July 22, 2015

Coachella Valley aquifer decline continues

Water from the Colorado River flows into a percolation pond at the Thomas E. Levy Groundwater Replenishment Facility in La Quinta. (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

Ian James
The Desert Sun

NASA researchers have studied the aquifer beneath the Coachella Valley and concluded that while flows of imported water have helped boost groundwater levels in places, much of the aquifer has continued to decline.

Scientists with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory analyzed trends in the measurements of groundwater levels in wells between 1960 and 2013.

They found that inflows of water from the Colorado River have helped raise the water table in areas near groundwater replenishment ponds in Palm Springs and La Quinta, but that the aquifer’s levels have been falling across the middle of the valley, in places from Thousand Palms to Indio, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, and Indian Wells – areas that are farther away from the ponds.

The study was published online last week by the journal Water Resources Management. The scientific findings fit with the results of The Desert Sun’s analyses of groundwater data in 2013 and 2015, which showed significant long-term declines in water levels in much of the valley even as imported water has helped partially counteract that trend. The study points to a need for the Coachella Valley’s people, businesses and water managers to better safeguard the aquifer to preserve water supplies for the future.

Hydrologists Brian F. Thomas and Jay Famiglietti used data for more than 300 wells to compare trends in different decades.

During the 1980s, for instance, the area received large allocations of surface water, and as a result groundwater levels rebounded around Palm Springs. In the 2000s, the valley received little water and the aquifer’s levels predominantly declined.

For decades, water has been heavily pumped from wells across the desert to sustain growing cities, farms, more than 100 golf courses and lush resorts with acres of grass and artificial lakes.

Since the 1970s, the Coachella Valley’s water agencies have been using water from the Colorado River Aqueduct to help recharge the aquifer near Palm Springs. The water has come in exchange for the local water districts’ allotted amounts from the canals and pipelines of the State Water Project, which ends in Lake Perris and doesn’t reach the valley.

During the past decade, water from the Colorado River has also been routed through the Coachella branch of the All-American Canal to a series of ponds in La Quinta, pushing up groundwater levels there.

Despite those efforts, average groundwater levels are approximately 19 meters, or 62 feet, lower than in 1960, the scientists said in the study. They noted that during periods when large amounts of surface water have flowed into the area, groundwater levels have risen. But during drier times, such as the 2000s or the current drought, “unsustainable groundwater practices in the region resulted in groundwater declines.”

The changes in groundwater levels over time, they said, “fail to exhibit characteristics of a resilient management strategy.”

“The scenario of continued unsustainable groundwater use in a region that relies heavily on groundwater resources to meet water demands has important implications for the region,” the researchers said, “especially given the uncertainty in future climate changes and the likelihood of increased droughts… and the uncertainty of future allocations from the Colorado River.”

In short, Thomas said, the findings point to a need for people to use and manage water differently in the Coachella Valley.

“They need to conserve water,” Thomas said in a telephone interview. He said he thinks the Coachella Valley also should manage the aquifer as the area’s primary water source and not rely so heavily on outside sources of surface water as it has in the past.

The Colorado River provides water for more than 35 million people across the West and irrigates vast stretches of farmland from the Rocky Mountains to Mexico. But its flows have been shrinking during a historic drought that’s now in its 16th year. Global warming is projected to put additional strains on the over-tapped river by shrinking the snows in the mountains and unleashing more severe droughts.

Flows of water to Southern California through the State Water Project have also dwindled during the drought.

Thomas said the trend in the 2000s, when groundwater levels were declining across the Coachella Valley, is similar to the situation now.

“And I think that’s really the future of the Coachella Valley,” he said. “When you look at the uncertainty of climate in the Southwestern U.S. and the uncertainty of surface water allocations coming out of the Colorado River basin, I think the reality of the situation for the Coachella Valley is what they saw in the 2000s. … It was depletion throughout the valley.”

The study focused on “sustainable groundwater management” and didn’t deal with the question of how much water remains in the aquifer – something experts aren’t sure of because it hasn’t been studied in detail.

Water agencies have calculated the cumulative overdraft since the 1970s at more than 5.3 million acre-feet of water. That's enough to fill more than 2.6 million Olympic swimming pools, with each acre-foot equivalent to 325,851 gallons.

As groundwater levels have declined, there have been costs. Pumping from deeper underground requires more electricity, and in some areas new wells have been drilled.

A study by the U.S. Geological Survey last year found that as groundwater pumping has led to declines in portions of the aquifer, the ground sank from between 9 inches to 2 feet from 1995 to 2010 in parts of Indian Wells, La Quinta and Palm Desert. That has caused damage in other parts of the Coachella Valley over the years, cracking the foundations of some homes and damaging swimming pools, roads and other infrastructure.

The USGS found that the Coachella Valley Water District's efforts to recharge the aquifer are having a positive effect near the groundwater replenishment ponds in La Quinta.

“We have to give credit to the water agencies. They’re actually employing very smart strategies,” Thomas said. “It’s obviously having a positive impact on groundwater resources. It’s just that (the impacts) are not extensive when you look at the entire aquifer system as a whole.”

CVWD General Manager Jim Barrett said when contacted about the research that he had just learned of the study and couldn’t comment on the findings.

John Powell, Jr., president of the CVWD board, has said the agency is evaluating potential sites for new groundwater replenishment ponds in the middle of the valley in order to reduce pressures on the aquifer in that area.

The long-term declines in the aquifer fit with a larger trend of groundwater depletion in much of California, and in various parts of the world.

Famiglietti, a UC Irvine professor and senior water scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, recently co-authored another study that found more than half of the world’s largest aquifers are declining, and more than a third of them are being rapidly depleted.

Thomas, a postdoctoral researcher at the California Institute of Technology, said he thinks that for the Coachella Valley, improving the water picture starts with coming up with ways to use less.

“If it were up to me, people would not have lawns in Palm Springs,” Thomas said. “Lawns, that’s something that is not necessary in a desert environment. And that’s just one of the things that’s key to a conservation strategy.”

In the acknowledgments in their study, the scientists credited The Desert Sun’s coverage “for alerting us about the growing concern over groundwater overdraft in the valley.”

Thomas spoke about his research last year to an audience at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert campus.

"There's no easy answer,” he said during the event. “Everybody has to give up a piece of their water use to get to sustainability."

July 18, 2015

Shrinking Colorado River is a growing concern for Yuma farmers — and millions of water users

Los Angeles Times

The Colorado River begins as snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains and ends 1,450 miles south in Mexico after making a final sacrifice to the United States: water for the farm fields in this powerhouse of American produce.

Throughout the winter, perfect heads of romaine, red-and-green lettuce, spinach and broccoli are whisked from the warm desert soil here onto refrigerated trucks that deliver them to grocery stores across the continent. If you eat a green salad between Thanksgiving and April, whether in Minnesota, Montreal or Modesto, odds are good that some of it was grown in or around Yuma.

The summer freshness on all of those winter plates reflects the marvel of engineering the Colorado has become — and why managing the river in the Southwest's changing landscape seems so daunting.

The Colorado is suffering from a historic drought that has exposed the region's dependence on a single, vulnerable resource. Nearly 40 million people in seven states depend on the river, a population some forecasts say could nearly double in the next 50 years.

The drought, now in its 16th year, has made one fact brutally clear: The Colorado cannot continue to meet the current urban, agricultural, hydroelectric and recreational demands on it — and the point at which the river will fall short could come sooner than anyone thought.

That is true even after an unusually wet spring in the Rocky Mountains, where runoff feeds the Colorado and its tributaries.

In the decades to come, federal officials say, significant shortages are likely to force water-supply cutbacks in parts of the basin, the first in the more than 90 years that the river has been managed under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

They would not apply evenly. In Arizona, which would take the steepest cuts, officials are warning that the elaborate conservation measures and infrastructure put in place in the 1980s to guard against shortages will probably not be sufficient. As the drought continues, serious shortages and more severe cutbacks have become more likely.

Farmers who grow cattle feed and cotton in central Arizona could be forced to let fields lie fallow, maybe for good, and cities like Phoenix might have to begin reusing wastewater and even capping urban growth, the region's economic engine.

Here in Yuma, though, there may be no cuts at all. Thanks to the seemingly endless idiosyncrasies of the rules governing the Colorado, much of metropolitan Phoenix could theoretically become a ghost town while Yuma keeps planting lettuce in the desert.

The looming shortages have opened a contentious new conversation here in Arizona, with increasing calls for rethinking the way the state divides the water it also shares with six other states, including California. Some experts say that a recalibration is in order — that while it may not make sense for millions of people to live in the arid West, people should take precedence over growing leafy greens on an industrial scale.

In a 2013 study, the Bureau of Reclamation suggested transferring about a million acre-feet of water from farms. Academics say it is only a matter of time before agriculture is forced to yield some of its supply — and that farmers could benefit financially from such transfers.

That kind of talk is rattling farmers in Yuma. They know they have water priority but not necessarily political priority.

"They believe there's a target on their backs," said Tom Buschatzke, who leads the Arizona Department of Water Resources. "I believe they're right."

Farmers here do not intend to go quietly. Some come from families that were here when the big cities of the modern Southwest were little more than crossroads.

"We have a legal right to this," said Mark Smith, who farms about 500 acres in Yuma and leads one of six irrigation districts in the area. "The guys who say this is an easy fix — it's not an easy fix. We're growing vital crops."

"This is a national debate," Smith added, "because we're supplying the entire nation."


Few rivers are asked to work as hard at the Colorado. Ranchers in western Colorado use the river to water pastures for beef cattle, while Denver and its suburbs channel it east across the mountains to enable city living. Las Vegas and other southern Nevada communities draw up to 90% of their water from the Colorado. Hoover Dam and others convert its flow into power. After Arizona and California take their share, the river exits — evaporates, really — through the dry remnants of a delta leading to the Gulf of California.

If a shortage is declared, California is one state that would not face any immediate cutbacks, thanks to an agreement reached with Arizona in 1968. That pact allowed Arizona to build one of the nation's most ambitious water-supply systems, the Central Arizona Project, but it also ensured that much of Arizona would take steep cuts if a shortage is declared.

Yuma is an exception.

Wedged into a wrinkle of borderland between California and Mexico, farms here have been drawing water from the Colorado since the late 19th century. Their early presence here earned the area the most-senior water rights in Arizona and some of the most-senior in the basin. Of the approximately 15 million acre-feet of water allocated for use each year across the entire basin, about 1 million acre-feet — nearly 7% of all of the water — goes to just 150,000 acres of farmland here.

By comparison, the 5 million water users in Phoenix and Tucson share about 1.5 million acre-feet. California has rights to the largest share, 4.4 million acre-feet, and even under the most dire scenarios it is virtually certain to always receive it. The law of the river says so.

Yet even as parties in the basin are often wary of one another — and not equal partners — most emphasize the need to work together under the current rules. The alternative, some fear, is that the federal government will intervene.

"There are many who have advocated for years that you have to change it significantly," said Wade Noble, a lawyer for the Yuma County Agricultural Water Coalition. "We, of course, resist that because with our priority we benefit from the [current] law the most."

In February, Noble helped draft a report by the coalition intended as a preemptive strike against anyone eyeing Yuma water. In it, Yuma leaders argue that the region has become more productive and profitable while also reducing its water use as it has shifted its focus to winter vegetables over the last four decades.

Yet the region still uses an extraordinary amount of water. High soil salinity has led farmers to flood fields in an attempt to wash salt away from fragile roots, then provide more water for irrigation. And in an era seeing the rise of seasonal, locally grown foods, Yuma strikes some as emblematic of old ways of thinking about what people should eat and when.

Then again, farmers in Yuma say cities have been allowed to grow with little concern for the water required to sustain them. They note, too, that most of their crops align with a growing emphasis on healthful eating.

"They are doing a lot of things right," said Robert Glennon, a law professor at the University of Arizona who specializes in water issues.

But Glennon has also warned that Yuma farmers and others in the arid West may have only so much control over their fate — a lesson farmers in parts of California, dependent on other rivers, are learning during the historic drought there. He has encouraged farmers to reduce production so they can sell or lease a portion of their water rights to cities. Research shows that a cut of just 4% in certain agricultural areas could increase the water supply by 50% for some cities, he said.

Farmers here say the entire region was settled on an ethic of national service. The Bureau of Reclamation began building canals feeding off the Colorado in the first years of the 20th century.

Edward C. Cuming arrived in the summer of 1902, an Irishman who had first migrated to Alberta, Canada, before moving south. Cuming homesteaded 160 acres just south of Yuma, irrigating them with the new canals. The Depression forced him to sell 40 acres but also led to a new era of government support for the area.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, expanded and improved irrigation canals across the Yuma area. One of those channels, stamped "CCC 1940," is known as the Cuming Canal. It runs directly in front of fields now owned by Edward Cuming's grandson, Jim Cuming.

"When we had an abundant supply of water, the farmer was doing a great job," said Cuming, 77, sitting on a concrete culvert above the Cuming Canal while cloudy Colorado River water surged beneath him.

"Now all of a sudden he's a villain because he uses too much to produce your fruit and fiber."

This story was prepared under a grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists' Fund for Environmental Journalism.

July 13, 2015

The Mojave River: A source of water battles and innovation

Postcard view of the old automobile bridge at the upper narrows of the Mojave River, circa 1930. The Mojave River flows above ground year-round through the narrows. The railroad follows the Mojave River through much of the High Desert. (From the collection of Mark Landis)

By Mark Landis
San Bernardino County Sun

Even in drought-stricken Southern California, the Mojave River could easily be described as one of the most unspectacular waterways in the Southwest. However, the historic significance of this strange desert paradox is hard to understate.

Through much of its 120-mile course, the Mojave River appears to be an irrelevant ribbon of sand. But in spite of its innocuous appearance, the river has provided the life blood for a broad stretch of the Mojave Desert since ancient times. It has also generated some of the West’s most ingenious water projects, and hard-fought legal battles.

The river flows above ground near its mountain sources, and through a few areas like the Mojave Narrows, and Afton Canyon, where the bedrock forces the water to the surface.

Indians were able to survive in the desert along the river where it flows above ground year-round, and provides an oasis of shade and food sources.

Early explorers and settlers counted on the river’s sections of dependable above-ground flow to get them across long, barren stretches of desert. The Mojave Road, The Mormon Trail, and The Old Spanish Trail, were the primary Indian and migrant trails into Southern California. These crucial routes all followed sections of the Mojave River through some of the driest stretches of the desert.

The Mojave River begins in the northern slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains, and flows northward under a dry bed of sand for much of its course. The east and west forks of the river merge just upstream of the present-day Mojave River Dam, in southeast Hesperia.

The eastern fork is known as Deep Creek, and its watershed begins in the mountains around and to the east of Lake Arrowhead. The watershed for the West Fork of the Mojave River begins in the mountains above, and to the west of Silverwood Lake. The river ends in Soda and Silver Dry Lakes, near the community of Baker.

One of the earliest settlers on the Mojave River was Captain Aaron Lane, a rancher who operated a trading post on the river. In 1858, Lane acquired a prime piece of Mojave River land near the present-day Turner Ranch, in Victorville and started a successful farm and cattle ranch.

Word of the successful agriculture effort on the Mojave River spread quickly, and sections of the river with regular flow, blossomed into a lush ribbon of farms and ranches.

A long-awaited railroad from San Bernardino, through the Cajon Pass, to Barstow was completed in 1885. Fred Perris of the California Southern Railroad chose a route through the High Desert that closely followed the grade of the Mojave River.

With a new railroad and a water source, land agents quickly began to promote the high desert as a prime region for new settlements. Beginning in the late 1800s, the High Desert communities of Hesperia, Apple Valley, Victorville, Oro Grande, Barstow, and Daggett, sprang up along the banks of the Mojave River.

In 1887, Judge Robert M. Widney and a group of investors incorporated the Hesperia Land and Water Company. The company purchased 35,000 acres on the high desert mesa that would later become the town of Hesperia. The company also began filing claims on water from the east fork of the Mojave River (Deep Creek), to irrigate the new colony.

The key to the success of the Hesperia Colony was an irrigation project to bring water from Deep Creek. Touted as a “marvel of engineering skill,” the project known as the “Hesperia Ditch” included a water channel blasted through solid rock, a ditch, and piping, that brought the water to a reservoir near the present-day Lime Street Park.

Challenges to Widney’s water rights began even before a spade was turned to dig the Hesperia Ditch. Land owners downstream in Victor and Oro Grande voiced loud opposition to the taking of their water, but Widney continued, and completed the canal in 1888.

A new high desert colony named Minneola was laid out in 1893, about 7 miles east of Daggett. A subsurface dam was built to divert the underground flow of the Mojave River into the “Mineola Ditch,” and an 11-mile irrigation channel was constructed to bring water to the townsite. The big dreams soon went bust, and in spite of the canal, the desert metropolis never materialized.

The largest single water project on the Mojave River was conceived in 1889, by Adolph Koebig, a San Bernardino city engineer. Koebig proposed a project to dam the upper portion of Deep Creek, and divert the Mojave River water south, into the San Bernardino Valley for irrigation.

The huge irrigation project to create the Little Bear Reservoir (later renamed Lake Arrowhead) began construction despite harsh objections and legal challenges from the downstream Mojave River water users. By the time the dam was finally completed in 1922, the Mojave River water users had successfully used the courts to block diversion of the water to San Bernardino.

The Little Bear Reservoir project was re-purposed from an irrigation project, to a recreational lake, and the precious Deep Creek water continues to flow into the Mojave River today.

By the early 1960s, population growth in the High Desert communities began to seriously overdraft the Mojave River Basin. Plans were made to bring State Water Project water into the Mojave River Basin, but delivery didn’t begin until 1991.

The State Water Project now supplies water from Northern California to recharge stations located along the Mojave River that stretch from Hesperia to Daggett. The recharge water percolates into the soil, where it is stored in the groundwater basins, and then pumped out for use by local water agencies.

Today, just as in the pioneer days, innovative irrigation projects continue to make the Mojave River the lifeblood of the high desert communities.

July 12, 2015

Lost in the Desert: Proposed Mojave Trails National Monument Remains In Limbo

Route 66, America's "Mother Road," runs through the heart of the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument, but is in dire need of maintenance. Getting funding to pay for fixing washed-out bridges along Route 66 is lacking. (San Bernardino County)

By Alfred Runte
National Parks Traveler

If California's senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, has her way, Congress will finally vote on a new national monument encompassing 965,000 acres in the Mojave Desert. Other preservation measures are also planned. Lying roughly between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park, this particular monument would in effect round out the California Desert Protection Act of 1994.

To be called Mojave Trails, its heart would be a 105-mile segment of former U.S. Route 66. Now a county highway west of Needles, California, the critical segment ends approaching Barstow. No two-lane, paved highway in America is more significant; after all, this is America’s Mother Road. Beginning in the 1920s, millions resettling to California followed it west, as have millions of tourists ever since.

This is to explain the problem with Senator Feinstein’s proposal.

These days, historic Route 66 (also called the National Trails Highway) is indeed little better than a “trail.” Ever since losing its federal status, it has received only minimal, sporadic repairs. Finally, a series of washouts early last September tore several key bridges apart. Whole sections of the road were further covered with mud and debris. Initially pegged at $1.5 million, the repairs were expected to take two months. The work then ground to a halt on the insistence that three of the bridges needed to be replaced. Consequently, that half of the road—essentially midway between Needles and Barstow—remains closed.

“You’re kidding,” I said to myself, hoping to drive the entire segment in mid-June. But there it was—an imposing barricade, allowing access just for local residents. “They’ll fine you $600 if they catch you going around the barricade,” one bystander warned me.

Still, I decided to take the risk. Typical of desert washouts, a bulldozer had carved a temporary bypass. So much for a deliberative environmental study, allegedly a primary reason for the delayed repairs.

I then asked for an opinion about the repairs from the attendant at Roy’s Motel and Café, a popular tourist spot down the road at Amboy.

“They just keep making excuses,” he replied. “You know what I think? They’ve decided to abandon the road entirely.”

Fortunately for Roy’s, it further straddles the north/south route linking Interstate 40 and Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base. Business between both is always brisk. He meant the east/west highway—the public’s favorite—historic Route 66.

“Probably the county is broke and waiting for Senator Feinstein to come up with the money to make the repairs,” I said.

Indeed, when later I checked, the county’s website confirmed that it needs federal dollars, some of which allegedly have been obtained.

That would be San Bernardino County, the nation’s largest county by area, in which all of the new monument would lie. The problem is: Rebuilding the bridges has not even started yet; no one knows when the road will fully reopen.

“That’s nuts,” I thought. “Given the tourist dollars the highway generates, it should have been reopened as originally planned—two months tops.”

Meanwhile, tourists have no choice but to take Interstate 40. However, sightseeing on the Interstate is risky business, lest you be run down by a line of trucks. Either that or a truck will force you onto the shoulder while swinging out to pass a slower rig. Trucks do that in California—leapfrog into the left lane the moment you start to pass. On top of the trucks, California drivers have a bad habit of tailgating. I personally consider Interstate 40 a deathtrap and try avoiding it like the plague.

Besides, the scenery and history are on Route 66. It is also parallel to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, today’s successor to the legendary Santa Fe Railway that developed the South Rim of Grand Canyon. Trains now up to two miles in length zip across the desert floor at 65 mph plus. They’re as much fun to watch as the changing light patterns playing off the mountains near and far.

The point is that drivers are fascinated by both the scenery and the history, including hundreds of thousands of tourists from abroad. Germany appears to send the most. Certainly, the Germans I have met absolutely love the road, which is so unlike crowded Europe. Whole clubs have formed around antique cars and motorcycles meant to recreate American life in the 1960s. Club members fly to the United States after shipping their vehicles to some East or West Coast port. After reuniting with their precious cargo on the docks, everyone heads straight for historic Route 66.

Senator Feinstein is right. The desert landscape alone is of national park-caliber, and should have been included in the original California Desert Protection Act 21 years ago. However, the congressman representing the district was opposed. It was amazing that Congress preserved as much as it did. Equally amazing, the National Park Service gained control over Kelso Depot, the elegant wayside of the Union Pacific Railroad running through the Mojave National Preserve to the north.

Long before the depot’s restoration in 2006, my wife Christine and I were regular visitors, then to wonder whether the depot would survive—and how. Now we wonder the same about Route 66. The longer it remains closed the more the bureaucrats can say it is no longer needed. Tourists can take Interstate 40 and play bumper tag with the trucks.

San Bernardino County insists that is not the case. Rather history is partly to blame—along with those confounded environmental impact statements everyone these days is “forced” to write.

“These bridges are timber and were constructed in the 1930s,” notes Brendon Biggs, deputy director of public works.

Fine; we all get it. The replacement bridges should be historically and environmentally compatible. But how is that any excuse to delay fixing the road for months—and now possibly even years?

The county had to know washouts would happen at some point; serious thunderstorms occur every summer. Why couldn’t county officials have been ready to make a permanent repair—up to and including a historically compatible design—the minute a bridge washed out?

One suspects the answer to that—as with every government agency these days—is money. The funds needed went somewhere else. For that matter, not only is the county broke; the state and federal government are also broke. In the past, powerful U.S. senators got their way—and most certainly got their way on rebuilding roads. Now it would appear that everyone—including Senator Feinstein—is waiting for the monument to be approved.

But will it be approved? If not, she insists she will ask President Barack Obama to intervene using his executive powers under the Antiquities Act. That would work for the land, but what about the road? Tourists are still coming with or without the monument. Is this to be the new America—plead poverty and keep pointing fingers until our entire infrastructure just falls apart?

If the repairs seem expensive today, how does Senator Feinstein expect to afford them later? Perhaps hoping to bypass the Park Service’s alleged $11.5 billion backlog, Mojave Trails would go to BLM. In that case, it is likely Route 66 would stay with San Bernardino County, and what is more, add to the confusion of what is the difference between a national park and a national monument.

Why indeed BLM, when immediately north and south of Mojave Trails the land manager is the NPS? Well do I remember this. BLM did absolutely nothing to protect and/or restore Kelso Depot. Only when the Park Service acquired the station was it meticulously studied and ultimately saved. Will BLM protect Route 66? If there is even a shred of doubt, I say the Park Service should have Mojave Trails—or at least that portion of the national monument requiring preservation of the highway.

Meanwhile, the road is still split in two. If this were Germany or Switzerland, I kept telling myself last month, it would have been up and running within a week. But then, Europe makes no excuses when its roads (and railroads) go down. There (sans Greece, perhaps), people still expect discipline from government. Only America makes the frivolous argument that the “environment” stands in the way (forget the bulldozers carving bypasses), when what really stands in the way is a bureaucracy eating up all the funds with “studies” and “consultants.”

Senator Feinstein needs to clear the air. Although her monument is a worthy project, the ifs here are doubly worrisome. If the Park Service cannot afford it, how is it any different at BLM? If BLM is not committed to historic preservation, how will that ever change in this monument? Especially here, access to the monument is everything. Route 66 needs to be a priority, not just an afterthought. Along with side roads and other historical alignments, its renovation is long overdue.

San Bernardino County admits it can never do that without a significant infusion of federal funds. Why not just give those funds to the Park Service and be done with it? Probably San Bernardino County would stand up and cheer. Yes, you take care of the road.

As for BLM, they don’t do parks very well. One day, the nation will have to decide. If indeed a national monument is actually a national park in waiting, why wait to have it managed by the NPS?

All I know is that I wanted to drive the road last month, and no one seemed to be in charge. You fix the road. No, you fix it. But yes, perhaps we should do another study. Does that sound like the country we grew up in?

Rather, when I was in high school and college, Californians were proud to say that as we go, so goes the nation. In that case, Route 66 is an even bigger wakeup call. When every level of government fails a public treasure like the Mother Road, it is reasonable, however painful, to admit that the nation is finally out of gas.

July 5, 2015

Las Vegas completing last straw to draw Lake Mead water

A worker stands near the end of a tunnel still under construction beneath Lake Mead near Boulder City, Nev. When operational, the three-mile-long tunnel and intake will allow the Southern Nevada Water Authority to draw water from Lake Mead even if its water level falls below the two current intakes. (AP Photo/John Locher)


LAS VEGAS (AP) — It took $817 million, two starts, more than six years and one worker's life to drill a so-called "Third Straw" to make sure glittery casinos and sprawling suburbs of Las Vegas can keep getting drinking water from near the bottom of drought-stricken Lake Mead.

The pipeline, however, won't drain the largest Colorado River reservoir any faster. It's designed to ensure that Las Vegas can still get water if the lake surface drops below two existing supply intakes.

"You turn on the tap, you don't think about it," said Noah Hoefs, a pipeline project manager for the Las Vegas-based Southern Nevada Water Authority. "These are the things being done in order to live the lifestyle we want in the places we want to live."

It's the latest example of ways the parched West is scrambling to deal with 15 years of unprecedented drought.

California is encouraging homeowners to rip out thirsty lawns and asking farmers to turn off spigots. And in New Mexico, a $550 million pipeline project would supply drinking water to several communities that run the risk of having wells go dry within a decade.

Las Vegas started in 1999 to conserve, reuse and replenish supplies. When Lake Mead water levels plummeted in 2002, regional water officials began drawing up plans for the pipeline.

"Unlike California and our other partners on the river, we are almost entirely reliant on Lake Mead," said John Entsminger, water authority general manager. "We couldn't afford to wait."

Sin City gets about 90 percent of its drinking water from the lake behind Hoover Dam, itself an engineering marvel that cost the lives of about 100 workers during five years of construction before it was completed in 1936.

The need for the new pipeline can be seen in the wide white mineral band marking rock canyon walls where lake water has receded and the sun-bleached docks at abandoned marinas, left high and dry.

The water level has dropped almost the equivalent of a 20-story building since Lake Mead last topped the dam's spillways in 1983.

The pipeline resembles a subway tunnel 55 stories below Lake Mead's Saddle Island, reinforced with more than 2,400 6-foot jigsaw sections of concrete. A $25 million drilling rig the length of two football fields ground nearly 3 miles through solid rock to reach the intake structure a minute before noon last Dec. 10.

Jim Nickerson, project manager for Vegas Tunnel Constructors, a subsidiary of Italy-based Impregilo, peered during a recent tour into the circular intake, which is designed somewhat like a big bathtub drain. The 100-foot structure was lowered in March 2012 into what once was a Colorado River canyon and cemented into place with the equivalent of 1,200 truckloads of concrete.

Its dome roof was capped by a 1,900-pound stainless steel ball.

A steel cap on top of a water intake riser holds back the water of Lake Mead in a tunnel still under construction near Boulder City, Nev. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Above that was about 300 feet of water. The lake is about 37 percent of capacity, but still contains trillions of gallons of water — mostly snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

When the intake is flooded, water pressure in the tunnel will approximate water pressure in the lake. Nickerson said the ball plug will become buoyant enough for a crane on a barge to lift it.

"End of the year, we're done," he said.

Pumping will mark completion of a perilous project.

The tunnel flooded in July 2010, when a drilling machine hit a geologic fault, and flooded again five months later. Project engineers abandoned and capped the first tunnel and started a new one in a different direction.

In June 2012, tunnel worker Thomas Albert Turner died. He was a married, 44-year-old father of two from Henderson whose brother also worked on the pipeline.

Pulling the plug won't hasten creation of the "bathtub ring" around the lake. Blame drought for that — and exponential growth in a desert area that averages just over 4 inches of rain per year.

Las Vegas had about 126,000 residents when it began drawing water from Lake Mead in 1971. It now has 2 million residents and 40 million tourists a year.

The top of the new intake structure is at 860 feet. That's 40 feet below so-called "dead pool" at which Hoover Dam electricity turbines would be idled and no water would flow downstream.

Water managers let the Lake Mead level fall to a new record low late Tuesday, at 1,074.98 feet. They say the lake level will rise by the end of the year to about 1,081 feet. That's 6 feet above the trigger point that would require a percentage cut in water supplies to Arizona and Nevada.

Officials are currently giving Lake Mead a nearly 50-50 chance of ending 2016 below the 1,075-foot trigger point — unless the drought is broken.

BLM’s Burning Man requests outrageous


Strip VIP hosts are breathing sighs of relief from Wynn Las Vegas to Mandalay Bay. They might have their hands full satisfying all kinds of requests from their guests this holiday weekend, but they know they could be stuck with far more outrageous demands. They could be dealing with the BLM.

If Nevadans needed any more proof that U.S. Bureau of Land Management leaders are arrogant, entitled and disconnected, they need only read a tremendous series of stories recently published by the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Rugged outdoorsmen need not apply to the Interior Department. As reported by the newspaper’s Jenny Kane, the BLM asked the organizers of the upcoming Burning Man counterculture festival to build a million-dollar luxury compound — supplied with a ridiculous list of snacks, food and amenities at the festival’s expense — to accommodate the federal employees charged with staffing Black Rock City later this summer. The request, which would raise the festival’s land use costs to roughly $5 million, has become a stumbling block for organizers, who need a permit from the BLM to stage their event in northwestern Nevada.

Burning Man is famous for extreme conditions and the self-reliance of its attendees — two things BLM employees want no part of. The implication of the request was clear: The permit for the already sold-out festival, which will attract up to 80,000 people to the desert the week leading up to Labor Day, could be denied if the BLM’s VIPs aren’t provided with flushing toilets, showers, hot water, refrigerators, couches, washers, dryers, Choco Tacos, M&Ms, licorice, Chobani Greek Yogurt, steaks and 24-hour access to ice cream.

What, no bottle service or spa treatments?

In an interview with the Gazette-Journal, Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., whose district includes the Black Rock Desert, questioned the origin of the request.

“I don’t think it was driven out of Nevada. I think it was driven out of Utah, or D.C., or both,” he said. “We have a big problem: 15 VIP accommodations and soft-serve ice cream 24 hours a day. With all due respect, those dots do not connect.”

That’s almost $67,000 per employee for a week in the sticks. Those are some awfully expensive manicures. (“Ethel, I said the clear nail polish!”)

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., also had a big problem with the extravagance. In a pointed letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Sen. Reid reminded her of the cultural benefits and economic boost Burning Man has brought to the state for the past 23 years, and reiterated the philosophy and logistics of the festival.

“While I agree that the BLM should take its permitting duties seriously and work with Burning Man to both guarantee the safety of its participants and the protection of the environment, providing outlandishly unnecessary facilities for the BLM and its guests should be beyond the scope of the permitting requirements,” he wrote. “Flush toilets and laundry facilities can be found about ten miles away in Gerlach, Nevada, if BLM’s employees need such amenities.”

The BLM’s request bordered on extortion: “You want your permit? Then give us our ice cream!” The fallout from the demands has compelled the BLM to reconsider its needs at Burning Man. Good.

The demands, while ridiculous, make perfect sense. The BLM can’t manage the land. It can’t manage wild horse herds. It can’t prevent wildfires. Its sheltered staffers know nothing about the land, so they couldn’t possibly be expected to rough it while monitoring a counterculture celebration that’s all about leaving civilization behind. They think the public’s land is their land, and they resent leaving the comforts of their offices and homes to protect it from the unwashed masses.

Here’s an idea for the BLM: provide some basic camping courses to your staff — in the outdoors, not at a five-star hotel — and hire fewer wimps.

July 1, 2015

Eagle Mountain hydropower plant takes big step forward

A massive iron ore mining pit at Eagle Mountain in the remote desert east of the Coachella Valley. The Eagle Mountain iron mine was built in 1948 and closed in 1982. Today, some conservationists believe the old mine should become part of Joshua Tree National Park, which surrounds it on three sides. Eagle Mountain is just miles from the 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight solar plant, which is set to come fully online in January, and the small town of Desert Center. (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

Sammy Roth
The Desert Sun

A controversial proposal to build a hydropower plant in the shadow of Joshua Tree National Park cleared a major hurdle Wednesday, in a surprising development that frustrated conservationists but encouraged some renewable energy advocates.

After two decades of trying to acquire the old Eagle Mountain iron mine — which was carved out of the southeast corner of Joshua Tree more than 60 years ago — the Eagle Crest Energy Company has finally succeeded. The Los Angeles-based firm announced Wednesday that it has purchased the site from the company formerly known as Kaiser Ventures, which built the long-dormant iron mine and for years refused to sell.

Eagle Crest's plan to build a 1,300-megawatt hydroelectric power plant — using billions of gallons of groundwater that would be drawn from an underground aquifer — still has to overcome several regulatory obstacles. But the proposal is now closer than ever to becoming a reality.

The project's backers say it would help California build more solar and wind power, a key priority as the state moves toward a 50 percent renewable energy mandate. The hydroelectric plant would work like a battery, storing excess energy generated by solar and wind farms when supply exceeds demand, and then releasing that energy when demand exceeds supply.

"As Riverside County continues to increase its role in delivering renewable power to the rest of California, we need to find ways to store energy for use at times when solar and wind are not generating power," county Supervisor John Benoit said in a statement released by Eagle Crest. "This project helps make renewable energy sources more viable, and in an environmentally sensitive manner."

But conservation groups and national parks advocates have slammed the proposal, saying it would waste water, harm several threatened species and use more energy than it generates. Many of them want to see Eagle Mountain added to Joshua Tree National Park, saying it has historic value as a well-preserved mining boomtown, in addition to conservation value.

"The costs significantly outweigh the benefits here," said David Lamfrom, California desert program director for the National Parks Conservation Association. "Whether you're looking at it from the angle of water or the angle of wildlife, this corporation wins and the public loses."

Nothing is simple when it comes to Eagle Mountain, which has been the subject of fiery debate in recent years.

Industrialist Henry Kaiser founded the iron mine and built the adjacent town in the 1950s, but the mine was shut down in the early 1980s as production of steel in the United States waned. For more than 25 years, the Kaiser subsidiary that still owned the site wanted to sell it to the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, which would have turned it into a massive garbage dump. But that plan got tied up in court, and eventually the agency backed off.

Even when that plan fell through, Kaiser officials insisted they wouldn't sell the site to Eagle Crest, saying they had received a great deal of interest from mining companies. Eagle Mountain still has millions of tons of iron ore.

The deal with Eagle Crest is something of a compromise, because Kaiser will retain the right to sell rock and iron ore tailings that already sit in plain view at Eagle Mountain. A Kaiser representative didn't respond to a request for comment Wednesday, but the company will presumably try to sell that right to another company, since it has been in bankruptcy for several years.

That deal will no doubt frustrate conservationists, who oppose the hydropower plant as well as further mining.

In order to fill the reservoirs of the hydroelectric plant, about nine billion gallons of groundwater would be pumped from the aquifer under the Chuckwalla Valley over a period of four years. Eagle Crest officials have argued that's a small fraction of the groundwater held in the aquifer, and equivalent to the annual consumption of two Coachella Valley golf courses.

Conservation groups, though, say that kind of water consumption is irresponsible, especially during a historic drought. Park officials also worry that drawing on the aquifer could harm threatened species in and around the park.

"The potential that we could substantially deplete all of the springs in these three basins terrifies me," David Smith, superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park, told The Desert Sun last year. "It has the potential for wiping out bighorn sheep populations from all those areas."

Local activists have also accused Kaiser of illegally conspiring with state mining officials to keep control of Eagle Mountain, arguing that the company should have been required to give the site back to the federal government after it stopped mining iron.

For renewable energy advocates, the question of how to ramp up intermittent renewables like solar and wind — which only generate electricity when the sun shines or the wind blows — has long been a major challenge. With Californian lawmakers likely to adopt a 50 percent renewable energy mandate in the next few months, that challenge has become more pressing.

Right now, utility companies generally turn to natural gas-fired power plants, which contribute to climate change, to help integrate more solar and wind onto the grid. Some renewable energy experts say "pumped storage" projects like Eagle Mountain can help reduce the need for natural gas.

That argument appealed to Benoit, a longtime renewable energy supporter. The Riverside County supervisor said that while more environmental review is needed, he's hopeful the project's benefits will outweigh its potential impacts on water and wildlife.

"Those are issues that will be evaluated thoroughly in the environmental process," he said in an interview. "My guess is, it will come in on the side of, 'Yes, it does make sense.'"

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted a license for the Eagle Mountain hydroelectric plant last year, but the proposal still needs to clear several legal hurdles, despite Eagle Crest now owning the land.

For one, the National Park Service petitioned the energy commission to reconsider its decision last August, and the agency has yet to respond to that request. Eagle Crest also still needs approval from the federal Bureau of Land Management to build transmission lines across public lands.

The biggest obstacle, though, could be pushback from local activists and national parks advocates, who could try to keep the hydroelectric plant tied up in court. Some have pointed out that parts of Eagle Mountain are designated for conservation under the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, an ongoing state-federal effort that would lay the ground rules for the next 25 years of clean energy development and conservation across the California desert.

Eagle Crest submitted comments to the Bureau of Land Management asking it to reverse those designations.