is entitled to a tiny fraction of the river's bounty.

Local warming and climate change are the biggest danger, both to the Colorado and to the Salt River Project. This is real and happening now. As for Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, the water is going down, huge amounts also lost to evaporation, and Arizona's insurance policy is not guaranteed. Indeed, the Upper Basin will never allow itself to be swindled again. Although advanced techniques were used to secure the dam into the Navajo sandstone, Glen Canyon is the least stable of the major American dams. It is meant to move slightly. And it does. It also faces significant challenges with its spillways as silt accumulates. The heroic plumbing system that destroyed the Colorado River but allowed for millions to live in the Pacific Southwest — the dream of the Hohokam, who only lacked the technology — is breaking down. Lake Powell is only the most evident problem. The Colorado beneath the dam is dying. Removing or re-engineering the dam may be the only solution.

It has become a local cottage industry to produce articles shooting down "Phoenix is doomed" books and articles. I haven't seen the response to William Debuys' powerful reality check. Or the wider water problems in the American West. Almost all of these apologias can be discounted. Arizona's water situation is complicated. What is not open for serious debate is whether the state can continue to add population in the sprawl, single-family-house, "Sun Corridor" model. It may try. The Wall Street Boyz are buying houses, financing some new projects in the affluent suburbs of Phoenix. The local yokels take it for a recovery, an affirmation. Please, God, give me one more real-estate boom — with championship golf. No one in power is working on a sustainable future.

But the old game — all the old cons and hustles — is over. The only question is whether Phoenix (and the rest of Arizona) adjusts easy or hard. I fear it will be the latter, with horrific consequences for everything I love there.

The famous hypothesis of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross holds that someone facing death or another deep trauma goes through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Maybe. But it doesn't work that way collectively and Arizona is the prime example. Faced with an existential crisis, it is stuck in denial gear, sometimes slipping into anger, but nothing more. Think of your friend's old truck in high school where the clutch is finally, fatally, blown. Only you stay on the side of the road for decades claiming "everything's fine!"

One parting thought: It doesn't really matter whether the politicians and real-estate jocks — no leaders with vision and means to affect the argument are left — get the reality bearing down on Phoenix. Reality doesn't care. How often a smart person says to me, "Well, Phoenix (or Arizona) is running out of water." Americans are increasingly paying attention, with consequences that will go beyond tourism. Even dust storms that are common to the Sonoran Desert have become big national news, and not in an "everything's fine!" way.

Behind the scenes, an Arizona insider told me, "People are alarmed." Yet the "austerity" that so enamors the Kooks has captured what passes for the political "center" in the United States. The Haydens, McFarlands, Udalls and Rhodeses are gone. Jon Kyl, who led the Indian water settlement, has retired, leaving the state without a water expert in the Senate for the first time. So Arizona can't expect a federal bailout from this gathering (dust) storm. Indeed, the Tea Partiers who rolled in from the Midwest and thoughtlessly turn on their water taps in Surprise and Gilbert apparently think this magnificent audacious waterworks was created by Ayn Rand and Dagny Taggart. Or they think they think. Beneath the denial, all they have is attitude: "I got mine and whatever happens — hell, I'll be dead by then." After them, no deluge.

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan who runs the blog Rogue Columnist. He is a former op-ed and business columnist of the Arizona Republic and now is economics columnist of the Seattle Times.

May 8, 2015

Project pumping desert water for O.C. to begin next year

Cadiz Valley Water Project
Orange County Register

Construction for a project that will pump drinking water from a Mojave Desert aquifer and pipe it to south Orange County is slated to begin early next year.

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.

Once built, Cadiz plans to lease the facilities to a joint powers authority created by the Santa Margarita Water District, which will oversee day-to-day operation of the well and pipeline.

Santa Margarita hopes the project will reduce the district’s reliance on the wholesaler Metropolitan Water District, from which Santa Margarita buys 85 percent of its water. The MWD has increased water prices over the last two decades.

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

However, the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project has met resistance from a coalition of environmental groups, who argue the project would dry up desert springs and hurt vegetation and wildlife habitat.

The groups filed lawsuits after the project was approved by Santa Margarita’s board and San Bernardino County supervisors in 2012.

The plaintiffs claimed that Santa Margarita, not in the area the project will affect, shouldn’t have been the lead agency to oversee environmental reviews for Cadiz. They also said San Bernardino County violated its desert groundwater ordinance by approving the project.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Gail Andler shot down the lawsuits last year, stating that the plaintiffs had failed to prove the project would violate state environmental laws.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society then appealed the decision to the state’s Fourth Appellate District in Santa Ana and filed their opening briefs in April.

“All cases were resoundingly denied in superior court, and we stand by that record and we think everything will be upheld by the court of appeals,” Cadiz spokeswoman Courtney Degener said.

The company is waiting for the MWD board to approve moving Cadiz water through its aqueduct later this summer and plans to start construction at the beginning of next year, she said. Cadiz is expected to spend $225 to $275 million on construction.

In addition to Santa Margarita, Cadiz has entered into agreements with the following water providers interested in buying water from the project, Degener said. They include: Three Valleys Municipal Water District, Jurupa Community Services District, Golden State Water Company, Suburban Water Systems, California Water Service Company, Lake Arrowhead Community Services District and San Luis Water District.

Suess named superintendent of Mojave National Preserve

Sup. Todd Suess (pronounced "cease")
San Bernardino Sun

Todd Suess, a veteran of federal land management agencies in the western U.S., has begun service as superintendent of Mojave National Preserve.

Suess (pronounced “cease”) had been acting superintendent of the preserve since mid-January, succeeding Stephanie Dubois, who retired last year.

He comes from Olympic National Park in Washington State, where he served as deputy superintendent, overseeing park operations involving administration, resource and visitor protection, resources management, interpretation and education, and facilities programs.

Suess has also worked for the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management at Joshua Tree National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument in South Dakota, Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming and Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota.

He earned a bachelor of science degree from the University of Minnesota College of Forestry in 1988. Suess, his wife, Jackie, and daughter Willow live in Barstow.