April 18, 2016

Researchers map springs across the Mojave Desert

Study of 300 desert springs will provide 'baseline' to track impact of climate change

Hydrogeologist Andy Zdon (left) and Amargosa Conservancy Executive Director Patrick Donnelly measure the water flow and collect other data at a spring in the Mojave Desert. (Photo: Marilyn Chung/The Desert Sun)

Story by Ian James
The Desert Sun

Bouncing down a rocky road in a pickup, two researchers neared their destination: an oasis of palm trees in the desert.

When the unpaved road ended in an impassible collapsed section, they stepped out and continued on foot. Andy Zdon said the approach to this spring was relatively easy. Over five months, he has often had to trek to remote spots while carrying out an exhaustive study of the natural springs across the entire Mojave Desert — an undertaking that has never before been done on this scale.

“I have been living and breathing the desert since September,” Zdon said with a smile. “I’ve done about 300 miles of walking to these springs. We’ve had to do a lot of walking.”

At each spring, Zdon, a hydrogeologist, has collected data about how much water is flowing from the ground and has analyzed the dissolved oxygen content and other properties of the water. The results will enable scientists to monitor changes in the springs, which are critical for wildlife, and document influences such as declines in groundwater levels due to pumping, shifts in flows due to weather cycles, and the drying of springs as a result of climate change.

“If you’re going to try to understand the effects of climate on a system, you need a starting point. You need a baseline, and that’s what this is doing,” Zdon said.

“You can’t even begin to understand whether you’re seeing the effects of climate change if you don’t know what the conditions were before you started looking for it, and that’s really the crux of it,” Zdon said. “You can’t manage or identify an impact if you don’t know what your starting point is.”

His study is funded through the Transition Habitat Conservancy, a nonprofit group that obtained a $190,000 grant from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to carry out surveys of springs across the Mojave Desert.

Working alongside Zdon was Patrick Donnelly, a biologist and executive director of the Amargosa Conservancy, who was helping to take notes. He walked around the spring and rattled off a list of the plants he found: California fan palm (42 of them), honey mesquite, oleander, date palm and willows, among others.

Zdon spotted birds including a black-throated sparrow, house finches and white-crowned sparrow. They took down all of those details in their notes.

“The springs in the desert are really the beating heart of the desert,” Donnelly said.

Animals ranging from bighorn sheep to hummingbirds depend on the water holes. Zdon has also seen signs of other animals including mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes and badgers.

If some of the isolated springs and wetlands dry up as the climate heats up, the animals that depend on those water sources could disappear.

Data on desert springs has been collected sporadically over the years, but not in a systematic way.

“So this is really meant to be a baseline for the entire desert,” Donnelly said, “to understand the water in this desert and how we can protect it.”

During their outing in February, the two visited springs in California’s Amargosa Basin, an area rich in wildlife east of Death Valley National Park and a short drive from the Nevada border. Zdon was nearing the end of his study, which covers a total of 312 springs.

“This is number 296 since September,” Zdon said as he began his work at Chappo Spring.

Around the lush vegetation stood the ruins of a homestead abandoned years ago, an old chicken coop and the rusty skeletons of cars. Zdon said that decades ago, people grew crops and raised livestock at the spring.

Many of the springs he has surveyed are on federal lands, and his research will provide the Bureau of Land Management with information that can be used to make decisions about how different areas are managed.

Zdon walked into the thicket of palm trees to get closer to a pool of water. He pulled out an instrument to test the water, and he read off the pH, temperature and total dissolved solids while Donnelly took notes.

“Wow, this is the best water we’ve seen,” Donnelly said.

“Yeah, it’s pretty good water,” Zdon replied.

But Zdon said the spring’s flow has declined dramatically from 1928, when a U.S. Geological Survey report stated that it was flowing at about 80 gallons a minute. Zdon said he had measured the flow a couple of months earlier and found the spring was discharging about 8 gallons a minute.

“Now it’s essentially just a freestanding puddle and we can’t even see flow,” Zdon said. He noted his observations about the spring on a form for the BLM: “functional, at risk, with a downward trend.”

Some springs have completely dried up elsewhere in the California desert. And while it’s challenging for researchers to differentiate between the effects of climate change, groundwater pumping and natural drought cycles, all of those influences are likely affecting springs.

“No two springs are alike,” Zdon said. At this spring, he said, the decline in flow might be related to decades of overpumping the aquifer around the nearby town of Pahrump, Nevada, as well as years of drier conditions in the area.

Zdon has been compiling the results of his research for a report that will be released later this year.

Near another spring, Donnelly pointed out ancient grinding holes in the rock, apparently left behind centuries ago by Southern Paiute Indians who depended on the spring.

He said some of the locals in the area have said there used to be a creek flowing from the spring. Now it’s a small water hole next to a cottonwood tree and a thicket of mesquite.

“I’m going to take a water sample here,” Zdon said. He collected the water in a small glass bottle and put a label on it. The sample, he said, will be sent to a lab for isotope analysis, which can indicate whether the spring water fell as rain or snow and in which area the water seeped down into the ground.

Nearby, he pointed out a pipe sticking out of the ground: a monitoring well that was installed to keep track of water levels.

The data Zdon has collected at the springs could also help conservation groups such as the Transition Habitat Conservancy target areas to protect. The Nature Conservancy also provided funding to support the research.

As he walked around one of the springs, Zdon said excitedly: “That’s a long-eared owl!” It soared off a tree branch and disappeared. Moments later, Zdon stopped to listen to a squeaky chitter. “That’s a hummingbird!”

“This is one of my favorite places on Earth,” Donnelly said. “When I need a break from the world, I come out here and put a chair underneath that cottonwood.”

Donnelly said the huge effort involved in surveying the springs will pay off by producing valuable information about the conditions on the ground today, which will in turn help people spot the influences that will affect the springs in the years to come.

“These springs are very important because they’re very much indicators of the health of our aquifer,” he said. “Because we’re dealing with such an understudied resource, you know, we’re really developing those baselines as we speak.”

April 8, 2016

Trying to Get Water to California but Torpedoed by Regulators

The Obama administration and Dianne Feinstein keep blocking a private project to aid the still-parched state.

Well water bubbles into a pilot pool in Cadiz, Calif, in 2002. (AP)

Wall Street Journal

Although El Niño has increased the snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas, the Golden State’s historic drought isn’t over. Yet the Obama administration has decided to block a privately financed project that could supply water to 400,000 Californians, even though the project has been approved by an alphabet soup of state and local agencies. The result will be to trap vast amounts of a precious resource beneath the Mojave Desert. Is water the new fossil fuel?

This tale of political and regulatory obstructionism begins in 1998, when Cadiz Inc., a Los Angeles-based company, developed plans for a groundwater bank and well-field on 70 square miles of private land overlying the base of the Mojave’s massive Fenner Valley and Orange Blossom Wash watersheds. Over centuries the aquifers there have amassed as much as 34 million acre feet of water, enough to sustain all of California’s households for several years.

However, tens of thousands of acre feet percolate into salty dry lakes and evaporate each year. Cadiz proposed capturing and exporting the groundwater to Southern California residents. The Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project could also help store occasional excess flows from the Colorado River that would otherwise drain to the Pacific Ocean.

Water experts such as those at the Public Policy Institute of California have recommended using groundwater banks to recharge aquifers during wet years and expand the state’s storage capacity. Relative to dams, storing water underground reduces evaporation and environmental harm.

None of this mattered to various green lobbies and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who complained that the water project would deplete mountain springs and harm wildlife. But environmental reviews by hydrogeologists confirm that the nearest spring—located 11 miles away and 1,000 feet above the aquifer—would not be affected. Nor would fauna, which don’t rely on groundwater. After an exhaustive review, the U.S. Interior Department approved the project in 2002, but Sen. Feinstein maintained her opposition.

Cadiz sought to assuage her in 2008 by reducing the planned annual water exports to 50,000 acre-feet from 150,000. It also negotiated to use the Arizona & California Railroad’s (ARZC) right of way to build a 43-mile underground pipeline to the Colorado River Aqueduct (which feeds water to Southern California). But a few days after Cadiz announced its agreement with ARZC, Ms. Feinstein launched another attack, demanding that the Interior Department “conduct a detailed analysis” of “permissible uses” of railroad rights of way.

The department’s long-standing policy allowed railroads without federal permitting to run power, telephone and fiber optic lines on their rights of way, streamlining environmental review for public works, including wind and solar farms. But in 2011, Interior revised its policy to limit railroad rights of way that were granted in 1875—such as ARZC’s—to “activities that derive from or further a railroad purpose.”

Curiously, the new rules apply only to projects like the Cadiz pipeline. Telephone wires and fiber optic lines, maintenance yards and “related improvements,” could be permitted “on a case-by-case basis” if they helped the railroad operate.

Cadiz would go on to spend $12 million on capital improvements to benefit the railroad, such as a maintenance access road, turbines to power safety equipment and information systems, as well as state-of-the-art automated fire suppression. No matter. Last October the Bureau of Land Management ruled that the Cadiz pipeline “does not derive from or further a railroad purpose.” The innovative fire-suppression system “is an uncommon industry practice,” the agency caviled, and the “origin of the access road is to support the non-railroad purpose of water conveyance.” Building the pipeline without authorization, it warned, “could result in the BLM instituting trespass proceedings.”

The BLM added that its ruling cannot be appealed because “it is not a final agency decision.” A final decision would require a formal regulatory review. But Ms. Feinstein has attached riders to every Interior Department spending bill since 2008 that bar the agency from reviewing Cadiz.

Amid this regulatory hustle, a California state appellate court last month heard six challenges to the project, all of which had been rejected by a trial court two years ago. In 2012, the Santa Margarita Water District’s final environmental impact report noted that the project’s only significant effects would be temporary dust from construction and the hazard of population and employment growth from a larger water supply, which has driven opposition from green groups. While trumpeting the BLM’s decision in October, the Center for Biological Diversity complained that the Cadiz project would “increase urban sprawl in coastal Southern California.”

So the water storage project, long overdue, remains stuck in regulatory purgatory. Without a Hail Mary attempt by Congress to unplug the Obama water blockage, thirsty Californians can only pray for a Republican president who views economic development as a blessing rather than curse.

April 5, 2016

Feds approve controversial remote desert solar plant near Baker

A bighorn sheep climbs the terrain of the Mojave National Preserve, about a mile northeast of the proposed site for the Soda Mountain Solar project on Tuesday, July 21 2015 near Baker. (Stan Lim)

By Jim Steinberg
The San Bernardino Sun

Over objections of environmentalists, the Obama administration on Tuesday approved a 287-megawatt solar energy plant for a remote part of the Mojave Desert.

The 1,767-acre project being developed by Bechtel Corp. is located on land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, about six miles southwest of Baker.

“Soda Mountain is another step forward toward diversifying our nation’s energy portfolio and meeting the state of California’s growing demand for renewable energy,” said BLM Director Neil Kornze.

The project is consistent with BLM’s landscape approach for the California desert, which supports careful development of renewable energy while protecting the resources and places that make the desert special, Kornze said in a statement.

“The approval of Soda Mountain Solar is a stark contradiction by the Obama administration,” Theresa Pierno, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement.

“Less than two months ago, we lauded the administration as conservation heroes after they designated national monuments in the desert to protect and connect important landscapes,” she said.

Allowing the Soda Mountain project to proceed “inhibits national park wildlife from migrating and adapting to a changing climate,” Pierno added.

The project will provide enough power for more than 86,000 homes and help toward meeting Obama’s Climate Action Plan goal of 20,000 megawatts of power derived from renewable energy project on public lands by 2020, the BLM statement said.

The agency said it spent more than three years consulting and working with a variety of federal and state partners, members of the public and others to develop a “comprehensive environmental analysis” of the Soda Mountain project area and devise a project design that preserves scenic vistas, reduces potential impacts to wildlife in the area and protects groundwater.

The agency said its approved design removes an array of solar panels originally approved north of the 15 Freeway, eliminating most of the visual effects of the project within the Mojave National Preserve.

Last year, the project was reduced from the originally proposed 2,222 acres.

The agency also said its decision ensures the project will not block future efforts to re-establish bighorn sheep movement across the interstate highway.

But Ileene Anderson, Los Angeles-based senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the massive solar array would block the “last, best linkage” for desert bighorn sheep between the Mojave National Preserve and the Soda Mountain Wilderness Study Area.

Renewable-energy generation “has to be done right,” she said.

The smaller, revised project is located in an area of disturbed lands including an active utility corridor for oil and gas pipelines, electricity transmission and communication lines and facilities, BLM said.

However, the National Parks Conservation Association says the project is in the “undeveloped” South Soda Mountain region immediately adjacent to Mojave National Preserve.

Francis Canavan, a Bechtel spokesman, acknowledged that the company doesn’t yet have an agreement to sell the electricity from the project, but he added that talks are underway with potential buyers.

Bechtel also does not have a signed agreement to use the power lines that run past the project site, which are owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Getting permission to use Los Angeles’ power lines, however, “shouldn’t be a problem,” Canavan said.